Filmmakers are always searching for a better way to communicate the message and feeling of a story. The characters found in their creations are a means for the viewer to identify the experiences and emotions in their own lives, or the ones they hope to avoid. In the upcoming feature film Design 7 of Love, the filmmakers took advantage of the vision and talent of VFX Artist James Chen to manifest the state of mind of one of the central characters in a very disorienting situation. The film connects the unexpected association of architecture and emotions, or perhaps more accurately…the effect of these on one’s mind. Using state of the art technology in CG, they enlisted Hi-Organic Motiongraphics to do what so many productions desire, to display that which cannot be filmed. Taking a key role in this, Chen worked on some of the most surreal moments in the film. The integration of this tool and the cooperation between artist like Chen and filmmakers continues to be the type of visuals to moviegoers that were nonexistent until the last several years. While CG has allowed the creators of these films to display almost any scenario on screen, the role of artists like James Chen is to make them so real that we almost question our own senses.
The VFX work which James was charged with creating is integral to telling Design 7 of Love properly. One must understand the surreal nature of the storyline in order to appreciate how important Chen’s work on the film was. Yet, even prior to this one must understand that the word “design” in Chinese has two meanings. The first is the dictionary definition meaning “to decide upon the look and functioning of (a building, garment, or other object)”, the second is “to set up someone or something, in a relatively negative way.” The word “design” in this film has both of the meanings in many cases, especially when everyone is trying to “design” a scenario or situation in order to “set up” someone in the emotional world. The beautiful protagonist of the story is Doris, an interior Designer. Her ex-boyfriend Bartz hopes to repair their relationship by providing her with a senior designer position in the architecture studio where he works. This only serves to enrage Emma, the company’s other designer who seems to have feeling towards Bartz. The studio’s pitching process to a hotel goes smoothly as Doris’ presentation impresses the hotel’s young owner Mark, both with her design concept and herself. Doris suddenly becomes the studio’s hot shot. The studio owner Andrew hopes to ensure the company’s revenue by landing the hotel as a client. To achieve this, he encourages (essentially orders) Doris to starting dating Mark. Doris pretends to date Mark to justify her cold actions towards Bartz, leaving Bartz devastated and also making Mark more and more confused. Doris does not fully accept nor deny either of the two men’s pursuits. As the relationship between the characters becomes more and more complex, Doris’ mind world starts to twist. In a congruent fashion, all her “designs” metaphorically turn her vision of this supposed “beautifully designed” city into a pile of monstrosity, reflecting what’s in her own mind. In the end, Doris, Bartz, Mark, Andrew, Emma, and the other two studio staff [Chang and Chiz] all have their own “design” to “set someone up” in love or other affairs. The director of Design 7 of Love even created a scene in which all the characters act like they are “actors” instead of film characters, conveying to the audience “being set up.” The overall theme is that what we label “love” may actually be the result of a “design.” It’s the ability to see the merging of imagination of the mind (brought about by the emotional turmoil) that becomes part of reality that James manifested for the film. Doris’ main work objective is to provide new design to the hotel to make it a part of Taipei’s new “world design capital” title, but her emotional state has become chaotic and unstable as a result of her complex social relationship. When she wants to make things more clear, more simple, more “designed”, the outside world becomes more complex. This resulted in an approach that Chen describes as “anti-beauty.”
An ideal example of this is in the “Growing Monstrosity” scenes. So called because of the evolving appearance of the city, these changes are a direct effect of the chaos in the emotional state of Doris. Window fences, excessed vent pipes, and poles start to grow from the walls of the street view instead of beautiful decorations. These reflects the character’s mind. Metaphoric steel fences appear as a sign of Doris’ insecurity. James and the team came up with 40 base mechanical objects which were considered elemental to a structure, from factory pipes to a variety of small metal fences to serve as parts pool. The combination of the objects and scripted sequence transformation animation created a large number of wall structures with different shapes, providing a sufficient amount of complexity for the “growing monster” atmosphere in a fast way. The “shattered dream” scene contains CG environment and VFX with green screen footage. Doris is seen standing on a ladder made of piano keys, enjoying the “beautiful dream” environment which reflects her feeling at the time. The scene is designed to have a full CG environment. Later in the film the scene starts to collapse with every step she runs on the ladder as the dream becomes a nightmare. James states, “My colleagues and I utilized a vast amount of relief sculpture photo and traced them onto the models with Zbrush to enhance the details which made the Thinking Particles-powered fragmentation FX more convincing and beautiful.”
Hi-Organic Motiongraphics Kai-Zhen Lee was FX Lead on the film and explains what made Chen such an asset, stating, “James has experienced a vast variety of CG animation positions which made him very resourceful when facing technical difficulties. He often provided quick and sometimes unorthodox solutions for FX problems regarding the interactions between software functions from time to time. It was thanks to his knowledge, experience, and ingenuity that we were able to create such a unique look for Design 7 of Love.” A result of this was the film’s nomination for “Best Visual Effects” at the prestigious 51st Golden Horse Awards. With over fifty years of filmmaking history to the Golden Horse Awards, the nomination for “Best Visual Effects” places Chen and Hi-Organic Motiongraphics among the most recognized in Taiwan, Hong-Kong, & China. The connection between the images he creates and their effect on viewers is always present in his thoughts. James relates, “In order to get photos of Taipei city with a clear view for this film, the team somehow managed to negotiate with one of the TV stations to give us access to their helipad, which is a rare occasion. It’s not a view that many people get and it is beautiful! When you are up on a tall building and overlooking the city you appreciate the perspective. It’s times like these when I realize that my job is to give other people the ability to see things with the same awe that I experience. I love that part of what I do.”