Attitude that's getting everyone moving

Updated: 2014-08-22 10:15

By Nick Wickham(China Daily Europe)

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Attitude that's getting everyone moving

Top UK music video producer says a growing Chinese approach to his industry is both adventurous and brave

It was a red storm. One below black rain apparently. What a great sounding phenomenon - rain so heavy you aren't allowed out.

Coming from Britain's temperate climatic dullness, I felt this was "real" weather.

We were driving back from the film studios at night, our music video shoot just wrapped, and emerging from one of Hong Kong's road tunnels into the rain.

The road was a river and lorries on the opposite carriageway lobbed walls of water from under their wheels. This is making music videos, Cantonese-style.

I was in Hong Kong for two reasons.

My production company, Splinter Films, was doing another film launch for Paramount Pictures, and I was there, too, to work again with a rising local pop star called G.E.M.

We had previously helped with the launch of Transformers 3 in Moscow, and World War Z in London.

Transformers 4 premiered in Hong Kong and, of course, heavily features the city's iconic skyline, in the most spectacular sci-fi alien invasion sequence imaginable.

US band Imagine Dragons, which had provided much of the film's music, played a rooftop show after the premiere, and we filmed the red carpet arrivals and the gig for broadcast with Yahoo!

The dramatic location, with a night-time backdrop of the city's lights across the water and a huge firework display from its rooftops, made for great footage, and a time-consuming ton of equipment to move and use.

The crew and equipment - almost all local - had been great to work with, but the real challenge had been the heat. Our good fortune had been the rain holding off until after the show.

The movie has now gone on to break box-office records in China and presumably everyone involved is happy.

I was interested in exploring the changing cultural terrain in the Chinese mainland, and was looking at a way to do this, both in terms of the marketplace and in terms of my own education.

And then there was 22-year-old Gloria Tang Tsz-kei, better-known by her stage name G.E.M. - an acronym for "get everybody moving".

She is a Hong Kong singer-songwriter, dancer, musician, and actress, who I had worked with last year.

She had been successful in Hong Kong for some time, but her great leap forward, so to speak, has been off the springboard of the enormously popular Chinese TV show, The Singer.

The show's 200-million audience responded indirectly to her performances by multiplying her following on weibo tenfold. She came second in this "non-competitive competition", according to the judges.

Her fan base is now growing globally, including in Britain, Canada, and across Southeastern Asia.

This in itself told me an interesting story of how the Chinese music marketplace is changing among the young; of how they consume, process, share and generally describe the future.

This new version of the music business is being built on quite different foundations from the past.

Her performance of one particular song, Hei Foon Nei, popular in the 1980s, had led to the need for a single release and with it, a music video.

And Tan Chang, her manager at Hummingbird Music, had asked me to direct it.

So on two days' notice we were in Hong Kong, tracking down a studio, hiring cameras, gaffer, electricians, special effects people and kit, looking for a selection of outfits for G.E.M. and sourcing enough lilies to create a mountain top field of flowers!

It was the kind of no-notice shoot you dread in Britain, and doing it in an unfamiliar environment only made that even more of a challenge.

But I was still determined to be overambitious in what could be done in the time: two studio setups - including the lily field - an exterior with full rain effects, and numerous bespoke props, including a massive lamppost.

Probably a two-day shoot, here being squeezed into one.

But the crew, of course, were all incredibly experienced, calm and hardworking, making for a great shoot.

It was also great to be asked to work with G.E.M. again, and intriguing to see how Chang was integrating some Western models with his Chinese way of working the music business.

Bringing in me, a Western video director, was just one aspect. His business partner and musical and creative director is an Austrian.

Chang had also asked me to help rethink the look of the G.E.M. touring show's production, to match the rapidly growing scale of audience and therefore, the venues in the Chinese mainland.

Their show in the southern city of Shenzhen had a capacity of almost 30,000, so we had to add a lot of new elements to the stage and lighting, as well as rethinking the design of the video screens for the performance.

This in turn involved bringing in a new lighting designer, in this case an Australian, and another Australian replaced the existing choreographer, who in turn brought in new dancers of mixed ethnicity and nationality, but all based in Hong Kong.

The team was gradually becoming more and more international. It's a familiar pattern.

I usually direct live concert films, and have made live DVDs for all kinds of big-name artists including Beyonce, Rihanna, Madonna, Metallica, Foo Fighters and Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Generally there is a core group - a kind of family within the traveling circus - and then there are the big names in show production and lighting design, the big choreographers, the preferred sound people and so on, all of whom bring in their own preferred personnel and equipment suppliers, either locally during the tour, or traveling with them the whole way.

Gradually it seemed Chang was steering things that way.

This internationalization in his approach is clearly being combined with a sensitivity to how things work in China, making for a kind of hybrid.

There is also a bit more of an "indy" - music produced independently from major commercial record labels or their subsidiaries - attitude in the Hummingbird camp than I'd seen elsewhere on this Chinese trip.

There is a "why do it this way, when we could do it that way" approach that appeared to an outsider like me as both adventurous and brave.

The devolving down of creative responsibility to various departments was happening not just in the hiring in of people from outside, but also in the pushing forward of people inside the company, if they were open-minded enough to put themselves out there in what is a highly visible environment.

As a result, if you get something wrong in a show or on a shoot, there are a lot of people watching as the train hideously crashes in slow motion.

From my perspective this approach provided an increasingly unfamiliar sense of freedom.

In the West, creative ideas seem to be filtered by ever-thicker layers of jobs-worthy caution. Overvalued accountants dictate to middle managers what does and doesn't fit their business plan. It's a kind of milking of creative talent as opposed to a harnessing of creative potential.

My experience in Hong Kong - working with people who are exploring new ways to work in a volatile but emerging environment - was refreshing and dynamic.

There was a huge sense of the pressure lifting, both physically and psychologically, when we wrapped the shoot, and as the rain started, it began to cool the air.

The most complicated setup of the day was the final exterior shot with the large-scale rain effects. Ironically, if we had run over by half an hour, the torrential rain storm would have made it impossible.

But now, the future was looking bright.

The author founded Splinter Films with Emer Patten in 1997. Splinter Films is based in London and works all round the world. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Attitude that's getting everyone moving

(China Daily European Weekly 08/22/2014 page11)