Good news is, Tuomas is here. That’s Tuomas Kantelinen, my composer. He decided to quit fiddling around in Finland and instead booked flights and hotels in Beijing and flew over, hauling half of his studio with him, although they didn’t allow him to bring the 47-kilogram synthesizer with him.
He set up his studio into his room at the center of Beijing, and the intention is that I will shuttle between Jiabo office, VHQ office and his hotel room the next two weeks working on VFX, music and edit, all simultaneously.
The day we spent editing at Jiabo, and headed in the evening to the town. I had decided to go out no matter what to have a beer and enjoy a night out, since Sunday would be mostly day off for me, so with Chris me and Tuomas headed for a Lebanese dinner in the center of the city, after which Chris took us to the hutongs, where we spent much of the evening. We walked around the dark alleys and eventually ended up into a rooftop terrace having a beer and chatting this and that, of life, love and work.
In the night I ended up wandering around Sanlitun area, dropping by at one bar and realizing there’s nothing there for me, so I went home, tuned in for some Finnish evergreen music and watched YouTube videos most of the night until I finally caught some sleep.
So there I am, back at editing. The process is ever-so-painful since the editor doesn’t speak any English, so I have to work through a translator. Now that my regular translator/production assistant Tanya is at a maternity leave, I work with Rebecca – or Ma Kun – who is actually a casting director, not really hired to be my assistant, but I guess they dragged whomever they can who speaks English. The good thing is, she’s actually really interested in editing and has a good intention to this, and most importantly, she’s actually interested in the end result. So the work turned out to be really fruitful and productive, and I snipped, nipped, tucked and twisted the cut quite a bit, finishing the day by shuffling most of the scenes in the beginning into a completely new order, crossing my fingers it would work.
Later, we went for a dinner with Rebecca to a close by local Chinese place where I’ve been going since how long, but never really knew HOW to order their special dish, a kind of delicious Chinese wrap I had only once, many months ago. So it was nice to have someone around who actually knew how to get that stuff.
We had a nice talk and dinner, after which I headed back home and tried sleeping, failing yet again until early morning hours.
We had a meeting with Max today. I had prepared myself by rowing some five kilometers at the gym in the morning, well, afternoon (after waking up, that is), and then I walked into the office. He was already in full steam like only Max can be. Right away he barked to the editor to open up some of the problematic scenes and told me to tell him how to edit them to fix them. Mind you, our actual editor, Mrs. Fang, had already quit the project since she had a baby and couldn’t finish what we were doing, and anyway, it was more Max’s show now, with all the changes pouring in on a daily basis.
I told him that I’m not going to start editing now, but that we would discuss what the new cut would need in my opinion. I had written a lengthy and rather snarky list commenting some of the changes he had introduced to the cut but decided against blurting it out in its’ full snarkiness. It rarely is worth it, and again, the actual conversation that arose from it helped me to see better the root of some changes, and also allowed me to comment my concerns to him. So eventually we agreed I would do a few days of editing work, and then screen my take to Max.
After the meeting, which lasted some three hours, Chris invited me to a dinner with some friends of his. We went to this Schezuan place, famous for its’ tasty and pretty spicy (and oily, mind you) dishes. Joining us was a Chinese actor – a tall guy from the north (we discussed why people from the northern regions are taller, guessing it had something to do with the nutrition – turns out it’s not really true, but there is a slight correlation to that direction.) There was also an American producer who was there to meet with the actor, as she was working on a project she was looking to cast him.
We had a great dinner, it was nice talking in English, although the Chinese actor felt a bit left out, and the poor thing ended up wanting to pay the whole dinner in the end. But hopefully he gets the part at least!
Taxi home, few hours of sleep, then tossing and turning in bed until morning, breakfast and then a proper 6 hours of sleep. Apparently my regular cycle here.
Today, I went to VHQ and we continued our visual effects journey, this time debating elements like wormholes, intergalactic fluids and the complex yet fascinating history of the Earth.
Riding back home I got the Blade Runner vibes watching the gray and polluted city slipping past my taxi window. Huge buildings reaching into the smog-covered sky, sun staring down like a bladder filled with bile, to quote my friend Janos Honkonen’s poem from years back.
The hotel room offered no remedy. I was antsy, so I went down to the gym. Luckily, the gym in the building is pretty decent, a good place to get a nice workout. I’ve been rather active about workouts here, mainly because that’s the only thing to do outside of lying in bed and wishing for the sleep, which definitely isn’t coming.
I did my workout – this time, a kettlebell workout and some rowing – and headed back to my room. Still feeling antsy, I googled where’s the best burger in town and found a place which was promoted being a nice and having a Western vibe. It’s funny how important words like “sports bar” and “beer” come when living in China even for a few days.
The taxi dropped me off in a completely wrong place, so I had to walk about a mile to find the actual restaurant – the taxi drivers here in Beijing don’t give a shit, they just drop you off somewhere, wave their hand in the general direction of neon lights and no matter if the place you are going to is there or not, they indicate it is and before you know anything, you’re outta the door and lost in the biggest city in the world, speaking no common language with anyone, and without a map since VPN for sure won’t work.
Oh, and one more thing about the taxi drivers: they fart. A lot. And that’s like a normal thing. The didi (ex-uber) drivers don’t, but regular taxi drivers they don’t give a shit, they just let it rip whenever they feel like it.
But hey, the taxi drive is cheap, that’s good. Cheap enough to smell someone’s ass gases for sure.
The burger wasn’t anything to write home about. Or blog about, so I won’t go too deep into it, but it was nice to walk around and see some people. I had two beers with the burger, and rode home nicely buzzed and in a good mood. No sleep, but at least it was nice to go out for a bit.
One more kiss, dear One more sigh Only this, dear, is goodbye For our love is such pain and such pleasure That I’ll treasure ’til I die
– Vangelis / One More Kiss Dear (From Blade Runner Soundtrack
It’s only third day here and the hotel death is creeping in. Staying up late at night, staring at Internet (if it happens to work) and waiting to get tired. Completely uninspired to do anything useful like reading the scripts that keep piling up on my hard drive, not to mention actually writing a script. It’s just dead night time, watching dumb YouTube videos, scanning Twitter and trying to think what to eat tomorrow. It’s hotel death, and I’m the victim yet again.
Reading auto-translated Iron Sky comments on Twitter. Walking up to the big window overlooking the slowly quieting city. A car here, another there. Watching maybe a movie! But when the mind is this uninspired as it only gets during these endless nights, even that is hard. Hard to focus. Reading a book? No hope. It’s just endless, slowly crawling hours lying in bed, wishing only the breakfast open up, but it’s still good 5 hours before that. And no hope sleeping.
No hope at all.
I take night walks. I enjoy that. I’ll go around few blocks, take few photos, grab an ice cream at the 7-11. Come back up, back to bed. No sleep for the wicked. Not even close. At least it’s nice outside. Not too cold, not too muggy either. Not too polluted. Nice night air. Nothing is really open, but at least it’s something.
Working from China to Europe is the most frustrating part of this business, period. Since the Great China Firewall is blocking most of the regular communication methods like Whatsapp and Google services, you are relying entirely on the random functions of a VPN service. I use ExpressVPN, which used to be a really good one but has begun to drop connection these days very regularly. I asked on Twitter around for better options but got mostly ravings about services nobody had actually tested in China. There is, I understand, a really hardcore VPN service which you can use, but it needs deeper computer knowledge, and thus, way out of my league.
The solution could be WeChat, but the truth is, WeChat sucks big time. It’s a terrible way to communicate and especially since nobody really has that in Europe, it’s always hard to start asking people using some shady service just to have a call. Phonecalls are obviously ridiculously expensive so you have to find better solutions, especially this day and age, making a phone call to Europe from China is just unnecessary and ridiculous.
Funny enough, the time difference is not that big of a problem. Morning in Europe is late lunchtime in Europe, so if there WAS a meaningful way to communicate with Europe, lunch would be the best to take care of that side of the world. But since VPN usually works the best only during nighttime, you have to stay awake until midnight to get a steady connection, and then it’s already past office hours in Europe…
Truly, there’s no way to win this battle, and it’s getting worse and worse all the time. Running a big project like ours, which requires constant communication between these two worlds is already hard on its’ own, and with this constant communication breakdown, it’s just terrible trying to make something out of all this.
Another thing is the big files. Of course, every conceivable service for sending files you can’t fit into an email is blocked, no surprises there, but the issue is that for some reason, China doesn’t have any decent alternatives available, at least not in the English language. There is Baidu’s service, but it’s truly impossible to operate since everything is in Mandarin and there is no “change language to English” -button anywhere.
So the only way to send huge files to Europe, or to receive them – and trust me, in the film business that’s one thing you need constantly – is to do it via VPN and using DropBox or WeTransfer, but when the connection drops, that’s the end of that transfer. Praying it would actually continue – which these services sort of should understand to provide – is a high hope. There’s nothing, absolutely nothing you can do to get a 100mb file across. It’s easier to send a hard drive via airmail if you really need something.
And of course, adding to it all the general bad WiFi situation here. The office I work at has a terribly slow WiFi even without VPN, the hotel’s Internet is choppy as hell and our VFX company’s WiFi is also quite a disaster.
Truly, in order to really connect the west and the east, this is where it all should begin: communications should be made easier. China can keep its’ Firewall, and Google and Facebook can keep their encryptions, but please punch a hole in both ends so we can do some legitimate Internet calls and send the crucial files. I don’t give two shits about Instagram of Facebook or Snapchat or Twitter or what have you not working here, my life is better with any of them constantly pinging around, but PLEASE let me use Gmail, Skype or Whatsapp and Dropbox or Wetransfer. Or at least, Google, Facebook and whoever-is-running-Dropbox – please make a China-friendly versions available of your most crucial services.
This situation as it stands now is not good for anyone.
Yesterday walking down the road here in CBD district in Beijing, on our way to yet another amazing hot pot dinner down the road I saw what I believe encompasses modern China in one image.
A guy was selling a handful of turnips and potatoes on the street corner. He had this weather-worn, brown-tanned working Chinese man’s wrinkled face and skinny countryside body. He had a cart, which was probably a hundred years old, made before there was a telephone anywhere near where the cart was built. On it, were two to three baskets with a bunch of potatoes and turnips on them – not a lot, some 40-50 each. This was just like a scene from a classic Chinese movie, nothing peculiar there.
But then, a business guy walks up to him and buys a handful of stuff, but instead of paying with a crumpled bills or greasy coins, he pulls out his top-notch latest-in-line high-tech Huawei Samsung iPhone 5000 phone, and just at the same instant the potato seller flips out his just-as-brand-new phone, and in 2 seconds they WeChat the money over and transaction is done.
That’s China for you. The modern world clashing with the rural truth with such ease. And that’s I believe why China is moving so swiftly, people are able to bring these two elements together, meaning if another fails, there’s always a fallback.
But the engineers here, that’s another story. The hotel I am at, which is, by the way, not New Otani anymore, has some really strange logic with elements like lights for example. There’s a good set of switches that control the lights in the living room, and in the bedroom, and in the toilets, foyers, and whatnot. But it’s like reading Estonian, it kinda makes sense, but everything means an exactly different thing. So trying to get your bed lamp to work means you need to turn on three times foyer light, once the master switch, then push master from another set of switches and then suddenly only toilet lamp and the bed lamp. Now that I’ve managed to turn it on, I don’t dare to turn it off. The only problem is, when it’s on, the sockets don’t work…
Anyway, as you can deduct, I’m back in Beijing again, after running around Europe releasing The Coming Race in several territories. We’re going to be working on post production for the next 20 days.
So, as we are getting ready to do the pickup shootings, I checked out the latest cut of the movie and started rolling sleeves to get ready for filming. There’s quite a lot to prepare and also quite a lot to understand, as there are some quite big changes in the cut, and most of that is covered with a black screen with some Chinese writing on it, and there’s nobody around to translate it. But I get the gist of it and should be able to wing the pickup shoots. I hope.
VHQ has been working on a bunch of new concepts, some of which are quite damn gorgeous, so it’s also refreshing to see new stuff coming alive. We discussed through the elements with Chris and the concept team and headed for some Hong Kong hot pot for the evening with a small group. Hong Kong hot pot is amazing because it’s made into a tom yam soup, where you dip delicious seafood and meat and stuff your face with it, rolling out of the place like the happy little pig you are.
It’s nice to be in Beijing because it’s warmer than in the North, without being too hot, but the pollution does taste and smell around nasty. After having spent such a long time in Finland, where the air is relatively fresh, you can really feel the air in your lungs here. They say that that’s when you should wear the mask, but if I do, I can’t see anything since with every puff, my glasses go smoggy and with every inhale clear again. It’s helpless.
I’m back in Beijing.. alone.. again. Like Zak McKraken in his bed.
Now that’s an odd reference for all of you retro gamers to catch up on. But outside of that, much has happened. We’ve released Iron Sky The Coming Race in multiple European markets and are prepping for our UK and Japan and US releases that are to follow later this year, among some other territories.
I flew back to China to work a bit more on the cut and especially to shoot a bunch of pickups we need to finish the film. Producer Max has been working lately on the edit quite a lot and I’m expecting to see his take on it tomorrow, so I’m excited and nervous at the same time.
For the pickups we built a bunch of small set pieces in a “studio” – more like a warehouse – some 2 hour drive away from Beijing, to a suburb I have no way to remember by name, but it’s quite a harrowing area: polluted, forlorn and poor, compared to Beijing, a megalopolis booming close by. Even the people look different: Beijingese have a certain metropolitan look to them – smooth skins, nice clothes, and cool rides; the people in this area are sun-crumpled, drive these weird mopeds and almost like self-made tractors around in an area that feels like it’s stuck in the 60’s – only thing different being the fact that everyone has the latest smartphone in their hands.
This time around, I’ll be here for about 10 days, after which I’ll fly to Brussels for our Belgium premiere.
On Wednesday, we sat down together with editor’s assistant and finished the latest cut of the movie, and then went out to screen our film with Max.
There are five stages of screening a work print that I’ve observed through all the films I’ve worked on:
Assembly cut: The first screening. Usually, the film is too long, gets jarring and boring and is full of mistakes, plus all the VFX is missing so it’s also very confusing – but you get a great feeling of the characters and the story, if they work overall, or not.
Director’s cut: Now, you’ve had a chance to work on the film with an editor, and this version is something you are happy with – given the early stage VFX and sounds you have at use. Usually, this film will work for you the director very well, since you reference it to the assembly cut, but the producers are usually a bit more suspicious at that stage. A good producer can smell at this point whether or not the director has lost his or her’s mind, and either allow him/her to proceed – or find another editor to help.
The Uncanny cut: This is the cut which you’ve worked hard with every department. You have 70% finished VFX, preliminary sound work, early stage music and more advanced edit. Now this here is the hardest cut to watch, since usually for an outsider, it looks just terrible cheap TV. The reason is because, well, nothing is ready, but they appear to an unexperienced eye like they could almost be finished, but just don’t do anything to you emotionally. Also, during this time you also realize that you indeed need one more round of heavy editing. The film is 70% done, but the last 30% is what really counts!
The Locked cut: At one point, you will have to lock the cut and then nothing can be done to it anymore. After that, you just have to wish you’ll be able to guide the film towards a favorable outcome, but it’s tricky, since what you see as the locked cut will probably be still very heavily in the uncanny valley, and getting it right might feel like an almost impossible task. But as things progress – you get the dialogue premix, you get more advanced VFX, the actual music starts to find its’ tone and place – the film just turns better and better.
Final film: At this point, you have no more any idea whether or not your film is worth anything, or just a confusing mess. You’ve stared at the cut, the sound edit, the music edit and the thousands of changes to VFX for so long, it’s really hard to see the big picture anymore. All you can do is focus on getting the details right, and hope the big picture works. If you’ve paid enough attention to the four previous steps, you shouldn’t have anything to worry about – but if you’ve skipped one of the steps above, you might even end up jumping back to uncanny valley and re-opening the cut again.
I feel that with The Ark, we are now stepping from Uncanny Valley towards the Locked Cut. There are still few things I’d like to tweak, and Max has also few things he wants to try out for the beginning of the movie, but I had a great feeling after our Wednesday screening, and I’m hopeful we are pretty well in the way of making the film rock solid.
After the screening, VHQ had arranged a party for the clients, and while I was hopelessly late from there, there was still good vibe going on with loads of people hanging around, having drinks and talking shop and non-shop. I sat down with Chris over a bunch of drinks and chat, but headed back home around midnight (after a quick McD night snack) because the next morning would be an early one for me, as I would be heading back to Finland.
The China Diary continues when I go back next time, so until then, thanks for reading! And don’t forget, Iron Sky The Coming Race is starting its’ theatrical run in our world fan premiere on 16.1. – stay tuned!