Chinese studio bids to challenge Hollywood with new 3D animated film
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Chinese studio bids to challenge Hollywood with new 3D animated film

“Nothing is impossible” is the tagline of the 3D animated feature Bunta (2013) (Chinese Pinyin: Kunta) that opened in theatres throughout China on Friday.

The making of the movie has been a remarkable journey undertaken by Zhejiang Versatile Media for the past three years, mimicking the story it tells:

A young boy named Boca lives on a planet the size of a peanut and populated by little box people hopping on one leg. A hero-worshiper, Boca sets his mind to finding the titular plant, which by legend can save his people from an impending food crisis. Because he is only a child, nobody wants to take him seriously except his buddy, the babbling Neepop. Boca sallies forth with high hopes while being tagged along by Neepop. Their journey begins with meeting an ostrich car and temporarily ends with the two befriending a sassy princess, who joins their cause after a fierce battle with a super villain.

Director “Leo” Lian Li, also President of Zhejiang Versatile Media, describes the tension between him and his team at the beginning of the project as “an arm-wrestling game with 200 people.” When he called on them to make a Hollywood-caliber 3D animated film, very few thought that they had the ability to.

It was not until seven months later that the team’s uncertainty dissipated. Leo held an internal screening of the first fully rendered demo reel of the movie. The beautiful, detailed, and pin-sharp graphics (see “Bunta (2013) Chinese Trailer” on YouTube and Vimeo) dazzled everyone.

In fact, that was the day that Leo’s team finally united behind his vision of a world-class picture. The move enabled the company to weather the storm of 2012, when 85% of domestic animation companies, according to Southern Metropolis Daily, suffered losses because broadcast and cable networks were increasingly reluctant to air low-quality works, even for free.

3D animated features are expensive to make and market. The famous ones by Hollywood in the most recent years such as Kungfu Panda (2008), Toy Story 3 (2010), and Brave (2012) often had runaway budgets of $130 to $200 million.

Several sources state that Bunta has cost roughly RMB100 million (US$16.3 million), which is a fraction of the Hollywood budget for the same category of film, but a number unimaginable for the majority of startup studios in China. According to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television’s estimates, the annual animation budget of Chinese TV companies currently totals only RMB50 million, a surprising 60% of the entire industry’s yearly revenue.

Having worked in advertising for 20 years, Leo’s ties are far and wide. He secured enough capital to start the production as planned, and he garnered other kinds of support. In particular, his long-time friends Wakin Chau and Jonathan Lee volunteered to write the Chinese theme song for the movie. Both men are popular icons and household names in China.

There were other hurdles. To overcome the synchronization issue between physical and virtual cameras, Versatile Media developed a proprietary technology called Kmoke 9-axis Automated Frame-by-Frame Sync Tool, which could measure and produce camera movements down to micrometers.

Scale models were used to create certain scenes that were then shot with miniature effects. This was the fun part for Leo because prior to founding Versatile Media in 1993, he had spent six years as a professional model-ship builder, representing China in international competitions, Sina News Taiwan reports.

Dramatically reducing the amount of time needed to render the final feature film, 6,700 computers running on Alibaba Group’s Aliyun OS were pooled to perform the task. It is estimated that every frame in the climatic fighting scene required seven hours of frenzy calculations.

Since 2010, the year that the project got off the ground, Leo has been keen on capturing an audience beyond China. To do so, he insisted on creating universal characters that were not in any way culturally specific. He went to the Cannes Film Festival for three consecutive years to talk with buyers and distributors, whose feedback was then carefully considered and incorporated into the movie.

It was there that Leo met Tim Werenko from DuArt Film and Video, a time-honored film and recording studio in New York City founded in 1922. DuArt was given the task of adapting the movie for an American (read international) audience by rewriting the dialogue, recording new voices, composing new music, and adding all sound design and effects.

The project drew talents that happily surprised Leo, among them was “The X Factor” runner-up, teenage songstress Carly Rose Sonenclar, who gave her voice to the English theme song of the movie.

All of these are exciting highlights of the movie, but so far, it has yet to attract any major Hollywood studios as potential distributors.

As other major Chinese animation studios have learned in the past few years, the industry’s collective weakness in branding and marketing is preventing good animated works produced by China from entering the international arena (The Diplomat).

Inside China is a different story. The core audience of Bunta, children aged six to 14 and their families, have been well primed for the release.

Versatile Media rolled out its social networking site Hezi World in 2009. The goal was to build a web-based community familiar with Hezi’s products before the company launched its ambitious movie project. It proves to have been a smart move because by May 2013, Hezi had had 40 million registered users, frequenting the website to play computer games, watch animated series, listen to a web radio designed for young mothers and children, and use a voice-supported Twitter-like service for children who could not yet type.

When Leo was visiting DuArt in April, he mentioned that he first came to the U.S. in 1996 as a guest to the 23rd International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Design also known as SIGGRAPH 96. He described how backward China compared to the U.S. at that point, all the while being unable to understand a single English word.

Today, as he commented, is not yesterday. His company is equipped with some of the same hardware and software as American animation studios. Producing equally impactful visuals as Hollywood is becoming increasingly possible.

However, he also noted, there were still things that his company could not do, and he hired DuArt for exactly this reason.

Bunta (2013) is the first movie of the Bunta Trilogy that Leo plans to make. The characters in it – Boca, Neepop, Pootron the ostrich car, and Princess Gaga – will almost certainly stay with a generation of Chinese children growing up. For now, it is a work in progress; if all goes well, it will be a legend unveiling right before our eyes.