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 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

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Australians tend to focus on the success of actors and cinematographers internationally, as a symbol of our prowess. However, there is another success story in Australia’s international reputation in the high growth sector of digital production. Sydney based Animal Logic has been a key driver of this sector, and House of Flying Daggers is one of its major successes. The film is now out on DVD, together with a range of extras that include the magic of digital effects.

House of Flying Daggers, Zhang Yimou’s much anticipated follow up film to Hero, was in Official Selection at the Festival de Cannes. Sydney’s Animal Logic completed 100 digital effects shots for the Chinese film, reconfirming Australia’s maturity in the global effects industry. And the recognition it has generated, including awards like the BAFTA for Achievement in Special Visual effects, among others.

"beauty, craft and ingenuity in the digital realm"

“This comes at a time when digital is a fast growing percentage of overall production,” says Greg Smith, Director, Communications & Public Affairs at Animal Logic. “House of Flying Daggers shows that this trend is ubiquitous; it is not limited to the box office blockbusters of the US. This film demonstrates beauty, craft and ingenuity in the digital realm as well as the physical realm.”

The company, based at Sydney’s Fox Studios, was chosen from an international field to work on key scenes in House of Flying Daggers, on the strength of its work for Yimou’s Hero, China’s biggest grossing film ever.

Animal Logic sent a small effects team to work on the Daggers set with Yimou’s crew in the Ukraine and China, spending a total of 14 weeks on location. Shots were completed in collaboration with the Chinese crew, with Animal Logic’s digital effects artists completing 100 shots in key sequences of the film. 

Visual effects supervisors on House of Flying Daggers, Andy Brown and Kirsty Millar worked with Yimou’s crew in pre-visualisation and on-set digital production. Due to a compressed schedule, Brown and Millar supervised and completed a number of temporary shots on set with Yimou before returning to Australia to scan, record and finalise the sequences with the Animal Logic digital effects team.

"the shot of flying arrows"

One of the biggest challenges on House of Flying Daggers was the shot of flying arrows, as Kirsty Millar recounts: 

“Often Andy or I would only have a few hours notice of an idea for a shot that the directors were contemplating, so we had to come up with a shooting method on the spot, whilst being mindful of the condensed post period. The lack of prep time meant that we could only utilise whatever resources were available to us at that moment on location. This resulted in some vfx solutions being relatively 'low-tech'. 

“An example of this is a shot where Jin, the hero of the film, played by Takeshi Kaneshiro, rescues his heroine, Mei (Zhang Ziyi) from her captives. He fires four arrows in quick succession which travel a great distance through the forest to hit the four policemen with incredible accuracy. The camera starts behind Jin then takes off as he fires the fourth arrow. We rocket through the trees at warp speed to find the arrow as it ricochets off a tree and then flies on to join the other three arrows, only ramping to a halt as all four arrows find their targets. 

“Andy and I really scratched our heads about how to get the plates we needed, being able to come up with a method that would look great on screen for quite a long duration, with the production resources available. We initially planned to use a steadi-cam to shoot the basic background plate, then stabilise, re-speed and add motion blur in post. Unfortunately the steadi-cam became tied up with second unit elsewhere. The dolly tracks we had only covered about 8 metres, but we thought maybe we could lay the track, shoot a pass, then take the back of the track and re-lay it in front of the camera to shoot another pass and so on, joining these in post to form one continuous take. However, the tracks also became unavailable to us when production pressures, such as delays caused by inclement weather, caused them to be allocated elsewhere. We then contemplated using the 18 metre crane to shoot the plate, using a zoom lens to fudge the idea of the camera continuing to move forwards once the crane had reached its limit, then perhaps continue this with a 2D zoom in post. We decided that this still wouldn't give us the duration and coverage that we really wanted. 

"We bought all the elastic that was available in the remote rural Ukrainian village"

“We finally decided to shoot some stills at carefully measured 1 metre intervals. We bought all the elastic that was available in the remote rural Ukrainian village and tied one end to a soccer goal post in a clearing at the edge of the forest and tied the other end to the furthest tree to which it would stretch. This gave us a nice straight line to follow for about 200 metres. By the way, it had been raining quite heavily which had turned the ground into a foot deep mud bath and at one point we were visited by a herd of marauding cattle trampling through the forest gully, threatening to knock the camera off the tripod and into the mud. Andy had a good laugh watching from a safe distance as I feebly shooed them away with a tape measure. 

“We took as much time as we could afford to precisely line up the height and angle of the stills camera for each image so that when these vistas were cut together the resulting clip would be a continuous and smooth camera move. Our fallback was that we knew we could, at the very least, use them as textures for 2D flats with a 3D camera, but we wanted to avoid that as it would blow our 3D resources on just one shot. It turned out that senior compositor Dave Dally, using Shake to stabilise and retime, could get the stills all running together to form a continuous background move. Fellow compositor Dan Breckwoldt retouched any tell-tale moving shadows and dappled light, caused by the sun's movement throughout the day. Additional matte painting was done and tracked in to merge the footage to create a smooth and continuous plate.

“Once we had locked down the background plate with the director, the plate was tracked in 3D, then passed to senior animator Nathan Stone for the addition of CG arrows. Dally then composited the arrows seamlessly into the forest, spending a total of three months on the shot.”

The film tells the story of a handsome soldier and his revolutionary lover as they embark on a journey fraught with danger and features Yimou’s trademark martial arts battle scenes. The 2-disc DVD is full of extras.

Published July 7, 2005

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Greg Smith, Director Communications & Public Affairs, Animal Logic

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