Interview: Chris Kempinski Talks ‘Kung Fu’ Season 3 and More! [EXCLUSIVE]

Jules
29 Min Read
The CW

Kung Fu‘s third season has been action-packed so far! Between Bo’s reveal as the Harvester to Nicky’s fight against Delta Security, fans have been on a roller coaster ride. One very important member of the team bringing this season to life is Chris Kempinski, who has served as Kung Fu‘s cinematographer for several of this season’s highest-stakes episodes after joining the show last year. Ahead of tonight’s new episode, Nerds and Beyond had the chance to chat with Chris about his journey with the series, from working with the stunt team to creating the otherworldly fantasy realms that have become the show’s trademark.

Nerds and Beyond: So to start off, with Kung Fu, you joined in season two, and you’ve worked on 11 episodes so far.

Chris Kempinski: That sounds about right. Lindsay George brought me in, Joe Menendez as well, who’s the producing director. I knew everybody involved from the get-go. And so I was really excited when the phone call came in! Getting to work with Lindsay was great, and that was a really good kickoff. And then I got to take the baton for season three, which I think again was perfect. It was perfect timing. I couldn’t have been happier.

Nerds and Beyond: That’s amazing. A couple years ago, I interviewed a DP who came into a show, like you, in season two, when they were already up and running. And he had mentioned that sometimes it can be a challenge as a DP to come into a show that already has an established visual identity versus being there from the beginning. And of course, especially with Kung Fu and network television, the speed of production is just so different from coming into a show on, say, Prime Video or Netflix, midway through. Do you enjoy that challenge of connecting your own ideas with something that’s already been established before?

Chris Kempinski: Oh, that’s awesome. It was a challenge. It was a really big learning curve. Lighting style-wise, I was used to second units. I was used to having to match other people’s stuff. So I’m kind of a chameleon in that regard. I shadowed Lindsay for episodes one and two of season two, and I didn’t do the same thing she did at all, but I don’t think you can feel the difference in the show. I still delivered Kung Fu, but I put my feather in it. And then, as season two progressed, I noticed Lindsay was getting the car chases and the cloak and dagger episodes and the comedy episodes. And the writers seemed to be giving me the realms and the mystery and the sci-fi stuff. [laughs]

And I don’t know if that was intentional, but I was very excited. I didn’t realize this at first, but the writing room really gave us the open door to say, “Is this location really the place that this should take place?” So the director and I would have a meeting, and right away, we’d say, “Okay, well, this doesn’t really belong here. Maybe we should take it this way.” And the writers that were involved with that would come to Vancouver for production and were always open to crazy suggestions. [laughs] And I’d always make crazy suggestions, which was great, actually! I love that they took on all the wacky ideas that I had.

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Nerds and Beyond: Yeah, absolutely! A show like this, it must be so collaborative because you’re going from these big action sequences where you have these stunt coordinators and performers you have to wrangle with, and the visual effects team. You mentioned all these different realms that we find ourselves in. Kung Fu has, I think, at least four or five different worlds per season that you have to keep track of! What does that collaboration look like when you’re kind of building those scenes? How much do you know of the visual effects beforehand of how they want things to look?

Chris Kempinski: I always refer back to that red world that I did. And then, the season finale of season two, I was really excited to get to see that. I tried to do a lot of things in camera because, to me, I felt like the show was very grounded. It’s a family show with fighting, but all of that was practical. So I wanted to make the mysticism, because I don’t think a lot of people are expecting it. If you said Kung Fu and then showed them an episode, I don’t think people were expecting that fantasy side of the show. So I wanted to keep the fantasy side. So I would go, I’d read the script, I would pitch these zany ideas, and then I’d do a camera test to show them my ideas of what I wanted to do. And almost, I’d say, nine out of 10 times, they were totally on board.

But then I had to follow that up with actually delivering my crazy pitches! [laughs] It is one thing to do it in a small-scale camera test and in a controlled environment. And it’s another when you’re in production out in a forest, and then you have to deliver this crazy pitch idea that you came up with. So I really tried to do it in camera as much as possible. But that being said, again, the visual effects team were fantastic. They always had my back, they were always on point in terms of matching what I was doing or extending what I was doing. I think they kept it more grounded.

I always brought in my own effects, like this season with Henry when he has the compass and all the stuff that’s happening there. I always brought my own lights in and then knew ahead of time the color palette and what the effects were roughly. They don’t quite know exactly until they get the footage in there. We have a concept meeting about it, but I always try to take a practical approach and then let the visual effects kind of accent and extend that. I was very happy because I’d say all the effects worked out really well. And again, because it’s such a crazy schedule, with the fighting and the visual effects, it becomes a lot because this show really takes it. What I loved about it, and it was also daunting at times, was it took every ounce of all the skills that I’d learned up until now to be able to deliver the show, which was exciting and terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time.

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Nerds and Beyond: Well, I was going to say, you’ve worked in so many different genres. You’ve done Hallmark romances, action. I was going to ask what lessons from those projects were you able to use on Kung Fu, but it sounds like you used pretty much everything!

Chris Kempinski: Even music videos! A lot of the times, I will take what I do with music videos, and then in drama, I would normally give maybe 10% of that. But what I loved about Kung Fu was I was able to give them 60%, 80%. Some of those scenes and scenarios were full music video, which I loved. The lenses that we used from Panavision were just … like those blue streaks that you have? There’s filters that you can cheat that with, but those lenses already have that built-in. So I just wanted to utilize that and utilize what we did have and not focus on what we didn’t have, try to push what we could do and not really focus on what we couldn’t do, if that makes sense.

Nerds and Beyond: That makes sense. And, like you said, the production schedule on any network show is very busy. A network show where you’re putting together full battles every week and needing as many visual effects as you do, it’s gonna be even tighter. I think it’s remarkable what you guys have pulled off.

Chris Kempinski: We had our C camera operator, Josh Knepper, who would go and practice with Andrew Chin and Yusuf [Ahmed], the stunt team. So he would come already knowing the stunt and knowing the beats that they needed to get. He rehearsed with them, they’d go to their practice space, he’d see all their zaniness that they were up to so that when he came to set, he was already ready. It was a good process. It was the first time I’d done an action show with what they call Hong Kong-style fighting, which is when you’re playing it out shot for shot. But if you watch Andrew and Yusuf, their pre-vis, they record it with Josh, and they put music to it, add effects, and have their stunt actors act it out. That would be a series on its own! [laughs] Because they’re fantastic. They’re so good.

Nerds and Beyond: I’m sure it’s amazing to see what it all looks like in the end too.

Chris Kempinski: Yeah, it’s cool because then you get them in that environment, and you add the cast. The cast always put 130% forward. They were always ready, and they wanted to make a good show. There was always a battle as to who was gonna get the wire pull. [laughs] They always wanted to do the cooler stuff, which is awesome.

Nerds and Beyond: Well, I would think that would be a more fun day at the office, right? Getting to do a wire stunt versus maybe a more emotional scene.

Chris Kempinski: Totally! Or having your stunt double having to do it or something like that, like, “Oh no, harness me up, boss, I’m ready to go!” [laughs] Again, like with the compass thing when Henry got lifted, I even think Olivia [Liang] got a wire pull on that one too, which is cool. It’s fun!

Nerds and Beyond: And speaking from your perspective, obviously the actors, I’m sure, find it more fun to do stunts, but for you, when you’re putting together the show, do you enjoy those more intimate family scenes, or do you enjoy doing the action sequences more? And if so, why?

Chris Kempinski: Hmm. On this show especially, I like both! [laughs] This is such a family-driven show. It’s a good show in the fact that you’re just going along in the day of the life of the Shen family. It’s not trying to force morals on people. It’s not trying to force a way of life on people. You’re just there with their traditions, their food, in the restaurant. You’re there, and you get to see it like from a really personal level. And I love that part of the show where you’re just there with them, and you’re experiencing life with them.

So I think I like that part, just the writing, and the cast, how they deliver everything. I love the drama, and I like that we kept the camera alive with the drama. I don’t know if you noticed or if you ever watched it again, but we always brought the action to the camera, or we brought the camera to the action. We’d never let the camera sit still very often. It wasn’t like people were sitting down, and we just did a wide shot close up, close up, close up. We’d always keep the camera moving. But that just became the show. When I came in in season two, that had kind of already been established. I think Lindsay did a good job of really making that a staple.

But that being said, the stunts are great! I mean, the stunts are so much fun. I don’t know if you saw the Thailand episode, but the shots … Just coming up with simple things like having the steady cam walking off a crane and then chasing her around the block, that kind of stuff. I get excited about that because we don’t have time, and this isn’t a really big-budget show. This is a mid-size budget show which I think delivers big budget bang. That was my challenge. I never take what I’m given, I always try and put it on the top shelf. I try and put it up higher than it deserves to be.

The stunt team came in and really delivered. My job really was to facilitate that, to be able to be as smooth and straightforward as possible. I’d even planned my lighting setups for those scenes that were gonna turn into fights to already be lit for the fight, if that makes any sense, knowing that you have to swap doubles out for the real actors. So I’d have to put them into shadows a bit more or obscure them somehow or whatever it may be.

Nerds and Beyond: [laughs] A classic hair flip over the face directly into the next move…

Chris Kempinski: [laughs] Totally! Motion blur, whatever it needs to be. Right. The actors were always right there, ready to step in and wanting to put their best foot forward, and they got excited with the stunts. There was reluctance in letting the stunt team take over. Which, again, I think is really awesome. It was just a really cool cast of characters.

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Nerds and Beyond: Absolutely. And you had kind of touched on this earlier, and I think that this is a good time to bring this up. Kung Fu in and of itself is really a remix of the genre. When you think of a kung fu movie, you have a certain idea in your head, like you said, there’s certain shots that you picture, there’s certain things that come to mind. And as much as the show does play in that sandbox and pay homage to those things, it goes off in its own direction as well. Have there been certain aspects of the genre that you’ve really leaned on that you enjoy in terms of composing your shots, or things that you really enjoy kind of subvert, subverting a little bit and doing something a little different with?

Chris Kempinski: I think a little bit of both. I really like the classic kung fu films. So, in the beginning of the year, Joe Menendez and I were sitting down and trying to figure it out. Like we love the aspect ratio and the lenses that we were using, the Panavision G series lenses. But we were always, especially with fights, we were always ending up in small rooms, and we didn’t have the scope that we needed, the big and wide lenses that we need. In season two, I was renting extra lenses, but season three, we went with this really cool hybrid series. So we had some wider spherical lenses that you could use for close focus.

You could get like right in on faces, but you could also get wider and see the actual fighting, which I love. I like the Bruce Lee films, I love the old style of Kung Fu [the original series]. So I tried to really incorporate that. And some directors are totally down with that style. And some directors want to be more modern and be more in the fight. But again, with the stunt team, they would always take my advice or the advice of whatever director was coming in, like if I said, “Hey, do you know what we need here? We need the classic Kill Bill shot,” where we zoom in and then we kind of end up with Uma Thurman all covered in blood. We need to do that with, for example, Yvonne [Chapman], or Zhilan.

They would always incorporate our ideas with that in mind. I always tried to blend a bit more modern with the classic. Sometimes it was location-dependent or time-dependent on, “Okay, we only have this much time to get this done, so we have to get this done in three shots. Can we do it?” And so there’s always different things that you’re not always expecting to deal with that you need to modify and be able to just be able to adapt and overcome.

Nerds and Beyond: Absolutely. And are there any classics of the genre that you really enjoy, specific films or TV shows, that really influenced you when it came to putting things together for this show?

Chris Kempinski: Well, it’s funny because I really like the classic, I like the original, I watched it as a kid. It is similar in intent in terms of, she’s in there trying to find the bad guys and fix the problem. She’s not, you know, traveling city to city, but she’s there. I love how, at beginning of this season, if you think about like how we’ve evolved up until now. I don’t know how much you’re watching this show…

Nerd and Beyond: Every week!

Chris Kempinski: Right? It’s awesome! [laughs] So, you look at, like, just the introduction of Bo to where we are now. You’re just going along for the ride, and it starts off contemporary, and then it kind of goes really heavy fantasy and really heavy Chinese mysticism, and then it kind of brings you all back into family and back into the kitchen and back into the restaurant and the family home. But then you go off on this whole other tangent again. To answer your question, with this show, you need to be able to take on every genre. It’s not just the classic kung fu genre because it’s not just a kung fu show, which, like, again, I think it’s amazing. It’s really cool.

Nerds and Beyond: It’s such a huge mix of everything. Like you said, there’s the romance, there’s the family drama, there’s the action, and you have to be able to cover all of those things in your role as well, which I’d imagine, like you’ve been saying, it’s fun, but it’s also a challenge.

Chris Kempinski: Oh, totally. Yes.

Nerds and Beyond: In this season, or even last season, is there a particular moment or a scene that you’ve been really proud of what you achieved, whether it was because, for example, you had a short production schedule and it ended up looking amazing, or anything like that?

Chris Kempinski: I keep going back to that Thailand episode. We had so much fun. We shot it in what looked like a New York set. So if you actually went there and stood in it, the art department did amazing. Bridget McGuire and the art department were just incredible. We threw in some atmospheric smoke and got some tuk tuks and got 150 extras and actually made that place look like Thailand. I lost a lot of sleep [laughs]. Usually, every episode, I’ll lose a whole night’s sleep worrying about all the things and making sure that everything is in place.

But this production team had my back. You bring the cast out, and it’s Kung Fu, and it’s incredible. That Thailand episode for me as a highlight because I thought we really did a good job of selling that vibe and that entire aesthetic. It was a whirlwind of an episode, it was so crazy. Ryan Johnson wrote it, and Joe was directing that one. I always enjoy those two together because they always seem to get teamed up together. It’s always, always a good team-up. They did the season finale of season two, and the two of them also did the Thailand episode. And they did the season finale this year. So that’s gonna be exciting as well.

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Nerds and Beyond: Always a good team-up! I was going to say, even when we had gotten the press description for the Thailand episode, I said to myself, “How are they gonna pull this off? How are they gonna go to Thailand?” And then I watched the episode, and you somehow went to Thailand! It turned out so well.

Chris Kempinski: Thanks! I think the original idea was to actually go to Thailand, but then as the numbers and the logistics came in, I think they realized it was a bigger ask than they were thinking, and with COVID. I was so happy with how all of that worked out because it really did feel real, it really felt like it was a busy, hustle-bustle, downtown Bangkok, which was pretty cool.

Nerds and Beyond: No, it did work out! You just teased a little bit that the season three finale is going to be a big one that fans are going to hopefully enjoy. Can you tease anything for us about the end of the season since we’re so close now?

Chris Kempinski: All I can really say is that every episode from now on is a zinger! It doesn’t stop. Every episode, it ends with you saying, “You can’t stop here. What are you doing? This is crazy!” It goes for lots of twists and turns. You’ll be happy.

Nerds and Beyond: And what is up next for you?

Chris Kempinski: I’ve interviewed for a couple things. I kind of want to get back into a little indie feature if I can find one. My feelers are out there, and I’m hoping that something comes along, something a little more personal, and gets a camera back in my hand again. I had a blast on Kung Fu. I had all the toys we needed to make a really cool TV series. But I think a good script and just a camera in my hands with an actor in front of me, I think that’s what I’m looking for next.

Nerds and Beyond: Awesome! Thank you so much for making time for me tonight.

Chris Kempinski: Thank you for making the time! I just appreciate it, and again, keep watching because I’m fingers crossed for season four.

Nerds and Beyond: Absolutely. We’ll be crossing fingers right along with you!

Our thanks to Chris Kempinski for speaking with us! You can find more of his work on his official website. Kung Fu airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET on The CW. You can find our other coverage of the series here

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By Jules
I am a nurse and dedicated nerd from Boston, MA. When I'm not at work, I'm rewatching old favorites like Supernatural or discovering my new obsessions (too many to count!). When not fangirling, I can be found reading, writing, or listening to a true crime podcast. You can find me on Twitter @juleswritesblog for more nerdy nonsense.
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