A Western VFX guy in China

Production Diary

Xi You Ji – Monkey King TV Series

Late entry, but i was too busy from Sept. until now to blog anything. At this moment i involved as on-set supervisor for the new Monkey King TV Series (50 Episodes) which is expected to go on-air with the beginning of 2011. With an overall budget of nearly 100m RMB (14.5m USD) including post-production the highest budget ever paid for a Chinese TV series. Equivalent shows were made for a 10th of the costs in previous days. But the producer Song Ya Ping, shareholder of the Huayi Brothers and highly acclaimed TV producer in China aims at a LOTR version of Monkey King and should prepare him to pitch a 100m USD version of the same saga which is one of the 4 most famous novels in Chinese literature. 
My job also includes the customization of the 4 F900R’s meaning the creation of a film look with LUT’s and advising on the whole post-production workflow and DI. I also built a on-set previz system which is able to do high-precision keying in floating point space and can simultaneously record up to 3 uncompressed HD live feeds.
At this point in my Chinese career i just want mention that improvisation in China is everything and that things usually get done much faster than in the West despite the accidents that occur from time to time like a broken crane where a camera operator dropped 15 feets (he survived 😉 ) or a camera get smashed from the wire crew or explosives were triggered to early, etc…
Eventhough western crews would probably not cope with the non-existing safety standards or working hours, producers are normally very pleased with the results from Chinese crews which are tough like bricks and no matter weather or conditons hold their positions until the last scene is finished. Much respects to those guys, especially to my Hunan Kung-Fu instructors and their stunt crews which are undoubtfully the best i ever met.
These photos are just few impressions about some locations, we shoot more than 40.000 pictures until now and later entries will introduce stunning vistas shot with
a 16 Nikon camera rig from remote locations like the New territories, Xin Jiang, Xanxi, Tibet, Yunnan and others which will be sold later to Getty Images.

Bubble Gum Crisis Wrap Up

Ok, this entry should only act as a wrap up of our finished Bubble Gum Crisis trailer we did for Cannes. Unfortunately not what we expected but still interesting to test out my RED workflow with FCP and Color (aehmmm..) Anyway for short-term projects importing in FCP in RED’s native colorspace (Log&Transfer) without transcoding to ProRes 422 (HQ) might be a performance hit, but for our 2min. long timeline in 2048×1024 worked pretty much flawless on a 8core machine. No frame dropping if playback quality is set to Medium, good enough for editing and still be able to see all necessary details of the acting performance. 
Regarding our film workflow, i sent to Color and made a one-light correction as well as built a custom LUT to save a DPX sequence in LOG space. Was not so difficult took me some days and with the help of my recorded Mac Beth and calibrated color charts wasn’t really rocket science. Why DPX ? is 12bit color-precision not good enough of RED code, No? just because we are all used to DPX workflows and also to do a quick print out on a Arri Laser recorder which expects LOG space anyway.
In Nuke i just applied a standard LogLin operator switched to ‘Linear’ viewing LUT and everything was just fine. The CG were rendered in Maya with Renderman and we saved everything in the OpenEXR format and recombined the passes with a custom written Gizmo. Isn’t that complicated at all and we frequently do this with VRay passes from 3DSMax. Maximum flexibility and artistic freedom for the compositor. My prefered workflow consists of the OpenEXR format in Nuke rather than getting 30 different layers as separated passes, sometimes as TIFF’s which is not only a waste of storage space, but also a really hit for CPU performance. Is just for print, for god’s sake not for comping, OK ??
The comp was pretty much straight forward, just the keying needed a bit of love, but with a combination of the new IBK Keyer and of course my all time favorite the Primatte and Keylight (hard and soft method). Some roto to remove rigs and some paint fixes for the wire removal, but nothing dramatic. After staging (framing) animating the Maya camera, exported the cam data with a Mel script to Nuke and built a Pan & Tile for the skydome, tweaked the 3DMoblur with the provided velocity data out of the scanline renderer, smudged up and de-saturated everything, put grain on and rendered out. The really cool thing though is that the TOD (Time of Day) could be preserved throughout the compositing stage which meant that i was able to do a quick confirm with the EDL from FCP in Color. Since i didn’t have Gluetools  to import the DPX sequence in FCP, i rendered with an uncompressed 10bit RGB Kona3 codec to preserve the latitude. Anyway FCP as onliner not really an option, but with some workarounds doable. Would have been much easier with a Smoke but there was no budget for this.
The lighting was sometimes off, so i had to play a bit with our RGB Diff pass, but for a trailer and in a hurry i guess, OK. Not the best trailer i did in my life but again a very important lesson in understanding the Chinese way of doing things (aehmmm…at least i tried hard

Bubble Gum Crisis Trailer

At this moment we are dead busy with a trailer for Cannes. Bubble Gum Crisis is a successful Manga TV series which has been airing worldwide for the last 20 years. Now the Japanese copyright owners decided to make a feature film adaptation and try to sell the whole package at the Cannes Film festival this year. Since time is short, resources limited we had to very careful explore all the options available in letting this to become a reality. We have been brought in at the conceptual stage where the actual designs and the transition from 2D to 3D and further to real characters were not even decided. The production and the conceptual stage are running in parallel which means a logistical nightmare for the pipeline as models, animations, textures have to be constantly tweaked to address the wishes of our client and to ensure that the fan community will get what they would expect from a comic (Manga) adaptation. Our pipeline consists of Mental Ray for preview renders, Renderman Studio for final renders, Nuke for compositing, Maya for modeling and animation, Z-Brush for texturing, 3DSMax (Fume FX) for Particles and Houdini for FX animation. We’ve adopted the Open EXR standard for rendering and compositing and are pretty happy not to run into significant problemsuntil now.

Below you can see some production stills from the shooting with RED One and our ‘garage’ studio setup. The overall timeframe is 3 month from conceptual design to delivery. For a 1,5 min long trailer a pretty tight schedule… But hey, it wouldn’t be us if it would be easy !!




This one is special for me… i shot the first time with RED and even there are voices against that it can’t hold up to Genesis, F23 or others, i must say i am seriously impressed with the 4K resolution (i know just 3,2) and its nearly grain-free appearance. We shot 4K 2:1 to down sample to 2K 2:1 and after a simple one-light treatment in Cine Red (which is BTW impressive too) exported as DPX sequence to further do the final comp in Shake. I was a little bit puzzled first to be able to change basically everything from sensitivity (ISO/ASA) to White Balance, Tint, Temperature, etc. but once you get the concept of RAW it is pretty simple to get the a ‘look’ out of the box. Indeed a really geeky thing what RED throw on the market and for sure not everyone’s thing to take over the ‘colorist’s’ job as it necessitates more than just pushing buttons and a deeper understanding of the whole post-work-flow down the road, but for people who love ‘total control’ a heavenly dream came true.

For me for sure not the last time and we are hopefully soon going to shoot everything from TV-commercials to TV-movies and maybe act as second unit for feature films. Especially for cost-effective VFX shots RED is from now on my choice. Anyway, i want buy Scarlet when available and i am a huge fan of RED ONE, even if there are still some people concerned about reliability and matureness of such a system. For geeks like me who want be involved in the evolution of a revolutionary new digital cinema format definitely the right (RED) thing !!!

Tai Hang Shan Shang

Here is a entry of the most anticipated project in 2007 named ‘Tai Hang Shan Shang’ which marked the 60th anniversary of the Anti-Japanese War (WII) and of China’s
victory against the intruders. The first big scale project i have done with the Chinese army, including real tanks, real airplanes, a vast amount of real foot soldiers
up to 10.000 !! and many many more crazy things i have experienced with the armie’s own well reputated film studio named ‘August First’, which was highly 
recommended to shoot ‘Saving Private Ryan’ back in those days because of their ultra-realistic looking battle scenes and explosions (Yeah, i know that and had the the ‘VERY’ exciting opportunity to participate in many dangerous pyro-setups with a ‘demolition unit’ which was just doing ‘film-explosions’ during peace time, honestly not really something for safety concernd Western film-crews, the shelters were too close, the amount of TNT too much and so on…one assistant caught fire and i almost got hit from flying debris, i just jumped to the right side !!)
Despite a regulary 15 hour day and freezing cold nights a very interesting experience to see real hangar explosions (30 meter high fire balls), mass of burning soldiers flying elevated by land-mines and horses with tied up legs rolling down mudy slides, a whole village mined and blown up and finally a bumpy ride in an ancient Russian helicopter for aerial shots experiencing downwinds (lee rotor) close to a cliff’s edge…so nothing really concerned about if you are planning to shoot in China, improvisation is everything and don’t be afraid of not having a safety belt if you get too close to the waterfalls’s edge, just don’t fall in, otherwise you get grinded in seconds at the bottom, but we’ve warned you so don’t complain, understand ??
Just to make a long story short: Here are some stills from comps (night explosions) i have done in Inferno, real plates mixed with indoor blue-screen footage, framing and perspective matched with a simple vision mixer and the video assist. Challenges: The bluescreen footage was completely crap, i had to partially manually roto people, a lot of noise(grain) but thanks to the Master and Modular Keyer doable, but PITA anyway !! Again should have listen to us what kind of stock to use and at least try to stay in focus !! I’ve supervised the high-speed miniature shooting done in 3 passes with a Pegasus crane and stitched together in the post later. Since the runway was too short we used “forced perspective” and models ranging from 6:1 to 10:1 to further ‘virtually’ increase the distance.
Note: If your computer is too slow to play the slideshow smoothly back or
you want to see and download pictures by yourself, please click this link.

MOCO Shooting (General Lift)

Very interesting to see that some of the private TV stations are willing to spend the money for bigger compaigns like in this case for Sun TV and their Olympic Game trailer (my wife designed almost the whole CI for this wealthy channel, but because of a very well known state owned, so called ‘private’ driven post-house and their not existing business acumen unfortunately never ever happend…but this would be another long time story, … maybe later ?!?!). SO, they had the money to invite 2 guys from General lift for 800 USD/day to program the very simple straight forward moving (like a dolly) Moco rig, hmmmm… but since it was BFA (Beijing Film Academie’s) first ever attempted project to use such a big and expensive gear, foreign ‘experts’ had to be flown in. The only real difficult challenge was naturally the lighting, which had to match exterior scenes in different light conditions, since the moves were stored and used again at different locations around Beijing, but the studio scenes were shot first, so more difficult the unpredictable outdoor weather later, BUT this was actually my job to ensure that everything would blend seamlessly during the compositing stage. Not only the lighting had to be matched also that the whole thing would intentionally appear as ‘one’ scene without any transitions or cuts. A normal shooting day in China. I recorded the HD-SDI footage directly from the F900 (with a regular Fujinon HD glass and REC 709 Gamma Curve loaded) into a beefed up 8-core Mac with HD Raid and Kona3 card to check the framing against our pre-vized storyboard and our previously shot scenes, worked really well, OK, OK, i could have used the WAFIAN with Cineform codec to save money, but i couldn’t get the recorder in time, so i went down the uncompressed road,… the final clip later, since it is not even aired yet !!

TV Series shooting in Sandong Province

I have been lately involved in a TV series shooting in a tiny but beautiful village in Sandong province, a well known story about the Japanese invasion back in those dark days of Chinese history and the resistance of local villagers and a funny story about a cow, which was nourishing both sides, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ side, which resulted in being almost killed ?!?! A well known television commercial director’s first debut to step up to a film director, shot on HDCam, unfortunately not enough time for me to tweak (create a custom LUT) the internal Gamma Curves (F 900 with a set of Digi-Prime (Zeiss) lenses) to get a more filmic look (flat LOG style), so they just tried to avoid crushed blacks and clipped highlights. Also to record to highly compressed tape is a waste of headroom and resolution, but probably good enough for this kind of Chinese-Indie approach. As always -> no money, no time !! Next time i’ll try to be earlier involved to convince the DP and director to better listen to post/vfx guys like me to boost the level of quality and efficiency !! Anyway, a long way to go in China…So here are just some impressions of this shooting, during daytime temperature nice, but nightime *f…..g* (-12) cold, thanks to my good clothing and plenty of coffee we’ve had !!