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July 23
2019

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

Visual Effects in China: A VFX Supervisor’s Experience

By IAN FAILES

Samson Sing Wun Wong (center) on the set of Shadow (All images copyright © 2019 Well Go USA).

 

When Visual Effects Supervisor Samson Sing Wun Wong was given the chance to work on Yimou Zhang’s Chinese film Shadow (also known as Ying), he had already carved out a career at several VFX studios such as Image Engine and Digital Domain.

A graduate of the Vancouver Film School, Wong had worked on several blockbuster Hollywood films, but for Shadow, which was released last year, he was able to experience how high-end filmmaking and the visual effects process worked away from North America. In doing so, Wong would lead a team of artists around the world to deliver around 900 ambitious VFX shots – ranging from environments, to weapons, gore, split-screens and much more – that helped tell the story of an expelled king during China’s Three Kingdom’s era (AD 220-280).

Wong told VFX Voice that, based on his experience, not only is the production level increasing in China, but so too is the desire to tell more local stories, including with fantastical elements as seen in Shadow. “Unlike previous Hollywood movies that I worked on,” he says, “the director wanted to create a Chinese Shakespeare-type drama by developing a Chinese inky look more than creating a hyper-realistic world.

Pixomondo’s breakdown reel for Shadow. (Video courtesy of Pixomondo)

 

“Unlike previous Hollywood movies that I worked on, the director [of Shadow] wanted to create a Chinese Shakespeare-type drama by developing a Chinese inky look more than creating a hyper-realistic world.”

—Samson Sing Wun Wong, Visual Effects Supervisor

“The goal was to create a believable real world but in a very mono palette,” continues Wong. “Choices of colors were extremely limited. VFX focused on generating and exaggerating the depth and layering. It was also about cheating the perspective with stacks of mountains layering to achieve a Chinese painting look.”

On set, Wong’s experience differed from the usual North American approach in that the director was not keen to rely on previs and storyboards. “Zhang constantly discussed with the actors and actresses during the shoot to make script adjustments,” he says, “so shot choices were based on the storytelling with what was there on set. When we going on set everyday, we were preparing, however, with some temporary blue/green/white/grey/black screen setups on standby just in case.”

The original plate for a typical scene in Shadow.

The final shot, which made use of environment extensions, tree replacement, and rain and atmosphere.

 

“The goal was to create a believable real world but in a very mono palette. Choices of colors were extremely limited. VFX focused on generating and exaggerating the depth and layering. It was also about cheating the perspective with stacks of mountains layering to achieve a Chinese painting look.”

—Samson Sing Wun Wong, Visual Effects Supervisor

 

Many of the visual effects in Shadow have a painterly feel; indeed, the director pushed for an ink brush look. This came from many practical sets, but also adjustments made with digital environments. “More depth and layering were always what Zhang Yimou wanted from us,” says Wong. “We moved trees, houses, cliffs around to get the right composition for him.”

Watch Digital Domain’s breakdown for its work on the umbrella weapons. (Video courtesy of Digital Domain)

 

“The need for high-end quality production in China is rapidly growing. You can see there are lot of great professional talents in China. Of course, by comparison, the scale of production is still smaller than Hollywood A-movie production, but the level of skills is dramatically improving, especially from a technological perspective.”

—Samson Sing Wun Wong, Visual Effects Supervisor

 

Other signature VFX work in the film included crafting scenes where one actor played two characters (one of these shots is a seven-minute ‘oner’), and the augmentation of prop umbrella weapons with CG props for some major fight scenes. “There were five types of umbrella props,” explains Wong. “One was foam-made with completed blades and they could not close – these were for actors and stunts used during the fighting. The second version was only the umbrella pole without any blades on it, so the actors could act as if they are opening them, and then we would add CG blades. The third kind were damaged versions with broken blending blades, and the fourth were plastic blades but more detailed. Finally, the fifth version had wheels on the bottom used for stunts to sit on and slide.”

Extensive sets tended to make up much of the filming for Shadow, with VFX predominantly used for environment additions.

 

“More depth and layering were always what [director] Zhang Yimou wanted from us. We moved trees, houses, cliffs around to get the right composition for him.”

—Samson Sing Wun Wong, Visual Effects Supervisor

 

To complete the film’s visual effects, Wong enlisted several studios from around the world, including Pixomondo, Digital Domain, Visual Impact and Time Axis. “The need for high-end quality production in China is rapidly growing,” observes Wong. “You can see there are lot of great professional talents in China. Of course, by comparison, the scale of production is still smaller than Hollywood A-movie production, but the level of skills is dramatically improving, especially from a technological perspective.”

 

The Shadow crew set the camera for a scene.

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