‘The Chinese Mayor’ Producer Taps Into VR Documentary Filmmaking

This is the first in a series of interviews with Chinese filmmakers participating in the 2017 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.

A still from the 2017 documentary ‘The Cave’ shows a carved wall reproduced in virtual reality. Courtesy of Zhao Qi

Golden fairies fly about with lutes in their hands, and ancient murals pop out from the walls in the Mogao Caves of Dunhuang, a UNESCO World Heritage site in northwestern China’s Gansu province.

In his most recent film, “The Cave,” documentary producer and director Zhao Qi (‘The Chinese Mayor,’ ‘Fallen City,’ ‘Last Train Home‘) takes his audience on a virtual tour of Cave 285, which is closed to the public to better protect the frescoes inside from exposure to carbon dioxide and humidity. Using virtual reality (VR) technology, Zhao has created a vivid copy of the ancient grottoes, debuting the 13-minute VR tour at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) this month.

Donning a headset and grasping a motion controller, anyone can roam the dark cavern filled with murals and Buddha statues. Viewers can even hold up a virtual candle to illuminate the artwork or open a book to learn about the history of the paintings.

Zhao is no stranger to the IDFA. “Last Train Home,” a film he produced in 2009 that follows the life of a migrant worker family, was the first Chinese film to win the IDFA’s Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary. Several years later, Zhao’s directorial debut in “Fallen City” — chronicling the struggles of three families after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake — was nominated for the festival’s Competition for First Appearance in 2013. “The Cave,” short-listed for the IDFA DocLab Immersive Non-Fiction Award this year, is merely the pioneering filmmaker’s latest experiment in the genre.

This time around, the 43-year-old who has been producing documentaries for around 20 years decided to create something different — a work he describes as an “experience” rather than a film. In the future, Zhao’s team plans to capture even more wonders from around China using VR technology.

Sixth Tone spoke with Zhao about his experience of bringing Chinese documentary to the world stage, his exploration of new storytelling techniques, and his views on the future of documentary filmmaking in China. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Zhao Qi. Photo: Facebook.

Sixth Tone: What got you interested in using VR technology to make “The Cave”?

Zhao Qi: [The movie] is about what’s inside Cave 285 in Dunhuang, which is not accessible to the public. Even if you went in, you wouldn’t be able to see [the paintings] because it’s dark, and flashlights can damage the colors and textures of the murals.

With VR and augmented reality, you can be in a relatively open and bright space and can see the paintings in detail. There are also some special effects and interactive elements that give the audience a more authentic experience and spark their interest. If a viewer triggers the sensors, the two-dimensional murals become three-dimensional, making the audience feel as if they are in the painting.

Sixth Tone: How much time and money did you spend on producing the 13-minute digital short in VR?

Zhao Qi: I am not at liberty to disclose the exact amount, but the budget is a few million yuan. We spent over half a year on it because we were using new technology. Looking back, some procedures could be optimized. An experienced team could have finished it within four to five months.

A still from the 2017 documentary ‘The Cave’ shows a virtual fairy flying through the air holding a lute. Courtesy of Zhao Qi

Sixth Tone: What challenges did you encounter during production?

Zhao Qi: We are traditional content creators who are not up-to-date on the new developments in technology. At first, we didn’t understand the technical VR jargon. Gradually, I learned how to effectively combine new technology and traditional storytelling, and figured out which new elements I can contribute to this genre.

Take filming the surrounding environment, for example. In the past, I simply needed to record it with my camera. Now, with VR, I must work with a team of technicians to create a computer model and supervise the production process from an artistic perspective. Then after the model has been set up, you might want to add some interactive elements to it, which works like a gaming system.

Sixth Tone: Before making “The Cave,” your team produced a 10-episode VR documentary called “Encounter,” a series of six-minute shorts that take a close look at cultures around the world. When did you first become interested in VR?

Zhao Qi: We started to look into it at the end of 2015. “Encounter” was one of our first productions, a project we worked on to perfect our design of a 360-degree perspective. Now, I don’t think it counts as a VR video. At most, it’s a panoramic video that doesn’t allow the audience to enter a 3-D space.

We used 14 GoPros to create a panoramic view, but we encountered synchronization problems, battery issues, and various other technical obstacles, which couldn’t be resolved easily. Now, we have a new video capture tool with a single on-off switch. This means you can use just one camera to finish all the work. However, from the perspective of content creation, the stories we tell still require planning, and we still need to determine what values we want reflected in the work.

[The films] are not only commodities, but also works of art. So first, we need to make something that has artistic value so we can set the bar for future productions in the genre. That way, the audience will enjoy a high-quality viewing experience.

Sixth Tone: Last May, you signed a deal with major media group Zhejiang Huace Film & TV. How do you think you can benefit from the partnership?

Zhao Qi: In all honesty, they have patience and respect for creative freedom. Now, there is a lull in VR development. The company doesn’t demand immediate returns on its long-term investment.

You can’t create a product that could have great impact on society without capital. Only with more money can the documentary genre garner more attention and attract a loyal fan base.

Sixth Tone: Despite winning awards and receiving funding overseas, Chinese documentaries have long seen a lack of interest in the domestic market. Do you think the situation has changed in recent years?

Zhao Qi: All changes take time. Ten years ago, when I produced “Last Train Home,” we made 50,000 yuan [$7,500] at the domestic box office. Nowadays, aside from “Twenty-Two” — a film about “comfort women” that earned over 100 million yuan — there have been documentaries with over tens of millions of yuan in domestic box office totals every year. In the past decade, they have attracted a niche audience.

Chinese documentaries can be shown overseas and gain an international following, but their main market should be in China. The social issues reflected in the films are Chinese issues, and the society that they aim to transform is Chinese society.

The support for making documentaries should come from the government and commercial enterprises. Public funding, favorable policy, and corporate donations are necessary to encourage independent creation. But directors should also consider the market’s needs and abide by national laws and regulations. They should try to negotiate [with regulators].

Sixth Tone: Chinese documentaries that have won international awards tend to center around a specific social issue or a particular figure. At this year’s IDFA, several Chinese films seem to deviate from this pattern, including yours. Have the international jury’s expectations changed?

Zhao Qi: I don’t think it’s the expectations from the international community that have changed. Our filmmakers now have more confidence in expressing themselves independently [in a diversity of subjects].

One day, we should all have the confidence to show the world what we think is valuable. We should not just make films that appeal to the interests of investors. The process takes time. This [shift] reflects stronger self-confidence and also sets a definite direction for future development.


–This article originally appeared on Sixth Tone