Pianist turned filmmaker, Sunny Liu is very familiar with the transformative power of music, both through her own lived experiences and through her previous documentary films. This profound understanding of the value of music serendipitously led Liu to David Avendaño's remarkable narrative, all resulting in the beautiful film in Academy-recognised Pianoman, translating his story to the screen.
Through Liu's lens, Avendaño's journey as an undocumented immigrant following his dream in opening a piano restoration factory unfolds. Capturing the day-to-day life of Avendaño and his family, the cinema vérité that Sunny Liu adapts highlights the social issues that undocumented families face in America, characterising the immigrant experience by this resilience. The piano itself becomes a symbolic focal point for emotional healing and reconciliation, despite not actively being played, as the family’s collective efforts to restore the instrument is parallel to their own healing as a family. More than a tale of music's emotional resonance, Pianoman captures the struggles and challenges of the immigrant experience, changing family dynamics, and that hope persists through it all. 
Focusing on representing the marginalised in her work, Sunny Liu’s ethos is that every voice deserves to be heard. Receiving critical acclaim for Pianoman, she was nominated for the Winter Film Awards in New York under the category of Best Documentary Feature, and now is recognised for her first Academy-Award qualified event with the upcoming 48th Atlanta Film Festival. More than her efforts in representation, Sunny Liu seeks to revolutionise filmmaking from the side of post-production as well, with her AI-driven project YoPo. In conversation with METAL, Sunny Liu spoke about the past, present, and future of their career.
How did you get into filmmaking initially? Do you see any interesting similarities or differences between filmmaking and music that you can share?
My journey into filmmaking was sparked by a serendipitous convergence of music and storytelling. As a pianist, I once shared the stage with a childhood friend, an opera singer, where we wove dreams into harmonious melodies. However, life's unexpected turns led her towards acting, diverging our paths. In supporting her and preserving our bond, I took a bold leap from pianist to filmmaker, embarking on a transformative odyssey.
Filmmaking emerged as a newfound passion during a period of introspection, becoming a beacon of purpose in a time of soul-searching. Rooted in my musical background, it instilled in me the essence of emotional storytelling. A poignant moment solidified this connection: while composing a piece inspired by a vivid memory, I realised the power of visual storytelling to evoke similar emotions. This revelation sparked my journey into filmmaking, where I could translate those emotions onto the screen, transcending boundaries and forging profound connections with audiences.
The parallels between music and filmmaking run deep and multifaceted. Both demand a delicate fusion of technical precision and artistic expression. Just as a musician crafts a melody to stir the soul, a filmmaker orchestrates visuals to evoke profound emotions. Collaboration is also integral to both mediums, as individuals converge to create something greater than the sum of its parts. My background as a pianist uniquely informs my approach to filmmaking, enhancing my ability to capture subtle emotions on camera and infuse authenticity into the stories I tell.
You are not only a director, but also producer, cinematographer, editor, and sound mixer. Can you tell us a little about your creative process?
In my filmmaking journey, I embrace a diverse array of roles spanning directorial, production, cinematographic, editing, and sound mixing responsibilities. Guided by authenticity, empathy, and ethical storytelling, my creative process is characterised by collaboration, innovation, and meaningful impact.
Every project is an opportunity to honour entrusted stories with a deep sense of responsibility. For instance, directing Molly Carr's documentary, an esteemed violist from the Juilliard String Quartet, illuminated the transformative power of music through her dedication to Project: Music Heals Us. Similarly, producing Antonio Yarbough's documentary shed light on wrongful incarceration and catalysed the establishment of S3, a platform amplifying voices from behind bars, advocating for justice, and inspiring tangible change.
My cinematography work, particularly with Positive Exposure and Diplodocus, reshaped medical communication and advocated for inclusivity within healthcare. In sound mixing for Gap Inc.'s ESL programme, I empowered marginalised voices, fostering inclusivity and connection within diverse communities. Additionally, my editing experience with Milad Yousufi, an Afghan refugee composer for The Autumn Salon, further enriched my understanding of the transformative power of art.
Drawing inspiration from esteemed professionals such as Julie Anderson, Bob Eisenhardt, Micah Fink, Beth Hoppe, Tom Hurwitz, Sam Pollard, Bob Richman, Tom Powers, and JT Takagi are esteemed professionals who have shaped my artistic vision. In my ongoing filmmaking journey, I'm committed to pushing creative boundaries, deepening storytelling prowess, and making a lasting impact on audiences worldwide.
Can you share with us how you first encountered the story of Pianoman and of David Avendaño? What drew you to this particular narrative?
My journey with Pianoman unfolded unexpectedly, akin to the serendipitous notes of a melody finding their way to my ears. Following a career-altering injury, I sought solace in the realm of cinema vérité and storytelling, hoping to discover a new path for my passion. It was during this introspective period that I stumbled upon David Avendaño's remarkable narrative—a story that resonated profoundly within the depths of my soul.
As a trained pianist, the piano has always been more than a mere instrument to me; it's a conduit for emotion, a bridge for connection. When David expressed, "The piano is my family," his words struck a chord within me, echoing sentiments I've cherished throughout my own musical journey.
In Pianoman, David's tale of resilience and determination amidst the challenges of being an undocumented immigrant struck a universal chord. His journey to establish a piano factory in Yonkers, NY, transcends mere craftsmanship—it's a testament to the indomitable human spirit's ability to triumph over adversity.
You yourself were a pianist, how did you approach this film, with your personal connection to the instrument?
As someone with a background in piano performance, my approach to Pianoman was deeply rooted in my personal connection to the instrument. It was like returning to a familiar melody, but with a new set of instruments to express it. Each aspect of the production process resonated with me on a profound level.
Like composing a symphony, I carefully constructed the narrative, ensuring every element harmonised seamlessly to create a cohesive and impactful story. And like a conductor guiding an orchestra, I led the subjects and crew, drawing out the best performances and ensuring every scene flowed smoothly.
Ultimately, my approach was guided by my passion for both music and filmmaking, allowing me to create a film that not only celebrates the power of music but also tells a deeply human story that resonates with audiences on a universal level.
The film is called Pianoman, and yet the piano also becomes a character in a sense. For you personally, what does this piano character stand for or reveal in the narrative as an emotional speaker?
In Pianoman, the piano emerges as a central character, embodying profound symbolic significance that transcends its physical presence. Despite none of the family members actively playing the instrument, it becomes a catalyst for their emotional journey, serving as a conduit for healing and reconciliation. The craft of piano restoration holds more than just livelihood—it embodies a deep-seated passion and a means of familial connection. As they painstakingly repair the instrument, they also mend the fractures within their own relationships, forging a path toward healing and reconciliation. The piano becomes not only a tangible symbol of hope and renewal but also a testament to the enduring power of familial bonds. Ultimately, Pianoman offers a poignant exploration of the immigrant experience, family dynamics, and the pursuit of dreams against all odds, inviting audiences to reflect on their own relationships, struggles, and the enduring power of hope in the face of adversity.
The link between piano restoration and human healing are evident in the film. How did you navigate portraying this analogy, especially as the film shows all facets of adult life in crisis from career to community?
In Pianoman, the connection between piano restoration and human healing is a central theme, intertwining the challenges of adult life with resilience and perseverance. David Avendaño's journey symbolises the pursuit of personal dreams and the universal quest for belonging. Through collaborative efforts, both piano restoration and personal healing are depicted as transformative processes. The film portrays this analogy vividly, showcasing the therapeutic nature of restoring pianos amidst multifaceted life crises. David's story reflects themes of perseverance and resilience, inspiring viewers to reflect on their own journeys. Ultimately, Pianoman offers an exploration of the immigrant experience, family dynamics, and the enduring power of hope.
With a film chiefly concerned with music or storytelling through sound in this metaphorical sense, how does sound and music play in the narrative of this film?
In Pianoman, sound and music transcend mere background elements; they're dynamic forces propelling the characters' emotional journey and enriching the storytelling experience. Each character boasts a distinct musical theme, intricately woven into the narrative fabric, evolving organically to reflect their evolving relationships. Collaborating closely with composers Jasmine Moni Guo and Aleksandar Hadžievski, as well as post-sound mixers Trevor Misplay, ensures that every auditory component aligns seamlessly with the characters' emotions and narrative arc. This symbiotic relationship between sound and narrative delivers an immersive cinematic experience that resonates deeply with the audience, lingering in their hearts and minds long after the credits roll.
Did you find you faced any challenges or pleasant surprises in bringing this story to life, creatively or logistically?
Bringing Pianoman to life was a profound journey marked by both challenges and unexpected joys. Navigating logistical hurdles and ethical considerations demanded humility, empathy, and unwavering dedication. Striking a balance between authenticity and privacy for our subjects was a significant challenge. However, each obstacle became an opportunity for growth, reinforcing our commitment to ethical storytelling. Observing David Avendaño and his family's resilience was inspiring, reminding us of storytelling's transformative power. Taking Pianoman to a global audience showcased universal themes, with the film's recognition underscoring the impact of our efforts. Staying connected with the Avendaño family post-filming has been deeply meaningful, reaffirming the importance of genuine human connection. Witnessing their continued journey, particularly his son Theo's recent milestone of earning a full scholarship at The School of American Ballet fills me with immense pride and happiness. In essence, Pianoman was a journey of challenges, joys, and transformation, highlighting storytelling's ability to inspire empathy and provoke change.
Reflecting on your previous projects and career so far, what stands out to you as your favourite memory or experience as an artist?
One standout memory from my artistic journey is collaborating on a dance documentary with filmmaker Alley Leinweber and cinematographers Sophia Feuer, Logan White, and Derek Wiesehahn, focusing on Angela Trimbur, a NYC choreographer known for her innovative Balletcore approach. This project deeply resonated with my piano background, prompting a shift from traditional notions of skill to embracing joy and abandon, mirroring Angela's profound ethos. In the documentary, Alley prioritised capturing joy over technical setup, aligning perfectly with the essence of Angela's work.
From rehearsals to the recital, each moment was rich with sensory experiences. The charged atmosphere of the rehearsal space, filled with classical melodies intertwined with the dancers' energy, remains vivid in my memory. Angela's stage presence during the recital was particularly moving, fostering unity among the dancers and elevating their performances with palpable camaraderie.
Documenting Angela Trimbur's Balletcore journey went beyond storytelling—it amplified her unique artistic vision, sparking inspiration within the dance community and showcasing the profound impact of art.
You also created YoPo, an AI solution for post-production in visual media arts. Can you share your perspective on the role of AI in filmmaking, and a little more about YoPo?
YoPo stands as a groundbreaking AI-driven solution in Visual Media Arts post-production, developed collaboratively with COO Jasmine Moni Guo and Facebook AI scientist Tianfu Fu. It revolutionises filmmaking workflows by intelligently selecting visually compelling scenes and enhancing sound design, saving filmmakers invaluable time and effort. Beyond its streamlined interface and customisable features, YoPo offers a curated library of music and sound effects tailored to fit any film's mood and tone seamlessly. Its user-centric design empowers filmmakers to explore creative avenues effortlessly, maintaining full control throughout the process. Committed to innovation and collaboration, YoPo's ongoing evolution ensures it remains at the forefront of post-production technology. In essence, YoPo serves as more than just a tool—it's a catalyst for creativity, reshaping the filmmaking process with unmatched efficiency and precision.
Looking ahead, what can audiences expect from your future projects following Pianoman? What themes or narratives are you passionate about exploring next?
Following Pianoman's selection for the 48th Atlanta Film Festival, marking our debut at an Academy Award-qualified event, we're honoured to be one of the six feature films chosen from 7,500 submissions in the festival's first wave of announcements.
Looking ahead, my future projects will continue to shine a spotlight on narratives often overlooked. Among these projects is the groundbreaking documentary Hiding in Plain Sight, directed by esteemed filmmaker Luchina Fisher. This compelling exploration delves into the underrepresented theme of Black-queer representation in music. With its profound personal resonance and undeniable impact, the documentary has already garnered acclaim, winning the top prize at The PitchBLACK Forum and securing a broadcast deal with PBS.
My filmmaking journey is rooted in the belief that every story deserves to be heard. I'm deeply committed to amplifying the voices of marginalised communities, seeking to bridge divides and illuminate our shared humanity through the medium of film.