Director Rob Minkoff and Senior VFX Supervisor Ron Simonson tell Thomas J. McLean what's behind The Forbidden Kingdom.
The tale of the Monkey King is as much a part of Chinese culture as Mickey Mouse is to American life, and the chance both to tell this story and have martial arts superstars Jackie Chan and Jet Li appear together in the same film for the first time was just too good an opportunity for director Rob Minkoff to pass up.
"The chance to interpret the character in this film, get Jet Li to play it and then kind of present this character to the West, it's almost like the story of the movie," says Minkoff, who directed both Stuart Little movies and co-directed The Lion King.
The Forbidden Kingdom (opening April 18 from Lionsgate) begins with American teen Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano), a martial-arts movie geek who is beaten up by local bullies and wakes up in mythical China. Tasked with returning a mystic weapon to the Monkey King, who's been imprisoned by the Jade War Lord (Collin Chou) for more than 500 years, Jason is aided in his quest by kung fu master Lu Yan (Chan), the Silent Monk (Li) and the beautiful Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei).
But bringing to life Forbidden Kingdom required a lot of work in a very short timetable, especially when it came to using visual effects to mix the film's Hong Kong-style martial arts action with the storybook fantasy of the original myth.
Minkoff says he wanted the visual effects to evoke the feel of classic Hong Kong films. It also needed to balance the story's sense of storybook fantasy and realism. "The audience is a little more sophisticated, so some of the fog-machine effects with the dry ice obviously weren't going to cut it with us," he adds. "We obviously wanted something that was slightly more contemporary."
Minkoff says the effects work ended up staying largely in Asia, thanks to Exec Producer Rafaella DeLaurentiis, who was impressed by the high quality and low cost of some work done by a Korean house. "She thought that would be an interesting option for us," continues Minkoff. "It's a Chinese story, Asian-themed, and would require a sensitivity that might be a natural fit with Korea."
Work ended up being spread around a number of vfx studios, with a trio of South Korean houses leading the charge: Macrograph, DTI and Footage.
But first, the film had to go through a short prep of eight weeks and then into a tight, 101-day shooting schedule in China. Ron Simonson came onto the project about a month into shooting as the senior visual effect supervisor, and says the biggest challenge was getting up to speed on what was being shot on a set full of green safety pads and wire rigs, and making sure it would work for the visual effects artists later on.
"It was 'how to rig the wires and the pads so it works best for us' and make sure we get all the pieces shot to replace all those things," says Simonson. "Basically, it's just kind of like, 'OK, this is what you want to do. Can we maybe move this a little bit that way and move the camera a little bit that way cause that'll work better?'"
Simonson worked closely with stunt coordinator Woo-Ping Yuen and Minkoff on shots, using an on-set previs team to quickly test ideas for changes in or additions to scenes in the edit.
Shooting in China had the benefit of being authentic and costing much less than other locations, though there were some differences and issues with technical requirements. Minkoff says they had some concerns about the ability to hang high-quality greenscreens that were solved with DP Peter Pau's suggestion of covering all four walls of the stage with plywood and green paint.
Of course, having a good greenscreen stage also upped the ante. "The number of sequences that we ended up setting and shooting on the greenscreen stage just made the numbers shoot up," confirms Minkoff.
Minkoff's background in animation also helped meet the tight deadlines. "Rob being able to articulate what kind of effect we were talking about and then having it worked up there and dropped into the edit, into the Avid, and see how it worked, really expedited the process," Simonson says.
Simonson was on set with a crew of about 10-12 visual effects artists, including previs and postvis artists who were essential in planning and executing shots.
"Some of the bigger shots were created quite late in the game," Simonson says. "We'd be looking at the edit and Rob would say, 'We need some way to get from here to there,' and we would draw it up and it would save a lot of time getting it to the animators."
The film also called for a lot of diverse visual effects that made it difficult to, as Simonson suggests, achieve some economy of scale. "There's big environment stuff, there's water, we have fire, we have CG weapons, we have the chi energy effect," he reveals. "All that separate stuff all took a lot of R&D."
Most of the work was split up between the three lead houses in South Korea, with Asia Legend in Hong Kong doing a lot of wire and object removal, Simonson says. Other contributing houses were Xing Xing in Beijing, Frantic Films of Vancouver, and Illusion Arts Digital, Stingray VFX, Svengali and Digiscope of Los Angeles.
Coordinating all this was difficult, Simonson says, as the locations of the houses crossed the International Date Line as well as language and cultural boundaries.
Working on a Hollywood film also had benefits to the Korean houses, who emphasized in bidding on the project their ability to work hard and produce quality work even it meant the crew went without sleep for months on end, says Minkoff. While he says they definitely didn't want anyone to work that hard, "it seemed like there was a sympathetic kind of attitude about their ambition, which was to break out of the Korean market into the larger Hollywood market," he says.
While much of the vfx work was along the lines of wire and object removal, Simonson cites as a favorite the movie's opening scene in which the camera swoops through the sky until the figure of the Monkey King appears to be standing atop a cloud. The Monkey King, played by Li, then proceeds to fight his opponents as they stand on the very tops of mountains protruding through the clouds.
"It took a lot of look development to get a level of realism, but also stay in the kind of storybook land vision that that scene is," he says. "I opted to shoot real clouds for the fly in and all the mid-ground mountains, background mountains, mist and everything else was CG."
A battle sequence set in a field of cherry blossom trees featured no real trees -- just a stick in the ground with every blossom glued to the trees, Simonson offers.
The film doesn't entirely take place in ancient China, and replicating modern Boston -- where Jason begins his journey -- required a combination of real plates and stitching together still photography in Nuke to create the cityscape.
While Chan and Li are formidable weapons in their own right, the script also featured a powerful staff and the witch-like Ni Chang, played by Li Bing Bing, who uses a whip and even her own hair as a prehensile weapon in battle.
"That was again a lot of coordinating with the fight guys on set and coming up with ways to mimic the hair and the whip so (the actors) could react to it," Simonson says. "We used ropes and lines attached to Bing Bing so that when Jackie's grabbing it they could later replace the rope with the hair."
The hair in particular was a difficult effect to work out. "Everyone was worried over whether the hair was going to work," says Simonson. "We were trying to figure out alternative things to shoot in case the hair didn't work while we were doing the R&D. But, fortunately, we got the test done early enough that the director was comfortable with how the hair was going to work and they went from five or six shots of the hair to 35 shots with the hair once they were comfortable with it."
Simonson says that the various houses worked on about 900 shots overall, though with some sequences getting cut from the film the final on-screen tally is around 750. "About 25% of that is wire removal, rig removal. There's a lot of background cleanup. In all these beautiful Chinese exteriors, there's power lines and stuff in every single one of them, so all that stuff had to be removed."
While shooting in China was different in many respects, Minkoff also says there were fewer hoops to jump through than when making a movie in North America or Europe. It also lent authenticity to the story of the Monkey King.
"That was the attraction of doing it," he says. "If you have to go shoot China in Palmdale, what fun would that have been?"
Thomas J. McLean is a freelance journalist whose articles have appeared in Variety, Below the Line, Animation Magazine and Publishers Weekly. He writes a comicbook blog for Variety.com called Bags and Boards, and is the author of Mutant Cinema: The X-Men Trilogy from Comics to Screen, forthcoming from Sequart.com Books.