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Doing the 'Kung Fu Hustle' with Tommy Tom

Visual effects producer Tommy Tom tells Tara DiLullo how Hong Kongs Centro Digital Pictures raised the CGI bar for Kung Fu Hustle.

The snake sequence was the most challenging to Tommy Tom and his crew at Hong Kong-based Centro Digital Pictures. All images © 2004 Sony Pictures Ent. Inc.

Hong King cinema is getting a makeover at the hands of writer/director/actor Stephen Chow. The Shanghai-born filmmaker and self-professed martial arts addict is one of the hottest names in Hong Kong cinema, having starred in more than 50 films and directed seven. Chows name in the west is only just getting mainstream recognition from the success of Shaolin Soccer in 2001. The quirky action-comedy film mixed kung fu, soccer and outlandish visual effects, producing what might best be described as Shaw Brothers meets The Matrix by way of the Looney Tunes. Soccer made important ripples with critics and enthusiastic cult audiences, creating enough buzz to open the door for his new follow-up film, Kung Fu Hustle (Gong fu in Asia, opening April 8 on a limited basis).

With Hustle, Chow again goes back to classic Asian martial arts films for his basic inspiration, but then twists expectations by taking his signature, skewed use of visual effects and humor to an even more heightened level. In the film, he plays Sing, a small time thief yearning to join the ruthless Axe Gang. Looking to become worthy, he attempts to extort the residents at the apartments known as Pig Sty Alley. He accidentally kicks off a turf war between the residents and the Axe gang, leaving him stuck in the middle of an outrageous battle of legendary martial art proportions. In helping him achieve the films distinct look and visual effects sequences, Chow returned to Centro Digital Pictures in Hong Kong, the vfx house that helped him create Shaolin Soccer. Visual effects producer, Tommy Tom says they happily accepted the challenge of collaborating again with the filmmaker to bring his gravity defying ideas to life.

Yuen Qiu as the landlady blows up in a unique way. This was Centros second tour of duty with writer/director/actor Stephen Chow. Photo by Saeed Adyani and Tang Chak Sun.

Four months before the shooting, Centros vfx team started pre-production meetings with Stephen Chow, Tom explains. Stephen was confident that Centro could bring the visual effects of Kung Fu Hustle to a new level, so we discussed the concept and possibility of the vfx during those meetings. After we had a rough idea of how Stephen would like the vfx to be, concept artwork was developed by Centro Creative Art Department. We also started to develop our software for creating certain effects and animation tests. Having worked together before, Tom says Hustle was easier to develop from the start. One advantage of working with Stephen on this film from Shaolin, was that he understands what effects can and cant do now. We worked with him on Shaolin Soccer and we think hes a very talented director and a really fast learner when it comes to special effects. When he was shooting Shaolin, I feel that he didnt feel as safe and as confident in using effects. Now, I think he has confidence with us and in using effects as well. Also, when he would suggest what he wants to do and we think it was quite impossible to achieve, we would talk to him and he would listen. Hes the smartest director that Ive ever worked with and he actually listens to us! he chuckles.

Due to the intense visual effects sequences blocked in the film, Tom and other Centro colleagues made sure they were present on set during the shoot so they could help facilitate the post-production process as early as possible. We did read the script before the production began and we had many meetings before the shooting to discuss about the treatment of the visual effects. He will always listened to us whenever there was an effects shot. When there was an effects shot, we would have a meeting first and we would suggest to him how we needed him to shoot the effects shot. Sometimes, he even asked our opinion with other shots. He will not always accept our opinion and he would always make the final decision, but he would digest our input and listen. Stephen was also filled with creative ideas during the shooting, so there were visual effects shots that were improvised along the way. He loves to improvise, not even just on effects, but also with the script Hes a thinker.

While Hustle is primarily a martial arts film, Chow also introduces a myriad of other styles and a strong comedic tone that meant Centro had an equally diverse array of vfx to create.

While Hustle is primarily a martial arts film, Chow also introduces a myriad of other styles and a strong comedic tone that meant Centro had an equally diverse array of visual effects to create. Theres a lot of wire work, CG stunts and effects sequences. We shot some scenes in chroma key and composited it with a live background. There are some shots that are 100% CGI, like a shot in the casino where Stephen wanted us to break all of the casino up with a kind of kung fu, called Lion Roar. Its almost like a sound effect. He wanted us to break all the walls, so we had to create the scene totally with CGI. The main difference between this one and Shaolin Soccer, was that this one is full 2K resolution, Cineon tech scan. This is one is a step higher for us. We did work like it on Kill Bill, but this one has a lot more effects shots compared to Kill Bill. We did a lot of preparation for this one and revised the pipeline in order to work in a 10-bit film. We also did the digital intermediary for this movie, so the whole movie was scanned using a Thomson Spirit Datacine scanner and it was color corrected in Quantel IQ.

The comedy also meant that Centro was given the opportunity to create effects that really broadened the humor and sometimes became the visual punch line for many of the jokes.

We enjoyed working this way, Tom says. In Shaolin Soccer, it was kind of the same, in that the effects brought out the comedy, so with this one, we had done it before. When Stephen is working he is always thinking about how hes going to shoot it and how he can make the scene funnier, but he doesnt talk much on set. Hes not as funny as he is in the movie, he laughs.

Asked to detail one of their most challenging sequences, Tom thinks for a moment and offers, I think every shot in the movie is a challenge, but in one of the scenes Sing (Stephen Chow) attempted to kill the Landlady (Yuen Cha), but Sing ended up being attacked by snakes. Some real snakes were used in filming this scene, CG snakes were created that had body contact with Sing. In one shot, Sing was bit on the mouth by two snakes and he tried to pull them off. In the shoot, we put two clips on his mouth and a rope was tied on the clips. The clips were use to simulate the mouth deformation and the rope was to simulate the snakes. In the shot, Sing pulled off the rope and ran away. In post-production, we replaced the rope and clips with two CG snakes. To create a photorealistic CG snake, we collected extensive video footage of snakes performing a complete range of actions. After much micro study of snakes, we then started to develop software for creating photo realistic snakeskin. A real snakeskin was also digitally scanned that was later used as texture mapping for the snake. The keyframed animated snakes were composited into the live plate with Sing holding the rope. Re-touch of the clips and rope in the live plate was also needed. We had three artists spending nearly two months to complete this scene.

I also especially like the scene in the middle of the movie, where there are two assassins using a piano-like instrument to attack the good guy, with sound effects, he continues. The weapon is like music and it turned out pretty good. The original idea was from a very old black-and-white Hong King movie from like 50 years ago. It was very a simple effect in that film. Stephens idea was to update that idea with CGI. Locally in Hong Kong, when people saw that scene, it reminded them of those movies. It turns out to be most peoples favorite scene in the movie. Its not technically the most difficult, but the final outcome I think is the best scene. When they see it, they know what it is, just not like theyve seen it before.

Chow requested a post-production fix in this sequence in which he is looking for The Beast. Centro added CG frogs to this scene, which is shot with a handheld camera, making it hard for the digital artists to track.

Despite their presence on the set for principle photography, Tom admits Chow did spring a few post-production surprises on the team. There are a few shots that after shooting, Stephen came back to us and wanted to add things into the scene. There is a scene in the movie where Stephen is looking for a kung-fu master called The Beast. He goes into a hospital and the master is looked behind a door. Later when Stephen came back, he wanted to add frogs on the floor. The shots are all handheld and its like in a tunnel and nothing to track. It was a hard time to track those cameras and put those CG frogs into it! But it turns out pretty good and not many people notice the frogs are CGI.

Tom explains that the Centro team employed 60-plus full-time CG artists on Hustle, with an equivalent of 110,000-plus man-hours. For CG, we used Maya, 3ds max and LightWave. The renders were accomplished using mental ray, Brazil and V-Ray. For the digital composition, we used After Effects and combustion. We used a lot of third party and in-house plug-ins for Maya and 3ds max. I think there are 560 effects, but on some shots, Stephen would change and change and change, so some shots we did five times altogether. But we had eight months for effects and the DI was about two months. We needed that time to do it and Im glad we had the time. In Hong King, its very rare they give you eight months. Shaolin we only had five months and it was a nightmare. This one was more reasonable.

Pleased with the overall outcome of Kung Fu Hustle, Tom says he and his team are excited about the wider release in the U.S. for the film. With greater mainstream success, that means they will hopefully have the opportunity to work again with Chow. I think the movie is a new level for Hong Kong movies, with all the effects and the post-production.

Tara DiLullo is an East Coast-based writer whose articles have appeared in publications such as SCI FI Magazine, Dreamwatch and ScreenTalk, as well as the websites and