Producer Albee Zhang spiritually ‘travels’ to Burma in new commercials

Producer Albee Zhang on the set of Alpine Dairy commercials

Despite knowing she always wanted to work in film, it took Albee Zhang quite a while to realize she wanted to be a producer. She had studied, worked in the industry, and experimented with many positions before she realized where her passion was. When her first short film, 15:51, was selected for screening at the Hawaii International Film Festival, she knew she was meant to be a producer. By watching so many films from all over the word, talking to producers and learning from them, she realized how important it is to have a global vision, and producing allowed her to explore that. She knew she could help tell the stories of her native country of China to the world while doing what she loves. She has never looked back.

Audiences around the world have appreciated Zhang’s work. Her film Caged did well at many international film festivals, and her work on the British television show The Cube as well as the Chinese series Mei Hao Jia allowed audiences to see what she was capable of on the small screen. She is extremely versatile, and appreciates that producing is more than just the business side of a production, it is also an art. On her recent work on a series of television commercials for Alpine Dairy, she did just that.

“Albee has an ability to step back and see the big picture of the project,” said Director Paul Han. “This was a very tough project with language and culture barriers. She proved her extraordinary abilities and put the global team together. She understands the complexities of working globally but she never cut corners. We had young professionals on the team and she was willing to inspire them and lift them up which is a very rare quality.”

The Singaporean beverage company Loi Hein Pte. Ltd. entered their high-end dairy products Alpine Dairy into the Myanmar market, and the commercials are currently showing on 7 Day TV in Myanmar. Zhang developed story ideas with the American-Korean Art Director, Yoojin Seo to fit in the Southeast Asian culture and environment, which required a lot of research. She overcame the difficulties of communicating with clients and talents from different countries and speaking different languages to achieve a mutual understanding of storytelling. Without her, the project may not have completed on time, or to the high-caliber that it achieved.

The series features two different commercials for a condensed milk product. The first one is a story about two children cheering their mother up with her favorite cup of coffee, mixing with the condensed milk product and successfully make her go from sadness to joy. The second story is set in a neighborhood. A bully takes away the protagonist’s marbles after refusing to accept defeat. His sister comes up with plan to help him get the marbles and friends back with a delicious pastry, and also teach them a lesson of the importance of sharing.

“It was very challenging project when I noticed the commercial needed to create a conceptual scene influenced by Burmese culture, but not exactly the same. We had a such short time and limited budget, location scouting in Burma doesn’t seem like an option for us. Even with my Asian production background, creating a different cultural environment is still a very challenging obstacle. However, the more pressure on my shoulders, the more resilience I will achieve,” said Zhang.

On set of Alpine Dairy commercials

Zhang’s ability to overcome anything makes her extremely sought-after in the industry. Not being able to shoot in Burma was just another challenge that she looked forward to overcoming. She visited the local Burmese community for consulting. The outcome wasn’t fruitful. She found either the location was very Americanized or it was visually not pleasant enough for shooting. She had to organically searching for houses in each neighborhood, and knocked on the door for shooting permission. This made location scouting key, as she had to find a place in San Francisco that would visually match the exterior environment and architecture they were aiming for. Zhang searched area by area, house by house, to find that ideal location.

“It was more like a big research project for me. Creating a contemporary Burmese-style environment without a real field trip, was interesting. We had very limited resources in regard to knowing that country. YouTube videos and online pictures didn’t give us enough references to get a well-rounded knowledge of the middle-upper class of Burmese lifestyle. We had to dig into a number of movies, documentaries and articles to have an overall understanding about their food habit, living style, religions, clothing style, color palette and more, along with nights and nights of meetings. By making this small series of dairy commercials, I did a lot more research than a narrative film would do,” said Zhang.

This commitment to the authenticity of the project made Zhang pivotal to its success. She took the lead on the pre-production research, but also was in charge of casting, finding a local artist and vocalist to meet the client’s requirements. She oversaw the art department with props and set decoration. Cutting corners was never an option for her. She was the engine that kept the project running.

“Thanks to this project, I feel that I spiritually ‘travelled’ to Burma for two months. Getting to know what they eat, how they live, what language they speak, what color they prefer, what kind of houses they live, what’s the family life for them, I was cultured by the nitty-gritty every day. Eventually these all became important components to create a conceptual Burmese scene. Most importantly, the clients were very satisfied with what we created,” said Zhang.

Despite the hoops that Zhang had to jump through to make the commercials, they have gone over very well in Myanmar. Zhang does not accept defeat, and will not settle for anything short of outstanding for every project she works on.

“Producing is an art of balance. From my point of view, it should never be too commercialized or too artsy. My job as producer is making something that can entertain the majority of people in a visually, spiritually pleasant way,” Zhang concluded.