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    New Series Spotlights Behind-the-Scenes Heroes of Chinese Film

    “Tales of Chinese Filmmakers” brings camera operators, sound designers, voice actors, and other unsung film crew members to center stage.
    Mar 18, 2020#TV & film

    When the lights go up at the end of a movie, few in the audience follow the credits after the list of actors streams by. But a new Chinese documentary series is hoping to bring recognition and appreciation to the film crew members operating behind the scenes for the silver screen.

    The five-episode documentary series “Tales of Chinese Filmmakers” features seven film personnel in five fields: cinematography, sound design, visual effects, arts design, and dubbing. Since premiering Feb. 28 on over a dozen television and streaming platforms, the series has scored 8.1 out of 10 on review site Douban, with its finale airing last Friday.

    The series’ central figures are cinematographer Cao Yu, sound engineer Zhao Nan, production designer Ye Jintian, voice actor Zhang Jie, and visual effects artists Wei Ming, Ding Yanlai, and Zhou Yifu. Together, they share their experiences working on different projects, including the 2019 sci-fi blockbuster “The Wandering Earth,” Zhang Yimou’s 2018 period war drama “Shadow,” and Ang Lee’s 2000 Oscar-winning masterpiece “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”

    In revisiting productions from the past, the series focuses on the painstaking work that happened behind the scenes. During filming of “The Banquet,” the legendary Chinese director Feng Xiaogang’s 2006 loose adaptation of “Hamlet,” the production designer Ye recalls how the entire crew once paused and waited for him to iron a piece of silk so that it appeared perfect in the shot, in what he interprets as a show of reverence for his craft.

    During production of the 2018 action flick “Hidden Man,” for the scenes during which the characters had to run across rooftops of old Beijing in 1937, the visual effects team built a virtual cityscape with 6,000 siheyuan — traditional Beijing residences with fully enclosed courtyards — and 12,000 trees based on thousands of old photos they had collected solely to recreate the precise look and feel of that time.

    The series also exposes some of the unaddressed problems and gaps in China’s film industry.

    Zhao Nan, the sound engineer, said the fast-paced post-production cycle in China and a general lack of attention to sound design make it difficult to do the job well. And when the release date is set even before filming begins, as is often the case, it puts immense pressure on the crew to meet their deadlines. The 2018 epic drama “Roma” dedicated four months to sound mixing, Zhao said, while Chinese films might allocate just 20 days for the job.

    Zhao’s personal story also exposes the lack of female representation in China’s film industry. Upon seeing or hearing her name, many people within the industry assume she’s a man. The misconception became so common that, during an acceptance speech at the Hong Kong Film Awards, she felt compelled to remind the audience that “a woman can also become an excellent sound engineer and do great things.”

    Compared with the United States, China’s visual effects still have a long way to go, according to the three visual artists. The technology used, for example, in Robert Rodriguez’s cyberpunk action film “Alita: Battle Angel” and Marvel’s superhero epic “Avengers: Infinity War” — which feature virtually rendered characters — would be hard to pull off in China.

    Many viewers of the docuseries have posted praise on Douban, while some have also said they wish it had dug a bit deeper into the industry and its flaws.

    “This is not only an informative explainer about the (film) industry, but also a platform for countless behind-the-scenes workers,” one Douban user wrote.

    “It looks more like a show with interviews, reflecting the feelings and difficulties behind-the-scenes crew members face,” commented another. “It’s a good choice for those who are interested in film, but it also ignores many of the real-life problems and phenomena by only focusing on the superficial stuff.”

    Editor: David Paulk.

    (Header image: A still frame from the documentary series “Tales of Chinese Filmmakers.” From Weibo)