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Grad student leaves engineering career to pursue filmmaking

Film graduate student Si Ning Xiang studied engineering in China, worked in Silicon Valley for five years and then gave it up to attend the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. (Farida Saleh/Daily Bruin)

Film graduate student Si Ning Xiang studied engineering in China, worked in Silicon Valley for five years and then gave it up to attend the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. (Farida Saleh/Daily Bruin)

This post was updated on April 11 at 3:22 p.m.

Sining Xiang scored in the top 10 percent of China for his college entrance exams and studied electrical engineering at one of the top universities in China.

Xiang then worked as an engineer in Silicon Valley for half a decade – before he decided to become a filmmaker and make movies for the big screen.

He gave up his financially stable engineering career and followed his dreams in filmmaking as a graduate student at UCLA.He is directing a short film called “The Day I Become a Zombie” and producing a film called “Allegra’s Autobody.”

“Back then, I mean in Asian culture, it’s more like you know you have a certain path for life – you have to go to school, go to a good college and then find a job,” Xiang said.

Xiang chose to study engineering because it was a popular and viable career, though he also knew there were more job openings for engineers. He grew up reading film magazines and watching American and European DVDs, but not many people decided to pursue filmmaking as a career, he said.

“It just seemed like filmmaking was so distant,” Xiang said. “It’s like an impossible dream.”

[Related: Grad student redirects passion toward film after med school]

Xiang came to the United States to study abroad in 2009, obtaining his master’s degree in electronic circuits and systems at UC San Diego. In 2011, he went to work as a radio frequency integrated circuit designer in Silicon Valley for the next five years.

After his first year of work, Xiang felt depressed, sitting at a desk in a corporate 9-to-5, devoid of daily human interaction.

He began to explore other options he now considers embarrassing, such as going to business school, taking his chartered financial analystexams or developing iPhone apps with his friends, he said.

“But the more I search, it’s like, I feel like they don’t interest me enough,” Xiang said. “I’m trying to find another thing to escape, but that’s not truly what I wanted to do.”

Xiang realized he would regret it his entire life if he did not pursue filmmaking.

He began preparing for film school and visited film sets, wrote film reviews and later took weekend film classes while still working his job as an engineer. He also made a short psychological thriller that he submitted his application to schools, including the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

Xiang’s application painted a picture of a kid who focused on other people’s values but internally rebelled against them, said UCLA film professor Becky Smith, vice chair and head of production/directing.To the admissions office, Xiang was a serious individual, ready to take on an enormous risk.

“So many people say ‘I don’t like my job,’” Smith said. “Very few people actively do something about it.”

In 2016, Xiang was one of 18 narrative directors out of 470 applicants admitted to UCLA’s master’s of fine arts degree program in production/directing, Smith said.

“I grew up watching Disney movies,” Xiang said. “It’s like I was kind of brainwashed to believe that whatever you dreamed of you can find a way to make the dream come true.”

Xiang said coming to America gave him a second chance to pursue his dreams.

[Related: Student directs film about 911 call for attempted school shooting]

Xiang made a bold move by switching out of a financially steady job, said Hsing-Che Lin, a directing and production graduate student and Xiang’s classmate.

Initially, Xiang sensed a gap between his engineering background and the other film students’ art backgrounds when conversing about film, Lin said. After two quarters, Xiang adapted.

And Xiang sees some overlap with his past engineering job and his current filmmaking. His stories have clear logic in their plots, which he believes was formed by his scientific training, he said.

Additionally, organizational and leadership skills are important when managing projects, hitting deadlines and making modifications along the way in both engineering and filmmaking, he said.

Xiang’s own experiences and sentiments about working as an engineer in Silicon Valley are reflected in his film work.

His short film, currently in post-production, is about an engineer who wakes up one day as a zombie. A screening will be held at the end of the quarter in June for UCLA film professors and students.

After waking up as a zombie, an engineer attempts to go through a normal day at work. Eventually he quarrels with and bites his boss. The engineer returns the next day; the entire office has evolved into a sort of zombie land where everyone continues to do their jobs as zombies – echoing how lifeless Xiang felt when working in an office job, he said.

Xiang hopes to make his directorial debut in China and has already began writing his first feature length script.


Based on a true story, the film will follow the life of a young, poor teenager in the early 2000s who is trapped in the harsh working conditions of the manufacturing factories in Shenzhen, China. Despite having no knowledge of the outside world, the teenager aspires to do something with his artistic talent to escape the mundane factory life, paralleling Xiang’s experiences as an engineer in Silicon Valley, he said.

“I feel like that story captures the society of China back then,” Xiang said. “It’s also about personal journey – like dreams and faith – some themes that I really want to explore.”

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