Rais­ing the barar

Main­land films’ vis­ual al ef­fects not at Hol­ly­wood level vel yet

China Daily (USA) - - FRONT PAGE - Con­tact the writer at xu­fan@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

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.

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