As local directors up the epic stakes, extras, not CGI, still dominate massive battle scenes

BEIJING — Thousands of Chinese troops wearing full battle gear, getting ready to rumble, is a formidable sight, but it’s one that auds are getting used to as China’s big-budget movies become more popular around the globe.

The biggest Chinese pics of recent years, such as Zhang Yimou’s “Curse of the Golden Flower” and “Hero,” Jacob Cheung’s “Battle of Wits” and Chen Kaige’s “The Promise,” have all been historical epics. If they share one major characteristic — other than an obsession with martial sagas set during the Warring States period (476-221 B.C.) — it’s a focus on large-scale battle scenes.

In Hollywood, big battle scenes usually mean lots of tech input, and the CGI stakes have been raised by grandiose war scenes in movies such as “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “Flags of Our Fathers.”

But for all of China’s economic growth in recent years, its movies remain relatively low-budget, and CGI is expensive. Also, China’s strength is its abundant supply of cheap labor and livestock, making it generally easier to use real people and horses for those climactic hand-to-hand combat scenes.

“Curse of the Golden Flower” — with one of the biggest, bloodiest battle scene climaxes ever filmed — is a classic example. It’s a high-tech movie, making strong use of CGI throughout, including Alice, a program developed by the Moving Picture Co. for some of the key battle scenes in “Troy.”

Although CGI was used, given its cost and the pic’s tight schedule there was little room for often time-consuming computer graphics. As a result, Zhang says he used surprisingly modest amounts of CGI on “Curse” — less than 20 shots in the ultimate battle scene.

Zhang says one of the ways he got around this was by taking a couple of hundred people and horses and making them look like a monster-scale army of banner men, an ability he sees as one of his strengths as a director.

Using real people also means the same extras can play the opposing army the next day, with different costumes.

Clever choreography is essential, and on “Curse” Zhang employed Tony Ching Siu Tung, who did “Shaolin Soccer,” which was widely praised for its tight and inventive kung-fu scenes.

“Curse” vfx supervisor Angela Barson says Zhang could have used more than the 800 extras he employed in the battle scenes, but it would have been too expensive to give them all armor.

China’s filmmakers have another secret weapon — an enormous standing army.

On the set of “The Banquet,” in an aircraft hangar near Beijing, helmer Feng Xiaogang oversaw hundreds of People’s Liberation Army soldiers. They make for highly disciplined extras and are no strangers to putting on uniforms.

“Banquet’s” combination of live-action and CGI is the norm: Feng spent months working on CG effects.

Flexible labor laws in China means extras will work seven days a week, usually for whatever hours a director requires.

This flexibility works to a filmmaker’s advantage. At one stage during the shooting of “Banquet,” power went out during a key banquet hall scene. When the lights came back on, Feng noticed an unusual lighting effect against some silk curtains on the set, which he really liked. He was able to call hundreds of cast, extras and crew members back to reshoot the scene to his liking.

“Battle of Wits” is based on a well-known Japanese manga series and features Andy Lau as a lone warrior who comes to the aid of a besieged village. Central to the pic is a huge battle scene shot in Inner Mongolia.

On one set of “Battle,” near Beijing, Hong Kong helmer Cheung waxes lyrical about how easy it is to find extras to film the big battle scenes.

Local farmers, most of whom have never been to the cinema but are familiar with movies from pirate DVDs, also are willing extras, though they do need a lot of coaching.

“You can tell the people here exactly what we want, and they are usually very enthusiastic. We use local farmers as casual artists, and it’s easy to find 300 or 400 extras without too much trouble,” Cheung says.

“We have to use a lot of people to teach them what to do. But they do not know about movies and they sometimes just sit there on the horses,” he says.

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