Director Ji Zhao shares an exclusive clip and talks about the Chinese animation studio’s compelling adaptation of a legendary Chinese fable, which opens tomorrow in L.A. and November 29 in select theatres.
“Third time is the charm,” as the saying goes. But, for Light Chaser Animation, four seems a profoundly better number; After three consecutive rough outings in Chinese theatres, White Snake, the Beijing-based animation studio’s fourth feature film release, has finally achieved the critical and box office success the company seemed destined to realize ever since it launched back in 2013.
White Snake opened in China this past January, generating $67 million on a reported $12 million budget, and firmly laid to rest the notion that despite ample money and talent, the studio, like so many others in China, was not progressing fast enough in its storytelling capabilities. In fact, under the leadership of founder and CEO Gary Wang, Light Chaser has patiently stuck to its original plan: nurture young talent, build a solid CG production pipeline, and get to work making films. Wang has always understood, and ensured studio finances supported, the painful reality that animation is a tremendously difficult business, and with a lack of experienced writers, directors and story artists in China, he’d have to find and train young talent in the art of animated filmmaking. That a Chinese studio actually survived to produce three box office disappointments before finding its storytelling footing more than proves Wang’s dedication to the animation business; his stated startup goal of becoming the “Pixar” of China doesn’t seem quite as lofty or naïve as it did five years ago.
Now, as part of their distribution deal with GKIDS, Light Chaser has secured theatrical distribution in the U.S.; White Snake opens tomorrow at the Nuart Theatre in L.A. and in selected theatres on November 29.
The film, co-directed by Amp Wong and Ji Zhao, is Light Chaser’s most visually compelling and beautifully designed film. It’s also their most enjoyable. A new take on a classic Chinese legend, the film tells the story of a young woman named Blanca, who is saved by Xuan, a snake catcher from a nearby village. She has lost her memory, and together they journey to discover her real identity, developing feelings for one another along the way. But as they learn more about her past, they uncover a darker plot of supernatural forces vying for power, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. Conceived as a prequel to one of the most ancient and enduring stories in Chinese history, White Snake presents a compelling tale of trickster demons, deadly mythical beasts, assassins, wuxia action, and the promise of eternal love
“The folklore behind White Snake is a legendary love story [the “Legend of White Snake”] known in Chinese households for hundreds of years,” Zhao shares. “But in the original story, the question is, why did White Snake love Xu Xian so much when he obviously turned out not worthy of her love? From this mystery, we created our film, White Snake, a prequel set 500 years before the original.”
Light Chaser spent three years making the film, half in development and pre-production. “Since White Snake is a traditional Chinese story, we aimed to embrace and reflect on classical Chinese aesthetics in art design and animation,” Zhao describes. “We also embedded some contemporary elements, for example, in character design, to make the film more appealing to young audiences.”
Creatively, capturing and transferring traditional Chinese artistic styles into CG animation proved especially challenging for Zhao’s team. According to the director, “This is a pioneering project, so we put tremendous effort into both set design – like the Chinese-painting-like mountains and rivers - and character design. That includes, for example, the multiple-layer traditional Chinese clothes, ancient young ladies’ hair styles and movements.”
Technically, animating various types of snakes with stylized realism posed significant challenges. The process began, like they often do, with considerable research. “First, we did in-depth study on the characteristics of how snakes move,” Zhao explains. “Then a key step was to develop the rigging system and tools for snake animations. After building such a system, we will never be worried if there are snakes in our future films.”
With the studio’s fourth film an unqualified success, Zhao notes that more than just diligence and patience were needed to make a good film. “Light Chaser’s first three films mainly targeted the family audience,” the director contends. “White Snake is our first film that targets a young adult audience. Our first three films helped us build a great team and a solid production pipeline. But even more importantly, a key lesson we learned making those movies is how to choose what kind of story we should develop. Before starting White Snake, we were very clear about our strategy that the film will have strong emotions and appeal mainly to a young adult audience.”
The film’s success has meant a great deal both to the first-time director and the studio. “White Snake is the first film I’ve directed,” Zhao notes. “It definitely opened a new chapter in my career. I am so thankful for our team and for the people who worked on and helped make this film successful. For the studio, White Snake represents a milestone, proving our strategy, and the decisions about this film we made back in 2015, were sound. It also gave our young team more confidence to finish the film and develop new feature projects as well.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.