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HomeCraftsPostproductionPP-Supervisor Series-Angela Barson/Chung Chi Hang, Curse

PP-Supervisor Series-Angela Barson/Chung Chi Hang, Curse

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In Curse of the Golden Flower, director Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers, Hero), tells a story of palace intrigue during the ostentatious 10th century Tang Dynasty in China. Amid the beauty and grandeur of the annual Chong Yang Festival, when golden flowers fill the palace, the dark secrets of the Imperial Family erupt into a brutal coup d’etat, staining the blossoms in blood.In his quest for an authentic depiction of the tumultuous era, Zhang tapped visual effects talent from around the world, including Hong Kong-based visual effects supervisor Frankie Chung Chi Hang (Kung Fu Hustle, Kill Bill) of Centro Digital Pictures, and London-based visual effects supervisor Angela Barson (Casino Royale, X-Men: The Last Stand) of The Moving Picture Company (MPC).There is a Chinese saying that China may lack some things, but it does not lack people. Even with the immense availability of extra talent, CGI was needed to create the illusion of tens of thousands of warriors storming the palace only to be massacred by the Emperor’s troops. MPC and Barson were responsible for creating the wide-shot crowd scenes for the film’s ambitious culminating battle, as well as other populous scenes within the Palace courtyard, such as the sea of eunuchs placing chrysanthemum flower pots for the festival. MPC’s proprietary crowd-building software, developed for Troy and used on films such as Alexander and Kingdom of Heaven, provided the tool for recreating the epic proportions of the era’s battles. Over the seven months that MPC worked on the film, the team created about 20 very complex shots, each roughly eight seconds in length—an extremely long duration for a visual effects shot.Extras were hired from the local population. For some of the main battle scenes, Chinese army troops, who were much easier to control and organize, stepped in to play warriors. The live cast of 800 extras was multiplied exponentially through the use of CGI into armies of 10,000 golden-clad rebels and 20,000 silver-garbed defenders.Some of the crowd shots—populated by eunuchs, maids, magicians and all the different people working in the palace—had as many as 10 different costume types, but the number of matching costumes weren’t always enough to clothe the available talent. “We were juggling 800 extras, but maybe only had 50 of one costume type and 60 of another,” says Barson. While on location, references of all the different costumes were photographed, including multiple variations, so that everyone was not wearing the same costume in the same way.Once on the set, the immensity of the exterior palace location came into perspective for Barson. “Although 800 extras seemed like a lot, when they were put into one of the courtyards they only filled one tiny little corner,” she says. Her crew shot pieces of the entire set, and then they replaced large sections of it in CG. The most difficult shots included tracking, which introduced artifacts into the plate, adding additional work.Because the courtyard areas were so enormous, it was also impossible to fully light the high, wide-angle shots for the night battle sequences beyond the immediate area where the action was taking place. MPC extended the set past the lit areas by replacing backgrounds that were already there with the sections that they had shot piece by piece. MPC also enhanced the color of the sky and removed things that did not belong in areas of the frame beyond the palace set.To move armies, Barson needed a battle plan. Visual tools communicated better than words. In advance of shooting, the MPC team met with action director Tony Ching Siu Tung and determined how many extras were to be used, what costumes they were to wear, where they were going to be on set and how the camera would be placed. MPC created all of the shots from a basic model and also created a previs that showed the camera and extra movements. They also had diagrams of who was going to go where and in what costume.The most challenging aspects of the shoot for Barson were the language barrier, the culture differences and the distances. “I couldn’t talk directly to the director,” she explains. “Normally on set, you receive a lot of information through chance conversations. I couldn’t do any of that. It was difficult making sure they understood what I needed.”There was also trepidation as to whether interpreters could accurately convey technical terms. But in the end the translations worked out well, and Barson has nothing but praise for the hard-working multilingual Chinese production staff.Chung had a team of visual effects artists working on more than 100 workstations to create over 250 effects within a three-month period. They used programs such as Autodesk’s Maya, 3D Max and Combustion in their work, which included 3D matte paintings to change the palace skyline, adding 10th century buildings to the area surrounding the palace while subtracting more modern structures and expanding the set. Extensive research was done on Tang Dynasty buildings to ensure period authenticity. Drawings and previs were used in advance of the shoot to get an idea of how the completed shots would look.Chung was in daily long-distance contact with the director. “A lot of the time he knew exactly what he wanted and would explain it to us very clearly. We also did a lot of animatics, which we would show him, and he would pick what he liked.” Because both the production and editing took place in China, most communications between Chung and the production were via email and teleconferences. Tests, animatics and work-in-progress shots were posted on the FTP site in Hong Kong for the director and editor to access in China. They would then send comments back via the internet.Chung also worked closely with action director Tony Ching Siu Tung. Chung notes that “Hong Kong action directors love wirework.” The toughest sequence for the Centro team was the ambush in the mountains, where the Emperor’s assassins descend from cliffs by ropes. It required a huge amount of wire-removals. “I didn’t count the number of wire removals that we did,” comments Chung, “but on one shot we removed over a hundred wires and then added back over a hundred ropes. The wirework was a headache. It took the compositor a full month just removing wires.” The sequence also included live-action stunts that were enhanced by additional digital stunts in the background. Assassins were shot against bluescreen for use in both foreground and background action.For every single shot that Chung and his team were to provide, they did what they call a survey, which included such information as the camera lens that was going to be used and how the scene was to be shot. This allowed them to supervise the filming in a way that ensured they got the elements necessary for the visual effects. “Sometimes we had to suggest how to shoot the action in order to minimize the problems. We spent two weeks in China and every day we were given a new challenge.”Chung and his team added numerous details to the shots for the final battle. They created weapons like the spears and the spinning blades as well as broken armor and injuries to the warriors. Chung had to match the action from some of the wide shots created by MPC in the closer shots that Centro created, including the massive wall of shields that entraps the rebel army.In the sword-fighting sequence between Prince Jai (Jay Chou) and the Emperor (Chou Yun Fat), Centro added sparks as metal met metal. That series of effects changed many times. “The director wanted bigger sparks, smaller sparks, a blue-colored sparks,” explains Chung. “We tried many different kinds until finally they settled for small natural-looking sparks. A lot of people think they don’t look like visual effects, but they are. We think that effect is very special.”

Written by Mary Ann Skweres

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