Effects of heaven and earth: a more grounded Monkey King story

Behind the VFX of ‘American Born Chinese.’

American Born Chinese, now streaming on Disney+, is an adaptation of Gene Luen Yang’s graphic novel.

In the series, American high schooler Jin Wang meets fellow student Wei-Chen who, it turns out, is not a student at all and instead introduces Wang into a world of Chinese mythical gods.

An array of visual effects were required in the series to tell key moments set in heaven and on earth, including completely synthetic environments, animal transformations, and magic, particularly centered around the character Monkey King’s staff.

Production visual effects supervisor Kaitlyn Yang oversaw several key vendors, including DNEG and its sister company ReDefine, as well as Pixelloid, Tower 33, Alpha Studios, Mr. Wolf, Plucky, and DigitalFilm Tree for previs.

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Here, befores & afters looks at some of the biggest scenes, especially those worked on by DNEG/ReDefine.

Heavenly transformations

The first episode of the series sees Monkey King (Sun Wukong) chasing Wei-Chen through heaven. In addition to dramatic martial arts aerial combat, Monkey King transforms into several animals, including a falcon and a wolf. It was a bold sequence for the show’s opener, notes Yang.

“I remember when I was doing a script breakdown for 101, I had so many margin notes and I was like, man, I’m just at the bottom of page one! We really wanted to do Sun Wukong’s 72 transformations justice and get as much practical and CG environmental interactions as well.”

“And,” continues Yang, “at the end of the day, you have this father and son moment, and we’ve seen so many historic father and son moments in TV and in cinema, so we wanted to put our twist on it of a father who has so many magical powers and uses them to hide his own insecurities, albeit it’s taking place at the top of a cliff with the portal to the other world underneath them. For me it was about giving the audience a version that I like to think of is like the lion’s dance at Chinese New Year, where you have the big lion’s head dancing around and then you have the really loud gong keeping its beat. It was about giving our visuals that type of energy and mixing as many animal transformations and the 2D-3D environment transformations as well.”

DNEG/ReDefine handled the sequence, with its first task to work out how the transformations would occur in the frame. “Production worked with the stunts team, led by Peng Zhang, and DigitalFilm Tree to previsualize how they should choreograph and shoot the action,” details DNEG visual effects supervisor Lee Sullivan. “The action and the transformations flowed through the cut and through the space and it made it a lot easier for us to choreograph these transformations across cuts and across panning and moving cameras through the space.”

Hero assets—the tiger, falcon, wolf, fish, etc—were crafted at DNEG initially, while ReDefine began work on the look of magic in the show. Magic was also used to piece together transformations. For example, explains Sullivan, “when the Falcon starts to transform, it tumbles forward and the wings fold up and then we managed to roll that into a ball of magic, which then unfolds into the tiger.”

“I think what also really helped,” adds DNEG visual effects producer Oliver Eikhoff, “was that they did previs on this and the edit was somewhat locked when we started working on it. They put a lot of thought into the scene in previs before they turned over the work to us. We had weekly reviews with the production team. It was really, really great to work with them because they said, ‘Well, you guys know what you’re doing. Here is what we want to achieve, but, do your thing.’”

Sullivan says one of the toughest moments to achieve in these transformation shots was when the fish leaps out of the water and turns into the wolf. “We had to figure out how to get forward momentum of the fish in a fairly short shot, swimming past camera and leaping out of the water as the camera cranes up through the surface. Then they had a plate of the wolf running away from the camera into the forest. To make all of that readable and understandable was a challenge.”

Wei-Chen is pursued back to quite literally the edge of heaven, where a giant waterfall, cloudscape and cloud vortex lead to earth. Again, DNEG and ReDefine combined to bring these atmospheric elements to life through extensive fluid and particle simulations.

The live-action elements were filmed outdoors at a rocky outcrop, with bluescreen for the vortex below, and a crane used to enable Wei-Chen’s jump into the waterfall. “We replaced the whole mountain side with a giant waterfall,” outlines DNEG’s Sullivan. “We also added in very characteristic trees that you see in traditional Chinese paintings.”

“It also actually started way smaller, this waterfall,” states Eikhoff. “Our first version we presented wasn’t that big. And then Destin said, ‘Yeah, make it epic. Give me an epic waterfall.’”

The art of magic

A central artifact in the show is Monkey King’s magical weapon, his staff. It emanates and enables many different forms of magic. This ‘magical realism’ aspect of the show was something the visual effects team had to constantly refine and retune, notes Yang.

“The central theme with American Born Chinese is about unlocking the dormant superhero within you. So in essence, anything and everything could have magical properties. Now, I actually started out in special effects. I love getting my hands dirty, making molds and figuring out what you might need to do to make a bullet wound. So it was always in the back of my head to think about ‘what practical things could we find or could we shoot as reference,’ or to get as much in-camera as possible, for this magic.”

“For the Staff magic, for example, we’d find examples of one iron rod being hit by an equally or greater kind of iron that was on fire, and look at the amount of streaks and the secondary spark trails for inspiration.”

DNEG and ReDefine approached their magic VFX shots in different ways depending upon who was wielding it. “In different combat scenes, the impact had to have a different flavor to it depending on who was fighting who,” discusses Sullivan.

Another kind of magic effects was used for the arrival of characters, but done in fresh ways. “When Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy (Michelle Yeoh) comes in,” says Sullivan, “we were specifically told to avoid a classic Hollywood magic look like for example Gandalf appearing in Middle-earth. Kaitlyn emphasized the idea of Guanyin appearing through a kaleidoscope. We took that and ran with it and created this interesting, faceted refraction effect. Kaitlyn also sent us these references of images conveying compassion, and one of the things that really jumped out at us were rainbows. So there’s a rainbow refraction effect that you see, as well these chromatic aberrations.”

Sky fight showdown

The school’s sporting fields play host to a finale battle featuring Wei-Chen, Sun Wukong and the Bull Demon. Jin Wang also plays a central role, as even more magical effects are realized around the staff. Significant wire work for aerial Kung Fu scenes choreographed by Ping Chong were filmed on a bluescreen stage, with DNEG and ReDefine digital doubles, CG environments and crowds also relied upon for the scene.

“We were able to film the starting portion of the sky fight, as we called it, at the school, practically,” describes Yang. “Special effects supervisor Roy Cancino aided in rigs for fight scenes, as well as in generating practical wind and debris. Then we had our amazing team at XM2 who gave us a few drones to capture as much of the school as possible before we lost it for the next school year. Then DNEG and ReDefine recreated the school using real world measurements, even finding the exact model and make of the bleachers. They used the grid present on the field as a practical ruler.”

The final shots were—as the ‘sky fight’ name suggests—intended to bring the viewer up with the characters. “The camera was never static,” adds Yang. “It was kind of a character on its own as well. We really wanted to give you the feeling that you were right there next to the characters, flying up and down to one side of the field and being kicked over to the other side.”

Revisiting the Monkey King

For Yang, the opportunity to work on American Born Chinese was a welcome one, not least of which was the chance to explore more of her childhood entertainment experiences.

“I was so excited to work on this show for so many reasons,” contemplates Yang, “but the main one was, I was just a big fan of the source material. I grew up watching the ’80s version when I was a kid. That was my TV show of choice after school. I was very familiar with Journey to the West, as so many Asian Americans are. That’s our Shakespeare. So many well known stories stem from that particular series. So when I was first brought on, it was more or less fun imagining our unique take to the classic story, as opposed to getting up to speed on the source material.

“I’ve also seen other iterations of The Monkey King,” she says. “It’s such a big IP over in the East. But in American Born Chinese, he’s a father now. He grew up from his mischievous monkey days. He’s trying to exude control over his son who stole his Staff on the journey of trying to become his own person. Seeing the Monkey King go through the battle that so many parents go through – how much leeway should you give your kid to have him discover and explore his own self and his own identities? It was fun to see it being done in a different, more grounded way.”

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