New film replaces troublesome actor using high technology

By Li Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2015-12-17 18:58:01

Promotional material for Impossible Photo: CFP

While Ng Khoon-chuan knew that when audiences decide to boycott a particular actor it could cause all sorts of trouble for the productions they appear in, the producer of new sci-fi film Impossible never expected that it would cost him millions of yuan and cause numerous subsequent problems, when one of his actors got involved in an online controversy.

Trouble started in early 2014 when Hong Kong actor Chapman To, who had been cast as Impossible's villain, outraged audiences in the Chinese mainland with his political views and online posts disparaging mainland audiences.

Since then, many filmmakers and audiences have refused to work with or watch any production starring To. Even the filmAberdeen, in which To only had a cameo appearance, failed dramatically at the mainland box office in May, 2014.

Cases such as this have not been rare this past year. Actor Wang Xuebing's arrest for drug use forced the Golden Horse Award-winning film A Fool to change its mainland release date so it could reshoot portions of the film containing the actor.

Without a doubt the trouble To stirred up was bad news for the team behind Impossible, since at the time the film was already in post-production.

Keeping the actor's scenes meant taking a commercial hit or even losing out on the chance to be shown in theaters at all, but cutting them meant a majority of the film would have to be reshot. After the film's release date got pushed back more than a year, investors considered pulling out, leaving Ng between a rock and a hard place.

Yet necessity is the mother of invention. Rising pressure spurred the team to find creative solutions. Turning to technology, they came up with approaches that are rarely ever seen in Chinese film.

Dapeng (center) and the film crew from Impossible Photo: Courtesy of Adrian Chan

Not so irreplaceable

Impossible has been in theaters since December 4. Now featuring comedic actor Dapeng as the big bad, you would probably never guess by watching the film that Dapeng never actually interacted with the other actors during filming.

Ng decided to take a chance after a conversation with visual effects designer Adrian Chan, an industry veteran who has worked on a number of Hollywood blockbusters as well as Jackie Chan's upcoming film Sliptrace. The designer explained to Ng how he had replaced stuntmen with stars in film Monk Comes Down the Mountain.

Through the use of rotoscoping techniques, 3D scanning and green-screen, Dapeng was inserted into the movie in place of To.

Although this technology wasn't anything new for the movie industry, it still posed a difficult mission for the Impossible team.

The first challenge was Dapeng's as he had difficulty reproducing every detail of the original scenes on a green-screen stage where no props could be used as reference points.

The second challenge involved going over every detail of the film as there were thousands of frames of the original actor's reflection that had to be replaced.

Unlike most films that require special effects to replace stuntmen with stars, the fact that this change was not part of original plans added to the difficulty.

"This was different, the actors were being replaced after shooting was completed," Chan, who designed the alien creature and all the actor-replacement techniques in Impossible, told the Global Times.

"Trace points, on set green-screens and data keeping track of the movement of cameras was never used earlier in the shoot."

For instance, one scene depicted two actors having a conversation in an office. Since at the time no one thought there would be any need for special effects, no markers were set so computers could track the distance between objects, the actors and lighting. Chan and his team, Studio 51, had to eye all the measurements based on their experience.

It took the team an entire week to analyze all the scenes that needed to be reshot.

Inspiration struck the team several times during this process. In one scene, To had his arm around an actress's neck while he held a knife to her throat. To recreate the scene, the team had Dapeng redo the scene with an actress who they wrapped in green cloth. Then using computers the team was able to insert Dapeng's head into the original scene.

In an interview Dapeng joked: "I almost acquired a phobia of the color green, because I saw green objects and green people everywhere every day."

"Actually sometimes China doesn't need to rely on foreign teams," Chan said, adding that he believes Chinese teams do have the skills and technology to make a great sci-fi film, but due to pressure from the market they just aren't given enough time.

"The market has an urgent need for entertainment products. Variety shows and romance films can turn words into a film in a short time, but we're turning a director's imagination into a film," Ng pointed out.

It took four years to finish the film. Of that, two years were spent preparing, designing and making the alien creature that appears in the film.

"Rarely do we have such a long time to do R&D," Chan said.

Future potential

"Our understanding of domestic films is that there are a lot of action and fantasy films, but no sci-fi film has stood out exceptCJ7," Ng told the Global Times.

So when director Sun Zhou told Ng about his idea for Impossible, Ng became excited about the prospect of telling a Chinese story using post-production techniques from Hollywood.

Although their goal was sci-fi, the producer knew that he had to try and appeal to a wider audience, which is why he chose an all comedian cast.

"Our hope is that those who aren't into sci-fi can watch this film, especially youngsters who are under a lot of pressure from school and life," Ng said.

Regardless, however, how the film performs, the trial use of this technology is sure to pave the way for more possibilities in Chinese sci-fi in the future.

Newspaper headline: Face off