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A New Milestone for Chinese Feature Animation: ‘Big Fish & Begonia’ Arrives in North America

Twelve years in the making, epic fantasy adventure written, produced and directed by animators Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang is hailed as the forefront of the burgeoning Chinese animation industry.

‘Big Fish & Begonia’ by Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang. All images © 2018 Shout! Studios and Funimation Films.

Big Fish & Begonia, the epic fantasy adventure written, produced and directed by animators Xuan Liang and Chun Zhang, entwines new storytelling, mythical legends and lyrical characters from beloved Chinese literary classics. Already a great box office success overseas, the 2D/3D hybrid anime feature is one of China’s foremost animated feature films, and animation enthusiasts, artists and critics alike have heralded the movie’s artistic achievement as the forefront of the burgeoning Chinese animation industry.

The film’s story -- inspired by a myth from the ancient Chinese Daoist classic Zhuangzi that also incorporates elements from notable Chinese classics such as The Classic of Mountains and In Search of the Supernatural -- is a tale of love and sacrifice:

There is a mystical race of beings that control the tide and the changing of the seasons. But one of these beings, a young girl named Chun, wants to experience the human world, not simply observe it. When she turns sixteen, Chun is allowed to transform into a dolphin and explore the human world. However, she soon learns this world is a dangerous place.  Chun is nearly killed in a vortex, but saved by a human boy at the cost of his own life. Moved by his kindness and courage, she decides to give the boy life again, but this power comes at a price. Chun will have to face adventure and sacrifice in order to protect the boy’s soul until it is ready to return to the human world.

Twelve years in the making, Big Fish & Begonia premiered in competition at the 2017 Annecy International Animation Film Festival, and went on to screen at the BFI London Film Festival, the inaugural ANIMATION IS FILM Festival, and the New York International Children’s Film Festival. The PG-13 rated film arrives in North American theaters in both Mandarin with subtitles and English-language dub versions on April 6, courtesy of Shout! Studios and Funimation, to be followed by a U.K. release from Manga Entertainment on April 18.

The project grew out of a seven-minute Flash animation the duo produced in 2004. Very well-received when it debuted online in China, the short led Liang and Zhang to form their own production company in 2005 with the aim of developing the property into a feature-length animated movie. Liang completed the scripted in 2009, but the initial funding quickly ran out and, in order to keep things afloat, he had to take on other projects.

The feature film project Big Fish & Begonia was filed away for several years until Liang posted on Weibo (China’s largest Twitter-like service) in 2013, asking for help in funding the movie and to further spread the word about Big Fish & Begonia. The two filmmakers launched a crowd-funding campaign in China, and within a month they successfully pulled in capital support from 4,000 online supporters and caught the attention of Beijing Enlight Media, which financed the production.

Leading up to the film’s U.S. release, AWN had a chance to ask the filmmakers about the making of this landmark project, including acquiring funding for the film, designing the fantastical characters and backgrounds, and the evolution of Chinese animation. Read the full Q&A below:

AWN: With more than 5,000 years of history, Chinese mythology and folklore contains a countless number of tales. Were there specific elements of Chinese mythology that inspired this story? And how Does Big Fish & Begonia depart from these references to create its own story?

Liang Xuan: The inspiration for Big Fish & Begonia came from an ancient text called Wandering at Ease in the Zhuangzi. Our film had plenty of archetypes and references to the book’s myths.

One in particular goes:

                There is a fish in the northernmost sea where the sun does not reach; its name is Kun.

                The size of Kun; greater than thousands of li.

                                It becomes a bird; its name is Peng.

                                The back of Peng; greater than thousands of li.

                It flies in anger; wings lifting upwards through the sky of clouds.

                It is a bird; the ocean current will drift towards the southernmost sea.

                The southernmost sea; where heavenly pools await.

Chun and Qiu’s names are also from a myth in Wandering at Ease:

                In ancient times there was a great chun tree; it lived eight thousand years for spring (春 chūn), eight thousand years for autumn (秋 qiū).

At the end of the film, Chun sacrifices himself by turning into a giant begonia tree to plug the hole in the sky. In Chinese myth, it was originally Nuwa that plugged up the sky. Nuwa in Chinese mythology is the creation goddess that made humans out of clay, and also did many good deeds for the sake of mankind.

AWN: Was there any special research undertaken while the story and script were being developed?

LX: In addition to Zhuangzi, we did lots of research on many other traditional Chinese fairy tales and myths, such as The Classic of Mountains and Seas, and In Search of the Supernatural, etc. We also went to Fujian to do location research on traditional tulou architecture on three separate occasions.

AWN: The animation for Big Fish & Begonia blends 2D and CG elements. Why did you choose this approach, and how does the selective use of CG help support the story?

Zhang Chun: 2D animation production always consists of a traditional workflow. But this time, we incorporate CG into our work, in order to avoid shortcomings for things like animating crowds in 2D and the limitations of texture in 2D animation. Camera projection was also used in the 3D production phase in order to restore the visual look of 2D. This method helped us maintain the effect of 2D imagery in the film.

AWN: How were the main characters designed?

ZC: The earliest character we created in this movie was Chun, who originated from the short film version of Big Fish & Begonia we made in 2004. The initial story was about a girl and a fish. Fourteen years ago, I drew the girl on paper in just 5 minutes based on my intuition. Later, I realized that the inspiration of her clothing might have come from the qipao dresses that my mother wore when I was young. Qiu, Kun and other members of the elders were created when we wanted to make the short film into a 90-minute feature. We also had other excellent designers on our team by then. Since our movie takes place in an imaginary realm that involves human beings, animals, and other strange creatures, we had to integrate all of them into a single world. Getting that right only comes from relying on intuition.

After deciding on the design of Chun, another designer created the image of Qiu with references to ethnic clothing in order to match Chun. As for Kun, which is originally human but exists in two forms as both fish and human, my hope is that he represents a kind of impression or concept, rather than someone that exists in a certain era with a certain background; he is more generically representative of humankind. So, that’s how a brave, honest and kindhearted teenager living by the seaside was born. The image of the fish references several large marine organisms, such as whales, dolphins, and so on, but it’s also a conceptual symbol. I don’t even mind whether the audience may misunderstand him as a dolphin or not. It’s natural for the audience to like dolphins since they’re always gentle and have a close connection to people. So the design trajectory of the fish is basically summed up as: thumb-size fish, small dolphin, big dolphin, and then whale with wings. In addition, his head design refers to the characteristics of some mammals, such as dogs and wolves, which gives him more facial expressions to perform with.

AWN: Supporting characters range from the fantastical to the everyday. How were they designed? Were there any specific historical references?

ZC: Most of the supporting roles in the film came from historical references when we designed them. For example, the names of the five elders and their spells are all from ancient Chinese mythology; one of our best designers designed the images of elders. These ancient characters are very imaginative, romantic and elegant with their long sleeves. Some animal characters are from The Classic of the Mountains and Seas. China has 5000 years of history, with lots of various customs and cultures from different dynasties. This is the source of our inspirations, but there’s no specific reference to one dynasty, because this is our imaginary world under the sea, and no one has ever seen it. We didn’t want to let the audience have a feeling of a specific era. You can understand it as a world where everything’s melded together, while all of it is based on ancient Chinese aesthetics.

AWN: What was your approach to designing the backgrounds and environments? Which elements of the production design were most challenging, and why? How were those challenges met?

ZC: Most of the film’s environment backgrounds are based on the environments that exist around tulou architecture, including the surrounding geological features, vegetation, and climate. An exception was a snow scene in the film that’s there in order to reflect the growth of the big fish, which would bring Climatic Anomaly to the world. In fact, Fujian is located in a subtropical region, and it’s impossible to have snow there. But in the film, we can see beautiful snow scenery where these magnificent buildings are covered in snow. Since there are a large number of scenes in the film involving the tulou, it’s not an easy job to draw the complex exterior patterns and detailed wooden structures of these Chinese ancient buildings. We studied the structure of the architecture very carefully, and used 3D technology to recreate a real tulou model as a reference for the realization of different scenes. In addition, we gave different work to colleagues who specialized in drawing certain materials and textures. For example, we had someone who was good at painting tile in our team and we called him the “Tile God”, so every tiny piece of tile in each background was left for him to draw (laughs). This created a great sense of teamwork for us.

AWN: Which software tools were employed to create the 2D animation? What about storyboards? Which tools were used for the CG elements, and how were these elements composited into the 2D backgrounds?

ZC: I used Flash when I first started making animation samples. Actually, the functionality of Flash is still very weak when it comes to making realistic animation. But still, we made good use of Flash and pushed it to its fullest extent. RETAS was used to make animation and add colors in the actual film, but most of that work was still mainly done by hand. We used Sai to create storyboards. For the CG elements, we used Autodesk Maya/Houdini Nuke. 2D animation is quite a different process from the CG animation. 3D elements have to be integrated into the backgrounds, so we needed to render enough 3D layers to synthesize the effects.

The second step is achieving perspective. The sense of perspective for hand-painted backgrounds is totally different from the perspective you would get with a real camera lens. Sometimes in order to create a certain image, we need to alter actual perspective to make it appear more real. When modeling, projecting and capturing images during the 3D process and post-production, we also need to match the composition of the hand-painted scenes. The last thing is the frame rate, which involves the synthesis of 2D and 3D, where we’ll encounter the problem of different frame rates. So we need to unify the frame rate during post-production.

AWN: Largely due to funding issues, this film was created over the course of 12 years. How many artists worked on it during that time? Did the story or designs change over the course of production?

LX: More than 400 team members were involved in the production of the film. Before we made the test footage, we had already completed the first version of the story and the script. The core part of character design and scene design was completed at this stage as well, and especially the designs for Chun, Kun, and Qiu. After restarting the project in 2013, the main plot about a girl and a fish didn’t go through any major change. But there were changes in characters’ dialogue and their characteristics, while additional characters and scenes were added or cut to adjust the narrative rhythm. We got rid of some scenes such as Chun’s father carving a girl out the wood, and also the drinking game between the animal-headed characters seen in the test footage. For that stage, the original designs were kept, and some new roles and scene designs were further developed, such as the bamboo grove, the Southern Sky Pools, etc.

AWN: Aside from funding, what were some of the bigger challenges to getting this film made? Were there specific sequences that were especially difficult to create?

LX: Besides the issue of funding, the most difficult aspect is the lack of talent. As an industry, Chinese animation is still in an early stage of recovery, which means the general lack of talent is a very serious problem. It might be easy for other markets to make animated films of this quality, but we can’t find enough suitable people in China to complete our work. And that also goes for the production process, where we don’t yet have an ideal system. The whole process of filmmaking is sort of done by moving forward while feeling things out. After lots of detours and mistakes, we grew up a bit. Who doesn’t experience that when they first start out? Here I want to give thanks to the teams in South Korea and Shanghai for all their effort and hard work.

AWN: Big Fish & Begonia has been called a landmark project for the Chinese animation industry. Why do you think this is said, and would you agree? Why or why not?

LX: The Chinese animation industry is at the beginning of a huge growth period. In the past, Chinese animation had a brilliant history. We have ink animation classics such as Where is Mama? (1960), and feature animations like Havoc in Heaven (1965). But Chinese animation has been developing slowly in the last few decades, and gradually it lost its ability to compete on a bigger stage. Compared with American animation and Japanese animation, there is a big gap between Chinese animation and the rest.

In 2004, we made the Flash animated short film version of Big Fish, which got a significant view count and received lots of attention online. From 2007 to 2009, we worked on the test footage for a feature film version of Big Fish, and got a lot of awards and attention from that. There were a lot of talented artists working together during the production of the test footage, and many of them later became elite artists in the local animation industry. At that time, a domestic animation that strived for such high quality was a novelty for the audience, and everyone hoped that it could be made into a movie one day. But no one had faith in the Chinese animation market at that time. Big Fish received investment from Enlight Media in 2013, when the film project was restarted. Finally, our film had a chance to meet the audience in 2016.

The film has been successful in a business sense, and has also given Chinese audiences more confidence in domestic animation. But there are still a lot of shortcomings that we can improve on. Since Big Fish is our first movie, our creative skills are still far from perfect. We had this idea when we were 20, which was ten years ago. Our attitudes and knowledge are constantly changing and growing. We’ve experienced a lot lately, and there’s a lot of emotions we’ve been processing.

Right now, more and more capital and talent is entering the animation industry, and I believe there’ll be a great many excellent animation works produced in China in the future. Big Fish was our calling card to get into the film industry, and we hope to make better work in the future.

AWN: How has the Chinese animation industry evolved over the past 12 years? Are Chinese audiences evolving as well?

LX: When we just entered the animation industry, the Chinese animation market was very small and almost everyone thought that animation was only for children. People didn’t believe in the quality of Chinese animations, so no one was really willing to invest in any meaningful projects. With economic development, mainstream moviegoers under 30 have been exposed to more content and grew up with animated films. That means the young local audience is looking forward to more Chinese animations coming out.

In recent years, some excellent Chinese animated films were released and did very well at the box office. That means the market is now looking forward to more domestic animated films. There’s more and more capital and talent entering the animation fields in both film and television, and I believe that Chinese animation will soon enter a period of rapid development.

AWN: What are some other notable recent Chinese animation projects, and what makes them interesting to you?

LX: Monkey King: Hero is Back, Dahufa and Have a Nice Day are some excellent Chinese animated films that have come out in recent years. Their styles and themes are all different; some are 3D and some are 2D. Some are realistic while others are fantastic. The creators of these films have all been working in animation for over a decade, and they all strive to make original work while keeping high standards for their output.

As of right now, the Chinese audience still hasn’t formed rigid habits when it comes to choosing movies to watch. Some people like to watch 2D animation, while some prefer seeing 3D, which is a great phenomenon to see. At the moment, more excellent Chinese animations with different styles are showing the audience that Chinese animation contains many possibilities, no matter the artistic style, story, or technology featured in the film. They can all be different from each other. 

Jennifer Wolfe's picture

Formerly Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network, Jennifer Wolfe has worked in the Media & Entertainment industry as a writer and PR professional since 2003.

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