H.K. effects industry growing strong

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It is almost impossible to overlook the emergence of visual-effects-heavy films in recent Hong Kong cinema. Since the beginning of the new millennium, local films have displayed visual effects and animation styles as diverse as the exaggerated, comic-book-style action sequences of 2001's "Shaolin Soccer" and 2004's "Kung Fu Hustle," the bloody and realistic battles of last year's "Warlords" and the fantasy world of 2005's "Chinese Tall Story" -- not to mention the unique digital creatures featured in 2007's "Secret of the Magic Gourd" (a talking vegetable) and this year's "CJ7" (a furry animal from space).

In fact, Hong Kong effects work has become so advanced that it is increasingly difficult to spot the effects.

"As more big-scale movies develop in China, and the fact that they can easily gross more than 100 million yuan ($14 million), Chinese producers are more willing to set aside a part of their budgets for visual effects," says Eddy Wong, CEO and director of Menfond Electronic Art.

Menfond, founded in 1990, is the effects house behind the endearing title character of the Stephen Chow-directed local hit "CJ7" -- an alien dog with a fluffy head and half-transparent elastic body that blends in with Chow's storytelling style.

The little furry alien dog marked a breakthrough for the studio and the local digital effects industry, but across Hong Kong, studios big and small are making breakthroughs of their own. FatFace Prods., the aggressive 3-year-old company credited with the effects work in Peter Chan's "Warlords" and headed by industry veteran Ng Yuen-fai, is in charge of creating a virtual world in the style of last year's international blockbuster "300" for the just-announced "Storm Riders II" from brother directors Danny and Oxide Pang, scheduled for release in late 2009.

The Universe Entertainment adaptation of the popular 1980s comics, with a budget of HK$100 million ($12.8 million), will be completely shot in front of bluescreens with the scenery and sets added in postproduction. This is the first film in Hong Kong to try the stylistic innovation, but former colleagues Ng and Danny Pang say "Storm Riders II" will take the style a step further by merging virtual world surroundings with effects-generated combat moves and action sequences.

For the Hong Kong effects industry, there are still more boundaries to be broken. What greater boundary can there be than dimensional? The greatest leap of the local CGI industry is being taken by Centro Digital Pictures, the pioneer of Hong Kong postproduction effects and CG animation, established 21 years ago.

"3-D is the latest frontier, and we are at the cutting edge of technology," says John Chu, founder and CEO of Centro, which is introducing state-of-the-art stereoscopic 3-D filming, postproduction and conversion services to Hong Kong. The first in the territory to do so, Centro spent a year developing the skills and installing the 3-D technology in its 20,000-square-foot office at Hong Kong Cyberport, including a 3,000-square-foot screening room with 3-D projection capabilities.

"2009 will be the year of the stereoscopic 3-D films," Chu says. "Cinemas are being converted in the thousands around the world; there's a demand for content. This is the perfect time to produce stereoscopic films of our own in Asia."

There are five theaters with stereoscopic screening facilities in Hong Kong.

Centro is in discussions with an undisclosed international studio and Chinese partner to develop the first Chinese-language 3-D film, an action-heavy live-action retelling of a historical story with a budget upward of HK$100 million.

Last year, Centro produced the first Chinese co-production with Disney, the live-action adaptation of the renowned Chinese children's story "Secret of the Magic Gourd." The title character is the first digitally made creature in a Chinese-language film.

"There are a lot of themes in Chinese culture and historical action stories that are best told in 3-D," Chu declares. "Our strengths in the action genre can also be pushed to the hilt in 3-D."

3-D conversion is not unprecedented for local effects houses. Menfond previously worked with U.S. effects giant Industrial Light + Magic on the labor-intensive 2-D-to-stereoscopic conversion of Tim Burton's "Nightmare Before Christmas 3-D" (2006). However, Centro's latest foray into stereoscopy is the first time a local studio is offering a full stereoscopic filming and postproduction service.

Indeed, the name Centro eventually comes up in all conversations about the history and development of the Hong Kong visual effects industry. FatFace's Ng, a Centro alumnus, describes the company as the "Shaolin Temple" of the Hong Kong effects industry -- from the Chinese saying, "All disciplines of martial arts in the world originated from Shaolin." Many of the leading local visual effects artists have done a stint at Centro, learned the basics and honed their skills before venturing out on their own.

But while Centro currently leads the Hong Kong effects sector, as the demand for special effects and animation grows with the new innovations in technology, more studios are emerging to offer stylistic innovations and diversity.

"There are more choices for film companies and directors," Ng says. "When there were only one or two effects studios, the projects got piled up -- quality might be affected. Now the new studios all have different strengths: Some are more creative; others better at the technical aspects."

Adds Menfond director (and brother of Eddy) Victor Wong: "Different visual effects production companies have their own expertise in different areas. Different directors will, based on their needs, select a visual effects production company to best fit their film."

Competing with the U.S. is another matter. Hollywood has the definite advantage of faster technological development, not only because of its proximity to Silicon Valley, but also "because the effects artists have more opportunities to work on big-scale projects with money to spare," Menfond's Eddy Wong says.

However, Hong Kong's CGI studios are catching up, explains Victor Wong: "In the past 10 years, Hong Kong visual effects studios developed a good foundation for visual effects because Hong Kong and directors such as Tsui Hark (2005's 'Seven Swords') pioneered visual effects as one of the necessary elements in their movies. We are not competing with U.S. visual effects production; instead, we are working hand-in-hand with each other to create projects that would not be possible in the past."

CGI industry insiders cite time, human resources and money as the most important factors in expanding Hong Kong's special effects industry, but Eddy Wong says this is another area in which local effects houses are improving. "More Chinese-language projects with bigger budgets are being developed so that we can bring in foreign experts to supervise and bring valuable new knowledge," he says.

Another way to add an edge to local effects productions is to bring distinctive cultural influences into play. To this end, local digital effects and animations studios are turning to their Chinese roots for inspiration. Creativity is the keyword for innovative visual effects and animation artists in the territory.

Similar to a decade ago when Hollywood injected new blood into the action genre by enlisting the help of Hong Kong action directors to reinvent action styles with gravity-defying wire work and kung fu-inspired moves, local effects artists are using their Chinese cultural heritage and artistic and visual influences to offset the technological advantage of deep-pocketed Hollywood effects houses.

"We are exposed to visual influences different from our Western counterparts, which fuel our imagination and lead us to create images unique to our culture," explains FatFace's Ng. Apart from local comic book adaptations, ancient myths and legends often present an ideal context for imaginative effects work.

"There are ancient Chinese myths and historical epics that can only be done justice with the most advanced and realistic visual effects," acknowledges Eddy Wong.

For example, Menfond is set to produce the effects in a large-scale unannounced mythological trilogy based on one of the most celebrated and colorful legends in Chinese culture, as well as an Indian production based on an Indian myth.

But this doesn't mean these elaborate films are made simply to show off fancy effects work. As most effects artists agree, the new technologies at their disposal should always be used to serve the movie as a whole. "There's no point if a movie only exists to show off the special effects," Centro's Chu says. "We always encourage directors to shoot real objects if they exist in real life. Effects should only be used appropriately, not in all situations."    
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