Working Magic in China
Billed as the first-ever Disney co-production in China, The Magic Gourd topped over US$2 million in box-office receipts within two weeks of its opening in the country on June 29. Calvin Wong speaks to producer and director John Chu on the made-in- China children's feature.
Four years in the making, Disney's live-action and animation mix movie, The Magic Gourd finally premiered on 300 screens across China on June 29 to herald the start of school holidays in the country.
Made primarily for audiences in China with Asian and international markets in its sights, The Walt Disney Company's international distribution arm Buena Vista International, animation and visual effects studio Centro Digital Pictures (Hong Kong) Limited, and state-owned film distributor China Film Group Corporation collaborated on The Magic Gourd to make it the debutant made-in- China Disney co-production.
As chairman of The Walt Disney Studios, Dick Cook, regards it to be crucial for his company to make films based on stories indigenous to local markets to reach out to new audiences worldwide, The Magic Gourd marks Disney's departure from its mainstay characters to develop a new localized franchise to appeal to Chinese audiences.
This effort features Hong Kong and China talents in production, acting and dubbing, including: Hong Kong singer and actress Gigi Leung who stars as a teacher in the movie, Chinese artiste Baby Zhang who sings the theme song, local comedian Chen Peisi who dubs The Magic Gourd character; while the production and post production team hails from Hong Kong's Centro Digital Pictures.
"China is a growing market for films and there is a shortage of Chinese films made for children," observes producer and director John Chu, founder and chief executive officer of Centro Digital Pictures. His company handled production and post production for The Magic Gourd to add to its track record which includes co-production of Andrew Lau's The Stormriders (1998) and A Man Called Hero (1999), as well as visual effects work on Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill Vol.1 (2003) and Stephen Chow's Kungfu Hustle (2004).
A contemporary adaptation of Chinese fairy tale The Secret of The Magic Gourd written in 1958 by late children's literature author Zhang Tianyi, the humorous 96-minute movie revolves around a quixotic schoolboy Wang Bao who discovers an enchanted gourd to fulfill his wish to be popular in school. Although he does well in studies and sports with the human-like gourd's help, his joy is short-lived as he discovers that everything granted by the magical gourd has been taken from someone else and tries to undo the damages in a series of misadventures.
According to Chu, the film took off when Centro Digital Pictures acquired film rights to the novel and approached Disney and China Film Group Corporation to be partners for the project. While he declined to disclose the budget for The Magic Gourd, he reveals that the film was co-financed by all three companies.
Speaking on Centro Digital Pictures' choice to approach the respective partners, Chu enthuses, "Disney is the most authoritative family entertainment enterprise in the world, so it is natural to go to them when seeking partnerships for a family-oriented film."
On the practical side of things, Chu points to Disney's 4,200 retail outlets in operation across China as a valuable asset to distribute a growing list of merchandise for The Magic Gourd which already includes children's watches, clocks, plates, mugs, school bags, towels, t-shirts and books.
Besides being responsible for the worldwide distribution of the film, Disney offered its expertise in various stages of the production process including script development and character design of The Magic Gourd. In the state-run China Film Group Corporation, Chu sees the company' expansive network of domestic film exhibitors and media buyers as a guarantee for "thorough distribution" of the feature across China.
In a relatively smooth production process that spanned almost a year, Chu and co-director Frankie Chung led the production team to shoot The Magic Gourd on location in Hangzhou, China, in 35mm film format. The production team employed storyboarding throughout the film and modified various elements to suit the actual situations Using the Moviecam and the Arriflex 435 film cameras, the team shot in sync sound to preserve the audio recorded directly from the filming locations.
Even as the film required the team to work extensively with children, they encountered few difficulties as Chu found them to be "professional". Instead, it was the need to co-ordinate live-action to eventually accommodate and integrate CG elements that posed challenges.
However, it was also these difficulties that made one of the shoots in The Magic Gourd a very memorable one for Chu, "It has to be the 'toys at home' scene set in a room filled with real toys which we bought. With the main CG items and characters to be added in post production, some of our crew members had to run around the room and mimic the action and roar of the CG dinosaur to enable our actor to interact and act with the imaginary CG elements. All of us had a wonderful time that day as we were like kids playing in a house full of toys!"
With the movie hinging on CG as the critical element, post production was a protracted and challenging process for Centro Digital Pictures. Taking over a year to complete, post work involved scanning of the film footage with the Grass Valley Spirit Datacine, intensive CG work on Autodesk Maya and 3ds Max, and compositing and digital intermediate performed on the Quantel iQ digital intermediate suite.
"As the movie relies on audiences' believing in the existence of the magical gourd character, the toughest challenge was to combine CG elements with the live-action footage seamlessly on screen," Chu explains.
"We believe audiences have high expectations of authenticity in 3-D animation, and thus sought to infuse humanity and emotions into our CG effects," he continues. Chu's team designed "numerous" expressions for every CG character, and treated them as if "they existed in real life". The animation team created dozens of facial expressions and images just for the cheeky and mischievous gourd character which was then painstakingly adjusted on every frame to result in a life-like magical gourd with human like emotions.
Describing the process as long and meticulous, Chu believes it has been the careful planning in pre-production, professionalism of the cast and crew and the experience of the animators that saw The Magic Gourd through.
Having made in excess of US$2 million in just two weeks of its premiere in China, Chu informs that The Magic Gourd has gone on to equal the boxoffice performances of Pixar-produced animation features Cars and Finding Nemo, and has also surpassed takings from DreamWorks SKG's Shrek 1 and 2 as well as Walt Disney Feature Animation's Mulan in the Chinese market. Adding to its success at the box-office, The Magic Gourd received considerable positive critical acclaim when it opened the 9th International Children's Film Festival in Ningbo, China on June 1, International Children's Day in China.
Given the bountiful returns that The Magic Gourd reaped from the Chinese market and the great potential lying beyond it, it is little wonder that Chu proclaimed, "Disney and the producers are pleased with the performance of The Magic Gourd!"
And if these statistics are anything to go by, it certainly suggests that productions made by local talents based on indigenous stories, with the right marketing partners and distribution channels, can work magic in arguably the fastest growing economy in the world.
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