Yu Dong: A Chinese Film Company’s Efforts and Exploration in Technical Innovation

Yu Dong is the President of Bona Film Group Limited (BONA). BONA is a famous domestic film producer characterized by whole industry chain layout and strong film distribution capacity in China. Each year, BONA produces around 15 films. Herein, films such as “Operation Mekong” and “The Grandmaster” have brought about good social and economic benefits.

BONA was founded in 1999, and 17 years have passed since then. BONA was originally a private film distributor. Later it engaged in film investment and production as well as the running of terminal cinemas. So far, it has developed an integrated business model encompassing all upstream and downstream chains of the film industry.
What impressed me the most is that the rapid development of Chinese films and technological advances in the recent decade have created new opportunities for the whole film industry in China. The surge in the number of cinema screens in China plus the technological advances in film projection have enabled Chinese films to quickly catch up with the world’s leading film production techniques, putting forward higher requirements towards China’s film production. In 2010, a 3D film called “Avatar” achieved great success at the box office. At that time, China only had in total 800 3D screens and 12 huge screens. With such screening conditions, this film has taken RMB1.42 billion at the box office in China, with only RMB200 million made by non-3D cinemas. The then BONA invested in a 3D cinema in Shijiazhuang which was also the first 3D cinema in Hebei province. This screen has set a 24-hour non-stop screening record, and it has achieved nearly 10 times of showings each day.
3D films seemed to arrive suddenly and unexpectedly, bringing about new business opportunities for Chinese films. Later, BONA planned to cooperate with Tsui Hark, the director, to produce “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate”, and soon the two parties decided to make the film China’s first modern 3D swordsman movie. In 2010, the production team, led by Tsui Hark, started the work at very low budget, and our local technical team started from scratch. So there were people suggesting the film be made in the US. Yet Tsui Hark said, no matter what we did, the first film would always be a must for China to innovate and start a new era. So we started everything from the very beginning. We called together computer technicians in Asia from Apple’s technical team, Japan, Korea and Singapore, and we hired photographers and introduced equipment as well. I can recall that we introduced the first 3D camera, which was very expensive at that time. The camera is out of date today, but it marked a historic moment when we shot the first 3D film.
The progress in technology has broadened creation space for films. Also, it has created stereoscopic effect and vertical feeling, and perfected special effects, injecting more imagination into film creation. The first 3D animal scene we shot was for “The Taking Of Tiger Mountain”, an another chance that we cooperated with Tsui Hark. It was in the year when we were ready for the shooting of “The Taking Of Tiger Mountain” that “Life Of Pi”, directed by Ang Lee, popped up. “Life Of Pi” has brought about a great shock to China’s local films. Tsui Hark suspended the shooting and production of “The Taking Of Tiger Mountain” and said he needed some time to study the tiger shot by Ang Lee. “Defeating the tiger on the mountain” is the most important scene in “The Taking Of Tiger Mountain”, and required 20-minute-long special effects. We postponed the shooting of the scene until a year later, and re-arranged production cycle according to technical requirements of the special effects.
When the film was released nationwide on the Christmas Day of 2014, the special effects of “defeating the tiger on the mountain” shown in the film have won high praise from the audience. The success was attributed to common efforts of the production team for over one year. To complete the desired special effects, we captured all live-action footage of a manchurian tiger in a zoo, as the film required the scenes of a tiger in motion. Besides, the whole special effects were completed by our Asian team. This scene had a very high degree of completion, while the whole production cost was only 10% of that required by American film companies, which has provided valuable experience for production of special effects for Chinese 3D films in the future.
In 2016, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”, directed by Ang Lee and invested in and distributed by BONA, was released. It is the first 4K/3D/120fps film in the world. When investing in this film, all investors were quite concerned, as such technical specifications were in the lead worldwide, meaning no cinemas in China or even in the world at that time were capable of showing this film. Nonetheless, when the film was done at 120fps, its scenes were breathtaking! This film has opened up a new filed for films of China as well as the world. It features completely immersive performance. It has changed the actors’ way of acting in front of the camera and triggered a revolution to projection technologies of the whole world.
In order to show the film, BONA invested in a cinema in Beijing for technological renovation and created conditions for the showing of the 120fps film. Shanghai Film Group also invested in the renovation of SFC. When the film was released, it could only be showed on five screens around the world. In China, audience could only watch it in two cinemas of Beijing and Shanghai. This film has achieved remarkable box office for these two cinemas. In spite of the limited number of seats, Beijing Bona Tang Guoji Studios, with only 243 seats, had full houses for all showings of the film. Its single-screen box office was over RMB10 million, and the highest single-day box office was up to RMB 640,000. SFC had nearly 1,000 seats, and its single-screen box office hit a record high (over RMB20 million) as well. It was these two movie halls that offered valuable viewing experience for movie goers of Beijing and Shanghai as well as those coming especially, which has also urges nationwide cinemas to achieve 2K/3D/60fps servers through comprehensive upgrading. During that period, cinemas of the whole countries were busy having appointments with various service providers to renovate audiovisual effect of cinemas. As a result, the 3D effects of film showing around the country has be enhanced as least threefold, realizing a upgrading of viewing experience for movie viewers of the whole country.
It is known to all that the perfect combination of technological advances and film art is the only road modern films must get through. The artistic creation of films can’t do without touching stories and feelings, performance of our favorite stars, vivid viewing experience and immersive theater effects, which are unique charms distinguished from small screens.
Today, the number of screens of China has exceeded North America, making China the world’s largest projection market. The projection standards of China’s cinemas have already taken the lead in the world. The new technologies and projection techniques from all over the world can be displayed in China’s projection market, which urges China to raise its film production level to meet the demands of such technical equipment. If our film production fails to reach the world-class standards in workmanship and theater effects, the development we achieved and efforts we made for more than a decade will be in vain, and Chinese films will only stay at the small-screen age.
Therefore, China’s film makers and producers shall have a sense of responsibility and carry forward the spirit of craftsmanship. Most importantly, they must have the guts to compete with world’s leading film production companies on big screens. Last year, BONA invested in the production of “Operation Mekong”, a gangster action movie that drew well and won wide acclaim. This is a film imbued with spirit of craftsmanship. In the face of the shock caused by the impetuous pursuit of IP-based Internet game films, BONA persists in investing in and producing good films that go after professional quality or high production standards. I would like to mention a very small detail in “Operation Mekong”. The film’s sound technology provides a very valuable experience in today’s film making. All sound effects, including each gunshot and different sounds of objects hit by bullets, no doubt reached the world level. The progress we have achieved in technology is embodied when movie viewers sit before big screens such as CGS and Dolby screens to hear and experience differences of sounds made by various guns.
Currently, director Dante Lam is busy shooting a new film called “Operation Red Sea” in Morocco, a country in North Africa. This film will be a commercial blockbuster surpassing all past experience of Dante Lam. I can tell you that there will be a big gunplay scene by special effects — a tank battle in the desert. What’s more, the battle between ourselves and the enemy is waged in a sandstorm where we and the enemy cannot see each other, so the goal is exposed at every gunshot. The design of the whole scene is of high challenge and even surpasses similar scenes in past Hollywood films. I believe it will provide viewers with unforgettable viewing experience by virtue of technological progress.
Technological progress has brought about new imagination to the creation of films as well as new viewing experience. Today’s movie goers need good films. What’s more, they need films that are more captivating that those they have watched. Therefore, Chinese film makers must devote greater efforts to open up a golden period for Chinese films. To achieve this goal, we shall make unremitting efforts.