I am so incredibly grateful for the ever-growing collection of decent, kind film industry folk I have made so far on my writing journey. The interview collection on The Mighty Dragon are the veins and strength of this blog, I hope that it continues to flourish and expand as it has and act as a reliable resource for other writers and film-makers.
When a word of mouth recommendation by my friend and previous interviewee, Michael Wong, landed at my door a few weeks ago I was over-the-moon, “Vikki, do you want to interview Hua Yan?” Erm, Hua Yan, the action director for The Great Wall and The Wandering Earth? YES! YES! YES! was the answer. Thanks Michael, I really do owe you one, or two… or more!
I want to retain the interviews in their purely conversational feel and tone, so when you read them, you could be the one asking the questions and getting the answers direct from the person rather than a highly edited version.
Big thanks go to Tanya for translating Chinese to English. I have included a Chinese version below to download too.
Hua Yan’s IMDb has to be the dream listing for any stunt/action choreographer, The Great Wall, xXx: Return of Xander Cage, Kung Fu Jungle, Enter The Fat Dragon, The Wandering Earth and Iceman: The Time Traveller to name only a few of the incredible films this talented action director has worked on.
Vikki: Was it always your ambition to get into stunt work?
Hua Yan: In fact, I have been entered this industry since the early 80s as being an actor by then. During that time period, Jet Li’s film “Shaolin Fire” were all over the country, and lots of characters from the action films were actually played by martial arts athletes, such as “Shaolin Temple”,”Wudang”, “Mysterious Buddha” “The Kingdom of Life” and etc….I myself was one of the actors from “The Kingdom of Life”. But later on had to temporary quit acting for the reason of participating martial arts competition. After finishing the work from Henan martial arts team, I signed a contract with the Singapore TV Channel and officially start my acting career.
Vikki: What are your main priorities and challenges as an action choreographer on set?
Hua Yan: Safety always comes as the first priority. Stunt action is full of danger which has lots of unpredictables such as fighting, jumping, car crashes are all very dangerous, the safety for all the actors and stunt actors on set needs to be guaranteed before we pursue making a great film for the audience. After all, life is the most important thing than anything else, so safety will be our first priority.
When it comes to challenge, which is to create a unique action style for every single film. As being a stunt director, my intention is not just pursuing the visual look of the action, but more to seek a sense of reality, to have the action style match with the overall film. And also by integrating the spirit of Chinese martial arts into the design of actions, to reveal the ideology behind the actions to the audience through film.
Vikki: How long does it take to work on a film’s choreography?
Hua Yan: The prep time varies in different productions, which in accordance with the length of the stunt part of the film, difficulty level of design, complexity of stunt choreographer, all of them are varied in each film.
Generally, it takes about two to three months of time for pre-production, to complete the design of the stunt choreography, test shoot and etc.
Vikki: Is it vital to have a martial arts background?
Hua Yan: It is quite important for the design concept of an action film to have director and actors with martial arts background. Because they would know the logic and feasibility of the action inside out, which can better adapt and accomplish different types of stunt design, and communicate to the audience via cameras in terms of demonstrating strength and beauty.
Vikki: You have worked extensively with Donnie Yen, what have you learnt from him over the years?
Hua Yan: By working with Donnie Yen for so many years, I have learned a lot from him. Not only for stunt design, camera movement, post editing and etc., more importantly is the perseverance and firmness of doing his job in order to complete a great film with the attitude in pursuit of perfection.
I remember when we were filming “Dragon Tiger Gate”, every single shots has been shoot 20 takes or more, even for a close-up. As long as there is a little flaw, he would do it again to achieve the best outcome he could ever done. Donnie has told me before, if one shot has a 0.1 offset, then ten shots edit together would have a total of 1.0 offset. Then it cannot be described as a great piece of work, therefore, offset is not acceptable. It is this firm and persistent attitude to pursue perfection on each single shot leads to the perfect outcome on visual for the audience. I asked myself to do the same to keep the constant innovation.
Vikki: You’ve recently worked on The Wandering Earth, can you share your experience working on this hugely successful movie?
Hua Yan: “The Wandering Earth” as the 1st heavy industry Sci-fi film in China, there were many unknown areas for us to explore along with the production. With not just the aspect of stunt, but also with most of the fields that we have been working on were new and haven’t been tried before.
So what we could do was keep testing and trying by collecting a large amount of reference and working on tons of tests; and turned the experience of various failures to our advantages, such as the movement of space walk inside the space cabin which has been created through constant tests, research and some instruments. We have been collaborate solidarity with different departments to complete the 1st heavy Industry Sci-fi of China, I feel very proud of this marvelous film.
Vikki: From your list of films I would say The Great Wall is my personal favourite, were there any challenges on set for you?
Hua Yan: The “Great Wall” is the first pure Hollywood film that has been produced by mainland China, which had been stick to the typical Hollywood style from the producers to technical departments. Although I have been working on other western productions before, but this is a production of all crew members fully merging together with the Hollywood team. I have learned lots of new things throughout this film, such as knowing how to use the mechanical cabling installation, the use of operating cabling via motor and pump to control the action. Those are all new experiments for us. By coupling with our Chinese style of action and we have created many unique things by coordinate with each other, such as for the action choreography of flight downwards of a dozen crane army crew, we have accomplished a large number of stunt shots that nobody has done before with motor control.
Vikki: Comparing action films in the US and China, is there much of a difference?
Hua Yan: Regarding American action films, the reason why the choreography are simple is because most of the actors do not know martial arts. They are more rely on the movement of the camera and post editing to achieve the action sequence which uses quick cuts to present strength and beauty of actions. But for Chinese action films, most of the stunt actors come with the foundation of martial arts, which a single action shot that lasts longer in terms of screen time in order to show more actions and movements, that able to reveal more action styles within that action form. This is also the differences that I talked about between actors with or without the foundation of martial arts.
Vikki: What do you feel are the strengths in the China/Hong Kong film industry?
Hua Yan: China Hong Kong, as of the East Hollywood, with years of successful experience on filmmaking, and a large number of professional filmmakers and advanced technology, the unique competitive spirit which encourages generations after generations. China is also a country with thousands of years of culture, that makes us do better in terms of using human relationships to tell stories, which is also the culture advantages that China particularly owns.
Vikki: What advice would you give someone wanting to enter the industry?
Hua Yan: No matter which industry you will be working in or what career you choose, a serious attitude and being responsible for what you are doing always matters the most. And also maintaining the persistent love for this career. Everything is based on attitude, as long as you pay the effort and keep the original self and stick to it, you will be successful.
Thank you to Hua Yan from The Mighty Dragon for this opportunity to share his extensive experience.