3D World UK|October 2020
Trevor Hogg is privy to the cinematic and logistical battlefield tactics deployed by Niki Caro, Mandy Walker and the visual effects team of Mulan…

An ancient Chinese poem about a daughter pretending to be a son in order to take the place of her conscripted father in the Imperial Army was made into a Disney animated classic. Rather than have singing and a sidekick dragon in the live-action remake, New Zealand filmmaker Niki Caro (The Zookeeper’s Wife) focused more on the source material. “Our intention with Mulan was to honour the original ‘Ballad of Mulan’ which was written over 1,500 years ago. This drove all of us involved with the film into real China. We drew great inspiration from being down on the ground there. While this movie is a real visceral, raw, high-octane epic action adventure, it still honours some of the iconic elements from the animation that I love.” Chinese cinema influenced the visual language. “Zhang Yimou [House Of Flying Daggers] was such a huge inspiration for me because of the otherworldliness of his films, the incredible action sequences and the design, in particular, the costume design.”

A 14-minute previs cut by editor David Coulson (Broken English) of the midpoint battle which concludes with an avalanche was presented to Disney executives. “The big thing when we started was doing the pitchvis,” states Day for Nite previs supervisor Rpin Suwannath. “The sequence that we did showed the scope of the action and movie. We needed to make sure that it delivered.” As well as having to choreograph massive fight sequences for the first time, Caro needed the creation of 2,046 visual effects shots by Weta Digital, Framestore, Image Engine, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Crafty Apes and an in-house team. “Niki was open to us holding her hand through the experience,” remarks Mulan VFX producer Diana Giorgiutti (Australia). “It always makes a huge difference when a filmmaker is willing to admit to themselves that they are dealing with an element that they are not familiar with.” Certain guidelines were set by the studio which required some creative solutions. “Under the Disney label you can’t show violence and bloodshed so I wrestled with the idea of how can I build this epic battle sequence without it being Game Of Thrones,” notes Caro. “What I decided to do was to set it in a geothermal valley so there is steam drifting throughout all of the fighting that tends to obscure violence and adds another layer of beauty.”

For two and a half years Mulan VFX supervisor Sean Faden (Power Rangers) worked on the adaptation with a year spent in post-production. “We had a sizable prep period and I spent a lot of time looking at videos on Vimeo and cutting reels together to show Niki. An effect that we did a lot of research on was the Witch transformation, although in the end we went with something that was more simplified. We looked at bird murmurations and aerial reference of hawks. My favourite is when the young soldier transforms into the Witch and then turns into the hawk. For that we timed it with the rhythm of his walk. Stunts had a spin rig so as the Witch twists we were able to take that motion and feather it into the hawk’s motion as well.” Caro loves the ‘cloth fu’ moments where the long sleeves of the Witch (Gong Li) become lethal weapons. “We had built a whole stunt/fight sequence where she kills people with her sleeves which is just glorious!” It was important to avoid conveying the impression of rubber. “The sleeves are not characters in themselves as they’re being driven by the Witch,” notes Image Engine VFX supervisor Christian Irles. “It was hard to art direct the action of what sleeves needed to do while retaining the properties of cloth.”

Resurrecting Mushu, the wisecracking dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy, was never considered. “The Phoenix was a part of this movie from day one,” remarks Faden. “I worked with Aaron Sims Creative to develop a Phoenix concept which we ended up presenting to Disney.



You can read up to 3 premium stories before you subscribe to Magzter GOLD

Log in, if you are already a subscriber


Get unlimited access to thousands of curated premium stories, newspapers and 5,000+ magazines


October 2020