Tara DiLullo takes in the visual poetry of Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower, uncovering the secrets of bringing this epic film to life.
In the short span of two decades, director Zhang Yimou has created a sea change in Chinese filmmaking. With his bold visual style and poetic approach to the depiction of martial arts battles in films such as The House of Flying Daggers and Hero, hes fashioned a fusion of beauty and violence together that now serves as his unique visual signature in the landscape of international cinema.
Likewise, vfx have become an integral part of bringing his breathtaking sequences to life, as seen in the intense wirework sequences or stunning CG created weaponry hurling through the air toward its mark. For Yimous latest film, Curse of the Golden Flower goes back in time 1,000 years to the flamboyant later Tang Dynasty. Against the backdrop of the dysfunctional Imperial family, a tale is woven out of their secrets being revealed and the parallel coup d'état and subsequent battle raging outside their palace walls. The epic climactic battle, brought to life in resplendent scale through the coordination and direction of visual effects supervisors Frankie Chung Chi Hang of Centro and Angela Barton of Moving Picture Co. (MPC) serves as the ultimate visual metaphor for the entire film.
Both Hang and Barton were brought onto Curse to take care of the disparate visual effects needs for the film. Under Hang, Centros Computer Graphics department has become a powerhouse visual effects source for Asian cinema. He supervised Kung Fu Hustle and A Man Called Hero. Mr. Bill Kong, the producer of Curse called us up one day and asked us if we would like to take on this project, Hang says about how they were approached to work on Curse. After a few weeks, we met with director Zhang Yimou and Tony Ching, action director of Curse. They gave us their visions on the visual effects. We were so excited and accepted this new challenge. Hangs team was then assigned the task of focusing on their expertise, the complex wire removal work for the confrontation sequences.
For the other myriad of visual effects, Yimou hired MPC and Barson to coordinate the other shots. They wanted MPC for the expertise and experience we could bring to the big CG army shots. He was attracted to us because of our previous work involving CG armies in Troy, Alexander and Kingdom of Heaven, Barson explains.
He wanted the highest standard of vfx work so that it wouldnt detract from the overall quality of the film. Yimou had a clear idea of what he wanted right from the start. The initial concept art and storyboards conveyed the strong sense of colour and the mood of the shots really clearly. It was a great experience just going out to China and meeting with Yimou and his team. All the way through, Yimou wanted the vfx shots to blend seamlessly into the surrounding live-action shots, it was critical to him that the shots looked real.
With that mandate from Yimou, Barson says they developed their strategy. We decided at the beginning that we would previs all of the big vfx shots. A small team back at MPC worked on this for several weeks so that we had a clear idea what was needed by the time the shoot began. This previs was critical in order to be able to plan the logistics of these shots -- we were dealing with 800 extras, multiple costume types and an enormous set, so we had to know exactly what was required before turning up to set each day. With the Centro team, Hang did the same. We would bring some references and rough 3D animatics to show Zhang Yimou. He wanted the vfx to be more realistic and believable.
Due to the nature of their assignments, it ended up that Hang was present on the set for the entire shoot. My team and I were taking turn on the set, he offers. Meanwhile, Barson and her team only needed to be onset for a minimal amount of time. I was on set for about five weeks. I was only on set when they were shooting at Hengdian for the exterior palace scenes. The set was stunning. We spent the first morning just walking around, overwhelmed with the size and scale of it. Then we had to measure and photograph the entire set, as we knew we would have to be recreating some of it in CG. That in itself was a huge job. We'd photograph the set during the day before shooting began -- when it wasn't torrential rain -- then usually film throughout the night.
With two houses and supervisors on the film, Hang and Barson admit their paths rarely crossed. Hang says, We were both assigned our own shots and sequences. Sometimes we needed to check with their shots for continuity. Barson adds, We didnt cross over that much on set as I was there for the large battle shots, which Centro werent involved with. When Mr. Chung came along for the big wire and CG weapons shots I was able to go and get some sleep!
Detailing Centros wire removal work, Hang says, Tony Ching likes to use complex wirework. On the set, there were a lot of wires. We need to shoot a lot clean-pass for wire-removal purpose. He also wanted a lot of arrows. A soldier might be hit by not one, but many CG arrows. We did spend a lot of time tracking camera movement and animating the arrows.
For climactic battle of the armies in the last act, MPC says they went back to their proprietary bag of tricks to bring Yimous vision to life. We used our own proprietary crowd software, ALICE. This was originally written for Troy and then further developed during Alexander and Kingdom of Heaven. ALICE allows us to control large number of agents and, most importantly, render them efficiently and quickly. The motion of the soldiers was all motion capture. Maya and RenderMan was used for the CG, while everything was composited in Shake.
Yimou wanted to portray the sheer size of the armies facing up to each other, and then the hopelessness of the rebel army as they were trapped and annihilated, she continues. To achieve this, high and wide establishing shots were needed in order to give an overview of the battle. The courtyard where the battle takes place is enormous -- the size of several football fields which meant it was difficult to frame the shots without them becoming typical, locked off CG crowd shots. Several of the shots were filmed using a flying camera to help keep some dynamism in the shots. In general, the large battle shots were challenging to make look real as they were so vast but there was almost no atmospherics to help give depth to the shots. Some of the shots are so vast that it is obvious it has to have been a CG shot, which always makes the job harder. Even though our CG characters blended seamlessly with the live-action ones in the plate, you still find yourself looking for problems because you know it isn't all real.
Asked about their most challenging sequences, Hangs offers, The assassins coming down to the valley sequence was the toughest. First of all, complex wire removal work was needed on each shot. Second, we needed to composite live-action assassins on the foreground and putting CG assassins to fill up the remaining space. Lastly, we needed to add back all the ropes hanging on the assassins. Basically, it was just time consuming.
For Barson and her team, it was a particular portion of the battle sequence. There is one shot which starts off fairly close in on the golden army running across a courtyard, pulling back to reveal the whole of the golden army -- about 10,000 soldiers. A flying camera was used to get the shot, which was a small remote control helicopter with a camera mounted on its nose. Due to fairly strong winds, the final plate needed a lot of stabilization, which in turn showed up motion blur problems in the plate. We ended up having to rebuild almost the entire environment in CG as well as remove all the live-action soldiers and replace them with CG. It also meant that instead of putting our CG characters in behind the live-action ones they were right in the foreground. We had originally planned to only create CG characters, which would be seen at ¼ screen height however, we ended up having to put them in at full screen height, which is always a challenge.
The end result is a stunning technical and visual sequence that Barson says the MPC team learned a lot from. Really, the biggest lesson was probably in dealing with such a different culture and language, made harder by the vast distances between us. But when the clients started asking for changes to the live-action parts of the shot, not realizing what was CG and was live action, we knew we'd got it right!
Tara DiLullo is an East coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, SFX and Lost Magazine. She is the author of the books 300: The Art of the Film and 24: The Official Companion Guide: Seasons 1 & 2.