One of the most beautiful stories to make its presence felt on television this year has been American Born Chinese, Disney+’s coming-of-age story about a boy who gets to live a fantastical adventure just when he thought everything would turn out to be boring for him. As it happens, his life would suddenly change with the help of iconic characters that find themselves in the middle of a huge battle.
As with every project that involves a world different than our own, visual effects are a fundamental part of the process, ensuring that audiences are taken exactly where they need to go. Awards Radar recently had the chance to sit down with the visual effects supervisor for American Born Chinese, Kaitlyn Yang, who was excited to discuss what happened behind the scenes of Disney’s new epic story.
Awards Radar: Congratulations on this beautiful show! What was the inspiration behind the look of the world from the Monkey King story?
Kaitlyn Yang: This story is near and dear to me, because I was from this generation of kids who saw this version on television when I was growing up. This was a show that I loved to see at home with a snack. Over the years, there has been a lot of Monkey King stories. When I got tapped for this project, I did my own research. I didn’t get to see every story, but I did want to learn where inspiration came from for other artists.
The inspiration behind our version is the fact that it is set in the modern day. Other versions take us to places far away from our world, but this one took place in the present, in a high school. As a visual effects supervisor, my priority was to make it look believable enough. To make you take a double look when looking down the hall, but not fantastical enough to take you outside of it. I wanted it to make work within the boundaries the writers and the executive producers had set for us.
The inspiration behind it would also be the magical realism to it. Making you believe in it without taking your undivided attention as we move from scene to scene. And hopefully to make the audience want to binge-watch the series.
AR: What were the challenges of blending the real and fantastical worlds together?
KY: Destin Daniel Cretton and his long-time director of photography, Brett Pawlak, wanted to figure out how the Monkey King’s world would work before bringin it into reality. I believe one of the first scenes featured a store that resembled a Target. How did we visually differentiate that from the fantastical world? We figured out a way to communicate where we were depending on what you saw. And the beautiful palette Brett and the coloring team came up with giving us this vibrant red whenever we were in the Monkey King world.
And, speaking from a visual effects perspective, we jsut have to learn how to filter that red with the rest of the scene. When you mx it with the green, you get an ethereal feel that I hadn’t seen before, and that was a very clear direction that they gave us.
AR: What was the most difficult shot or sequence to work on?
KY: The opening sequence, which was one of my favorites. It’s hard to choose favorites, they’re all your babies, but our opening sequence with the red world, cinematography and stunts that went to it. It’s kind of spectacular, in my opinion. The music also elevated it with the sound design. And without giving away too much, it gave backstory, it hooked you in. I saw it about 140 times at this point, and I’m still impressed by it every time.
AR: Congratulations on the beautiful sequence! It was a very impressive thing to see!
KY: Even while I was reading the script, I was marking down stuff left and right on the first page alone!
AR: Michelle Yeoh’s character is fantastic in this, she brought grace and beauty to the screen. How did you enhance her presence with visual effects?
KY: The cast we managed to put together was phenomenal, a testament ot how it’s our time to shine as Asian-Americans. We put the cast together before the success of Everything Everywhere All at Once, and I was really happy to go on set and to realize “Oh, I recognize these faces!”. Michelle brought her own work to the role of Guanyin. And Guanyin is so iconic that some of my friends still pray to her and ask her to look after them.
Michelle, wearing the beautiful costume our costume design department created, embodied the energy Guanyin exudes. And then, it was up to visual effects to give her a visual language to stand out on her own. As seen in the chase sequencs from the first episode, it’s firery and loud. It reminds of the Chinese celebrations with the lion’s head dance, where everyone is dancing around with loud music from the drums and the fireworks are going off.
And then you have Guanyin, who is the complete opposite of that. She brings this vibe that is cool, etherial and very generous. The effect we landed on was a very mesmerizing kaleidoscope effect around her. I did some research regarding visual ways to express compassion, and that effect has always been tied to the autism community and to people who are neurodiverse, and how beautiful it is when everyone can co-exist.
AR: Is there anything you didn’t get to work ono this time around that you would like to explore in a potential second season?
KY: Fingers crossed for more seasons! With the chase scene, we did our best ot display Sun Wukong’s ability of 72 transformations. Getting to that number was always in my head when consuming these stories as a kid. I would love to keep churning out his transformations and to show off his unique power.
I’m also interested in seeing more of Michelle, she’s out of this world in her Guanying costume. Most of my family are in China. They don’t usually understand what I do. Not only is there a language barrier, but there’s also not a collective experience to showcase VFX. But when they saw Michelle’s face in this one, and Jey Huy Quan and Daniel Wu, who my grandma has the biggest crush on, it really solidifed so many things that are beyond this project. I’m sure other Asian-Americans will have their own ABC connection to it. I would also like to know where the characters go next.
I grew up in the Midwest and my family was the only Asian American household. I stood out in a way I didn’t want to stand out at that age. Culturally, this is a way of paying homage to our past, where we came from and how we can keep writing stories so all of us can see a little bit of ourselves in the screen.