This is the first part of a two-part interview.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Raman Hui, the Hong Kong born director of Monster Hunt, a hybrid live-action and CG family film that recently surpassed Furious 7 to become the highest grossing movie in Chinese box office history.
After starting his career as a cel animator in Hong Kong, Raman moved to Canada to further his studies and continue his animation career. He later moved to the San Francisco Bay Area where he worked as a junior animator at Pacific Data Images, a company that was later acquired by Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Dreamworks Animation. There he worked on commercials and short films and ultimately became the supervising animator and character designer on Antz. From there he moved on to become the supervising animator on Shrek and Shrek 2, and was chosen to co-direct his first feature film Shrek the Third. Monster Hunt was Raman’s first live action movie.
Raman Hui with the ‘Monster Hunt’ baby monster. Image credit: Variety.com
Rob: You’ve worked a lot in the U.S. and in Canada, but had you made a movie in China before?
Raman: No (he laughs).
What was it like and how was it different from working in California?
The biggest difference for me was not so much about being in California or China. I guess for a lot of people that would mean a big difference in culture and language, but for me, I’m lucky I understand both. Coming back to China I had to switch to Mandarin and pick up the language a little better, but knowing the culture was easy for me and adapting to the way they work in China was easy. The most challenging thing for me was shifting from animation to live action with CG effects. That was the toughest part for me because, for example, when they were planning the shoot, I think the pre-production is very much the same for animation and live action movies, but when you get to production it’s different. For example, they would ask me “Raman, what do you think about this scene, how long do you think it will take to shoot this 2-page scene because we’re working on a schedule?”I remember my first answer was “Maybe 5 days?”And then they looked at me like, “Are you crazy?” I said “What’s wrong with 5 days,” because for an animated movie that scene would take us at least 3 months to finish, so 5 days is a big discount already for me.
They were probably expecting you to say something like 4 hours.
Exactly! And now after making the movie if they asked me I would say “half a day.”
That’s probably the right answer to every question.
Yeah. At first I had no idea how to shoot in an organized way for live action. Because I still think shot by shot like I would with an animated movie, but now I had to think about how we have to shoot this angle, and then we have to shoot that angle. Sometimes after we shot one part and they switched to a different set-up with different lighting I would bring up “Oh, we missed one shot, we need a close-up of the actress in the previous angle, and they would say “Why didn’t you bring it up earlier when we had all the lighting set up for it?”
How did you learn, did someone help you or did you have to learn by trial-and-error?
I think I learned by making mistakes and having people correct me, and I saw how my mistakes caused other people more work. I think I’m a good learner. As you know, we shot the movie twice (note: this was because star Kai Ke got into legal trouble and was temporarily banned from appearing in the picture, so his scenes had to be re-shot), so the second time we shot it they were very happy to see that I had learned.
So you didn’t really have anyone to guide you through the process?
I did. Bill Kong (the film’s producer) was so good to me, he gave me really good people to support me. And they all knew coming to the show that the director is new to live action. They were all very patient and they even explained to me why we were doing things a certain way. By the end we became a very tight and very close team. I’m very, very lucky, and I have to thank Anthony Pun, Doris Tse, DeeDee and Fan Kim Hung for their great help.
How many days did the film take to shoot?
The first time we shot it was about 85 days, including holidays, over 3 months. The second time we shot for around 32 days.
And that was to replace the main actor?
Yes. And because Bill (Kong) really wanted to get the film ready to release in the summer we put in longer shooting days the second time.
You said the cultural aspects were easy for you. But I’ve lived in Hong Kong and also in mainland China, and I found that in a lot of ways they really are two different cultures that are very foreign to one another.
Yes, yes. Even though they’re both Chinese, Hong Kong people speak Cantonese and in China people speak Mandarin, so that’s different, and the way people think also is a little different. It’s more westernized in Hong Kong. But actually the funny thing was even before I shot Monster Hunt, a few years earlier, Dreamworks Animation sent me to China. Back in 2011 we were building Oriental Dreamworks in Shanghai, so I got to live in China for close to 2 years before the shooting of the movie.
That must have helped.
That helped a lot, because I learned to understand their jokes in Mandarin. When I first got there I didn’t understand a lot of what they were talking about, but by living there and becoming friends with people I worked with I gradually adapted to the Chinese culture pretty well I guess.
Before I went to China, Dreamworks sent me to India for 2 years, and India was a very different place too. The funny thing was that because of my name, Raman, people in India thought I was at least half Indian, because my name is totally Indian. My father wanted to call me “Raymond”but he didn’t know how to spell it and he spelled it wrong, so on my birth certificate I have an Indian name and that name stuck.
So you fit right in.
Well when I got to India I didn’t know the culture well but I got to understand the people, hang out with them, work with them, laugh with them, cry with them, and at the end I didn’t want to leave India. There were also things I didn’t understand there, stuff I didn’t get, but at the same time I totally understand why, being them, they would do things in a certain way.
I think it’s the same with China too. For example, one thing that’s very different between Beijing and California is that when you’re crossing the street in California, the pedestrians are the most important thing. You stop your car if someone’s crossing the road. In Beijing it’s like “Man, I have a car, I don’t care who you are!”
That’s so true!
There are a lot of things like that where you know “OK, I just have to live with that.”I didn’t think it’s true but to the people in China in a way I’m very American, the way I think, the way I react. Like I’ll get mad if someone cuts ahead of me in line. And they just love doing that.
They definitely do. Were you surprised when they told you that you’re very American?
I first heard that from my family in Hong Kong. They said “You act very American,”and I said “What? What? What do you mean?” I guess I’ve been in the States for too long and I did become very American.
I know what you’re talking about. My family is always telling me I’m very Chinese all the time.
I’m kidding. But I suppose I am at least a little bit Chinese.
(he laughs) It would be so nice to switch families.
It’s kind of funny how basic behavior can be so totally different in different places. You can mad in China about the ways people do certain things, but it’s just the way they are, you can’t do anything about it.
The good thing is, even in China they make fun of those things too. They make fun of themselves. In a way that’s how you make comedy, you make fun of stuff that everyone knows and understands, and there’s nothing you can do but laugh about it.
That’s interesting. In your career you’ve mostly made movies for the world audience in America, and now with Monster Hunt you made a movie primarily for the Chinese audience. I don’t know if you thought it would travel around the world, but most Chinese movies don’t, they’re really mainly for the Chinese audience.
You’re right, Monster Hunt is mostly made for the Chinese audience. There are jokes that non-Chinese people might not understand. But there are also universal jokes in it. So if you’re not Chinese and you watch the movie you can still follow the story and understand it. Which is the same as American comedies, when you show them around the world there are universal jokes that everyone gets, and there are also American jokes that people might not know why they’re funny. But the way animated movies work is when we send them around the world sometimes we dub them into the local language, and they might add their local jokes to the movie, and when there are American jokes that don’t quite work they change them to fit the local humor. So we weren’t really thinking very much about how it’s going to be shown around the world, but more about how the Chinese audience would see it.
Is there going to be an international release, or a release in the U.S?
We’re still thinking about it. It’s more Bill’s department, because he works so much with the distributors, so it’s his department. I asked him to do a dub in English, because for younger audiences it would be hard for them to read the subtitles. We’re still thinking about it.’’
This is the end of the first part of a two-part interview.