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On the 3D Cutting Edge with Shanghai SFS Digital Media

Bill Desowitz spotlights the burgeoning vfx and 3D-animated feature work being done by Chinas Shanghai SFS Digital Media.

Avatar, a new sci-fi thriller, boasts 300 CG effects shots. All images © Shanghai SFS Digital Media Co Ltd 2004. All rights reserved.

Avatar, a new sci-fi thriller, boasts 300 CG effects shots. All images © Shanghai SFS Digital Media Co Ltd 2004. All rights reserved.

CGI explosions, battles, flying swordplay and frighteners may be commonplace to us, but are new to China. And thanks to Shanghai SFS Digital Media Co. (www.sfsdigital.com), the digital division of the large Chinese media conglomerate, Shanghai Film Group Corp., vfx and 3D animation are rapidly maturing.

Under the supervision of executive deputy general manager Dun Zhao, Shanghai Digital, partially owned by the Chinese government and co-financed by five other investors, has a staff of more than 100 (mostly digital artists) working on features, TV, computer games and commercials. It also has access to a large pool of traditional animators (approximately 700) that the studio is gradually transitioning into the CG/3D world. Meanwhile, its digital pipeline (mostly Maya-based) is modeled after Pixar, PDI/DreamWorks and Sony Pictures Imageworks. In fact, Zhao previously worked at the latter two studios (participating in Shrek and Spider-Man 2). While its render farm is currently comprised of Maya Renderer, Shanghai Digital will most likely changeover to RenderMan or mental ray for its future animation production.

Judging by the sci-fi thriller Avatar, Chinas first horror blockbuster, The Game of Killing, plus the upcoming live-action Mulan and 3D-animated The Monkey King, Shanghai Digital looks to be a vital force as both a content provider and vfx service provider (it introduced CGI effects in 2000 with the actioner Crash Landing).

The live-action Mulan will be more faithful to the Chinese legend than its Disney counterpart.

The live-action Mulan will be more faithful to the Chinese legend than its Disney counterpart.

Avatar, directed by Jian Hong Kuo, concerns a female bounty hunter that teams up with a cop to thwart a government-controlled identity theft scheme. It contains about 300 CG effects shots that are described as Matrix-like with a Chinese/Asian twist.

The Game of Killing contains sword fighting, falling bodies, car crashes and other digital stunts.

The most ambitious live-action feature, Mulan, an in-house project currently in pre-production, promises to be much more faithful to the Chinese legend than the animated Disney hit. It will boast hundreds of vfx shots with Lord of the Rings-like battles, explosions and lots of motion capture and motion control.

On the animation side, The Monkey King, also in pre-production, represents Chinas biggest foray into 3D animation and will be done totally in-house, although, technically, this adaptation of the famous Chinese folktale about a rebellious monkey with magical powers is a hybrid that will contain elaborate and exotic 2D backgrounds.

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One of Chinas most beloved characters, the Monkey King will get its own 3D feature. The monkey will shape shift into 70 creatures and objects. The background scenery, as seen in the right, is reminiscent of traditional Chinese art.

Its very famous in Asia, Zhao states. So we think there is a big potential market in China and Asia [and elsewhere]. Were now filling the story department and also the designs and research because it requires lots of technology and the cost is high by our standards [$20 million to $30 million].

Zhao, who is directing the animation tests himself, says the monkey is a shape-shifting creature that will allow the studio to create some 70 different characters and objects in 3D, with battles on land, in the sky and under the sea. It will look like traditional Chinese art ink painting and other traditional stuff from Asia, so I developed a very unique, never before seen look and style for animation. I dont want to follow any examples from other 3D-animated movies.

The Monkey King has an R&D team from Zhejiang University, which boasts a national CG lab supported by the government that is working on 3D modeling, fur, clothing and effects, and Tongji University in Shanghai, which is developing plug-ins.

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Horror made a big splash in Chinese theaters with The Game of Killing, which was filled with digital tricks.

Another animated feature inspired by Chinese folklore, The Red Goat, is being pitched as an international co-venture, and Zhao is in discussions with U.S. studios. Shanghai Digitals U.S. rep is Rita Cahill. It is similar to Lion King using animals, Zhao says. Its very powerful but very dark. The characters might be 2D and environments in 3D. Were a year or more away from pre-production. We hope to start production on Monkey King in eight to 16 months. For us pre-production requires more preparation than production, so we wont start until we have all of the 3D done.

In terms of the staff, they come from artistic and computer science backgrounds. Zhao hopes to expand to 300 in the next year or so, concentrating on more features and gaming. The difference between the U.S. and China is that the U.S. has more creativity. But the Chinese have very good skills. If they have proper training and a good lead, they will be able to catch up to the U.S. standards [for vfx and 3D animation].

Zhao maintains that China is very attractive to investors of 3D animation. Labor costs are still low, which means you can cut costs by a third to an eighth. What I see in the near future, especially in the game industry, is outsourcing a lot of work to China, Zhao adds. Right now he is in discussions with EA, where he also used to work, and Sony Online Ent. Not surprisingly, outsourcing vfx remains problematic because of communication barriers and the difficulty in sharing production pipelines, but Shanghai Digital has plenty of vfx potential in its own region.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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