Globetrotting local filmmaker wraps biggest project to date

dreams factory

Sunny Zhao on set during a shoot for the promotional video he directed for the China-led One Belt, One Road initiative. (Dreams Factory)

A China-led international campaign to improve trade partnerships on the other side of the world has reached around the globe to Richmond to help bring it to life.

Richmond-based filmmaker Sunny Zhao returned earlier this month from a whirlwind 30-day, multinational shoot for a promotional video for China’s One Belt, One Road initiative.

The multibillion-dollar initiative, in the works for several years, aims to establish a new foreign policy for China and improve infrastructure along land and sea trade routes such as the Silk Road Economic Belt, a modern-day version of the ancient Silk Road between Asia and Europe.

Earlier this month, world leaders gathered in Beijing for a two-day summit to rally support for the initiative. The summit opened with a showing of Zhao’s video – a 90-second spot produced by CCTV, China’s main state-run television broadcaster.

Zhao, whose Dreams Factory film company operates out of In Your Ear Studios in Shockoe Bottom, said the spot is the first TV commercial for One Belt, One Road and is currently airing on CCTV. Featuring multiple locations in China and other countries such as Greece, Thailand and Turkey, Zhao said the spot is the biggest and most involved project he’s ever worked on.

“It was such a fun project, because I got the chance to speak Chinese – the crew was Chinese and from other countries – and I got to speak English, because we had actors from all over the world,” Zhao said.

He said that bilingual ability and his ideas for the project helped get him the job over other directors considered for the project. Born in China, Zhao has lived in the U.S. since he followed his wife to Richmond when she was finishing music school at VCU.

“They were looking for someone who can do international casting,” said Zhao, who was visiting family in China several months ago when he shared his film reel with a production company there. Zhao said that led to him being considered for the project, which was filmed in April and paid for by CCTV.

One Belt One Road from Dreams Factory on Vimeo.

Over 10 days of shooting in various countries, Zhao said he was flown the equivalent mileage of two trips around the world.

“We were working on this secretly. No one knows we’re doing this. We shot as many as 10 locations in one week,” Zhao said. “There were so many things I had to battle to get what I wanted, and ultimately what I want is the end product to be my artistic vision. Overall, it was a positive experience.”

Zhao would not say how much the production cost or what he was paid for the project. He said he signed a contract with CCTV that prohibits him from disclosing financial information.

“It’s not a small budget, by any means,” he said.

The video shows children and adults in different countries seemingly sharing toys, goods and experiences through a recurring split-screen effect. A boy in China pushes a toy train that transitions to a real one; a girl in Greece launches a toy boat that turns into a cargo ship; a boy blowing out candles on a cake appears to power a wind farm.

Zhao said he was sent the script and an early-stage storyboard after he was offered the job over WeChat, a Chinese social media app. He said he developed a treatment before he left Richmond and revised the storyboard when he arrived in Beijing. In addition to directing, he said he shot more than half of the film himself.

Despite the whirlwind timeline and complexity of the shoot, Zhao said he wasn’t nervous or intimidated by the enormity of the project.

“I was ready for it,” he said. “I would not be ready for it 10 years ago – I was much younger and less patient. But after I shot ‘The Gift,’ I feel ready for it.”

Sunny Zhao (Jonathan Spiers)

Zhao’s Dreams Factory film company operates out of In Your Ear Studios in Shockoe Bottom. (Jonathan Spiers)

“The Gift” is Zhao’s first feature film – a project he’s been working on for three years and funding himself. He is aiming to finish the film this year, shooting some additional scenes while in France this month for the Cannes Film Festival.

Zhao said he has potential distributors interested in releasing “The Gift,” which he plans to submit to film festivals this year. The film tells a story about a Virginia farm girl who becomes a world-renown pianist with a secret, Zhao said.

A musician himself, Zhao started Dreams Factory in Richmond in 1994 originally as a recording studio. It transitioned to film when Zhao started shooting music videos and began getting requests from businesses and ad agencies to film their commercials.

He’s done work for local clients such as Virginia Lottery, Virginia Tourism and Chesterfield-based nonprofit Conexus, as well as agencies such as Big River Advertising, The Martin Agency, ndp, StoryWerks and The King Agency, which enlisted him to shoot the moody “Q-Man” spot for Crime Stoppers Metro Richmond.

With his executive producers Tim Dowdle and Clara Lee, his wife, Zhao said Dreams Factory focuses primarily on commercials for local, regional and international clients. While he’s proud of the work that keeps him busy year to year, Zhao said he is particularly excited about the piece that resulted from his 30-day adventure on the other side of the world.

“I’ve done beautiful work for local people as well, but this is more on a major scale,” he said. “There was so much trust laid on my shoulder.”

With the commercial currently airing and his feature film wrapping up, Zhao said he is eager to keep looking forward.

“I’m done with ‘The Gift,’” he said, laughing. “It’s time to move on to the next project.”

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