Raising the barar
Mainland films’ visual al effects not at Hollywood level vel yet
La st Thursday, hundreds of fans were anxious ly waiting to get into a media event of L.O.R.D: Legend of Ravaging Dynasties in Beijing. But their enthusiasm seemed to wane after the upcoming fantasy film’s latest trailer was screened at the Wanda CBD cinema.
There was scattered applause at first. But the screams came only when the star-studded cast appeared onstage.
Its makers say the film, which depicts a fictional wonderland, is an unprecedented Chinese-language title when it comes to computer-generated imagery, as all the sets and characters are the result of digital technology.
Guo Jingming, director and writer of then a me sake no velon which the film is based, says the big-budget movie has used motion-capture technology to record facial expressions and moves, which are then converted into virtual images on screen.
When the movie’s first trailer was released more than two months ago, it caused a controversy: It was criticized for looking like a videogame or an animated film.
The second trailer, which was screened at the event, however, seems better, with the moves looking a lot less rigid and fake.
In China’s booming movie market, the number of such ambitious fantasy productions that stumble in the visual-effects game is not insignificant.
Recent duds have included the TV series Ice Fantasy, starring Feng Shaofeng, and the Jet Li film League of Gods.
The productions were slammed for their visual effects and their over-reliance on colored contact lenses.
Inmost of the scenes in these films and TV series, the fictional beasts or creatures were criticized for looking like stuffed toys because of their unnatural eyes and expressions.
Up to nine of this year’s 10 highest-grossing films feature heavy effects, and most of the top-rated television serials are fantasy tales with lots of digital effects.
So, despite a huge potential market, why does the country’s special effects industry fail to meet viewers’ expectations?
Industry sources say that small budgets and less time are major problems, but these issues are typically underestimated by producers.
Dwelling on these issues, Xu Fei, the founder of Illumina, a Beijing-based special-effects studio, says: “The maker of a top Hollywood sci-fi film will spend nearly half his budget on visual effects, but in China the amount is 20 percent or less.”
Typically, for visual effects, the process starts with the designing of sets in pre-production, moves on to shooting the live action and ends with doing the digital effects in the post-production process.
Xu recalls that, in his early years, most of the visual-effects creators would be hired only after most of the filming had ended. But, he says, that is not how things are done today.
“Now, without choreography in advance, it is difficult to insert digitally produced imagery into the real sets.
“The best special effects are when the audience does not realize whatever occurs on screen — whether it is an explosion or a disaster— is not produced using a computer.”
Another reason the special-effects sector is not yet on par with its global rivals is domestic directors, cameramen and actors often have limited knowledge and experience when it comesto special effects.
While diehard sci-fi movie fans may be familiar with the idea of actors wearing elec-tronicsuits when they jump, run and scream to outrun some alien creature — despite the fact they’re in an empty room covered in green cloth, which can be replaced by virtual sets in the post-production process — surprisingly, many in film industry are not familiar with this.
Yang Yuejuan, a veteran producer who has done some visual-effects blockbusters, says Chinese stars often feel embarrassed to perform in such an environment. “They’ll complain it’s hard for them to imagine things when there is actually nothing in front of them,” says Yang.
Another problem faced by visual-effects professionals is that many producers do not realize the significance of getting them involved in the process right from the scriptwriting.
Explaining why this is needed, Xu says: “We need to figure out what we can do or cannot do while turning words into a visible world.”
Xu also says that you need a coordinator to guarantee all the visual-effects creators— in a big-budget blockbuster the number may run to hundreds of people — connect their parts seamlessly.
“Sometimes the creatures are produced by one team and the sets are done by others. So, when combining the two parts, a lot of elements need to be adjusted, such as the shadows, the movements of the creatures and so on,” says Xu.
But despite the problems, positive changes are evident in China’s booming film industry.
ForTheMystic Nine, a television series prequel of the hit tomb-raider serial The Lost Tomb, the visual effects took up 40 percent of its budget.
In Novoland: The Castle in the Sky, which depicts human beings and mutants born with wings, the virtual sets were created during the pre-production process.
Separately, domestic viewers, whose expectations have been raised thanks to Hollywood, also agree that locally made fantasy productions are upping their game when it comes to special effects.
“Hollywood has worked for decades to reach where it is. We have a long way to go,” says Zhan Taifeng, an industry professional.
L.O.R.D:LegendofRavagingDynasties’ cast members (from left to right) Chen Xuedong, Lin Yun and Wang Duo attend a Beijing media event.
Guo Jingming, director and writer of the namesake novel on which the film is based.