One of the largest Chinese film productions of all time, 2014’s 3D blockbuster The Monkey King is based on a part of the literary Chinese classical story Journey To The West, a cultural mainstay that has been breaking box office records in the mainland.
Featuring superstar Donnie Yen as the the Monkey King himself alongside larger than life celebrities Aaron Kwok and Chow Yun Fat, the film features fantastical and expansive digitally created sets and special effects. Befitting such an epic work, the labor of visual effects for the titanic production lasted for over four years after being postponed from an initial 2012 release date, pulling some of Hollywood’s best and brightest for assistance in the 3D conversion among other internationally sourced talent. Giving us a window into the larger-than-life environment behind the blockbuster, we are happy to present our eye-opening interview with the film’s art director Daniel Fu Dong, the man in charge of the look of China’s banner fantasy adventure feature of 2014.
Western audiences may not be familiar with the traditions of the Monkey King story. Can you tell us about how the rich history of Journey to the West influenced the decisions and final look of the film?
The director Pou-Soi Cheang wanted to make a “modern Journey to the West” instead of a faithful representation of the original novel. That means we wanted to make a fantasy, because in Chinese film we don’t quite have a fantasy genre. We call it shenqi (神奇) , and it’s not quite “Fantasy”. But we wanted to take audiences to the Heavenly Palace (天宫) via 3D.
The orientation towards fantasy films allowed me to make a film that absorbed the techniques and visual effects of Avatar, or Lord of the Rings—images that took the viewer beyond the Chinese tradition, and blended the familiar versions with a “Western” visual language.
The richness of the novel only provided our imaginative vision; the novel is a rich source of reference materials: colors, textures, architecture, and atmosphere. Also, the costume details mentioned in the novel were incredibly useful in guiding costume and character design.
The goal was to blend the rich textual references from the book with the look of the fantasy genre to create a new visual appearance that belongs uniquely to this film.
Following up from this question, can you tell us about how past film incarnations of the Monkey King have influenced this version?
Only the television series influenced me. Although the Monkey King’s character has been filmed a few times, this is not the same as creating a film and an entire world. The previous films had little to no effect on my work here, but the TV series, for my generation, was influential. I provided the inverse inspiration, that is to say, it became a vision that I was working against. I say that will all due respect, but here I want to create something quite the opposite, something with a different aesthetic.
When we read the book, we have a different type of imaginative vision. For example, the Heavenly Palace, when designed in the TV series, looked like Qing architecture. It borrowed directly from realistic architecture, with columns, eaves, and tiled roofs. There were little to no changes. The TV series of the 1980s and 90s took their visual reference cues from 1962, when the Wan Brothers released the famous Chinese animation film of the same name. This is where a lot of the later film references originated. There were three versions of the TV series, and they all inherit the 1962 aesthetic, which is rather conservative. Our interpretation was more revolutionary.
For example, the floor of the Jade Palace is transparent. Through it you can see the entire cosmos. Also, the façade of the Jade Palace resembles ancient Indian temple architecture, and the entire complex is shaped like a ring. The Sky Kingdom itself is shaped like a turtle, and it encapsulates the entire cosmos within it. The turtle protects the entire cosmos. This was an innovation to the conceptualization of the world described in The Monkey King; no one has ever done something like that. This was our idea. Of course, film is a collaborative art; the entire team discussed these innovations. My job was to give them shape, and to develop them with the input of the director and producers.
The production for this film took over four years. Because it is such an enormous project, the creative process behind the film’s scenery and design must have been epic in itself. Can you tell us about the workflow, problem solving, and feedback process of assembling such a huge film over such a long time?
First, I want to explain why it took so long. We had some financial problems during production, so it had several pauses. It’s a delicate problem that I can’t explain.
The general workflow of my art production was to first set up the department, [and] meet with the director and producer to gather all the fundamental ideas. We then sketched up drafts. Once the design was finished we invited artists from all over the world, the United States, Korea, and China, etc., to work on realizing the “world creation” of our film.
It’s all about organization. There are time differences between San Francisco and Seoul, and the art department needed to communicate with all of these artists to make sure that their drawings achieved the same tone as one another, the same look, and at the same quality. We call this “concept design.” Once the concept design was done, we built the set, made the props, and realized costumes.
Since 80 percent of the sequences were shot on a blue- or green-screen sound stage, almost everything is virtual. Actors working in this kind of pre-modeled environment have a great challenge. Everything is designed for post-production, when other designers will transpose a completely new world on to the live action. This is the CG world.
This is the first time a Chinese production has attempted such an ambitious CG film. It was challenging to synchronize everyone’s ideas and to work all over the globe and in different languages. We had coordinators to put emails together, but I filtered all the emails, and communicated with the producer and director to keep everyone on the same page. Of course, there are unexpected results or situations, there were lots of easy misunderstandings, so we had to be clear with each other. The “look” is very international, but compared to Hollywood-budget films, it still isn’t perfect. Although it’s not as good, its still the best CG-technology film that China has made yet. It is also the highest grossing film, so in that we haven’t made that many mistakes.
How important is the look to the success to the film?
The “look” of a film is something that we notice, but unconsciously. This film tells the story of the monkey going to the sky kingdom, where he thought he belonged, but none of the gods wanted him there because he is an ugly monkey. The challenge for me is to create a world of impossibilities, but something that has resonance with the modern world. For example, rich people live in glass skyscrapers, poor people do not—so I have to recreate or mirror the reality of these impossibilities. Without a convincing world, people won’t trust or believe in the film’s narrative, and won’t follow the plotline of the different worlds that the novel is giving us. Where does the Monkey King belong? In the Heavenly Palace, or the Mountain of Flowers and Fruits (花果山)? This dairu gan (代入感), or sense of being pulled in, is very important for audiences. If you can’t show a believable world, you can’t conjure up sympathy for how angry the monkey is.
How have changes in technology over this period influenced the final product?
We worked with 3D to design the sets, and so the film appears very three-dimensional. For example, the architecture, their shapes were 3D friendly, meaning that they took up more space, had jutting eaves and projecting elements so they were more interesting environments to watch in 3D.
What were the most difficult problems or decisions concerning the design of the film?
My major problem was how to distance our film from tradition. How can we do things that are revolutionary? We wanted it to look traditionally Chinese but also modern. This was the most difficult challenge as a designer. So all these elements are trying to harmonize together. You can see this in the film when the Monkey King flies into the Sky Kingdom: he flies through a gate, and it looks something like a spaceship. The Sky Kingdom architecture is also designed in this proto-futuristic but classical blend.
Do you have a favorite aspect of the film’s design?
All the scenes have their ups and downs. Some of my favorite scenes are the royal stable, the Jade Palace exterior and interior, and the scene where the Monkey King eats the forbidden liandan (炼丹) inside the incense burner.
How did the technology enhance your work?
Previously, everything was created in miniature, built to a scaled miniature set. But now we don’t have to do that step anymore, as everything is created in digital formats. The technology allowed the possibility to create a more daring imaginary world, with gravity defying elements that break mundane physical laws.
Today, you can create anything, and especially in China where the technology is developing so quickly. We are trying to keep up with Hollywood quality, and we have a long way to go, but we are trying our best. We are collaborating with overseas artists and companies. We’re learning.
Can you share with us any funny or interesting stories about the production that can help us understand the atmosphere surrounding the making of the film?
I remember one day while filming, the actors put on their monkey suits and were training to walk like monkeys. I remember watching the director teaching them how to walk like monkeys. That was a funny day. It is very entertaining watching a group of people trying to be monkeys.
Can you tell us about the working relationships with the American members of the production?
Both sides learned a lot from each other. When you have people from two different worlds, their sense of values can be completely different. How they organized themselves was also completely different. They have different priorities, especially for the production management, e.g. how they use labor, money-wise, how they used their budget.
Shaun Smith was an invaluable member of the team—he worked on I Am Legend, and also 300. He was the special make-up artist and a producer. Since this was an epic film, we had a lot of monsters [and] demons, which needed lots of special make-up technologies that he brought to the team. We had people doing modeling for character masks. All of Shaun’s team came from Los Angeles. His people did modeling casts on the actors face and made sculpture to enlarge chins or nose, etc. We had a lot of the same team that worked on Planet of the Apes.
David Abner was our visual effects supervisor, he was also really important for these type of effects and successful use of CG technologies. When you create a world that doesn’t exist, the visual effects supervisor makes sure that while shooting the film, people are respecting the “CG rules.” For example, on a battlefield, they might not hold weapons, but they have to have a green screen stick, which will be replaced in post-production. But during shooting the actors aren’t caring enough about the weight, the thickness of the “axe,” or what will be an axe in post-production. Or if people are walking in a palace, and someone is hiding behind a pillar, but only the position of the pillar is marked—it is unclear where they should hide. David dealt with this type of problem.