Phenom Films: Ten years, we always stay true to our hearts
—An interview with Mr. Hongsong Chang, CEO of Phenom Films

September 2016, Phenom Films celebrated its 10th anniversary at China Film Directors Center, a ceremony titled Ten Years in Motion Pictures, A Journey from the Heart. As a domestic post production company in China, Phenom Films is not only a witness of the rapid development of China’s film industry, but also an important participant that grew along with it. Hongsong Chang and Yang Xiao, Founders of Phenom Films, left their previous jobs and started the company out of passion for the film industry. They met with young people with shared enthusiasm towards films, and started their journey from a small apartment in Beijing. They set out from filming short videos, to movie trailers production, to movie cutting and visual effects, and to today’s integrated package of the production chain including lighting and sounding services. The projects grow bigger, so did the team, and their dreams. Over the decade, Phenom Films has grown to be a one-stop post production film-tech services provider, cooperated with over a hundred famous directors home and abroad, engaged in over 200 well-known films including “Mojin–The Lost Legend”, “Mr. Six”, “Go away Mr. Tumor”, “Miss Granny, American Dreams in China”, “Back to 1942”, “Painted Skin II”, Taichi I&II”, etc., and received almost all Asian film award in the effects category.

During our interview, CEO Chang gave us a review of Phenom Films’ ten-year journey, and elaborated the original intention and development ideas of Phenom Films’ movie dream.

Phenom Films’ Journey of the Past Decade

CFM: 2016 marks the 10th year anniversary of Phenom Films, can you give us a review of the company’s development? What are some projects that had important influence?

Chang: Actually Phenom Films development coincided with the golden decade of China’s film industry. Phenom Films falls into the sub-industry of post production in the film production line. Phenom Films has grown with the industry in the past decade. Looking back, it’s definitely not easy starting from ground zero. I appreciate the around 300 partners that worked with us on different projects in the past ten years; I thank them for accepting Phenom Films when we’re far from perfect, and walking alongside us till where we are today. We managed to establish and maintain good relations with many of our partners in the past.

One can say that post production is a weaker chain in China’s film industry. When we first started off, all directors, renowned or new alike, faced technical challenges when it comes to post production, and hoped it could be more efficient. So we were pressured to quickly develop ourselves and persist on our path with the expectation from filmmakers and seek ways to better serve directors and the industry. In the beginning we mainly focused on trailer and film editing, then we expanded to visual effects, light, grading, and sound, and now we can cover the complete process. Given the relatively comprehensive technological environment and highly efficient post production, directors can therefore concentrate on their creation. This is the contribution Phenom Films has made to the industry, and also a lesson we acquired.

Probably the directors who worked with us in the early stage can relate to this better, because at that time, there are no alternatives, our only option is to fight for it. Now gradually filmmakers can collaborate with tech talent and have better communication among themselves. This is evidence of Phenom Films’ value to the industry over the years.

You asked about influential projects to Phenom Films’ development. In my eyes, I first need to mention “If You Are the One” by Director Xiaogang Feng. It was the first time we completed full film editing. Before that, we only did footage editing, and this movie marked a turning point where we entered the production line of the business, and became familiarized with the production process of the film industry. We were still working with cassettes at the time. The second I’d like to talk about is “The Message” by Director Guofu Chen. This movie was the first time we did special effects, and at that time we only had one specialized team, and we worked with over ten small studios that specialized in advertisement effects, the the final product of “The Message” was recognized as a special-effects blockbuster (laugh).

Later on, we kept on improving ourselves all around, from “The Message to Painted Skin 2”, as well as the two movies with Director Wuershan, “Painted Skin 2 and Mojin – The Lost Legend”. First, we knew we needed to change from within; there was a mismatch between Phenom Films’ capacities/resources and the demands of the projects. Thanks to our non-stop accumulation of experience and skills, and persistence with our principle to provide better services to directors and filmmakers, we managed to keep growing to a standard up to the demand of our projects and to deliver best results. When we finished those projects, we were also finishing an evolution ourselves. Everything, including our team and our understanding of filmmaking grew stronger as we accomplish the challenging projects step by step.

CFM: Phenom Films is trying to build a “whole process production line”, what’s the latest progress on each stage?

Chang: After we have all essential tools ready, we will carry out post production work of all different types of films at our hands. Probably for some films we were only trusted with parts of the whole chain, but they indiscriminately demand our technological innovation and improvement in efficiency. One thing we keep getting better at is how to be more effective in our integrated process.

Internally we believe our technology has reached a certain level, what’s more important now is the understanding of the art, of the films themselves. These steps of the production process sound quite technical, but in essence, they all give room to creativity. The artistic value is to be embedded in each step of the postproduction process, and this should be the next goal our team aims to reach.

CFM: Throughout the well connected chain of the film industry, which part do you think is more important in the future?

Chang: I started doing editing and then special effects myself. To be frank, editing has the most artistic value among all the stages of postproduction process. A film editor is equivalent to 30% of a postproduction director. From original creation to special effects, it’s the most complicated and difficult process, each shot is like a work of art, an integration of multiple technologies, and naturally requires continuous innovation. Lighting adjustment accentuates the feeling of colors, and need to work closely with cameramen, so that one can express emotions through colors as a way to show the intention of the creation.

At present, I see huge room for improvement in sound, and there are countless devices of creation. Sound is also similar to special effects; sound production knows no limits or any type of standards. Sound is a single work unit, which has fewer intersection with other departments. That’s why I think the stage of sound creation is the weakest chain in China’s filmmaking industry today, and urgently calls for an improvement. When we watch Hollywood films, whether IMAX or Dolby, or other configurations, we can feel the layers of sound effects, and the emotions they contain. I don’t think the industry is giving Sound enough attention. Whether in terms of budget allocation, production period or talent growth and cultivation, more efforts are demanded. Good thing is though, in the recent couple of years, I can feel some directors are focusing more on this part.

A Post Production Industry Alliance

CFM: Phenom Films is reaching out to some post production companies, considering about starting a post-production industry alliance. What is the original intention in this and what are the main targets?

Chang: The alliance was established certainly with good intentions; it now has 100 member companies. Our common belief is that post-production is an industry that requires cooperation, plus Phenom Films has been trusted as the main contractor of large projects, so we have quite some partners.

As we outsource and split the service package we find it difficult to tell apart artistic, leadership and technological talent involved in the process. How can the vendors accomplish their work, for example, what should be the timetable and how to control budget, including the problems of talent flow within the industry. Each company may have its own R&D and innovation sector, and I hope there can be a platform where we can share things. When the whole industry moves forwards, it’s easier for individual companies to develop, or for the whole team to grow. Of course, this takes time. Each company has its own interests and development strategies. But at lease, the alliance is already formed, and is moving forward gradually.

The Gap Between China and World in Post-Production

CFM: Phenom Films has worked with many famous post-production technological experts and professional teams worldwide, where do you think is the biggest gap between China and other countries?

Chang: Whether compared with Hollywood or Korean companies, China has raised to a certain level in terms of hardware, software and level of techniques. The main gap in the the following fields: First, the post-production technician’s artistic and aesthetic value, as well as their understanding of the films. In other words, in each segment of the post-production line, individual specialists can improve their artistic value. The second gap lies in experience. China’s film industry started late, maybe short of ten to twenty years, and this shortage of ten or twenty years of experience is the gap. When working with certain projects, some of this experience can really come handy.

If we look at a project macroscopically, normally speaking, the postproduction work done by foreign companies actually can be accomplished in China, probably just takes longer time. Because postproduction is the collaborative work of multiple departments of techniques, and you get better by continuous accumulation of experience and trials and error. Our foreign counterparts owe credit to their rich experience for their efficiency. If a company can persist with accumulation and R&D or thirty years continuously, and commit itself to result improvement and optimization of production process, then when they work on a new project of course the effects will show. Along with the improvement process, the people working on each process gain more experience. It’s comparing experienced drivers with those who just got their driver’s licenses, the latter are not as good now, but will catch up sooner or later.

CFM: Right now China is trying to cooperate more with foreign companies, how can Chinese companies better learn their advanced experience?

Chang: Technology-wise, say if the software infrastructure is in place, the techniques and methods used here and abroad are no different. When we worked with foreign companies before, even when the experts came over, if the technical infrastructure was problematic, they wouldn’t be able to work their magic, because special effects is not something can be accomplished by one person. No matter how strong an individual’s skills are, if there’s a mismatch with other links of the production line, or with human resources, software, system, plug-ins, then R&D results cannot be utilized to their fullest.

After Painted Skin 2, we started working with some professionals from abroad, and they had a good time as well. In China, like abroad, when the whole team know what they are doing, then they will be able to play their part to a maximum, and have more sparks of ideas and new inspirations to take on new challenges. We have worked with almost twenty foreign experts and they all enjoyed their time here.

CFM: Phenom Films set up a branch in Los Angeles, how is it going?

Chang: Our LA office has been in operation for over three years now. Originally one of our goals is to introduce talent and advanced technology, and also raise our professional level. In reality though, Hollywood’s post production special effects sector is gradually shrinking, a big share of the market is relocated to other regions.

Phenom Films pays more attention to medium to long term projects, or more comprehensive projects in other words. We prefer projects that allow us to work more from the creativity side; we cut in from the plot and script stage, then onto design, shooting plan and on-site observation, so we can have better control of post production at the final stage. Basically this is the process we go through when we have a special effects project, we believe these are the essential steps if we want to add our understanding about the film into our work. In our LA branch, staff have communications and exchanges of views on the technology level; the majority of our employees in the office come from regions such as Europe, India, and Thailand.

Phenom Films Arts and Future Center

CFM: Phenom Films recently launched Arts and Future Center, can you give us a brief introduction?

Chang: We really hope Phenom Films can have a team or a department focusing on the non-technical side of the business. Because the postproduction of a film is a combination of artistic beauty and technical skills. I’m not sure how well this team will do in the future, but I believe our staff should have access to such a space and resources to do what they deem valuable. Some of their R&D is on the design level, and some probably can materialize into something interesting. I remember years back, apps such as Meitu and its like emerged and turned viral, the technology behind those apps are very easy for our tech team, because it is commonly used in filmmaking. It’s a pity that we didn’t think of turning it into something interesting like Meitu.

Technology is as important to the filmmaking industry as it is to military. In application, there needs to be a process of transforming military-use to daily-use. With the resources available, we encourage our people to try new things. For example, they purchased a motion capture equipment and were hoping to develop some ideas and innovations combined with our current technology. Right now this team consists of only seven to eight people. This Center is actually quite an attractive place, when we are working on projects, I would recommend it to some directors, scriptwriters or photographers, so that they can go hang out there or have a chat, and quite often there will be sparks of inspiration as they interact with each other.

CFM: Is Future Center developing AR or VR technology in the meantime?

Chang: Technology development is done by our R&D department. In our design, there are three stages, we’ve finished the first two now. It’s a unique approach we are taking. In the first stage, we built two robots with special effects to fight with each other, so that more audience can see or feel for themselves what VR actually is. At that time we were only starting to learn about VR technology, and the first question in our mind is: the special effects we used to do are all 180° including 3D technology, how should we focus purely on special effects in the realm of VR technology? Is it related with the characters in the films? Then on to the second stage, say we take the scene from “Mojin – The Lost Legend” where actor Kun Chen opens the coffin to do an experiment. The scene contains many different elements, real acting and special effects created environment. In October 2016, we finished the first draft. In stage three, we hope to combine filming and technology together, to have an idea about what the final result is going to be like.

Personally I still have many questions about VR yet to be figured out. For example, when we show a short film, then audience watch the story we are trying to tell in a passive way, our shots are guiding them towards the end we want to reach. But if the audience can be provided a 360°screen, then they will have more control in their hands to choose what to see and what to ignore. In this case, how can the story be told? How to decide on the characters? How to explain the relations among characters? This is something we need to figure out before starting to write a plot, and the biggest uncertainty in VR industry.

Exploring Animated Films

CFM: How was Phenom Films involved in Foodiverse? What made you want to do an animated film?

Chang: When we start to get more involved the production line of animated films in China, we found that those who are doing anime and animated films are two separate groups of people, and there’s a huge gap between the two fields. So participation in in Foodiverse is a great opportunity for us, because we could put our experience and understanding into the making of the film. Foodiverse actually represents our first attempt in the genre of animated films.

I think the development of Chinese animated films has been stagnant on the TV level for quite some time since Shanghai Animation Film Studio. TV anime gears more towards younger children, quite different from big screen films in terms of aesthetic value, storytelling tempo, industrial technology, etc., and as filmmaking technology develops, the gap grows wider.

In actuality, anime industry focuses more on the animation itself, and the film industry focuses more on films. But when you want to produce an animated film of 100 minutes, the two sides must be combined. Animated films adopt different filming techniques than traditional film, for example mise-en-scene can be a lot more flexible in animated films.

During the process of making animated films, it’s quite easy to forget the cameraman, or to mess up the storytelling tempo. Storytelling is more stressed in real people filming; in animation, people focus more about the effects of each scene and the performance of characters. However, the most important project in filmmaking is how to tell a good story in 100 minutes, which is different from animation. In the recent couple of years, we keep trying and exploring as we work on our projects.

We worked on “Monkey King: Hero Is Back” in light adjustment, and it was an interesting process. So far, Monkey King: Hero Is Back is the first Chinese animated film that used movie-level light adjustment. Since this movie, we were reached out by six to seven animation films for our film-standard light adjustment services.

When were work on animation before, not enough efforts were put in the postproduction process, including animation, rendering, synchronization, color grading and color matching. But by the film industry standard, each detailed step needs to be configured again and again to meet a cinema level. The color scheme needs to me controlled to fit for big screen display. In the making process, I deeply feel that Chinese animated films still have a long way to go.

This is the first complete animated film we produced, and now we are clear about the purposes and meaning about the project: to combine anime and films, so that we can have more confidence in working on more animated films. We have two more animated films already started. Animated films lend us more space to realize things we couldn’t before. Because live-action films are limited by many conditions, while animation we will be able to express much better in some way.