Yifu Zhou joined Digital Domain in 2013. He has worked on many commercials and also on MALEFICENT. He serves as Visual Effects Supervisor & VP and Head of Studio for Digital Domain Beijing.

What is your background?
Before I joined Digital Domain five years ago as a 3D generalist, I was a landscape architect. Now, I head up VFX for our Beijing studio.

How did you and Digital Domain get involved on this show?
We were contacted by the VFX producer to do a test which went well and we were awarded our shots.

How was the collaboration with director Wen Jiang?
We all learned a lot from working with Mr. Jiang. He is a great director who is very precise about the details in his films. There is a Golden Gate bridge shot where the main character Tianran Li is running in front of the camera. The story takes place in 1937 but the bridge wasn’t actually finished until 1938 so the director wanted us to note that so that we would recreate the bridge under construction. That demonstrates the level of detail and historical accuracy Mr. Jiang wanted for the film.

What was his approach and expectations about the visual effects?
Mr. Jiang wanted to recreate 1937 Beijing in its entirety which has never been done by anyone before. He lived there from childhood and he has always wanted to show audiences what Beijing was like in the earlier 1900s.

For him, the visual effects needed to look believable and all the elements in the shots had to be authentic to the time. To achieve his vision, we collected more than 10,000 images of Beijing in the 1930s and made sure that all the landmarks looked exactly as they did during that time.

How did you organize the work with your VFX Producer?
We had production meetings where we divided all shots into different sequences according to their complexity and content. For example, we put shots from the same location that contained similar elements together as a whole sequence.

How did you split the work amongst the Digital Domain offices?
All 476 shots were completed by our Beijing Studio.

We also had 10-12 colleagues from our Hyderabad studio travel to Beijing to help with this project during the last two months.

Can you tell us more about the previs process?

  • We modeled Beijing from a hi-res map that was shot from space to ensure all the buildings were in the correct place.
  • We also worked with the director to go through each shot and sequence in order to learn where the story was taking place in the city.
  • We then recreated all the camera movements based on the locations and the 3D model of Beijing.

As a result, all the buildings and landmarks in the shots were in their correct place.

What was your approach to create the huge city?
We approached it like a team. It takes a lot of manpower to accomplish something like this.

Can you explain in details about the creation of the city?
Each rooftop in the city contained vegetation and grass, so we made sure that the grass was in its correct place and had the correct height. Beijing was very dry and sunny in 1937, so no grass would have grown on the south side of the rooftops while the north sides would have grown some. Since the lower side of each rooftop contained more water it was possible that some bushes would grow there.

Can you tell us more about the CG trees and the vegetation?
Almost 90% of the trees and vegetation in the film were CG. We did plant some vegetation and trees on set but they did not survive as well as we’d hoped and most of them were dead during production.

Also, some of the vegetation was not actually the correct species as it appeared in 1937.

Some shots are seen by night. How does that affect your lighting work?
The shots were actually filmed in daylight so we changed the sky and color graded the shots to appear as if it were night.

How did you create the digi-doubles?
There aren’t any digi-doubles in our shots.

Which sequence or shot was the most complicated to create and why?
There are some shots featuring Tianran Li running along rooftops that have been covered in snow. These were complicated because they contained the whole 3D asset of Beijing and required complicated snow effect simulations.

What is your favorite shot or sequence?
The shot where Qiaohong Guan (the female lead) walks on the roof of Dongsi Gateway during the night was my favorite because you can see the whole of Beijing in that one shot.

What is your best memory on this show?
I really enjoyed doing research on old Beijing and trying our best to make sure that everything was correct.

How long have you worked on this show?
5 months.

What’s the VFX shots count?
476 shots.

What was the size of your team?
120-150 people.

What is your next project?
I am currently working on a VR short.
(NOTE: Yifu Zhou was the Director behind Digital Domain’s VR short Micro Giants, which debuted at Sundance Film Festival 2018)

What are the four movies that gave you the passion for cinema?

A big thanks for your time.


Digital Domain: Dedicated page about HIDDEN MAN on Digital Domain website.


© Vincent Frei – The Art of VFX – 2018


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