Centro magic rises to Riders' challenge

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 August, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 August, 1998, 12:00am

The tremendous success of the locally produced film The Storm Riders is seen by one of its producers as a great boost to the morale of the slumping Hong Kong movie industry, even though the film was planned two years ago, long before the economic crisis.

The movie has earned more than HK$30 million in local ticket sales in two weeks, second only to Titanic.

John Chu, president and chief executive of Centro Digital Pictures (Centro), was a producer of The Storm Riders and the force behind the most elaborate digital-effects film made in Hong Kong.

'This is a very important film for Hong Kong because people still want to see Hong Kong films,' he said.

The successful implementation of technology, even if only for a film, seemed to be important to him. 'There has been little good news in the world of technology recently,' Mr Chu said, referring to the problems at the new airport.

The film cost about US$10 million to produce, making it one of the most expensive made in Hong Kong. 'Normally, a Hong Kong film will cost between US$1 million and $2 million to make,' he said.

Indeed, if Centro had not been a co-producer of the film, the cost of the special effects would have been greater, as Mr Chu donated his employees' time.

Centro is often called Asia's ILM (Industrial Light and Magic), George Lucas' special effects studio that created Star Wars and Steven Spielberg's dinosaurs.

A few years ago, Centro did the special effects for a local film, The Umbrella Story. The effects were on the lines of those used in Forrest Gump, where fictional people were integrated with old film clips.

The Storm Riders was far more challenging. The film is based on a comic book series and includes a great deal of magic and a 'fire kirin', or dragon-like creature made of fire.

The technology Centro has at its disposal is no less impressive than ILM itself. The office in Kowloon Tong is full of boxes from Macintoshes to the latest Windows machines to scores of Silicon Graphics (SGI) workstations and two Quantel Dominos (British-made specialist full-resolution high-end editing workstations, costing about US$2.5 million each).

Although many people think of special effects as being the sole domain of SGI, Mr Chu said Centro used everything and anything that got the job done. 'We are not tied down to any particular platform: we use what is best for a particular job.' The Storm Riders employed some unusual hardware. Ten PCs with Pentium Pro processors were used as a render farm, which is a series of networked computers that work together to distribute the CPU-intensive task of painting the skin or surface of a 3D object, which will eventually be transferred to film.

The kirin was modelled and animated using Alias PowerAnimator and Softimage and rendered with Pixar's Renderman. The 71-metre Buddha and the Chinese palace in Sichuan were both created with 3D Studio Max and the two Domino machines were used for real-time image manipulation at full film resolution.

Dozens of SGI machines were involved, including the Onyx2, with 12 R10000 MIPS processors and Reality Engine2. The special effects took 30 programmers and technicians 18 months to complete.

Centro produced more than 500 shots totalling 40 minutes of action for the film.

Mr Chu is pleased with the response the film has generated, but he did begin work two years ago, when the atmosphere for making films was still not too bad.

'If somebody came to me today with an idea to do a film for US$10 million, I cannot say for certain that I would do it,' he said.