BEHIND THE MAGIC
An exhibition unveils the secrets behind Oscar-winning special effects, Deng Zhangyu reports from Wuzhen, Zhejiang.
Welcome to the fantasy land where characters from Middle Earth, such as the wizard Gandalf, the Elf prince and the Hobbit Gollum, break into an ancient water town in East China, together with Dr Grordbort, with lots of ray guns from the future world.
An ongoing show, The Future of the Visual Arts, in the small town of Wuzhen in Zhejiang province, presents the magical world of The Lord of the Rings, a sci-fi film franchise, set in a landscape with a history of 1,300 years.
It’s aimed to inspire Chinese young people engaged in visual effects of the film industry, according to its organizers, the Weta Workshop in New Zealand and 421 Studio in China.
Large sculptures Weta Workshop designed for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are displayed at a silk factory that has been transformed into an art zone since 2014. The show continues through May.
Gandalf the Grey stands at the entrance of the water town, with colorful lanterns glittering above his head. In the distance, Smaug, a powerful dragon from The Hobbit films, looks into wooden houses inhabited not by those from the Middle Earth but the local Chinese.
“It’s a good clash with the environment,” Richard Taylor, co-founder of Weta Workshop, says of the contrast between the futurist exhibits and the old-world charm of Wuzhen.
Weta is known for its involvement of franchises, such as The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and films like Avatar and King Kong. It designed the weapons, armor and the monster of Tao Tie for Chinese director Zhang Yimou’s latest film, The Great Wall.
The exhibition consists of two parts: the arts and crafts of Weta Workshop and the world of Dr Grordbort.
It’s the first time that the Oscar-winning company in Wellington has held a retrospective show. It shipped 10 showcases from its workshop to unveil how they work for Hollywood blockbusters. The seven Oscars won by Weta, mostly for visual effects, are also on display.
“All the items are uniquely made for the show, including videos showing how we work for sci-fi and fantasy films,” says Taylor.
Each showcase reflects what the workshop’s desks in different departments look like, from prosthetics and other props to makeup and collectibles.
In recent years, Weta Workshop has been a popular destination for Chinese tourists to New Zealand, says Taylor. He has even hired two Chinese guides in his company to help Chinese visitors understand how they make visual effects, weapons and armor for films.
The other part of the show is a sci-fi world of Dr Grordbort created by writer and artist Greg Broadmore. It has houses to display the store of ray guns used by Grordbort for interplanetary adventures and wars. From figures, photos, drawings, sculptures and miniatures, visitors can see how the artist created a sci-fi world.
Dr Grordbort eventually will be marketed as a mixedreality game made by Magic Leap, a US virtual reality technology company.
“It’s the first time that the savage world of Dr Grordbort has been shown to the public on such a big scale,” says Broadmore. He was chased by lots of Chinese to autograph souvenir figures they bought on the opening day, Dec 13.
Wang Yonggang, a visitor from Southwest China’s Sichuan province, traveled to Wuzhen for the opening of the show. He says he was TheFutureoftheVisualArts impressed by how the artist built an imaginary world in such a detailed way. Wang has a studio to design figures and models for films and games.
“They have mature system to protect intellectual property. But it’s not the case in China. Once a good design is made, there will be lots of copies and the designer can do nothing to protect his right,” Wang says, adding that he and his peers need to learn more on how to be creative.
Taylor says the show is designed to inspire exactly that.
“China is never short of good stories. You can find lots of inspiration from mythology and culture,” he says.
He adds that one of his favorites is A Chinese Ghost Story produced by Hong Kong director Tsui Hark. It was based on Qing Dynasty (16441911) writer Pu Songling’s Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio.
Coinciding with the Wuzhen China, New Zealand jointly work on creative aspects of filmmaking
When Sun Lijun visited Wellington-based Weta Workshop in New Zealand 10 years ago, he was impressed by a prop of a sophisticated bow that felt like a real metal bow. The visit thus has pushed the vice-president of Beijing Film Academy to work actively on film-related joint projects of China and New Zealand.
In the past few years, the Beijing academy has sent students to work and get trained at Weta Workshop every year. The workshop is known for its productions of props, weapons, makeup and visual effects for film franchises like The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.
Sun says China is short of such kind of talent in its film market. The situation in China is that they spend a lot on buying software and systems from Hollywood, but few are able to make full use of them, resulting in a big waste and little change for China’s film production.
At the opening of a visual arts show on Dec 13, in Wuzhen, East China’s Zhejiang province, Sun and his peers launched a project to cooperate with the New Zealand company.
Every year, they will send some young Chinese eager to study the craft at Weta Workshop, and fund their works.
Richard Taylor, the owner of Weta Workshop, says he has been in China doing manufacturing for Chinese movies for eight years.
“We want to work for more Chinese movies,” says Taylor, adding that his team also has worked with the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Arts since President Xi Jinping visited New Zealand in 2014.
During Xi’s visit, the president signed with his New Zealand counterpart, John Key, a treaty on cooperation in both the film and TV industries.
With national-level support, Weta Workshop’s animation series are introduced to China and many Chinese movies and TV programs are filmed on sets in New Zealand.
Sun believes that in the future, visual-effects production will be affordable and accessible, just as easily as we can use our phone to take good photos, “after we’ve got enough talented people and learned sufficient experience from the West”.
Taylor says that he saw many good qualities in Chinese students at his workshop.
“They’re passionate, creative, hardworking and learn quickly,” he says.
Gao Xiang, 30, is the only Chinese who now works as a concept designer at Taylor’s workshop.
He has been there for three years, taking part in some blockbuster productions and sometimes offering good suggestions.
“After working overseas, I have more motivation to turn to Chinese culture for inspiration,” says Gao.
show is the launch of a visual concept art fund and a competition to find talented young people and support their work in visual effects for China’s film industry.
Sun Lijun, co-founder of the fund and vice-president of Beijing Film Academy, says that as China’s film market is the second-biggest in the world, demand for visual artists is increasing.
The problem of the industry is that people go to a cinema, pay for a ticket for a Chinese fantasy movie but often end up complaining about the low quality of visual effects, says Sun.
He hopes to hold such a show and launch the project to inspire the young and get more people trained in top visual-effects companies, such as Weta.
Contact the writer at dengzhangyu@ chinadaily.com.cn
Visitors get a close look at the characters from fantasy films at the show in Wuzhen, Zhejiang province. Visual-effects artists show their skills at a workshop (above right). The ancient water town (below) provides a unique backdrop for the futurist show.
Hobbit Gollum from The Lord of the Rings films.