“All the Hollywood studios want to screen my movie now. They want to see what all the fuss is about,” chuckles animator and director Raman Hui, who is clearly enjoying the success of his debut Asian feature, “Monster Hunt,” which delivered the biggest ever opening at the box office for a 3D Chinese movie.
The live action-CGI hybrid — in which evil humans have driven cute monsters from their homeland — has taken in almost $300 million since its July 16 release, and is still going strong. Hui says he expects to make a sequel. “The audience will be angry if I don’t,” he says. “But they want it next month.”
Hui, who was born in Hong Kong, is no stranger in Hollywood. He spent 20 years as an animator with Pacific Data Images and DreamWorks Animation, where, among his many accomplishments, he designed the titular ogre for “Shrek.” He counts DWA CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg as a close friend.
Hui says he wanted some time away from DWA to explore what he could do in China, and quietly went to work with Hong Kong producer Bill Kong, whose Edko Films has an expanding footprint in the mainland as a producer, distributor and exhibitor.
“Monster Hunt” was substantially made with key crew and actors from Hong Kong, and special effects houses from mainland China. “It is a simple tale,” Hui says, “very familiar to Chinese people, but with a look that is very different to what they are used to seeing.”
Hui says he learned plenty from Katz-enberg and DWA, including production strategies. Although “Monster Hunt” is essentially a live-action film with animated elements, Hui, writer-producer Alan Yuen and their team constructed it as they would an animated film. “We drew the whole movie, storyboarded and planned it, ’til we had a cartoon version,” Hui explains. “Then we converted it.”
The DWA approach also helped with marketing. “DreamWorks makes its films for adults, but bears in mind that kids will see them too,” says Hui. “We made ‘Monster Hunt’ the same way. It is entertaining for young-adult audiences and for kids too. It is fantasy, but also a comedy. There is no violence or inappropriate behavior.”
Hui says that when he went on a publicity tour for the film, audiences of all ages responded. “I was touched when some 60- and 70-year-olds wanted to know why I’d made a movie for them.”
Yet the picture wasn’t a sure thing to be greenlit. Although Hui took the project to Edko early in the production process, and had a first draft in 2009, he says that initially they had a hard time selling the concept to the Chinese industry. “It fell between genres. Nobody understood what it was. Some people expected a horror movie when they heard the title. I tried to explain that monsters can be adorable.”
Given that reticence — and the fact Hui’s experience was entirely in the realm of animation — the $56 million budget was a huge risk. “I had no idea how to do live action,” Hui admits
But as he has done with other novices, Kong surrounded Hui with top technicians, notably cinematographer Anthony Pun (“The Silent War”) and action choreographer Ku Huen-chiu (“CJ7”). Effects giant ILM, through its Chinese affiliate Base FX, was backstage, supervising shots under the direction of Jason Snell (“Elysium,” “Star Trek Into Darkness”).
One thing the director had to assimilate was that with live action and real actors, he couldn’t correct things weeks later, as he would with animation. But he proved a quick study.
“I asked Bill (Kong) what to do if I wanted to change something,” notes Hui. “He said ‘cut it out.’ And so I quickly learned what I needed to shoot as coverage.”
Now all he needs to do is get ready to apply that to the sequel.