Today I had the chance to talk with Chinese director Ji Zhao from the AIF Festival (Animation is Film Festival) at the Loews Hotel in Los Angeles. His new animated film White Snake was a huge hit in China and is soon to be released in the US and Canada.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with me and the Rotoscopers readers. They will be delighted to hear from you.
How did you become a director?
I started my career as an editor for live action movies and about six years ago I joined Light Chaser, the studio that made White Snake. At the beginning I was an editor, and about 4 years ago I co-teamed with my partner Amp Wong to write White Snake.
Did you study film in school or anything like that?
I have a background in digital filmmaking both in China and US. I went and graduated from UCLA from 2009-2012.
How did you get the idea to make a movie based on the ‘Legend of the White Snake’?
White Snake is a very famous Chinese fairytale. We have a 1000 year history for this story. Everyone in China is familiar with it, and like me watched the TV series for that story when I was a kid. I always had some questions.
You see. Our movie is actually a prequel of the original story. At the development period of the movie, 4 years ago, I was wondering why the White Snake, this perfect girl that has superpowers and is beautiful and smart: Why would she be such a coward?
In the original story the boy is a coward, so I was wondering why such a brilliant lady would be in love with such a man? This girl comes to find her husband in a past life but nobody tells the story of the prequel. So we wanted to fill in this blank.
So that was your approach to look at her journey and see why she would be sympathetic to this coward?
Right we wanted to give an answer to the original story of why this couple needed to be together? Well, the 2 young people fell in love with each other in a previous life.
What do you think women will be able to take frpm the story? How will they be able to relate to Blanca as a character?
When we created the story we wanted to apply a modern point of view to understand young people’s love. It’s an imaginary love because it never happened in real life. We have more ways to communicate today with the internet but in ancient times they didn’t have it.
Yet we think the young girl and boy should have similar love. Love is still the same in the modern and ancient times. We used the modern point of view, young people’s point of view, to retell the story of the Asian love fairy.
So you think people will be able to relate to the romantic part of it?
I hope so. At least in China most of the young people connect to the movie because it’s kind of a perfect relationship. This is what they want and in the movie these 2 young people fall in love in the first scene. It’s almost like love at first sight. We hope this kind of relationship can help young people reflect on their real life and feel happy about it.
Do you think of Blanca as a strong female character?
Of course, she is a very independent character. In the original story she is a very strong character. For this movie we gave a growing up arc for her. We wanted the audience to see a younger version of Blanca trying to find her way, compared to the grown up version we already know. It’s a coming of age story for her.
The film is very beautiful, and I was wondering how did you come up with the style of animation? Did you have an inspiration?
We tried to recreate a Chinese/Asian feel so we lived in a small village in Southwest China and the unique view of mountain-land and water was striking. Normally for CG technology it’s easy to make something more real but for Chinese art there’s something about not wanting it to be too clear, too real.
The way we show things to be beautiful is blurred, is not too clear. So we had a challenge for the art creation or development of the film.
How long did it take you from concept to finishing the movie?
We actually had the idea 4 or 5 years ago. At the beginning we created the script and ideas and visual concept and worked from there.
Had you worked on an animated film before this?
Yes since I joined Light Chaser Studio I worked on 3 animated films before this as an editor and post production supervisor.
Were there any Chinese artists or art period you drew inspiration from in your style?
Because the time period of the movie is late Huang Dynasty we used a lot of old drawings from that time period. They helped us to get the inspiration for the art part. For the characters we researched some Asian/Chinese clothes from that time. It’s a little bit different. The clothes were made by silk with a lot of layers. This was a big challenge for us to make the character effects look sharp and we think they turned out very well.
Ok. Great. The character of the Fox Spirit has a very unique look about her. How did you come up with her design?
Actually she is one of the only new characters. She’s not from the original fairytale. We are glad she is half fox because in the Chinese culture we have a yin/yang. We are always talking about 2 faces and the story is about 2 faces. Every character in the movie has 2 faces.
For example, for Blanca we have the younger and the grown up version. So for the Fox Spirit we wanted to make a 2 face girl. She likes to show people her cute side, like a little girl and her wicked fox side. We actually have a backstory for her. She fell in love with a human a long time ago but she had a bad experience so she keeps the little girl look and try to attract people with it.
The original White Snake story is only about snake spirits. It doesn’t mention any other monsters or demons in the world. We created the Fox Spirit to show the possibility of different demons, spirits and foxes we may meet. We wanted to make the world more wide-open and unknown than the original one.
That’s neat. I didn’t know it was an original creation. How did you decide on a fox?
A fox is a very funny animal. In Chinese culture fox is a very important animal because we have a lot of fairytales about foxes. It is probably the most clever animal among all the monsters. She is also the most beautiful, and we think she might have more story to tell. She’s a very interesting animal to tell a story about.
Great. My last question is: Was it difficult creating and animating the action scenes? They were so fluid and graceful
The action is actually the most fun part during the production. In Kungfu Panda they have some Chinese martial arts stuff but we wanted to make our own point of view martial arts, a Chinese way of doing action scenes. So doing the part was very fun and creative.
We invited some kung fu fighters to show the movements to us and we recorded them to help us. We wanted to make them new and different from other action scenes.
Well I think you succeeded. Congratulations on a beautiful film!
When is it going to be released in the US?
It will be released Nov 15th.