USA Gymnastics

For Deanna Hong, Storytelling Is About The Human, Not Just The Sport

For Deanna Hong, Storytelling Is About The Human, Not Just The Sport

Videographer, editor, producer Deanna Hong captures the lives of the UCLA gymnastics team, Olympic hopefuls, and Olympians through her unique lens.

Jan 3, 2022 by Kelly Feng
For Deanna Hong, Storytelling Is About The Human, Not Just The Sport

UCLA Gymnastics Team Videographer Deanna Hong is most recognized for her UCLA intro videos, which have amassed millions of online views. Just about everybody, whether you're a gymnastic fan or not, has seen Hong's viral video of UCLA gymnast Katelyn Ohashi's floor exercise, which has garnered 221,247,824 views! 

Rounding out her UCLA work, Hong produced a mini-series called "The New Era," about the truncated 2020 gymnastic season.

Beyond UCLA, Hong has garnered quite the following for her mini-docs, vignettes that illustrate an athlete and their point of view. These mini-docs are like dropping in to watch a good friend work out or having a cup of coffee with them. 

Hong's produced mini-docs on Olympic medalists Kyla Ross, Jordyn Wieber, UCLA gymnast Kalyany Steele, trampolinist Charlotte Drury, advocate Rachael Denhollander, national team member Emily Lee and Olympic finalist Alec Yoder. 

Last summer, Hong produced the critically acclaimed "Golden: The Journey of USA's Elite Gymnasts." 

Hong's degree is in Communication Studies, which she earned at UCLA. Believe it or not, much of her camera work and technical skills were developed in high school. She values and credits her training from her three years working as an editor at NFL Network. Since 2018, she's worked as an editor for Fox Sports. Because both are content that goes on major TV networks, she can bring what she learns from that platform and apply that to the gymnastics world. 

Mini-doc: Alec Yoder

KF: One of the most recent documentaries you produced was your short vignette on Alec Yoder. In your words, “This is the story of a man who knew his worth and believed in himself, even when others did not.” Your min-doc really seemed to resonate with viewers. Watching it, one feels like they just walked into his apartment and started chatting with him. Do you have a specific approach when you interview athletes? Are you looking at the props or scenery and finding inspiration from that? 

DH: These kinds of personal projects are with athletes I have a relationship with or have struck up a relationship with because I was interested in their story. I go into them knowing the story I want to tell. So it's a matter of figuring out how to best put them in the position where they're comfortable telling those stories. The really interesting part of his life with Alec is that he had just made the Olympic team, but his apartment lease was expiring while he was in Tokyo. He had to move completely out of his apartment before he left because he wouldn't have an apartment when he returned from Tokyo. That [documentarty] has a more intimate and casual vibe because we were literally just sitting on his floor in his apartment.

I liked that non-glamorous look into an Olympian's life. It's not what you expect from an Olympian. I was trying to tell the story about the tough road to the Olympics that is not glamorous. That kind of interview setup enhanced that story. I don't like my [projects] to feel over-produced. It feels like you're just really hanging out with these athletes and you're just their friend. Many of them see me as their friend, and there's a different level of intimacy and casualness that comes with that vulnerability.

KF: There's a scene where Alec is driving but sees a poster of himself on the road while driving. 

DH: He's like, look, "I'm on this poster," and you can even hear my voice because I'm like, "is your head cut off?" I like infusing my pieces with little moments because it adds to casualness and the intimacy of “we're just friends hanging out.” I want the viewer to feel that. I only choose to do these projects with people I like, admire, and want to be friends with. For me, I like showing the viewer the side of these athletes where you want to be friends with them. 

Mini-doc: Charlotte Drury

KF: Another mini-doc you made in 2016 with Charlotte Drury about her trampoline journey. Have you considered doing more trampoline or tumbling documentaries? Or do you see yourself more in the artistic gymnastic world?

DH: I see myself more in the artistic world. Charlotte was interesting because she was an artistic gymnast for so long, and so we knew each other through mutual friends. My projects are not necessarily about sports but the human stories I see in people.

So although I wasn't familiar with trampoline & tumbling, I felt that Charlotte's story transcended her sport in that one could still appreciate her story and her humanity without necessarily needing to specifically be a fan of T&T. But trampoline is such a visually cool sport anyways, so it worked out well!

So generally speaking, I do see myself sticking to artistic, but I certainly have branched beyond artistic when I come across stories that compel me to explore other disciplines/sports.

UCLA: Intro Videos

KF: The 2021 UCLA Intro Video was inspired by Aly & AJ's song “Joan of Arc on the Dance Floor” and was a huge hit, with 1.3 million views and 900 YouTube comments. 

DH: Last year was the intro video that really was mine from start to finish in the sense that Aly & AJ, the artist for that song, is one of my favorite bands. I really love that song, and from there, the idea blossomed.

I also had a lot to do with the one the year before. I directed that one and wrote it. But I don't see myself as much of an ideas person, and I'm not a commercial director so much. My comfort is in documentaries and behind the scenes.

For the intro videos, I've always collaborated with people. I can execute it well, and I can make it work, but overall I always like to rely on other people who have a bigger vision than I do to help me carry out those concepts.

KF: Do you understand the importance of what you've done with UCLA? 

DH: I definitely cannot take credit for inventing the intro video because they have been doing that for years at UCLA. In my time with the team, slowly, gradually, year by year, they put more and more on my plate. 

When I first came on, they used some of my footage. Then it was a year I helped with some editing, and I helped shoot some [footage]. Then another year, you know, this or that. Then Miss Val's last year, I edited it. Then the year after [Miss Val] left, I ended up writing and directing. Then, last year, I directed and created the concept, so it's been a gradual shift into my responsibilities that I've enjoyed for sure, but again, I don't see myself as a commercial director. It's kind of out of my comfort zone. 

My contribution has been more on the storytelling side. What has been different about our program versus what other teams have been able to do is that I started there when I was so young that I have a sisterly relationship with so many other girls.

So the content that I'm able to get just feels like you're hanging out with them. That has gone far in expanding UCLA's brand and just making these athletes relatable and accessible. 

My goal is I want people to watch these videos and feel like they could be friends with these girls or want to be friends with these girls. 

Because I think they're all so great, and I love them so much, and I want people to see why I love them. I think coming from that angle where I've always been—I don't have a gymnastics background—even to this day, I don't know that much about the technicalities of gymnastics [although] I know a fair amount now. 

I've always approached it from the human side and not the sports side, and that's what sets us apart for so long. Other schools are leaning into that more as well. Everyone realizes that storytelling is the key to media these days and content creation. 

Golden: The Journey of USA's Elite Gymnasts

KF: Although it came out late in the Olympic year, the Golden series is a true documentary and compelling storytelling. The series feels real and brave. 

DH: The part where you said it came out late was tricky because we didn't want to put the series out before the Trials finished. We didn't want to either affect the result of Trials or open anyone up to criticism that the docuseries affected the results of Trials, the team selection. So we had to put it out between Trials but before the Olympics. It was this very small window of three or four weeks.

So we couldn't promote it that well, because the Olympics were happening. I know many people in the gymnastics world have seen it, but I think it is an excellent docu-series that I wish more people would have gotten to see. I think it would have been very interesting to people outside of the gymnastics world to get a view into what it's really like.

I was brought on a few months before we started shooting as a producer. The concept was already created. They already had a network deal, and they were finding producers to work with the five athletes were for the show. 

I just worked with Laurie (Hernadez), and fortunately for me, Laurie and I had already been friends before. She has a lot of mutual friends who go to UCLA. Then during the pandemic, we became close friends. 

It was a great experience because Laurie is easy to work with because she's been on camera most of her life. But also, it's the first time that she's ever spoken on camera about the abuse that she faced and all the ramifications. On some level, it was very exciting but also very nerve-wracking to do Laurie justice and tell her story in a way that she felt was accurate and captured her truth. 

What was a cool thing about the docuseries is that they just wanted us to explore all of these aspects of their sport and their lives. I credit the directors for many stylistic decisions, and they had a specific vision for the series. They executed it phenomenally. It feels gritty, real, authentic and vulnerable—a side of the sport that you don't get to see, which is cool. 

KF: In episode 4, "Do it for Yourself," Laurie is filming a sunglass commercial. Afterward, when she's driving her car, Laurie talks about being an introvert, but that can clash with her brand as a bubbly and happy person. That was such a powerful scene and refreshing to see such a different side to the Olympic medalist known for her showmanship. How did that scene come about?

DH: A lot of it has to do with the fact that we were friends before. I know a lot about Laurie that she doesn't necessarily put out there publicly. She's much more introverted than anyone would expect because she's so bubbly and a wonderful performer. 

She truly is an introvert, and that's something I didn't realize until we became friends. Since that's something that I just knew about her, I thought that's interesting to share because I know that that's not what everybody thinks of when they see Laurie Hernandez's name in lights. That's endearing to me, and there's so much more to her than what the public sees.

Knowing that, I could figure out how to touch on that and show that side of her if she was willing to share it. In that scene, she's literally driving, and I'm sitting in the backseat just asking your questions as she drives. She was very open and willing to talk about all those things, but I think a big part of it is because of our relationship—I just knew more about what to ask. 

UCLA: The New Era

KF: Do you have anything else you want to add? 

DH: One of the videos I'm most proud of with UCLA is the docu-series called "The New Era," which followed the canceled COVID-19 season. So the "The New Era" was a docuseries, and they were 20 to 30-minute episodes. They're all on YouTube, and I produced, directed, shot, and edited the whole series. For me, that was a mixture of good kind of storytelling, I do in those vignettes but applied at UCLA. 

KF: When one thinks of UCLA Gymnastics, we think of the glamour, the dance, the crowds….but the gymnasts from “The New Era” seem just like regular people. 

DH: That's always been the secret sauce: relatability and accessibility. By the end of the day, they are college students and real people. 

Being able to see beyond the glitz and glamour, the leotards, the makeup, and stuff that they are people just like we are, and it's been fulfilling to show that.