Chinese Epic, Australian Heroes. (Behind the Scenes)

By Turk, Rachael | Metro Magazine, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Chinese Epic, Australian Heroes. (Behind the Scenes)


Turk, Rachael, Metro Magazine


With the development of digital technology, the role of the visual effects specialist has risen to new status. Working closely alongside director and DOP, the visual effects producer and visual effects supervisor are often required to play a hands-on role on set. Hero, the new mythical martial arts epic directed by Zhang Yimou, is set in 220BC at the dawn of the Qin dynasty. As the story goes, the soon-to-be First Emperor of China is on the brink of conquering a war-torn land, Three opponents are determined to assassinate him; Broken Sword (Tony Leung), Flying Snow (Maggie Cheung) and Moon (Zhang Ziyi). Only one nameless subject (the inimitable Jet Li) stands in the way.

Posted in China for different periods of the shoot, Animal Logic's VFX producer Fiona Crawford, and VFX supervisors Andrew Brown, David Dulac and Chris Godfrey, found themselves in an unfamiliar environment. Overcoming barriers of language,' climate and cultural difference, they worked together to ensure the creation of around sixty VFX shots, each one a feat of complex animation and design. The following is a description of their time on set and what it took to go the distance.

OUTPOST

Hero is a Miramax film produced by Bill Kong of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000) fame. The bulk of the live action was filmed in the Heng Dian Studio City, between Shanghai and Hong Kong, where a real-scale palace had been built. Over several trips Dulac spent a total of 10-12 weeks there, including Christmas 2001 and New Year 2002, shooting the 'Palace exterior', 'Palace interior', 'Library', 'School interior' and 'Lake' sequences. Brown also spent about six weeks in China through December and January. Crawford was on set for the last two weeks of the shoot, including the 'Arrow' sequence and numerous pick-up shots. Godfrey was posted to Southern China, 15kms from the border of inner Mongolia, in an area known as the '1000-Year-Old Woods'. Being a town that mainly supports local border soldiers, special permits were required for the crew to be there. During that whole period there were four Australians on set, and they were the only non-Chinese in the entire region.

GOLDEN TOUCH

A two-time Academy Award nominee. Zhang Yimou is renowned for his elegant visual style, including long shots, wide composition and achingly beautiful pictures. This is matched by the stylized cinematography of Australia's Chris Doyle (who speaks both Mandarin and Cantonese). In Hero, as in To Live (1994) and Raise the Red Lantern (1991), the film's journey is accomplished through image and music more than dialogue. This was, however, Yimou's first venture into visual effects.

In order to lock into the vision set by the director and DOP, Brown and Dulac immersed themselves in Chinese visual history. They researched an army of Chinese films, martial arts movies, the Yimou filmography and Chinese culture in general to engage the right mindset. 'Being set in 220BC it was important to get into the emotion of the culture,' says Crawford, whose credits include Moulin Rouge! (Luhrmann, 2001) and The Matrix (Wachowski Brothers, 1999). 'The martial arts skills centre on honour and art form. There was a lot of reference to the mental aspect of the fights.'

The oriental influence began with Andrew Brown's palette of reds and golden hues. His luxurious visual effects design has been paraded in Moulin Rouge! and Holy Smoke (Campion, 1999) and it permeates every visual effect sequence of the film. Crawford believes that since the sequences are entrenched in fantasy they needed visual effects to tie the story and martial action together. 'Ultimately, the effects heighten the power of each character's skills, and the feeling of the sequences.'

TASK AT HAND

In everyday production, the VFX producer oversees the creation of visual effects; the staff, the schedule, the technology and budget, as well as general client liaison. …

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