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‘Feng Shen Bang:’ Blockbusting VFX in China

Producer and VFX supervisor John Dietz discusses one of China’s biggest-ever visual effects movies.

‘Feng Shen Bang’ (‘League of Gods’)

China’s movie-going audience loves spectacular visual effects, particularly films based on established properties like the Marvel, Warcraft and Transformer worlds. Domestic moviemakers have been scrambling to unearth a killer IP, and visual effects have steadily improved. However, no Chinese film so far has succeeded in unlocking the golden combination of story and spectacle. How much longer must we endure talk of China sitting on a treasure trove of stories from epic literature and 5000 years of history, yet see only annual rehashes of The Monkey King? The answer, perhaps, has just hit theatres in China.

July 29th saw the release of one of the most hotly anticipated Chinese movies in years. Feng Shen Bang (League of Gods in English) boasts an all-star cast, including Jet Li, Tony Leung, Huang Xiaoming, Angelababy and Fan Bingbing playing deities, immortals and spirits in one of Chinese mythology’s best-known stories, the 16th century novel Fengshen Yanyi by Xu Zhonglin. The would-be franchise-launching movie, produced by Hong Kong studio China Star and directed by veteran VFX supervisor Koan Hui, is unashamed in its aim to become China’s answer to the Marvel universe, elevated on a foundation of blockbusting effects akin to a Hollywood superhero tentpole. The Beijing-based production spent roughly one third of the estimated US$40m budget on the effects and tech, distributing many shots to leading studios around the world. The film’s ambitions extend beyond China, with the movie set for release across Asia, Europe, North America and Australia.

Feng Shen Bang producer and visual effects supervisor John Dietz is a Hollywood veteran of landmark franchises like Harry Potter, Terminator and X-Men. Since moving to China in 2005, he has accrued 15 film credits and become a prominent champion of the nation’s burgeoning VFX industry. He was approached about producing Feng Shen Bang in late 2014, and soon after founded groundbreaking production company BangBang with the mission to help develop China’s VFX industry. AWN caught up with Dietz to discuss the challenges of making one of China’s biggest ever VFX movies, and how he intends to keep driving the industry forward.

Chris Colman: How would you introduce the film, in a nutshell?

John Dietz: It’s a famous Chinese myth that pre-dates Monkey King and actually has characters that cross over into the Journey to the West story. It’s a mythology film turned into the superhero genre. It’s like an origin story about how these gods get their powers.

CC: What can audiences expect from the visual effects?

JD: Audiences can expect higher quality because of the creative and technical scrutiny we put into the work. They can definitely expect something original! The feel, style and design are very different for a Chinese mythological story. A lot of the action, particularly the VFX set-pieces, are very much in the line of a western VFX tentpole film. The whole idea was to take this classic Chinese story and tell it with cool VFX in a cool visual style. Whether audiences will like this originality is yet to be determined, and it’s going to be interesting to see how westerners like it. I think people are going to really dig the VFX and think that it’s much better than what is normally produced in China. People in the west will be like, “Holy shit, they did that for how much money?!”

CC: What were the major challenges?

JD: We knew it was going to be hard, but everyone underestimated just how complex it actually was. It was just a behemoth, a huge undertaking and very aggressive in the timeframe. We only had four-and-a-half months to do 2000 VFX shots and conversion. The budget was higher than normal Chinese films, but it’s nowhere near a western level, even though we were trying to do western quality. The shoot was as good as it could be but incredibly complicated. It was hard to crack the set pieces and we didn’t get all the shots that we needed, so it became more of a burden on VFX and much harder in post. There were equipment constraints, and no one had experience working in this size in China, so everybody was kind of doing it for the first time. There were a lot of day-to-day problems, like data management and organization. The moving pieces were so many and so huge that it was really hard to not get ground down in the details. It was a real challenge to keep the whole ship moving forward.

CC: How did you adapt throughout the process?

JD: I think there was a sense of, “Let’s just friggin’ go for it.” Being able to adapt to constant change is just a necessity in China. It was about trying to keep moving forward with the VFX, the design and the look, so we were not wasting too much work and were always learning something. We stayed away from going back to the start on anything -- we just sort of adapted and tried to re-use things and be as smart as possible. I also really appreciate the incredible support of Charles Heung [China Star owner] who remained completely dedicated to making the best movie possible.

CC: Which was the most challenging character to work with?

JD: Baby Nezha was by far the hardest. Every stage was difficult, from design to execution. But the guys at Tippett were amazing -- real professionals -- and they made it fun. We could talk about performance and gags and not about where to put keyframes, which let us get the most value out of the budget. Most places in the world can’t do a character like that.

CC: Which was the most challenging scene?

JD: Probably the end scene. We shot a lot of footage and it didn’t work, so we decided to do more CG to capture the coolness, the superhero-ness. Working on camera and blocking and FX with Blur in LA was great. They are not your normal CG people -- they are true filmmakers. We worked with House of Moves as the mocap facility. Our stunt men had done mocap for Deadpool, Godzilla, Guardians of the Galaxy and others. We took that mocap and crafted the scene. It was a huge push, but really came together as an awesome piece of CG that I’m blown away by.

CC: Talk about the pipeline and process.

JD: We interacted with 13 main vendors, and they outsourced to other vendors, so overall it was over 20 vendors all over the world, from Scandinavia, London, U.S., Canada, Australia, Korea and China. We were more like a centralized hub. Many of the vendors designed things, but we guided with our internal team. We helped a local company, Virtureal, build a 120-camera DSLR scanning rig to scan every actor with every wardrobe and makeup. We also used Lidar to scan every set, weapon and prop. We didn’t know what the needs would be in post so it was more of an insurance plan. It paid off! We were also the first big Chinese production to shoot virtual sets, which is where you see CG environments instead of greenscreen through the camera. It had a lot of bugs because it is quite hard to do, but we’ll know better how to use it next time.

We made an effort to work closely with all the heads of department. We had great relationships so decisions could be made with the best interests of the movie in mind. My belief is that to do a big VFX production film well, you need to have consistency on the handoff from pre-production to production, and from production into post-production. We used more people in VFX -- the team was larger and better organized. Most Chinese productions don’t understand the need for more people so they cut people because of costs. We had a much bigger VFX team in pre, on-set and through post, to help with the immense amount of data management, but also to help steer the creative closer to the director. We had internal artists, internal previs, internal coordinators and we relied heavily on Shotgun to database and organize things. We also had a director who treats VFX seriously and he really fought for the smart decisions. Without that support, things that are this complicated can break down quickly. Productions need the experience to know to be patient and trust the process we put forward.

The process was a step up, and much more organized than a normal Chinese VFX film, but we still had way too many problems. We have a long way to go for sure.

CC: Will Feng Shen Bang be a game changer for Chinese VFX movies?

JD: That was always the intent. I’m dedicated to improving and making VFX not so hard in the China market. I hope it shows we can do good VFX on a Chinese film, and this is a Chinese film. It’s the budget and timeframe of the local market, and it’s not like it was a bunch of laowai doing the VFX. Over half of the VFX was done in Beijing and Korea. We were able to bridge the international gap with vendors, which hasn’t really happened with much success before, and we got better quality from the local vendors. We treated it with much higher expectations, we pushed harder technically, making sure things were done more properly than you’d normally see on a Chinese film. I think if people respond to the film, it will help to raise the overall standard.

CC: Why don’t more China VFX movie productions work more with vendors outside China?

JD: The main issue is the perception of those vendors being too expensive. There is some truth to that, but you need to look at the business just as creatively as the work itself. You need to find ways to collaborate with vendors all over the world, and most importantly, you need to build the relationship consistently. It’s not just signing a contract -- it’s years of collaboration. Nurture those relationships with care and the hard part of the business will get easier. Treat the relationship with distrust and things fall apart quickly. Choosing vendors is like casting a film; if there is a very hard role, you need the best actor, not to the one who offers to play the part most cheaply. Producers need to really understand and be clever with how they breakout work to set up the film to succeed. It’s a constant push for quality.

CC: Why did you start BangBang? What are your objectives?

JD: BangBang is here to make kick-ass VFX for China and push the market forward! I’ve learned so much in the market here that I’ve recognized what I feel are the obstacles in delivering great VFX on Chinese films. Filmmakers here are too good to not have access to reliable VFX to help tell their stories. We have around 20 amazing employees so far and growing. The hope is to build a company that is great to work for, lets people get to places they didn’t think they could go, and lasts for centuries making kick-ass films in China.

BangBang is a facility specially structured to manage the VFX production workflow from edit and through post. It’s really about becoming a hub for post-production, building an environment that supports scrutiny of the work, and communicates feedback to all our collaborators quickly and clearly. The company is about assembling teams, building processes and making everything a little bit more standardized. VFX in China is so complicated and chaotic and everyone is so swallowed in the pain, that films don’t get the quality they need. There needs to be some kind of system, a fundamental foundation that is reusable, which means everyone can focus on making better quality. Single projects can only change so much, but companies can improve forever. All these things are what I stand for and why I started Bang Bang.

CC: What are the key issues that the Chinese movie VFX industry faces and how can they be addressed?

JD: It’s really about experience and making the right decisions. With better information and experience, the decision-making becomes better. It’ll take time, but the more we stick to the goal of making quality films, and caring about the audience, the quicker we’ll all succeed. The biggest problem with China right now is the booming market and the greed, and the race to take advantage of fast money. It’s not that easy. People need to stick to the plan and keep making something of quality. That’s the best business model, but it’s also the hardest to implement with all the money floating around. Budgets are growing but will always be a challenge because of the nature of the market. I’m very optimistic.

I believe in a two-pronged approach for every Chinese film that has VFX. First is to bridge the gap and bring, not all, but some, western expertise into the process. Second is to help improve the local individuals and companies. Bringing these two together pushes the collaboration overall, pushes the style, pushes the process. The effort it takes to push makes for better results and hopefully a better market!

CC: What’s next for you and BangBang?

JD: Everything we work on needs to have some cool use of VFX and the movie needs to be kick-ass. They don’t need to be big, they just have to be cool. We are doing early development on some other great films, and we will lock in full production soon. We have also optioned scripts and our own content, and have some awesome directors attached. Right now we are in prep on Legend of the Ancient Sword 2, a really big videogame IP with Renny Harlin directing and Ali Pictures and Gamebar producing. We’re gonna knock it out of the park!

Chris Colman's picture

Chris is a writer & producer based in Shanghai. He’s the founder of the China Animation & Game Network, encouraging communication in the industry via live creative networking events.