Rising Sun Pictures (RSP) in Adelaide won the 2020 Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) Award for Best Visual Effects or Animation for its work on the Chinese World War II epic ‘The Eight Hundred’. The studio helped to recreate the 1937 Battle of Shanghai, in which a small Chinese army mounted a determined defence against a larger invading army.
Directed by Guan Hu and produced by Haining Seventh Image Movie & Media Co Ltd, The Eight Hundred is one of China’s most successful movies and the highest-grossing film globally for 2020, having earned $US446 million (RMB 3.02 billion) in total box office.
RSP’s Tim Crosbie was the overall VFX Supervisor for the film and spent two and a half years overseeing the project in China. In Adelaide, RSP’s team was led by VFX Supervisor Tom Wood, Executive Producer Gill Howe, CG Supervisor Julian Hutchens, Compositing Supervisor Guido Wolter and VFX Producer Arwen Munro.
Battle of Shanghai
RSP was a principal visual effects provider for the film, which centres on the true story of the 1937 Battle of Shanghai in which a Chinese battalion defended the Sihang Warehouse from the invasion of the Japanese army. Working in collaboration with BangBang Pictures in Beijing and Tim Crosbie, RSP contributed detailed, invisible visual effects to support the film’s combat scenes, all set around a massive warehouse complex near the city centre.
The production of The Eight Hundred took over three years and included the building of a full-scale replica of the 6-story, concrete Sihang Warehouse riverside structure, where much of the action takes place. Principal cinematography by DP Cao Yu (ASC) was captured in 6.5K with ARRI Alexa 65 camera systems.
Most of RSP’s work focused on a long sequence representing the battle’s decisive third day. The Japanese stage an aerial attack on the Chinese soldiers on the roof of the warehouse. The fighting is witnessed by thousands of foreigners and Chinese civilians from Shanghai’s international Concessions, now called The Bund, located just across the river from the warehouse.
The studio’s team created CG set-extensions showing the ruined city of Shanghai to augment production footage of the practical warehouse set. The work included thousands of individual buildings and other structures, many in ruins, as well as debris, fire, smoke, snow and other atmospheric elements. The team also animated fighter aircraft and an airship, and a CG horse running through the interior of the warehouse.
RSP’s set extensions were monumental in scale. Tim noted that the warehouse set was more than a kilometre long and that over 2km of green screen, 15m high, was used around the perimeter. “RSP was given responsibility for the largest key shots in the film owing to its experience, especially with war-themed historical recreations,” he said. “The RSP team hit the mark early on for the look that we needed to tell the story. I could present shots to Guan Hu that usually reached and often exceeded his expectations, which made my job a lot easier.”
VFX Supervisor Tom Wood said that the CG sets not only had to be large, they also had to be finely articulated and rigorously accurate due to the sweeping camerawork employed in the sequence. “The camera travels with planes and an airship moving over the landscape, so details that begin in the far distance are later seen close up,” he said. “We had to build out houses to a distance of 5km from the warehouse.”
Guan Hu’s production team supplied RSP with many photos of 1930s Shanghai, before and after the battle, and other reference material. The film’s art department also built a 3D model of the city at the time of attack to use as the basis for building the practical set, and for the initial previz. RSP’s team used that material to ensure that homes and buildings were accurate in terms of style, colour and texture, and that the layout of the city was historically accurate.
“The production team’s research was very impressive,” said CG Supervisor Julian Hutchens. “They supplied us with loads of material. We took all those ingredients, ingested them one by one, rebuilt them and adjusted them to scale. We took considerable care to render those thousands of buildings and the associated props. It pushed the instancing to the limit.”
Once the general layout of the environment was established and key buildings set in place, artists honed details. “We looked at everything closely to see if anything was missing, like slate planks between floorboards and broken bricks on the edges of walls. To heighten realism, we varied the colour and shape of rubble, or added a car or a bicycle. It was quite fun,” Julian said.
Integrating CG and effects into the live action plates required special care due to the super high resolution of the production footage and the distinctive style of the cinematography. “It was shot with a very short shutter speed and minimal camera motion, resulting in very little motion blur,” said 2D Supervisor Guido Wolter. “Also, most action films use fast camera moves. People are running around and debris is falling, distorting the action and making it easier to blend things. Here, every detail is crystal clear, like a still photograph.”
As a further complication, many of the shots in the battle sequence are long, some extending for more than a thousand frames. “We had to double our attention to detail because the audience was going to see it all,” Guido said. “They have time to explore every shot.”
Tom finds the final results are very convincing. He believes that audiences feel that they are witnessing living history. “The film quality is amazing,” he said. “Guan Hu does a wonderful job in choreographing the action, going back and forth between different characters and different aspects of the battle.”
In addition to the battle sequence, RSP worked on several shots showing views of the devastated city from the perspective of Japanese aircraft. They also contributed to a few more fanciful scenes. In one instance, CG artists animated a white horse, playing an allegorical role, gallops through the interior of the warehouse, and in another, a dreamlike flashback takes viewers to an ancient Chinese battleground, a reference to a well known event in history in Chinese culture (see image at the top of this article). There, except for a single warrior on horseback, the entire environment and army of soldiers is CG.
Throughout the production, RSP maintained a tight working relationship with Tim Crosbie, BangBang Pictures and Guan Hu’s team in Beijing. “Our pipeline is set up to service production partners anywhere in the world,” said VFX producer Arwen Munro. “On this film, we were fortunate to have very strong partners, including John Dietz and his team at BangBang. John brings a wealth of experience to the Chinese industry, having worked in the global VFX industry for over two decades.”
The ultimate beneficiaries are movie fans when they see it on the big screen. “The film looks gorgeous,” Tim said. “The story is beautifully told and the VFX work is subtle and evocative.” www.rsp.com.au