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We had an opportunity to catch up with director of hottest independent film coming out of Taiwan, Raze Of The Cyborg, which had its world premiere at Oregon Short Film Festival Summer 2020. The film took home the Best Science Fiction and Best Action Film Awards. The screening on August 16, 2020 was the world premiere on the Film Festival Circuit.
1. What or who were some of your artistic inspirations for Raze of the Cyborg?
"First off, I just wanted to express my thanks to Mikel Fair and the organizers of Oregon Short Film Festival. I am happy Raze got to premiere at your festival this year and appreciate the creative way you’ve accommodated the festival experience during this period of social distancing.
Storywise, two of the primary influences would be the films Taken and Robocop. I’m also a fan of the game Deus Ex Human Revolutions which explores the future of human augmentation. Visually, I took a lot of inspiration from real-world robotics companies like Boston Dynamics and Fanuc when designing the CG robotic arm assets as well as OpenBionics: a company that creates robotic prosthetic limbs. The aim was realism so I kept everything looking functional and pragmatic and chose locations that looked weathered and unembellished. I told my production design team that I wanted things to feel as un-Sci-Fi as possible, which of course helped keep the budget down as well.
I’ve been a lifelong fan of Japanese Sci-Fi work such as Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, Patlabor and Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira. However, my love of robots all began as a kid when I discovered Gundam."
2. Do you have any plans for future projects? Perhaps any feature length films in the works?
"Ah, I had big plans for 2020 but of course we all know what happened this year. What was supposed to be my first feature project (a monster action thriller set in Asia) fell through because of covid so I focused on developing a few other projects that I had in the works: a Saw-like horror film, a Sci-Fi horror actioneer and of course I’d love for Raze to be made into a feature or a series. I also have an exciting crime-thriller feature script set in Taipei that I wrote with my writing partner Craig Busek, and I’ve been seeking financial backing for that. Film funding is rarely easy though, as being an indie filmmaker is entrepreneurship. I’m constantly keeping my eyes open for opportunities for financial investment knowing full well that there’s no guarantees. It’s a tough career path which is why I have so much respect for all my fellow filmmakers as I know first-hand how difficult doing this is. I can only keep plowing ahead and hoping."
3. How long from start to finish did it take to make Raze of the Cyborg?
"If I put all the time I spent on Raze together over the last seven years, I’d say that it took a total of three and a half to four years of my life. I started this project way back in December of 2013 while I was living and working in NYC so I would work on the film whenever I could. In the early stages, the work mainly consisted of script refinement, research and CG asset creation. Initially, the story’s premise featured a paralyzed robotics engineer with vigilantic tendencies...I’m sure you can guess the rest. After the script’s first draft was written, I turned to making CG assets like the robot arm and CG sets like the robotics and ballistics labs. I ended up making hundreds of assets from scratch myself which took about a year. After that I got busier with other things as I was working as a visual effects artist in NYC, taking acting classes, going to auditions and making little YouTube shorts.
My life changed a few years ago when a Taiwan TV producer I was acquainted with offered me a job in Taipei to do an “idol drama” TV show that needed a lot of VFX and action. I decided to give it a shot as it sounded fun. So I went overseas and met Ken Chou, the owner of Action Taipei Stunt Company (ACT) and lead action designer Scott Hung (who recently won a Golden Horse for Best Action Design last year) and began collaborating with them on the show. Later on I’d bring on the same guys to work on Raze which I shot in September of 2017. Post-production soon followed which took another two years."
4. What were your biggest challenges while making the film?
"One of the biggest challenges of making Raze was being both in front of the camera and behind it. I’m both an actor and a director and enjoy the challenge of doing both at the same time. There are advantages and disadvantages to it but I say that if you can pull it off, why not?
The process was mainly setting up the shot, running in front of the camera, cutting, and then running back to the monitor to watch the playback. Adjust, repeat until we get it. It did get tiring after a while, so a good AD is paramount for keeping things on schedule and directing my focus to what’s most important in the moment.
I’d say another challenge I faced daily was going to the ATM, withdrawing fat stacks and giving it to my line producer so she could keep the production going. It’s quite an experience to single handedly deplete your own bank accounts by physically taking out tens of thousands of dollars of cash in a few short weeks until it suddenly hits you that you’re broke. LOL"
5. There were an amazing amount of really complicated stunts in the film, some including fire and pyrotechnics, what were the most complicated stunts to shoot? What were the most fun stunts?
"From Raze’s conception, I knew I wanted to prove my action directing chops with a realistic Sci-Fi battle sequence that was innovative and exciting to watch. There were a number of sequences I had designed in my head with high-flying cyborgs kicking and stomping each other mid-air, flipping, spinning, twirling about in a kinetic ballet of brutality. Also, my stunt team and I had originally designed hand-to-hand combat sequences with robotic arms doing all sorts of lightning fast movements that would be impossible with real arms. Unfortunately due to time constraints on set, I was only able to do half of what I originally planned which is usually how it goes with indie filmmaking.
There’s never enough time or budget to do everything you want. Regarding the half of the action scenes that I did do, however, those stunts were the culmination of months of testing and refinement. For instance, in the part where the hero leaps high into the air to avoid Blondie Cyborg’s flying blade attack, he is kicked mid-air from behind by the Skinny cyborg. That one shot took a few weeks of working out how to rig the wires and how it would look on camera. I’d make daily visits to work with Ken at his stunt warehouse in northern Taipei to try out different ideas with his team of stuntmen. The initial attempts didn’t have the speed I wanted and started to look like wuxia movies. Since I wanted gravity, it was a lot of trial and error to get it to feel right.
Once at the filming location however, there was more trial and error that required us to modify our original plan as the anchor trusses on the roof that the wires connect to are dependent on the placement of the support beams in the warehouse. There was some time spent to make proper adjustments but had we not done all the initial testing work before, we would have wasted enormous amounts of precious time on set trying to figure it out. Time really is money during production. Every second that ticks by is a fifty dollar bill being tossed into flames.
Anyway that one four second action shot ended up taking several hours to properly set up and film and required the coordination of more than forty people at once. As there were three actors simultaneously being suspended in the air and each actor needing ten to fifteen people to lift off the ground at the speed I wanted, there were dozens of people off camera pulling wires and coordinating with the action director to make sure we properly and safely executed the movements.
There was also a lot of pressure on the DP and the focus puller to make sure the shot is captured since high speed action is hard to film. One mistake from anyone and we’d have to do it all over again. I wanted to minimize the number of blisters that the wire guys were getting and minimize the number of times my poor stunt double was getting drop kicked in the spine.
I was most nervous about the pyrotechnics for obvious reasons, as we used real explosions and fire throughout. The car being blown up required the most time to rig and I just left it up to the pyrotechnics crew to handle that. The final shot was spectacular however it didn’t go off without its share of hitches. The high-powered pneumatic piston device that flipped the car actually ripped itself from the undercarriage and tore through the roof. That was certainly not intended and could have easily caused damage to the location or injured people on set. In the shot with the three cyborgs being blown back by the shockwave of the bomb on the back of Skinny went off perfectly on the first take, but had there been a screw up, we didn’t have another dummy to blow up. The same with the car, I only had enough money to blow up one car, so if it didn’t work on the first take then we weren’t getting it. I was also constantly concerned about the safety of everyone and would rather compromise the shot than put someone in unnecessary danger. These kinds of worries accumulate and weigh on my mind throughout but I had to force myself to shut it off when it came time to get in front of the camera to act.
At one point in one of our last days filming the action sequence, I realized that I just couldn’t finish filming all the action. I told the stunt team to choreograph a new sequence on the spot that we could get in only an hour. Within minutes, we were shooting it. We would practice a few movements, line up the cameras, film it and move to the next shot, repeat. I didn’t get a master shot because the sequence was so new there wasn’t enough time to get it down from beginning to end so I was just shooting directly to the edit. As a consequence, the action became really cutty near the end which really isn’t ideal but at least we finished. I often hear people say, “don’t compromise your vision.” I can’t say that I agree with that because had I not compromised, I would not have been able to finish, period. My budget only gave me so many days to film and if I didn’t get it within those set number of days, well, I’m leaving set with an incomplete film."
6. How did you get the ideas for the film's plot?
"All these random elements just kind of congealed together over time. I started off with just wanting to make a visceral and realistic Sci-Fi action film about cyborgs and it evolved from there. The script went through many iterations over the years and I kept asking people for feedback. Most of it was helpful to some degree and I tried to incorporate the best ideas into the story."
7. The film has a lot of dark themes, but the main conflict involves rescuing a loved one from being trafficked. What made you want to highlight human sex trafficking as a major conflict of the film?
"I like Sci-Fi because it allows filmmakers to explore social issues in new and interesting ways. During my time in NYC, I’ve met a number of folks who work with organizations that fight human trafficking directly in the city. I really admired their commitment to helping victims of trafficking so making this film is my own way of bringing awareness to the issue and contributing to the cause. Moreover, Raze to me has always been a mythological story of a hero who voluntarily descends into hell. I’ll just leave it at that."
8. The visual effects and CGI are outstanding in the film, can you tell us a little about the process of creating them and what it was like to act having to imagine evil drones, etc...?
"It was important to me that during pre-production all VFX shots are planned and storyboarded. The boards were printed out and brought on set so everyone was on the same page of what the shots would look like once the VFX were added in. During filming the VFX supervisor (in this case, me) has to use his or her imagination to look at the raw footage and determine if the shots can be used from a VFX point of view.
So after the film was shot and in the can and it was time to do post, I stared at my footage files in bewilderment. It was the first time I shot on the RED camera at 8K. When I realized I couldn’t even play the RAW files in real time let alone store all 10 terabytes worth of footage on my single desktop PC, it hit me that I didn’t think this through. Because I was now broke, I couldn’t just go out and buy a RAID system and a bunch of post-production equipment to start editing, I had to go back to NYC to work again. I would figure out the rest as I went along, I told myself.
So I was getting ready to pack my bags when a producer named Peter Huang who had been following my work offered to let me do post-production in Tainan (a city south of Taiwan) at his company, Renovatio Pictures. It was a VFX startup that was just getting its start at the time and he’d been sufficiently impressed with Raze that he wanted to help. After a trip down south and a tour, I agreed. Over time, we became friends and in between Raze’s post-production, I helped CG direct his VFX team on a film adaptation of the internationally renowned video game, Detention. The film ruled the Taiwanese box office for weeks and got / is getting additional theatrical openings in HK, Korea and Japan. We went on to win the Golden Horse for best visual effects last year as well.
But mainly from 2017-2019, I did almost nothing but live in the office (I personally christened it “The Dream Factory”) seven days a week doing visual effects and editing for Raze. Though I had already spent a year creating CG assets, the script had changed and I had to make a bunch of new models. I also had to create digital versions of some of the locations to generate shots that we didn’t have time to film on set. I’m very lucky to have this skill-set as I don’t need to depend on anyone else for visual effects...or so I thought. After I finished editing the rough cut, I counted some 350 visual effects shots (many of which are invisible) and I knew I couldn’t finish them all on my own, at least within a reasonable amount of time. Although there was no pressure from an external deadline, I still had to survive as I was not getting paid to work on my own film. So I’d teach visual effects workshops at Taiwanese universities just so I could eat and was glad that some of my stock 3D models I created some years ago sold enough to let me squeak by financially month after month.
Then, more luck came as Peter gave the film a much needed cash infusion and I was able to get his VFX team on board to help with the shots during the weekend. That really accelerated the workflow. The team focused on compositing, rotoscoping, adding little details (fire, smoke, debris) and cleaning up wardrobe mistakes while I focused on creating the 3D effects like animating robot arms and drones, building CG sets, etc. For months I slept on the office floor and one summer, I even had a bunch of interns come in, trained them in Nuke and had them help with wire-removal and rotoscoping for a number of shots! It was a solid year and a half of intense post work and when the bulk of it was over, there was at least another six month period of refinement, working with my sound designer Gareth Wood, finding music, adding subtitles, creating marketing materials and developing feature scripts in collaboration with writers.
P.S. Looking back at it all, I’d say that this was the trial-by-fire period in my life that I needed to go through. Experiences like these are the crucibles by which filmmakers are made. However, I’m not sure if I could ever do this much on my own again. Need a team and a sizable budget next time!
I’ll be frank, I thought I’d be so happy and content once Raze was complete. For a moment, that was the case, but now I’m confronted by a new set of challenges. What’s next? I’m always looking to expand my network of film people and producers and really want to get an ambitious project going soon. Let’s connect! Raze’s Facebook fanpage is www.facebook.com/razecyborg. Here’s hoping the rest of 2020 and 2021 will see better days for us all."
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