‘The Eight Hundred’. 

When Tim Crosbie first signed on as VFX supervisor for Guan Hu’s Chinese war epic The Eight Hundred, he had little inkling the project would end up consuming the next two and a half years of his life.

The Oscar, BAFTA and Emmy-nominated artist (X-Men franchise, Blood Diamond) came to the film via BangBang Pictures’ John Dietz, based in Beijing – the two having previously worked together at Adelaide’s Rising Sun Pictures.

Dietz asked RSP owner and MD Tony Clark if he could “borrow” Crosbie for just four to five months. The promise was a reasonably standard war movie set-up, with visual effects encompassing things like set extensions and rig removals.

Crosbie accepted the gig and flew to China, reading the scripts on the way over. When he landed, saw the immense size of set and began doing storyboards, he realised the scale of the project was to be much larger than anticipated.

Set in 1937 Shanghai during the Sino-Japanese War, the $US80 million Huayi Brothers production follows the true story of 400 Chinese soldiers (dubbed ‘the Eight Hundred Heroes’) and a four-day siege on the Sihang Warehouse.

In China, the film is the now fastest earning movie in box office history – nothing to sniff at during a pandemic – and is the highest global grosser of the year, currently on more than $US425 million.

To shoot the film, over two years Hu and his team built 1:1 replica of the real Sihang warehouse – a six storey concrete building – over marshland, with a separate replica of the rooftop for explosions. The set was more than a kilometre in length and almost all the lighting was to be practical, so some 28 kilometres of high tension cable was buried into the ground.

When Crosbie arrived on set in November 2016 the build had already been underway for a year. However, it soon became clear to production it still would not be ready to shoot by February as originally planned. With summer approaching – the film is set in winter – the shoot was postponed to September 2017.

This allowed for further pre-production, which Crosbie used to his advantage. A 3D model of the entire city of Shanghai, created by the art department to help build the set, assisted in pre-vis with vendors Monk and Third Floor.

In particular, it helped in mapping out exactly where to put the green screen, and how high it was going to have to be. Ultimately, they built a staggering two kilometres worth, at 15 metres – or some five shipping containers – high around the set.

“There were fun conversations… I started walking it out with production and they were going, ‘But do you have any idea how many shipping containers we’re going to have to hire for this?’. I’m going ‘Nope, not my problem (laughs). If we really want to do it properly, we do it properly.’

“I would have actually liked to have had more than two kilometres, for sure. But we came to a compromise.”

While scale of the set often meant the green screens were quite far away, Crosbie was aware DOP Cao Yu – shooting on an ARRI Alexa 65 – wanted to capture long, sweeping camera moves using drones and other techniques.

That meant the backgrounds had to have an immense level of detail; a green screen would give venders “a nice flat screen to be able to roto against if they couldn’t pull a key properly.”

Tim Crosbie (right) on set.

The schedule was adjusted so that screens were always able to be moved where they needed to be; Crosbie even ended up having a dedicated green screen grip crew in his VFX team. The images captured via the Alexa 65 made post a lot easier, given the amount of detail.

“It’s not just the fact that it’s 6.5K, it’s also the dynamic range that comes with the ARRI IMAX cameras as well. They’re rated for 13 stops, which is what you’re looking at for traditional film. The resolution is excellent,” Crosbie says.

“It just made it easier to track. You could actually project plate textures onto geometry without having too much nasty stretching of pixels… It also meant that we could push in on shots that where we needed to.”

Before in-depth discussions with Yu, Crosbie had originally planned to build only about 100 metres from the original set in full CG, another 200 metres beyond 2.5D matte painting projection onto simple geometry, followed by a DMP cyclorama all the way around.

However, given Yu’s sweeping shots – some of which travel for more than a kilometre – the amount of parallax would have seen DMP look flat. Instead, they built out the horizon in CGI.

Informing the process were thousands of reference photos, most of which were in black and white. While the warehouse itself was a complete re-production, for the South Bank there was some artistic licence to make for a more cinematic feel. Crosbie says the look was in part inspired by The Great Gatsby and 1920s New York.

The Eight Hundred was Crosbie’s first time working studio-side, managing a range of vendors in Rising Sun Pictures, Fin Design, DNEG and Anibrain. It was a different experience, one that meant he had to be more of a “shepherd” rather than getting his hands dirty.

“When you’re in the position that I was in, you can no longer delve in and find out the minutiae. That’s not something really possible when you’re when you’re sitting studio side. You have to sit back and let the team get on with it, and just give them as much creative help and input as possible to make sure that they understand what the director needs.”

The first assembly cut was approximately six and half hours long, with Guan Hu’s first cut then around three and half hours. In total, the teams worked across 1,500 shots – 1,200 for full main post VFX shots and another 300 additional minor mix-ups.

“It’s certainly the biggest scale [project] I’ve ever done with regards to actual total shot count. Lots of fun. Kept me busy. You can understand why it took two and half years now.”