By Natalia Zurowski
Nicholas Lau is the Project Editor for ELLE Hong Kong (HK) and specializes in the production of the magazine's advertorials. In his interview, Nicholas talks to TBM about the modelling industry in Hong Kong, his casting process, and how ELLE Hong Kong differs from other magazines in HK as well as international versions of the publication.
TBM: How long have you worked for Elle Hong Kong?
NL: I have worked for Elle for about 6 months as a Project Editor.
TBM: Have you worked for any other publications in the past?
NL: I had worked for Marie Claire Hong Kong for two years before I started working for Elle. Before that I had worked for them (Marie Claire, Jessica, and Jessica Code) as a freelancer.
TBM: In your opinion, how is Elle different than other popular magazines in Hong Kong? E.g. Jessica, Code, Marie Claire, etc.
NL: You can see that the styling and the fashion shooting direction of Elle is quite special. Usually you won’t see strong visuals and effects, we just focus on fashion and how the women (models) enjoy it. Sexy is also an important element in Elle’s style, but just sexy, not erotic. In the fashion editorials, the story told by the pictures is more important than the visual impact.
TBM: What do you look for in a model when you're casting? What does he or she need in order to stand out?
NL: Her attitude. We all talk about “professional,” but sometimes it can be quite an abstract concept.
I personally prefer to hold castings because I can meet a model face to face and it allows me to see how she really is without the makeup, lighting, retouching etc. Holding a casting can also help me see if she has pouches under her eyes, the conditions of her skin and whether or not she's in shape. All these factors reflect a model's discipline and how she treats herself and modelling as a career.
There must be the best shots of a model in her comp card. However, photos can be deceiving. Compcards are very important and they can directly determine if you’re getting a casting and even a job since many clients don’t like to arrange castings or don't have the time. Work together with your agency to make sure that you have the best pictures and enough variation on your compcard.
Usually I will arrange a photographer or a photography assistant to take snap shots of the models during the casting. Depending on the type of job, I may give some directions regarding posing. But no matter what the job type is, models are welcome to show what they're really good at. Even if the client is asking you to do a certain pose or show a specific feel, you can still propose something. Everything is recorded so even if you might not fit for the specific job I am casting for at the time, if you show your special qualities, maybe later I will find you suitable for another project.
There is a large number of models that come to Hong Kong and most of them are so gifted, talented, and have a beautiful outlook. Despite their physical beauty, I’m always impressed by their ability to cope in different environments and make themselves comfortable in various circumstances - no matter if it’s a studio, conference room or the reception area of an office. The casting place can be really messy and maybe distracting with people walking around. Some of the models never show they're uneasy in those situations and I treat this as a kind of problem-solving skill or flexibility in a person. There are always so many uncertainties during a shoot and everyone involved has to do whatever they can to get the job done or make the outcome better.
TBM: You meet so many models and see so many faces. When you look back on a shoot, which models or which type of models leave a mark on you?
NL: Aside from their natural beauty, there are other things that models do to impress me.
If the time is not so tight, I like to chat with the models during makeup and hair or waiting time. Meeting people from different parts of the world is very interesting and I like to communicate with the models about their career or future. Sharing views with them is like reading a book.
I believe there is an invisible channel or connection between models and photographer. Photographers and models can sometimes create a shot together which is beyond your expectations. It can be a very delicate facial expression and it only takes a fraction of a second to capture it, but they can do it without much talking or communicating with one another. The feeling is great when you witness such a moment.
I have met a few models with a very special and positive aura. When they come to the studio or location, you just feel the room has been lit up. Cara G (Starz People) is one of those models and it’s always good to work with her.
TBM: What type of energy should a model bring to set?
NL: A model should be positive, show initiative, and be flexible.
TBM: In your experience, what is the general look clients prefer in Hong Kong? Why do you think this is?
NL: For female models, girls with big eyes and a sweet smile (which is “typical” beauty) can fit various different job types here – both Chinese and foreign models. When it comes to commercial work, the brands always prefer a general pretty face rather than a model with quirky or strong features. However, since their preference is so broad, the competition is high and the clients will tailor the requirements depending on their products or purposes. So sometimes clients can be quite picky and as a project editor even I can’t understand their choices most of the time.
TBM: Are there ever models you wish to cast but feel you can't in order to appeal to consumers in Hong Kong?
NL: Yes, there are so many. Especially because many models come to Hong Kong with a short two month contract. Sometimes when I see girls with very strong features, I (and the photographers) am dying to cast them but there are just no suitable jobs. And when those jobs come up, those models have already left. It’s obvious that those special girls are loved by editors and photographers but there just aren't enough suitable projects for them here.
TBM: I remember in Singapore, an editor for a particular magazine told me she will only use one blonde model per issue because consumers are able to better relate to brunettes. Is there a “cap” as to how many blonde or foreign models Elle HK uses per issue?
NL: There is not a specific “cap” on how many foreign models we can use per issue. We usually have two or three big fashion editorials per issue. For these big shoots, we tend to use Asian / Chinese faces, partly because of the local market acceptance. As one of the international editions of Elle, it's also a way to distinguish that this is Elle HK’s work and showcase our regional style and look.
For the other sections we actually have no restrictions on models’ nationalities
TBM: Hong Kong and its people are generally considered to be quite conservative. Has that conservative mentality ever prevented you from publishing certain kinds of editorials?
NL: Since I concentrate on shooting for advertorials, I haven’t encountered this yet. But similar things do happen in advertorial scenarios. When doing an advertorial shooting, whether it's for a product or a model shooting, I need to propose some art directions to the brands before we do the shoot. Most of the brands or their marketing team are quite conservative and don't want to try something new.
However, you can't blame them because most of the Hong Kong branches of those international brands need to report to their HQ or regional office for approval. Some of the brands have really tight restrictions on the visuals; they might need to defend their choice if there is something really new. No one wants to potentially get into trouble when he or she can just get it done following the company norm.
TBM: Do you ever see this changing?
NL: For advertorial, I can’t see it changing because it depends on the company's policy. You can still play around and be creative but you may need to work harder to convince the company.
TBM: Who is your favourite model?
NL: Barbara Palvin. The shape of her eyes and the curve of her lips are very photogenic and her features can lead to endless possibilities in photographs.