Creating an Environment Conducive to Romance: Tea For Two’s Yuelin Zhao

PD Yuelin Zhao surrounded by a film crew — photo credit Zhichun Huang

Romance is not one dimensional. When you recall making that special connection with someone, you can envision the way the environment around you looked, the weather, a number of factors that transport you to an emotional moment. Production Designer Yuelin Zhao had the responsibility of setting this tone for the series Tea For Two which aired on Jubilee’s YouTube channel. This online series was a romance investigation of one psychologist’s premise that two people could fall in love through a series of thirty-six questions. Tea For Two challenged itself by bringing two complete strangers together to test this idea. Yuelin was tasked with creating a visually pleasing environment for the camera as well as the subjects being filmed. With an open premise such as that of Tea For Two, the importance of making the environment soothing and relaxing for the potentially romantic couple is paramount. Individual episodes have exceeded more than five million views, testifying to the success of the show and design manifested by Yuelin Zhao. A truly modern romance series that presents straight, transsexual, same sex, and interracial couples, Tea For Two is a template for modern dating.

Jubilee Media has 6.2 million followers on YouTube and is famous for its debatable topic and trendy content. When Dan Chen took over as director of the second season of Tea For Two, he welcomed Yuelin aboard as the production designer in hopes of establishing a tone that differed from season one. To manifest a more grounded and lyrical direction, Chen wanted an open space that was lighter and fostered both modernity and sharing. The real challenge was to achieve this while still retaining elements of the signature look that Jubilee productions are known for. Think of your favorite band’s albums; retention of a core style but with differences that communicate a striving to evolve towards something even better. Of course, the show at its core fixates on two strangers who meet up for tea and possible romance. This factor is what Ms. Zhao built everything upon. She divulges, “When designing a YouTube series, the first thing that a production designer usually thinks about how to make the set visually pleasing for the audience. Of course it is important, a series with great aesthetics will help it gain much more views. However, Tea For Two is also about setting up the intimacy between two guests so I have to think about how to calm the nervousness of two strangers meeting for the first time and make them feel as comfortable as staying at their own home. I call this concept ‘a living room in the garden.’ I used textures on the carpet, pillows, and other sensory influences that silently communicated comfort and a feeling of being set at ease to the two on-camera personalities. I used plants extensively as they create a sense of calm. The main activity before everything in this series is drinking tea. The two strangers will start with selecting their favorite tea flavor, make the tea, and then start their conversation. As a Chinese citizen who has been drinking all kinds of tea for most of my life, I have a vast knowledge of tea. I prepared a very classic tea station for the guests of the show; a light colored lap desk, bamboo tea tray, ceramic tea set, and a wooden tea collection box for them to choose from ten different kinds of tea. Each flavor has a very soothing aroma so that it could cam their nerves.” While there is an unmistakable duality to Yuelin’s design that is aesthetically pleasing to the viewer, it’s this emphasis on the calm she created for the couple being watched that supported the premise and ultimate success of Tea For Two.

Yuelin Zhao concedes that it’s the spectrum of projects and approaches which keeps her excited about her career as a production designer. While Tea For Two is a perfect example of taste and restraint, Zhao’s upcoming project is a music video for the Funk Rock band Morefatter which promises to lean much harder to the side of excess. Although being cautious about revealing too much other than that the concept is about an astronaut traveling in the desert trying to find a falling meteorite, Yuelin comments, “Music videos are great fun for production designers. I think of them like an art installation. Nothing needs to make sense in a music video. We could go as bold as we want when selecting colors as long as they match the emotion of the music. We could see the music videos as the visualization of the song’s sound waves. There are never right or wrong answers. The goal of production design for music video is for the audiences to easily remember so it is very important to have a unique concept. To make it memorable is the kind of challenge I live for.”

Yuelin Zhao — photo credit Wei Di

Kelly King writes for numerous popular online media outlets in addition to being a staff writer for NYC & LA based/internationally published Drumhead magazine.