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Chen Man: China’s answer to Annie Leibovitz aims to elevate tech to an art form with her Big Shot video app

  • Chen’s artistic background has inspired her to develop a video-editing app for China’s middle classes to produce professional ‘life moments’
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 November, 2018, 6:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 November, 2018, 10:07pm

It is not every day that a founder of a tech start-up lists enlightenment as one of its goals. But Chen Man is no ordinary start-up founder. Not yet 40, she has been China’s top fashion photographer for the past decade and worked with A-list stars from pop diva Faye Wong to actress Fan Bingbing.

She is also an accomplished visual artist and one of her most well-known earlier works, The Astronaut, is held by the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London as part of its permanent collection. Another two works, Long Live the Motherland and Four Seasons: Spring were acquired by the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in 2015 as part of its permanent collection.

But these days, in between juggling shoots and engagements around the world, Chen is also busy with Big Shot (Dapian in Mandarin), a video-editing app that she started two years ago to give the average snapper the tools to produce professional-grade videos. She met with Apple CEO Tim Cook during his visit to China in October and he took part in a video with her using the app.

Chen was taking a swig of warm water to wash down her daily dose of vitamins when the South China Morning Post visited her two-storey studio on the eastern outskirts of Beijing one recent autumn afternoon. The mother of two had just come back from an assignment in New Zealand.

What followed was not a typical interview with a tech start-up founder by any means.

For one, arranging a photography shoot meant carving out an entire morning or afternoon from her packed schedule, because she needed time for make-up and styling. Ditto the suggestion of doing a video shoot using the Big Shot app. In the end, the timings proved too difficult to coordinate, so we settled on a face-to-face meeting, no photos or videos, and she promised to send some images that could be used.

Another thing that stood out throughout the hour-long interview, her first since the app’s launch in July, was that Chen does not subscribe to the “move fast and break things” philosophy that is prevalent among start-ups. Nor does she believe in “scale up at any costs” in order to grab market share and secure venture capital funding.

And until she met with the Post, which pitched the interview, she was not all that interested in getting media exposure so that she can attract more attention for the start-up. Neither was she that enamoured with talking metrics, about the start-up’s valuation, monetisation strategy or other terms that pass for usual tech-speak.

Leaning forward on a Chinese traditional horseshoe armchair, Chen explained how her artistic leanings and professional experience have been fused together to create Big Shot.

With a nod to the user-friendly design approach of one of her tech inspirations, Apple, the app features a clean layout and easy-to-use hand gestures to cut, edit and combine video clips via simple finger swipes or dragging. However, the inspiration behind the app is to create a “spiritual homeland” for China’s growing middle class who want to capture vivid and diverse life moments.

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Users can also apply existing templates or “scripts” shared by others to automatically rearrange and touch up their works – helping with the professional use of captions, filters and combination of different clips into one composition. The hoped-for results are movie-quality video moments of peoples’ lives, that can be managed and shared easily with like-minded people.

“The script mode is one of our original features, and also the first in the world,” said Chen. “Our motto is you are just one click away from becoming a [professional] movie director.”

Chen’s foray into tech also underlines how the lines between art and tech are blurring, with advances in technology pushing the boundaries of what is possible.

Her bet on the app will ultimately depend to some extent on the breakthroughs promised by high-speed, high-capacity 5G wireless technologies and beyond, making real time transmission of big data possible, and the continued enthusiasm of young people for innovations in video communication.

But it’s the underlying philosophy that drives Chen.

“I believe our physical body is only temporary, while experiences are what shape us ultimately,” Chen says. “Every time a person sits down and edits videos on Big Shot, it should be a journey of self-discovery and reward for past experiences, and optimisation of them for storage, management and sharing.”

Even the decision to shoot from a smartphone’s rear or front lens is revealing to Chen, reflecting a person’s character and outlook on life.

“The rear and front cameras represent two completely different worlds … When users shoot from the back lens, the horizon is outward and much wider,” she says, pointing out how people use other live-streaming and short video apps. “It’s no longer a mentality of pleasing others and seeking ‘likes’ or rewards with selfies or performance.”

And it’s this element of enlightenment, or self-enrichment, that Chen wants to emphasise with her new app. She is unabashed about setting it apart from the dozens of short video apps that have mushroomed in China over the past few years, which lean more towards instant gratification.

Chen Man: I chose photography to interact with people

Born into a family of artists [her father was a graphic designer], Chen’s own childhood and upbringing is a fusion of multiple art forms. She learned painting and calligraphy at the age of three, and initially majored in graphic design before switching to photography. Her photography career took off in 2003 with high-profile covers for Chinese fashion magazine Vision while she was still studying her bachelor’s degree at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

Chen’s latest shoots include a pose of Jackson Yee, a Chinese version of Justin Bieber, slumped in a chair and rolling a pair of walnuts in his palm, and Batman actress Anne Hathaway eating dumplings. It is these kind of life moments that have propelled Chen to create a tool that allows people to capture their own visions in a professional, video format.

Even so, the short video scene in China is crowded with not only unicorn start-ups such as ByteDance and Kuaishou, but also offerings from tech giants including Tencent and Baidu, where eyeballs, traffic, stickiness and viewer time are everything, as they can be transferred to adverts and revenue.

“We want to create a product that enables a most natural and elevated form of communication, so that users feel rewarded and enriched every time they use it,” she says. “It’s easier to build a kill-time app, but that is not my purpose.”

Even the design of Chen’s Beijing studio speaks of her unique visual language. It has a Karesansui [Japanese rock garden] in the courtyard, surrounded by minimalist, white walls. Each room is named after one Chinese character and there’s a separate room for meditation. It’s simple yet elevating.

We return to the theme of how art can inspire or infuse technology and vice versa.

“I believe a good company must be a crossover of humanity and technology,” she says. “The equation that defines me would be the sum of art, humanity and technology.”

Chen says she has always been a techie and a regular attendee of Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in recent years. Inside Chen’s office, framed photos of her calligraphy and Chinese-styled antique chairs are positioned harmoniously with a Dyson lamp and Xiaomi tread mill. A box of brand-new, state-of-the-art Sennheiser headphones sits unopened on her desk and the doors to adjoining rooms are unlocked via fingerprint sensors.

Chen counts Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Tesla bad boy Elon Musk and Zhang Xiaolong, the mastermind behind China’s ubiquitous instant messaging and social networking app WeChat, among her idols.

Recalling a recent conversation with Zhang Xiaolong that was supposed to be 10 minutes but lasted for two hours, Chen said the discussion centred on product philosophy. “We both agreed that a good product should put a user’s heart at rest instead of catering to human weakness.”

Elon Musk is an inspiration because of his determination to succeed says Chen, referencing Musk’s June letter to staff when he made the difficult decision to lay off 9 per cent of Tesla workers in order to “achieve the mission”. Chen looks a little embarrassed when she admits that she once used Tesla as her profile image on WeChat.

“Our philosophy is a simple one: only create products that the world needs,” says Chen. “We are here to serve all visual language users. This needs no form of translation.”

Chen’s determination to make Big Shot a success means she now shares the workaholic, hard-charging lifestyle of China’s new army of tech entrepreneurs – where 996 means working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week.

“There’s only one standard to test your passion for a thing, which is whether you cannot wait to get up each morning,” she wrote in a July letter, after the start-up announced completion of a US$5 million pre-A round of financing led by Kuaishou. Other investors included Bertelsmann Asia Investments (BAI) and Lighthouse Capital.

However, being famous has also afforded Chen the time and space to grow the company in the way she wants.

“There’s been no need to rush this, because we believe a good product speaks for itself,” says Chen, who wants to avoid the pitfalls of being a flash-in-the pan fad. “Whether it's the brand, company or product, having an aggressive initial surge and peak may not be very healthy.”

Chen says her approach may have something to do with her female identity.

“Males tend to be linear thinking, making them focus on tasks and specific targets, while female thinking is more like water, which flows, expands and can find new direction,” she said. “I am definitely not setting out to copy the model of a successful, male entrepreneur.”

Meanwhile, Chen has created a new Weibo account for her role as Big Shot’s product manager – loosening the association with her artistic work as she wants the focus to be on how people capture their own life moments – some of which can be so “touching and creative”.

“We want to encourage people to live the world, feel the world, record and share the essence of it, before putting their smartphones away and getting on with their experiences again,” says Chen, estimating that there are as many as 200 million people out there who would be happy to plug into a community with shared tastes and meaningful exchanges.