Saturday, July 11, 2009

Projects: The Legend of Silk Boy

I received the above image this week. Close to being a final render, it is a screenshot from the upcoming animated feature The Legend of Silk Boy. Pretty nice huh? I particularly like the shafts of sunlight cutting through the clouds of Victorian smog over St. Paul's Cathedral.

I’ve been fortunate enough to write two animated features to date, both for the same producer, David, who is based in China and who has a legion of amazingly talented artists working for him. The first one, The Road To Honey tells the story of a young boy who accidentally gets turned into a honeybee and ends up saving a beehive from a power-crazed hornet. Of course, along the way he learns such wholesome things as how to fly in a straight line and the value of friendship...

Sadly, The Road to Honey is currently in “development hell” but it was a fun writing assignment for my writing partner, Chris, and I and it led to us being hired again by David to pen the above mentioned The Legend of Silk Boy. Initially it was a really daunting project and didn’t come together nearly as smoothly as Honey because there were certain elements that needed to be incorporated at the behest of the Chinese executive producers. The inspiration for the story came from one of the investors in the film whose great grandfather, Xu Rongcun, was a skilled silk maker. China is extremely proud of it’s legacy of silk making and Xu Rongcun is something of a national hero having been the first Chinaman to win gold and silver medals at the World’s Fair in London in 1851. With Shanghai due to host the next World’s Fair/Expo in 2010 the decision was made to tell a story that would honor the art of silk making whilst at the same time remaining accessible to an international family audience.

We knew that our protagonist was going to be a young boy who was a descendent of Xu Rongcun. We knew that there were to be several bizarre fantasy characters in the story such as a Bat Girl, Mushroom Guards and Ginseng Warriors. However, there was no antagonist and the idea of constructing a crowd-pleasing adventure story around silk making was, quite frankly, terrifying!

This is where many hours of tireless research helps the writing process immensely. Specifically, finding something- anything- that could help us discover the underpinnings of a good story. We read-up on the history of the Silk Road trade routes, the process of silk making, the life cycle of the silkworm but nothing immediately sparked our imagination. That is, until we stumbled upon what we guessed was a pretty obscure ancient folk tale concerning Leizu, the wife of The Yellow Emperor… Leizu, also known as The Mother of Silk or The Goddess of Silk, is generally credited as being the person who discovered silk when a cocoon fell from a mulberry bush into the tea she was drinking. In The Legend of Silk Boy, Leizu became our Wizard and the magical world inside a silk painting that our hero is sucked into became our Oz. As for our Wicked Witch of the West, we created a mustache-curling, completely bonkers, vengeful villain in the form of Lord Filthington The Fourth!

Silk Boy had a pretty tight deadline for delivery but once we’d locked in the basic structure it was thankfully quick to write. Most of our time ended up being spent tightening up the insane action of the final Act which saw our main characters coming back into our world and tearing up Shanghai. Following this we had a few days left to polish up and add a multitude of sight gags and one-liners before sending the first draft to David in China.

The waiting for feedback period never gets any easier despite having gone through it many times. In my heart I felt pretty proud of what we had come up with for Silk Boy but neither Chris nor I had any clue as to how David and his team would respond. We knew that we were contracted because they wanted a film that would be accessible to a western audience (both The Road To Honey and The Legend of Silk Boy were conceived as English language films for the international family market). Having already worked with the Chinese producers on The Road To Honey we had encountered a few interesting cultural differences in taste that needed to be explained. We were pretty sure Silk Boy would be the same. In fact, we were more than a little anxious, particularly concerning the Ginseng Warrior characters who were kinda “out there” to say the least! And what about our interpretation of Leizu? What if our research was completely off the mark?

Several weeks went by before we got feedback in a conference call with David who informed us that when the execs in China first read the screenplay they hated it and were completely confused by it… GULP! This wasn’t looking too positive… He went on to tell us that they then went through TEN translations of the script (David was the only member of the team who spoke English) and now that they knew what we were actually saying everyone absolutely loved it! As for our inclusion of Leizu, it turns out that in China she is one of the most venerated cultural icons… Funny how Google, Wikipedia et al neglected to mention that! By far the best compliment we received was that several of the execs were stunned that a couple of Caucasian dudes in Vancouver could have written a story so faithful to Chinese folklore.

The Legend of Silk Boy is currently in production in China and is due for release some time in 2010 to coincide with the Shanghai Expo. Voice talent includes Jackie Chan and a multitude of wonderful actors from Vancouver. As added local bonus, an original score is currently being composed by talented Vancouverite, Alain Mayrand (you can follow Alain’s progress on his blog here).

If The Legend of Silk Boy is successful enough there is a very good chance that The Road To Honey will be the next animated film to go into production so finger’s crossed… I'll keep you posted on all things Silk Boy related, entice you with tasty morsels as we get closer to release and, at some point, get a column or two out about the challenges of writing an animated screenplay as opposed to live action.

'Til next time folks!