The incredible trailer for the Chinese action fantasy League of Gods makes it seem like a straightforward tale of good versus evil and so on — until you discover its main hero is a talking baby. But there's a good reason for that, as we learned when we interviewed the film's director and the VFX supervisor, who also told all us about making the fantasy epic. All images courtesy of John Dietz
The movie is opening worldwide, but audiences in countries like the US and Australia may not know the classic Chinese story that it's based on. What made you want to adapt it into a film?
Koan Hui (director): The story is based on the 16th-century classic, but we've recreated a completely new universe for the story, a whole new civilisation in a parallel universe that resembles the ancient time, yet is still very different.
John Dietz (VFX Supervisor, VFX Producer, Associate Producer): It draws from a really famous Chinese mythology that dates back before the Monkey King stories. [In China], there is a built-in familiarity for the audience. The idea was to turn it into more of a superhero film; the characters' godlike powers become like superhero powers. In this film, it's almost like an origin story about how these really well-known gods acquired their powers.
The trailer starts off very serious, but suddenly introduces the CG baby character. Who is he exactly, and what role does he play in the story?
KH: The baby character — Nezha — is one of the most well-known deities is Chinese mythology, a true rascal with godlike powers. The story follows the three main heroes on a quest to realise their true powers in order to defend the world from dark forces. Nezha's journey is to raise above the entrapments of this past life and attain realisation.
JD: We gave him his fire wheels, his rings and his six arms from the classic mythology. He transforms into a baby to keep the tone of the film fun and to [keep] the set pieces [from] getting too serious.
What are the key elements that make League of Gods different from American action and fantasy movies?
KH: I think the universe we've created is visually quite unique. Mixing ancient myth and a modern sense of realism makes the film an unforgettable journey through a very imaginative world.
JD: We also have more traditional martial arts fights. You don't usually see that type of choreography in Western films. Also, because of the nature of the mythology, the fantasy component is quite beautiful. So you have a really special Chinese design and aesthetic, combined with superhero action.
How much of the movie is practical and how much is CGI?
KH: We built a lot of partial sets. But because we were trying to create a world that doesn't exist, a lot required VFX enhancement. The final ratio of non-visual effects shot came to a fraction of the 2200 total shots of the film.
JD: Every shot, with the exception of 15, has some sort of VFX. It's up there with as big as it gets. It has about 15 minutes full CG, or almost full CG, and a lot of incredibly hard VFX work.
Were there any earlier fantasy films that you looked to for inspiration when designing the look of the film?
KH: A film that really inspired me as a child was The Thief of Bagdad, directed by Michael Powell and Ludwig Berger in 1940. It's probably my earliest cinematic memory, but the Arabian Nights setting and its [sense of] imagination made a huge impact on my love for cinema. Ever since seeing that film as a child, my dream was always been to one day make a film that will take the audience on such a magical journey.
What role does Jet Li play?
KH: Jet Li plays the wizard that possesses the highest wisdom in the story, a wise man that has seen the changes of the world for 200 years. In the film he is struck by an evil spell that causes his age to reverse; we created a teenage Jet Li as the evil curse prevails towards the end of the film. The stake of the story is that if the spell is not stopped, the wizard that holds the key to defeating evil will eventually vanish, then doom with fall upon all hope.
JD: Jet Li is a real professional. He also did a lot of work with us on the digital side and he was a great sport. We had to do motion capture and scanning and he was a pleasure to work with. He's a legend!
Warcraft was a huge hit in China. Did its success influence the production or marketing of League of Gods?
KH: League of Gods actually began production two years prior to the release of Warcraft. The motivation for the film to be produced was the market capacity for epic, visually stunning fantasy films. I believe we live in an age that our eyes are constantly stimulated, and the need for such appetite of the senses are a huge demand, that's why I hope League of Gods provides an experience that satisfies and appeals to movie-goers from around the globe.
JD: Anything that comes out around the time of your film impacts decisions in marketing. Warcraft is not necessarily a mythology, so the brand recognition was a bit different. But yes, there are similarities with the amount of VFX. I think when these films work well, they bring a certain energy through the visuals — that escapism is important in film, supplying surprises and fun. People go to the movies to be entertained, and spectacle is popular not just in China but everywhere.
League of Gods was released in Australian cinemas on July 28.