After a long career at Western visual effects studios, the industry veteran’s animated feature film directorial debut hits theatres in China.
A young girl discovers a mysterious dragon’s scale and soon finds herself, alongside a group of Zodiac deities, on a dangerous quest to track down a dragon who hasn’t been seen for 500 years. And save the world while she’s at it. No small task for a ten year old. And bringing the story to the screen in China has been no small task either.
The brainchild of visual effects industry veteran Sing Choong Foo, Where’s the Dragon?, his directorial debut, is a CG animated film that opens across theatres in China October 23rd. Produced by the DeTao Group and Treasure Tree Studios Inc. alongside Hong Kong-based Where’s The Dragon Ltd. and Colour Engineering Ltd., the film took six years to make, beginning its life over nine years ago as an idea for an independent, live action VFX-driven film.
I recently had a chance to speak with the first time director, who shared his insights on his film’s path to Chinese theatres, the challenges of putting together a competent production studio in China and that for the most part, the film business in China is no different than it is anywhere else.
Editor’s Note: It should be disclosed upfront that the writer is involved with DeTao Group, like Sing-Chong Foo, as a Master of New Media, focusing on animation, visual effects and games.
Dan Sarto: How did this film project originally get started? What inspired you to make this film?
Sing Choong Foo: In 2006, when I finished development for Beowulf, I came to a junction in my career. Before Beowulf, I’d worked on a science-fiction film called Silk in Taiwan, and that subsequently won me an award [the Golden Horse Award for Best Visual Effects]. In the process, I got to know a few people and a few companies in Asia. Through these Asian resources, I thought I could start venturing into making my own film. So the dilemma was, either I could start making my own films, or I could stay at Sony and keep working on high tech, more extreme visual effects development. I chose to start making films.
That was nine years and three months ago. It’s been fun. During that time, I built a team in China to do visual effects and animation production. The whole time we were making Where’s the Dragon?, I've done visual effects for at least seven or eight films by other people.
Before 2009, Where’s the Dragon? was supposed to be an independent film with a Chinese-inspired story – back then it was still about the Zodiac. Remember, my background is in visual effects. Originally the film was going to be live action with integrated CGI. Then, when the whole independent film market in the US died, I went to a event where seven different producers, industry people, finance people from hedge funds and others were supposed to give a seminar on how to launch and develop independent films. But before the seminar started, every one of them, unanimously, laid down their verdict, saying that, "If you came here to learn how to make independent film, turn around, go home. They don’t exist anymore." Seven veterans from Hollywood. At the end of the seminar, they said, "Well, if you still want to do it, maybe you should go to India or China." By then, I had already gotten my feet wet in China, so I figured I'd just keep going.
Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf and that hand-drawn pig movie called McDull, Prince de la Bun, were the first Chinese animated movies that made it big in the box office. Ironically, when I wanted to make a live action film with integrated CGI, nobody wanted to support me. But everyone told me, "Hey, why don't you make an animation, because animation is hot in China." So, in 2009, I turned that whole project into a Chinese animated feature film.
DS: So the story is similar to what you planned to do in live action. You just turned it into an animated film.
SCF: Yes. The setting changed from Chinatown to some small southern Chinese province.
DS: So what is the film about?
SCF: In a nutshell, it's about a ten-year-old girl who one day accidentally stumbles across a dragon scale, and then subsequently meets up with cute zodiac deities, who then embark on a dangerous journey to go find the dragon, who has been missing for 500 years, and save the world. It’s not an origin story. It's a contemporary piece. Many animations have been made about how the Chinese Zodiac came about. That’s not what our film is about.
DS: What inspired you to write a story about a young girl who searches for a missing dragon in order to save the world?
SCF: When I first started thinking about making an independent film, I wanted to do something with very Asian-inspired animated characters. So I searched around. There are lot of mythological animals in China, but the only set of characters that are familiar to the west are from the Zodiac. If you tell anybody about, "Oh, I'm the dragon's cousin," they have no idea what you’re talking about. But the Zodiac happened to be something that Western people understood. Westerners will always ask Chinese people, "Hey, what's your animal?" I figured, if I have to choose a set of Chinese or Asian characters, the Zodiac has to be it. I didn't want to retell stories about how the Zodiac came about, so it became a contemporary piece.
DS: How did you first get together with your main production partner, DeTao Group? Did you come to them first with your film, or work with them first and then invite them to come on board?
SCF: I had already been working in China before I met up with DeTao Group - I had already done at least four films. A friend of mine in Los Angeles, Nathan Wong [also a DeTao Master], came to me and said, "Hey, this organization I’m involved with, DeTao Group, is looking for industry experts to do lectures in China.” I met first with John Xia and Chris Xu and subsequently the chairman, George Lee, in China, and we hit it off, probably because I spoke Chinese. So I signed up, enthusiastically, and was the first person with DeTao who conducted a 16 weekend course in visual post production. Everything from visual effects animation to packaging DCP and film release. I ran a 16 week course in Shanghai. Eventually, they got to know me and they invested in the film.
DS: So tell us a bit about how you made this film. Which studio handled the animation?
SCF: In 2006, when I started on this film in China, I immediately met with and soon partnered with Hualong, which is the digital production arm of China Film Group, the biggest digital effects and film production company in China. The president, who founded Hualong, retired, then joined Beijing Crystal, which was a renowned animation house in China. When he left and went to Crystal, I went with him. The first visual effects film that I did was Sophie’s Revenge. Through that opportunity, I got to groom a group within Crystal, and then from there on, that group within Crystal has worked non-stop with me on these film projects. I’m their client, I’m their consultant…I’m a teacher, all to help them grow and deliver the quality of work that I’m looking for.
This group has been groomed and nourished and taught by me for many years. I also brought friends from LA who went and instructed them.
DS: Everyone talks about the difficulties of getting a film approved by the Chinese government. Starting at the script level, their approval is required for a film to get made. How did that process affect your film?
SCF: Everyone blames the government for being strict and harsh on censoring content, but I don't see it as a hindrance to creativity. Even though they are strict, and there are some limitations, within the limitations there's a huge space that you can work with. Especially with animation. With animation, if you're catering to the family, there's really nothing that's sensitive to the government. Pretty much everything goes through. The government censorship has never been an issue to us. We would receive some comments and we would change a few things, but it's never been a huge creative hindrance.
Now, working with young creative professionals in China ... The Chinese people are very hard-working. They're diligent. They put in long hours. The kids are self-motivated and enthusiastic. Right before Where's the Dragon? began, we worked on 1,700 visual effects shots on a visual effects film called Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale from Taiwan. It's a very famous film.
We worked on CGI forestry, with flames burning through the forest, beheading shots, streams, a river, things that even the jury in some Chinese and Taiwanese film festivals didn’t even recognize were CGI. We finished all 1,700 shots within four-and-a-half months. So, pretty much, you had a chance for one, maybe two retakes, and that's it. These are things that you can't even accomplish in LA. No way. No matter how good the skill set in LA is, you just won't be able to do that. We did that in China. In the process, three of my kids had to go get IVs in the hospital, but we did it.
We haven't done super high tech visual effects, but we've accomplished things that I've never done in the past. With very limited budgets, finishing 600 shots in two months, things like that. And they're done well.
Culturally, I learned to respect the so-called chaos in management in China. I didn’t actually go in and overhaul the entire pipeline because I was a Western visual effects expert, demanding that they do things completely different. If I had, all those projects wouldn't have been accomplished. I shouldn’t call it chaos really. It’s more like slightly messy. But culturally, there is a messy style that is intrinsic to Chinese production pipelines, but it gives you this efficiency that cannot be achieved in the West.
You have to respect what's in place, and then work with them. I've known a lot of Western companies that went to China, demanded changes in the pipeline, and it turned out they realized the production process was actually not as slow as they expected.
DS: That's a very common failing of folks from the West. They come to China and think, “I'm gonna show them how it's done." That’s usually a fast track to failure.
SCF: In a modest way, I think I have succeeded in this, when other Western friends didn't. It's because, not only that I speak the language, but I have a development background. When I was in the U.S., all the work I did at Blue Sky or PDI was development work. When something didn't exist, I would build it. It was that background and body of experience that helped me when I was in China, when they told me, "Hey, how do you do this thing?" I don't care whether you're using Maya or Max [3dsmax] or whatever, I know the method. I just gather the kids, put together a team and start developing. Plus, I speak their language.
DS: So now, fast forward, you've been working on the film for six years, and it’s ready to be released. It hits theatres in China October 23rd?
SCF: Yes the film gets release on the 23rd.
DS: So now that the film is ready to hit theaters, is the government involved again in giving a thumbs-up to the final cut?
SCF: Oh, yes. All films have to go through government review before they can be released. They call it technical approval - the final approval.
DS: How long does that take?
SCF: It took us no more than two weeks.
DS: Oh, that's not a ridiculous amount of time.
SCF: Oh, no, not at all, but it was scary. It was very precarious.
DS: But you got it through.
SCF: We got it through, yes indeed.
DS: Looking back over the six year, what were the biggest challenges you faced, and what are the lessons learned that will help you do even better next time?
SCF: In the very beginning, I approached this thing like an independent film producer. The biggest lesson learned is that the film business in China and the US, there's no difference. The film industry is the film industry. There might be a cultural difference, but the market is the same. In order to do an experimental, slightly risky piece like a full feature animation in China, especially when it's an original content piece, you need to have a film company involved from the very beginning. Our whole delay in getting funded originally involved being denied by film companies because they weren’t going to own our property.
It's been an excruciating educational process. When we do our next film, we will be even smarter.
DS: What do you think is needed, as the industry moves forward, to more successfully bring together Chinese and American companies to make films that play in all markets, that aren't just a film for China, or maybe a film that can get international distribution?
SCF: China has a really good infrastructure for foreigners to make and distribute films within the country. If you know what's already in place, Chinese resources are actually very friendly. If I was an American, who doesn't speak a word of Chinese, I still think that I would have a better chance getting a film made and distributed in China than in the US. Especially if you know the channels and what to do.
One big difference is, it's not how culturally distributors work in China - marketing is marketing. Worldwide, there is only one kind of marketing. However, when you're marketing to a Chinese audience - which is where I'm getting my headache every day because I was a physics person, never a marketing person - the market hasn't matured yet. The market is very promising, but it cannot mature overnight.
Chinese audiences have only been watching films for the most part for the last 10-15 years. Chinese audiences watch everything they can. But, they haven’t really grown up with film chronologically. It’s much newer here. A comedy made 30 years ago in Hong Kong is outdated to us. When we watch it, it's not funny anymore. But in China, people still buy it, because it’s not 30 years old to them. It’s something they’ve only been exposed to in the last decade.
To us, the old film is outdated. But to them, the old film is equally good. Who are we to tell them the old films that they just watched yesterday aren't good films? To them, they are watching films from a whole century within one-and-a-half decade time.
Then you have Transformers, you have Avengers, you have all these new Hollywood film going into China, which audiences are also absorbing. So the market itself, it's all mixed up. As time goes on, the audience will gradually mature. That's what I'm hoping for.
Pointing at the Chinese film market, saying, "You know what? All these bad, crappy films get huge box office, and some of the really good films don't sell well," but it's all marketing. It's what the consumers want. The day will come eventually, hopefully it will come, when audiences are picky. They would only watch good films and not watch films without a story.
DS: Well, they're not there yet. But you know, U.S. audiences aren’t exactly that discerning either.
SCF: Yeah, but when you have a film that is mediocre, has a bad storyline, and grabs 1 billion rmb at the Chinese box office, how can you argue with that success?
DS: You don't. You don't argue with it. You try and understand why, and you use that as a barometer for how you do your projects. Sometimes you can't over-think things. They're consuming these films for a reason, as you say, because they like them just as much as any other film.
SCF: I’m proud of what we’ve done to make Where’s the Dragon?. It’s a good film with a good story, and I hope it does well at the box office, so I can stand up and tell China and the whole world, "You know what? As a filmmaker, I will insist on doing what I think is correct."
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.