Live-streaming in China: luxe dives in, some slip a little

If you’re at all in-tune with Chinese beauty retail, then you most certainly would have heard of the infamous Rouge Hermès Incident involving widely-proclaimed lipstick king Li Jiaqi (李佳琦) giving a scathing review of the much-anticipated lipstick line from the emperor of le French touch (read “gratifyingly expensive”). Though a seriously spicy dish, we’re not going to delve into that hot mess of an incident – when you’re done Googling, please come back because there was a point to bringing that up. 

Back? Ok, so the point is, live-streaming is a big deal in China, and the Covid-19 pandemic has nudged some luxury brands into this mystical, influencer-ruled realm where the laws of physics conventional retail marketing don’t track.

YSL Beauté

First we have lipstick; for many they’re a relatively affordable status symbol; they’re small, fun, and desperate wannabes – including yours truly – pop them like M&Ms; I mean can you even be legally certified as a woman if you don’t possess at least 3 (hundred)?

YSL Beauté carpe diem’ed the ass out of their day with a staged livestream showcase on insanely popular marketplace Taobao Live. A baker’s dozen of influencers, models and presenters spent the hour talking up various box-sets of poppy shades of rouge. In terms of effort, there’s a solid A in there! That set, the cameras, lighting and all those influencers don’t come cheap. Just shy of 2 million viewers tuned in, many followers of the mini-celebrities. Each time an item is sold, a bright orange message pops up onscreen, “XXX0483 is making a purchase!” We saw many-a-message that evening. With prices hovering above 300 RMB per, there’s definitely room for lucrative happiness however we can’t help but ponder the long-term effectiveness and viability of mega influencers-led showcases.

YSL Beauté’s event poster, lipstick box-set, screenshots from Taobao Live

Moving on to fashion shows, Giorgio Armani famously walked onto his runway to greet an invisible crowd in his latest show. Due to the mounting Covid-19 crisis in Italy, no audience could attend the Milan show. Armani is not alone.

Giorgio Armani in Milan on February 23rd

Gucci

With Dolce & Gabbana’s whirlwind tumble from grace involving a model, a pizza and a pair of chopsticks and Versace’s uninspired fumble with t-shirts printed with store locations (seriously, was that actually meant for paying customers?), Gucci is left ire della collina (king of the hill), so to speak. The brand’s arguably more Darwinian marketing aptitude was put to good use in a recent venture into live-streaming. On February 19th at 10:00pm Beijing time, Gucci broadcasted its runway show live on Weibo, #GucciTheRitual, showcasing the 2020 Fall/Winter collection. At a mere 10 minutes 13 seconds, the micro livestream managed to reach 22.9 million Chinese users (including replay viewers). Not bad François, HEC 4ever. Let’s move on.

Gucci F/W 2020 runway livestream on Weibo

Lanvin

The Chinese-owned (Fosun) Lanvin also dabbled with runway live-streaming. Although Fosun is quite a ways larger than a PE fund, in typical PE-backed fashion, no pun intended, Lanvin went all out, blank check in-hand, broadcasting their show in jaw-dropping live 360° VR format via streaming platform iQiyi.com – China’s answer to Netflix. The VR headsets, provided by iQiyi to subscribers of its VR content service, put viewers next to Chinese online A-listers, with the option to hear their voice-over commentary.

Bottom line, we’re not quite sure what to make of it all, indeed there’s so much that’s new and inspiring about this approach, however partnering with a content-driven platform like iQiyi instead of a commercial one like Taobao and delivering through VR goggles may be limiting potential marketing reach, or not, what does McKinsey say?

Lanvin’s livestreamed VR runway via iQiyi

Shanghai Fashion Week

Lastly, while not a brand, worthy of an honorable mention is Shanghai Fashion Week. Official partner Xintiandi teamed up with Tmall (Taobao’s sister marketplace) and basically all of China’s leading content platforms – Bilibili, RED (小红书), TikTok, Kuaishou(快手) – to host a cloud marketplace. Influencers took viewers on walkabout tours through and interviews about home-grown designers. Purchases could be made instantly via Tmall.

Shanghai Fashion Week’s livestream event with many partners

Nothing goes perfectly in uncharted waters. While YSL and Gucci are relishing in the success of their first dips into the livestream, pun intended, other brands seemed to have gone too fast and slipped-up a little.

Louis Vuitton

This year’s Gold Lion for Social Disengagement & Disintegration for Live Experience (FYI, that’s B01 at Cannes, wink) goes to… Louis Vuitton. Sorry, Bernard.

In what can only be described as the execution of a half-formed thought from somebody driven to desperation by quarantine, Louis Vuitton’s ill-fated livestream on RED (小红书), left viewers frozen in disbelief. Instead of a staged approach, the mega-brand opted to broadcast a live-selling session in the classic “直播间” (livestream showroom) format, thus-far a proven business model for middle-aged merchants of surplus apparel stockpiles in the outskirts of Suzhou.

The choice of pieces was a chaotic, vertigo-inducing explosion of everything monogramed from canvas bags, to shorts to sneakers and scarves; when we looked at the backs of our hand we could still see Jesus the LV sign. As if that wasn’t enough kitsch for one lifetime, the styling of the poor girls drew up repressed memories of Honey Boo Boo. Cap it off with a no-frills set that somehow made its way over from 1960’s Deauville, and finally the writing on the wall became clear, “catastrophic consumer backlash up ahead”. Screenshots below, we’ll let you be the judge.

Louis Vuitton’s RED livestream (left), China’s typical live-selling bargain darlings (right)

Burberry

And then there was one. Sometimes equipment just fails us. Janet had the wardrobe malfunction, Enrique had a disastrous relationship with a live mic and Burberry had, well nothing really, no, literally nothing. The April 9th Taobao Live showcase was supposed to air at 9:00pm sharp with influencers billing in the six-figures expected to join, including Yvonne Ching. One hour and a couple dozen messages to customer service later, we gave up and went to bed (writing articles requires a lot of sleep). Apparently due to “technical issues”, the live broadcast would be delayed to a later date. 11 days on and we’re still waiting.

Burberry Live poster and the technical fumble

There’s far too many more case studies than one god-fearing (Thor) writer should dare to tackle in a single piece. Honorable mentions also go out to Ahava x Tmall live from the Dead Sea, MCM’s in-store broadcasts on RED (小红书), Calvin Klein’s 360° VR pop-up cloud store and Prada x TikTok’s #“P”oems.

Ahava, CK and Prada (top left to bottom right)

While there are many platforms who have facilitated brands’ explorative endeavors into the world of live-streaming, Alibaba-backed Taobao/Tmall clearly emerged as the de-facto platform of choice. Astonishingly, the Tencent-backed JD.com was nowhere to be found. 

We can guesstimate 3 reasons: 

1. Taobal/Tmall often acted as co-hosts or sponsors to these live-streaming events.

2. Taobao/Tmall is a huge, merchant-driven marketplace, especially popular among small, independent retailers/manufacturers of apparel, accessories & beauty, thereby drawing in huge impuse buyers. Contrast that with JD.com, who is recognized as a more structured marketplace for branded products and established (read “licensed“) merchants, an Amazon of sorts, with a tendency to skew towards consumer electronics and groceries.

3. While some of the other broadcasting platforms, notably RED (小红书), do offer a marketplace feature whereby viewers can directly proceed to purchase, Taobal/Tmall’s payment escrow system, buyer protection and merchant vetting features are a big draw.

Post-Covid 19 and with increasing 5G coverage, will we see brands continue to gravitate towards live-streaming as a sustainable new marketing avenue? Only time will tell.

PIG’s chief of chaos sits down with LBB to talk quarantine, Covid-19, remote production and life under a new “normal”

This month, PIG Chief Chaos Officer (and MD) Nick Dodet spoke with LBB’s Natasha Patel about Covid-19 and the production industry. He believes the West can learn quite a few things from China’s response, and shares innovative ways the team has found to work within all the new restrictions.

As the western world grapples with the pandemic, China has lifted most sanctions, and the Chinese production scene is slowly finding its place in a new “normal”. Nick shares his views on the whole situation with LBB.

Excerpts from the interview below.

What’s the current situation in China with production?

Production is kind of coming back to normal right now. In the past week there’ve been a lot of shoots after we saw a few in early March, then some more mid-month. There were a lot of restrictions but fewer and fewer now compared to in March when we could apply and get a permit to shoot in a public location, but if any of the local residents felt unsafe , they would call the cops and shut us down. No questions asked. Now it’s mostly getting better and we can pretty much shoot from anywhere.

Did you come across any interesting ways to get around the restrictions?

We started developing more remote shooting where clients and agencies would remain in China and a crew would shoot in, let’s say, South Africa and everything would be watched live back over here.

Now it’s been completely flipped around in that foreigners are not allowed to enter China at the moment – even if they possess a green card. At the moment we’ve got jobs confirmed with foreign agencies, production companies and clients who they can’t shoot where they are, so they will shoot in China remotely. We’re getting more of these requests, which are basically in a living room in the West and on the set here in China.

What can companies around the world learn from China’s experience of Covid-19 and coming out the other end of it?

You’ve got to make yourself small, if you’re not working you have no revenue so you have to weather the storm. Just keep your chin up because eventually things get better. What allowed us to get out of that first wave so quickly is that it literally came down with a hammer and everybody was wearing masks in public and shutting down public transportation. It was literally ghost town all over the country.

You always have opportunities in these times and the opportunity to test new technology and find new angles. I hear a lot of foreign clients are trying to produce homemade films where they’re asking the agencies to find ways for people to take selfies. Long term that’s probably not that viable. What we offer foreign clients right now is to shoot films over here for them and they direct from abroad. In the West they’ll come up with new ways of running sets, I think there’ll be quite a bit of remote work that’ll happen way past the pandemic.

To read the full interview, click here (external link).

Shoots move online as Covid-19 moves in

PIGremote

China is offering solutions to filmmakers to shoot remotely as productions shut down worldwide.

A brave new world

Indeed, these are turbulent times. Disruption from Covid-19 has swept across the entertainment industry. Production has taken a tumble, off a cliff. While the long-term impact remains an ever-debatable talking point, go pour the whiskey Jack, short-term it’s clear where there’s a problem: shooting has ceased worldwide.

To say the sector is restless will be our understatement of the year. Don’t have to look far to find a growing list of reasons why. Filmmakers in locked-down New York and California can offer a vivid exposé on that topic. Disney, Paramount, Universal, HBO and even Susan from accounts have pushed their movie releases into fall and winter. Cannes Lions, Wimbledon, the Emmys and, good lord, Eurovision are all canceled.

Edwin Hooper (Unsplash)

Don’t go grabbing for the arsenic just yet.

While the rest of the world grapples with a sudden onset of potential-diabetics-suddenly-turned-avid-long-distance-runners plaguing what should be empty city streets, China has managed to beat the C-train to submission. Chinese authorities lifted virtually all sanctions to life and business in April with the exception, obviously, of Hubei, schools – it’s a brave new world, parents – and allowing anybody new into the country. Nonetheless, that’s still leaps and bounds ahead of anybody in the G7.

Tedward Quinn (Unsplash)

When one door closes, another opens.

In late February, very limited shooting resumed in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Since March, gloved and n95-masked crews, sterile enough to perform open-heart surgery on a whim, have been shooting away nationwide. Envy much?

That’s all gravy for China, but why should I care,” you ask? And if you’re not asking, you’re clearly not reading this article correctly (that or you jumped to the ending).

In the same way that Q saves Bond’s tight, squish-able butt, queue the gadgetry to come help keep directors’ alcoholism at bay, for now, and producers from well, themselves.

We’re talking about remote shooting and it’s quite the setup.

Call up your mind’s eye, and picture this. As June et al. work the set in Shanghai, director and up to 59 others are tuckered-up in a Netflix and chill kind of situation, wearing underwear but no pants, over in North America or wherever.

Live in Shanghai and Los Angeles
Photo courtesy PIG China

The remote team watches each 4K take at up to 2K resolution, 10 frames short of literally being “live”, delivered over 5G so smooth that some are considering immigration – we’re talking the real deal 5G, not the only-on-that-one-corner-on-Wilshire kind of American greatness. Raving mad that you can’t find a half decent flat white after 9:00pm EST on Grubhub, director can only scream at the laptop; we avoid a possible “situation and wrap before overtimes kick in. It’s your Zoom/Facetime/Skype happy-hour, gone pro.

Yes, that’s remote shooting. No, it isn’t news. Yes, it is THE talk of the town. Studios, agencies, brands, and production houses are clambering to shoot remotely in China. This is a reminder that the world is an oyster – bless the first man (yes man) who ever said, “why yes, that looks edible” – for all intents and purposes, and fate looks kindly upon those who help themselves.

Photo courtesy PIG China

For some, it’s a path forward, for others, it’s a lifeline. Call it what you will, remote production has taken off in China, and this isn’t a train you can afford to miss.

Remote production isn’t a glass slipper solution, still it solves a lot of problems for a lot of people, right now. Couple that with equipment, directors, DOPs, crew, talent, facilities and locations that’ll make Hollywood do a back-flip, and you’ve just found the one thing to keep from crying yourself to sleep tonight.

A (somewhat necessary) disclaimer
PIG is providing a range of remote production tools and solutions for production houses, agencies, brands and clients affected by the Covid-19 crisis. We continue to run our sets with the same acute eyes for quality and professionalism while keeping a third eye out for our crews’ health and safety.

Brands split over Covid-19

As COVID-19 spreads around the globe, more and more people find themselves living under lockdown. Governments try to make people understand the importance of staying home by using the term “social distancing”, which means standing 6 feet apart from other people in an effort to lower the risk of transmitting infections.

It seems that the brands are doing it too….

McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Chiquita are also among the many international brands to have quickly moved to redesigned their logos.

While this may seem like marketing genius, not everybody agrees. Douglas Sellers, executive creative director for Siegel+Gale says, “Our current global situation is no joke. It’s a serious matter, and brands designing social distancing logos have the potential to diminish the severity of what we are going through.”

Well actually, Doug, many roads lead to Rome. In the category of “serious and meaningful (and costly)”, LVMH group and Gap definitely score higher. They’ve retooled production lines to make sanitizers and masks. And you even have Ford and Tesla over yonder in the “butt-clenchingly serious” category; they’re making ventilators! At the end of the day, every little bit counts. Comic relief, laugh a little.

Stay safe.

The animation WIZZ kids

Hi, have we met?

WIZZ is an animation & mixed media power collective, comprised of talented directors.

WIZZ Animation Collective

You can think of them as a graphics laboratory. Madly in love with 2D, 3D, stop motion, mixed media and the works. Above all, what WIZZ directors love to do is developing whole new artistic worlds and tools.

For commercials, music videos, films, series or something in between, WIZZ is dedicated to true creative storytelling.

Oppo Find X2 Lamborghini Aventador Edition

WIZZ directors, Unit Motion, recently worked with PIG for our clients over at Oppo (read more about it here). The result is an artfully crafted teaser film for the upcoming Oppo Find X2 Lamborghini Aventador Edition.

NIke “Never Ask” (Cannes Gold Lion)

CRCR, another group of WIZZ directors, helped Nike create the “Never Ask” campaign which won the Cannes Lions (Gold) in 2019.

Learn more about WIZZ.

PIGMAN: Ren Hang

Ren

Chinese artist Ren Hang committed suicide on Feb 24th, at the age of 29

The Chinese Animation Gold Rush

With a huge potential box office rewards and no established domestic studio brands dominating the playing field, the enormous opportunity for creators of animated movies has seen a collective mobilization across the media ecosystem towards the genre.

For some, the catalyst was the enormous success of 2015’s “Monkey King: Hero Returns”, which earned 956 million yuan ($139m) at the box office and shattered the previous record for a full CG animation.

40150de413911abMonkey King: Hero Returns, produced by October Annimation Studio

Others, like DreamWorks, saw the market potential years ago.  In 2012 the company struck a $350m (2.4bn yuan) joint venture deal with three Chinese investment companies to form a studio on the ground in China, Oriental DreamWorks, which could circumvent the foreign film quota.

The government has played its part, offering grants and incentives for companies to make animation, eager to promote China’s creative evolution and production of soft power products that it can ultimately wield on the world stage.  That initiative has included facilitating international coproduction treaties, enabling substantial moviemaking partnerships, like those between China and companies in New Zealand and the UK.

Oriental DreamWorksOriental DreamWorks

Meanwhile, as China transitions from outsourcing destination to original creator, former service companies are turning to original content creation, like China’s leading visual effects provider, Base FX, and veteran CG studio Original Force, both of whom have major animated features in the works.

Established live action studios are getting in on the act too.  In October 2015, Beijing Enlight Media formed ‘Color Room’, an animation and live action division, to invest, incubate IP, and manage productions, while Huayi Brothers has also established an animation arm, Wink, to develop four animation features every year.

1Kung Fu Panda 3, co-produced by Oriental DreamWorks and DreamWorks

Companies with interests across multiple industries are adding animation to their portfolios.  Internet behemoth Tencent created film production arm, Tencent Pictures, which is developing and producing a diverse slate of 21 film and TV projects, while in 2015, Alpha, a giant Guangdong toy and clothing conglomerate, announced a 900 million yuan ($141 million) acquisition of original internet comic platform U17.com, with a view to converting the IP into movies.

Tough Terrain

The ground in China may be fertile, but the climate is uncertain. Fewer tickets are being subsidised than they were in 2015, sales are growing more slowly than expected and the Chinese box office won’t, as many had predicted, become the world’s largest in 2017.  Moreover, competition is fierce. The growing number of new Chinese films will compete with each other and a relentless onslaught of offerings from the established global big guns that make it in to China as part of the import quota.

1-20Japanese Animation: Your Name

There is no established Chinese animated entertainment brand, no household name animation directors or studios and very few known properties. In most cases, Chinese studios must develop IP from scratch, guessing what will work, or buy the rights to book, game or toy properties with an existing following and try to convert them in to compelling motion pictures. However, good animation writers are hard to come by, with the best talent historically drawn to the relatively better prospects in live action.

Moreover, the tastes of the rapidly morphing audience are as unpredictable as ever. The lazy assumption about unsophisticated masses that eat up Chinese mythology and spectacular visual effects is outdated. Audiences and reviewers are fiercely critical of sub par stories, recently prompting Party mouthpiece People’s Daily to publish an editorial piece slamming ‘vicious and irresponsible’ critics.

p2217523557One Hundred Thousand Bad Jokes, produced by YouYaoQi

The hope is that creators will be emboldened by the successes of ‘alternative’ films like the auteur driven “Big Fish & Begonia”, adult fare like “100,000 Bad Jokes” and Japanese indie efforts like “Your Name”, all of which demonstrate that there is a significant market for edgier content.

The unpredictability may partly explain why Chinese animation studios aren’t placing all their bets on the domestic audience. Whether for their first film release or a later offering, almost all studios say the eventual target is the global market.

Big Fish & Begonia, produced by Biantian Media

Joe Aguilar, CEO at Wink, says that for an animation studio in China to succeed, there are two key considerations.  The first is China’s ‘content wealth.’  “Chinese culture is more popular in the global market, and can produce infinite original stories with Chinese elements,” he says.  That may be true, but no Chinese film, animated or otherwise, has yet cracked the major US or European markets. One explanation may be a fundamental difference in storytelling sensibility between the East and the West.  Many senior studio executives have pointed to a looser Chinese story structure that is inaccessible to the West.

Western tastes might evolve with greater exposure to Chinese content, but that process will take years. In the meantime, Aguilar’s second point – that movies need to “emphasize international ways of expression, which make the movies globally more acceptable”- is the reason almost all studios with serious designs on the global market have established development studios in L.A. and/or installed Hollywood experience in executive positions.

The First Batch

This year will see the first serious runners among the multiple newcomers to the Chinese animated features race.

“Duck Duck Goose”, the first release from Original Force, is the pick of the bunch.  Led by a triumvirate boasting decades of experience in both Hollywood and China, the studio has seemingly all the right elements to create something of real quality for its debut feature.

MV5BOTU4ODYxMjItNWNhZS00ZDIzLWFjMWUtMzQ3MjU1ODY1MDEzXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjExMzEyNTM@._V1_Duck Duck Goose, produced by Original Force

Then there is Light Chaser Animation, the Beijing studio founded by Tudou founder and billionaire, Gary Wang.  Wang raised eyebrows by assuming writing and directing duties for the studio’s debut feature in 2015, despite having never previously written or directed an animated film.  He reprises the role for this year’s follow up, “Tea Pets”.

Tea Pets, produced by Light Chaser Animation

Guangzhou’s Yi Animation will release its first original movie, “Kung Food”, the feature film adaptation of the studio’s TV series, “Super Bao”, a stereoscopic 3D movie about living pieces of food uniting to prevent bland flavours from conquering the world. Coproduced by 21st Century Fox, the “Kung Food” is the only IP among this year’s contenders to have any existing fan base in China.

Kung Food, produced by Yi Animation

Finally, “Watch The Skies” is the first feature from DeZerlin Media, a creative content boutique that generates IP for animated and live-action features and series, games and print. It adopts a Western-style studio model, creating the IP and managing the property, but outsourcing the animation locally.

It is safe to assume the new crop of Chinese animation films will bring better character performance and production values.  Local audience will no longer accept substandard quality. The most compelling questions circulate around story. The risks might suggest studios will err on the side of caution for their debuts.  Will we thus see Hollywood films with Chinese elements – like the Kung Fu Panda franchise – or can a distinctly Chinese tone begin to shine through?  Will a director be afforded the time and trust to realize a vision, as Tian did for “Monkey King” or Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun did for “Big Fish & Begonias”?  This year, we’ll start to have some of those questions answered.

Where Does China’s Virtual Reality Industry Stand in 2017?

The Chinese VR industry is increasingly making headlines, both for Bloomberg’s much quoted estimate that it will be worth $8.5bn by 2020, and because it has been the first to monetize VR in any meaningful way.  Surveys show that Chinese consumers are willing to pay more than $15 per month for good content. The problem, and the opportunity, is that currently, there is very little of it.

Kevin Geiger is here to help.  The former Disney CG artist first landed in Beijing in 2008 to produce projects and teach, going on to serve as Disney China’s Vice President and Head of Creative.  A little over a year ago he founded the International Animation & Virtual Reality Research Center (iAVRrc), a virtual and augmented reality content development studio operated by China’s leading film school, the Beijing Film Academy (BFA).  Between the center, his content production company (Magic Dumpling), a regular LinkedIn presence, AWN.com blog and his own online journal, the Ohioan has become one of the more prominent western voices in Chinese animation and virtual reality.

We joined Geiger to get his take on the domestic industry at the end of 2016.

image1

PIG: In traditional media, China is generally seen to be a step back from the rest of the world.  That appears to have changed with VR.  Would you agree? 

Kevin Geiger:  In many areas of VR, China is ahead of the game.  In terms of the energy level, China ranks number one.  In terms of just the pervasive amount of hardware and software development, number one.  On quality of the locally developed hardware and software, I would not say number one. Catching up, but still back a step from the rest of the world.  There are far more experience zones in China than there are in the U.S. Even though they may be lower grade, they’re very pervasive.  There’s not nearly as much content being developed here as elsewhere for VR, and not nearly of the quality.  It feels like every VR content startup in the West is drawing on Pixar, Sony, Disney or Dreamworks for people to jump into the fray.  China doesn’t really have that bench depth, and with the investment weariness in content, people are waiting to see who else is doing what before they jump in. And, frankly, there are a lot of restrictions.  If you’re developing VR games, you fall into regulatory restrictions where have a one to four month regulatory approval period.  If you’re a startup trying to get a game onto the shelf so you can recoup your investment, that can kill you.  And of course, the content itself is tempered.  Censorship does have a chilling effect on the entire ecosystem of creative development and production, and that’s not necessarily in the service of the business, the industry, or even, ultimately, the culture.

image2iAVRrc Project: Story Forest

PIG:  Why is investment in content lagging behind hardware?

KG: Investors understand that content is the important thing.  They know it, but they really don’t have the stomach for it.  It’s more secure – but I think a false security – to invest in a widget, a piece of hardware or software, as opposed to an IP.  If you don’t get the returns you want and you’ve invested in something physical, you can sell it off and recoup something.  With IP, it’s not always the case.  I was at an event yesterday where investors were talking about their disenchantment with content, saying, “We’re pulling back from investing in content. We’re going to focus on hardware and hope the content that’s developed uses that hardware.”  I’m biased, because I’m a content guy, but I was a little surprised to hear that stated so bluntly.  It seemed a regressive approach to me, but I respect their points of view.

image3iAVRrc Project: Hutong Hunt

PIG: Do you think that attitude is widespread across China’s virtual reality industry?

KG:  I hope not.  Investors in general run the range from informed to uninformed, and from bold to risk averse.  China has enough people in every area of the ecosystem that even if 200 people say they’re not investing in content anymore, there are thousands more who are. I don’t think it’s necessarily epidemic and certainly Alvin Wang (China Regional President, HTC Vive) said he doesn’t see a chilling effect.  From his point of view, even though investors are asking more questions, he sees a widespread enthusiasm for the entire chain: hardware, software content distribution.

PIG: Which China-created VR experiences have impressed you?

KG:  I was impressed by Noitom’s Project Alice here in Beijing – this mixed reality experience of physically holding a bar stool in my hand, feeling the weight and the shape of it and seeing a digital representation of it in VR.  I was very aware that I was in VR, and the CGI rendering was not photoreal, but it didn’t have to be. It was so compelling that, very quickly, the other things in the room that were not mapped to a physical object became dangerous because I would want to sit on something that didn’t turn out to have a physical corollary.  When I visited their lab, the enthusiasm of the team really had that buzz that you expect at the best places.  It’s a big loft space with a 3D printer for rapid prototyping pieces of hardware on the fly.  There’s this middle aged Chinese seamstress on an old Singer sewing machine stitching together plastic and spandex full body suits. Espresso machines every five meters. Just the energy and the enthusiasm of the people working there is encouraging to me.

paNoitom Project Alice

PIG: With the dearth of truly spectacular experiences or a real business model, the West is arguably in the “trough of disillusionment” when it comes to VR.  Can we expect something similar in China?

KG: Friends of mine in Chinese companies, whether they’re developing content or software, have said it was much easier to get money in Summer 2015 than it is has been this Summer (2016).  The people who are still investing have more questions than they used to, whereas before they were just throwing money at you.   The silver lining is that it will separate the serious from the non-serious and have everybody take a breath and figure out, okay, what is the business model?  Everybody with their heads on fire, as they were a year ago, doesn’t necessarily mean that something’s being accomplished.  If everybody just starts developing hardware, software or content, without any real way to distribute it, with no pipeline, then it’s all just a lot of pomp and circumstance for nothing. 

Investors need to really think about if they’re in it for the long term or not. Especially in China, many investors are very unrealistic in terms of the simple mathematics of how long it takes to get a return.  Take the time of development, production, post and the approval process time – which in China is one month to a half year – then add the distribution, and only then is your first revenue trickling back.  You’re talking about a year or two at least before you can start to see any kind of revenue, let alone profit.  So if you’re not in it for that, don’t waste your time or the time of the people who you’re giving money to.  A VR startup with investors that want a quick turnaround on profit is always required to undercut the more innovative things it’s trying to do and come out with a dumbed-down, scaled-down version, just to try to make a quick buck.

If investors do have a stomach for it, I think there’s a payoff.  I see a future and that’s why I’m involved, but it’s not a quick buck kind of situation.  It’s going to be about putting money in, whether that’s an investor, or a producer like myself deferring fees on a project that I think will advance something.  I think that’s really what’s required to get the seriousness that you need for true progress.

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PIG: What does the International Animation and Virtual Reality Research Center do?

KG: We’re squarely focused on content, across virtual, augmented and mixed reality.  We’re trying to demonstrate that it’s possible to create Chinese content in China by Chinese that follows the prescriptions of what’s permissible, but can also still be engaging.  The Deans of the school gave me a pretty wide berth, but the two guidelines are: one, everything we do has to represent Chinese culture and represent it in a favorable way, and two, that there should be some educational component.  That might sound like a recipe for disaster, where you’re going to end up with this didactic or preachy bit of content, right?  That’s what we’re trying not to do.  We’re trying to have the medicine taste good so that you don’t notice that you’re being taught something.

PIGMAN: Chinese New Year

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Ang Lee’s Whole Shebang

Ang Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” is the first feature film ever to be shot at 120 frames per second, overtaking second-placed The Hobbit (48 fps), which had doubled the industry standard 24 fps.  Lee describes the combo of 3D, 4K HD and 120 fps as “The Whole Shebang”.

China has embraced the film, a China-US-UK coproduction, more than any other market, bringing the greatest box office returns, partly due to Lee’s popularity and partly because of a widespread penchant for new technology.  Two of the six theatres worldwide capable of projecting the film in all its glory were in China.  Hollywood executives and US audiences meanwhile, were largely unmoved. 

Critical reaction to the 120 fps has been mixed. Some have called it “too real” or a distraction.  Others have pointed out that the ‘hyper-realism’ it creates exposes the artifice of the performance.  Variety’s Brent Lang delivered a balanced critique, concluding, “[the film] represents both a massive step forward for moviemaking and a painful reminder that innovation comes at a price. It is a beautiful mess.”

At the ICEVE conference at the Beijing Film Academy this month, the movie’s 3D Stereographer & Stereo Supervisor, Demetri Portelli proclaimed on stage, “I want to document this film in history as an important event.”  We caught up with him to find out why.

Ang LeeAng Lee

120 fps “the ultimate solution”

When Ang Lee was looking for an “independent spirit” to help him realise his ambitious new project for under $50m with just 49 days shoot, he came looking for Portelli and digital engineer partner, Ben Gervais.  Following $150m-plus budget 3D projects with Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, and 47 Ronin, the duo had confounded critics by proving that 3D could be efficient and affordable, delivering the 3D and VFX for Jean Paul Jeunet’s The Young and Prodigious T.S Spivet for under $2m in an overall project that cost less than $30m.

OZ4A4513Demetri Portelli, 3D Stereographer & Stereo Supervisor of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk at the ICEVE conference, Beijing

After Life of Pi, Lee was looking for a crisper image.  Working at 24fps, he encountered a problem with motion and strobing when editing close-ups. “It was an ability to ‘lock in’ your eyes and look at somebody”, says Portelli. “He wanted to go to a high frame rate so that when you look at the face, you can lock in and hold your gaze on an actor’s eyes and stay there.  That’s really important in communicating with the audience and having a true experience.” 

LPLife of Pi, directed by Ang Lee, 2012

Lee also wanted to separate himself from the classic film aesthetic. “Ang said, “I think you guys were all wrong on Hugo.  You got the Alexa and tried to make a digital film look like an old movie.  What’s wrong with taking a digital camera and trying to find new aesthetics that are intrinsic to digital cinema?  We need artists to explore.”

The initial thinking was to shoot at differing frame rates – 24, 48, 60, 120 – which would have required commitment to decisions in principal photography.  Shooting everything at 120 would mean capturing substantially more data – around 7.5 to 10 terabytes a day, roughly 40 times that of a normal 2D film – but would provide high quality images for every shot and ultimate flexibility in post.

In Lee’s office, in a custom-built postproduction unit cooled with powerful air conditioning, Lee exercised that freedom, adjusting the frame rate, depth and resolution to complement and enhance the action. “There are shots at 24 and 60 where he drops the aesthetic down to 2K to give it the old movie feeling,” says Portelli.  “You can ramp scenes from 18 fps to 30 to 48.  Maybe you’re in 2D but then you get into a close-up, and you go to 3D-120.”

The BIG close up shows the technology best. The human face gives all the information.

The big close up shows the 120fps-4K technology best. The human face gives all the information

Ultimately, Portelli believes shooting at 120 fps makes every shot better, even if the frame rate is eventually dropped, “24 is better if you shoot 120 and deliver 24.  The reason is you can control the shutter in postproduction. The hard thing for us in 3D was strobing and judder at 24.  120 is so smooth because you have all those frames, so nothing hurts.”

He continues, “By gathering more information, you’re delivering a better movie for everybody all the way down the line, including 2D, 3D, 24, 60, because you’re controlling the sequence of the frames, and you’re controlling clarity vs. blur.  You’re controlling a cinematic look vs. a hyper real look.”  That flexibility ultimately enables delivery in various different formats to suit any screen.

On set, Lee and Portelli would qualify each shot using a one-to-five “gear system” shorthand.  For what Lee saw as “fantasy” characters like Billy’s love interest, they would go to 2D, a “low gear”.   The fifth gear was reserved for the big half-time show and climactic battle scene. “For Ang”, says Portelli, “the whole shebang meant realism.”

BL_battle2

Early on, the team had thought 120 fps shooting would best lend itself to action scenes due to its strength in capturing motion, but the real revelation was in the close-ups. “The beauty of 120 is that it shows everything, and it shows more.  You start to understand the beauty that’s there in a simple close-up. It shows muscles, it sees through the skin.  You can count the hairs in eyebrows and see the little expressions in someone’s eyes.”

“But,” he warns, “You have to be careful. It’s a very powerful tool.  You can make somebody look very interesting but you can also make someone look a little bit ugly.”

He continues, “It reveals the artifice of filmmaking.  The performance and the direction has to change, because if you see the actor thinking about his lines and looking down at his marks, he gives himself away.”

Portelli says naturalistic subjects are best.  “We’re trying to show the world in a different light.  Ang wanted to be bold, a project that put us in a natural environment in Morocco… and have you look at those little details in the sand and the dust.” 

BL_battle

People call it hyperrealism, but Billy Lynn is really just closer to just being a realistic project.  I think 120 shows the world much closer to how we see it in daily life.”

Portelli calls Billy Lynn “the brightest film you’ve ever seen.” The initial idea was to project at a standard brightness of 14 foot-lamberts, “But before we had calibrated [the projectors], Ang looked at full brightness (28 foot-lamberts) and said, “My god, that’s amazing!  He was trying to make a bold statement.  We’re trying to give you an experience.”

Portelli describes it as a “sensory overload.”  In fact, he says, “There are people who have gone to the film who have had a bit of anxiety because they’re not used to being put in that position as the viewer.” 

Billy Lynn HC

There is room for improvement in the next 120 fps outing.  The first challenge is to create smaller cameras than the hulking F65.  In terms of postproduction, Portelli says, “I think we can do more variations and soften the DI a bit and be a little less heavy handed.”  And of course, for more people to enjoy the experience, many more theatres will need to be capable of screening the full frame rate.

Lee’s next film, ‘Thrilla in Manila’ will be shot at 120 fps.  “Ang does not want to work at lower than 120fps”, says Portelli.  Lee hopes this will be the beginning of a movement.  Whereas James Cameron has called 120fps a storytelling tool, Lee is calling it a format.  “It’s not just a tool, this is a new way to see, so let’s start looking and let’s start talking about that. [Ang] is just beginning to discover a lot of new things.  You will see a lot of change in his next film.  Billy Lynn is just the beginning of what can you do with this.”