Master of martial arts
Fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping on the sets of "The Matrix Reloaded".
"THE MATRIX Reloaded" has raked in millions on the first day of its release. That way it seems to have made a record of sorts in the history of motion picture. Much of the credit of its success should be attributed to Yuen Wo Ping, martial arts choreographer of the film. LANCE VOLLAND meets Yuen Wo Ping, martial arts choreographer of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "The Matrix". Excerpts from the interview:
How would you characterise your first experience working on a Hollywood film production?
"The Matrix" was the first film I did in Hollywood. The first time I went to Hollywood, it wasn't really difficult. I would discuss with the director what he wanted from the action and how he wanted the action to work with the special effects. The directors didn't actually give me a hard time and they gave me a lot of creative freedom. They were very supportive.
How did you start your career as a martial arts choreographer? That was a long time ago almost 30 years ago. The film was called "Mad Killer" (1971) and was directed by Ng See-yuen. I was just following in my father's footsteps. My father started teaching (my brothers and I) kung fu when we were still very young. My father was a martial arts director and got us into the business. We started out as stuntmen. (Father is Yuen Siu-tin, Hong Kong's first martial arts director).
How do you think "The Matrix" has changed the look of Hollywood action movies?
After "The Matrix," quite a few Hollywood action films have started looking for Hong Kong action directors to design their action. I think "The Matrix" started a trend towards the use of Hong Kong action styles in Hollywood movies.
What kind of kung fu do you think appeals to Hollywood?
I think Hong Kong-style action appeals to Hollywood a lot, like the kind of action I designed for "The Matrix." The fists and legs are more powerful and look more aesthetic.
Compared to your previous movies, did you use less wirework in "The Matrix"? Compared to the days of (1978's Jackie Chan comedy) "Drunken Master," my action choreography has changed. Films have progressed. In the days of "Drunken Master," it was all hand-to-hand combat, which the audience then enjoyed. However, these days, if the action is too repetitive, the audience won't be satisfied. At regular intervals, we need to add in a new style or two to boost the aesthetics of the action. Wires will help the action look more powerful and exaggerated. With "The Matrix," this is even more effective because it is set in a futuristic world and it can all be exaggerated. "Matrix Reloaded" actually makes more use of wirework than the first part.
How did you train the actors?
My team was chosen for the diversity of their specialities. The ones who are good with wires would train the actors on wirework, those who are skilled in kung fu would train them in kung fu, and those who are good with weapons would teach the actors that.
When digital effects are an element of a fight scene, who usually makes the final call, the stunt coordinator or the digital artists?
The director has the final say. We design the action and show him how it looks like. Then he decides what he needs for the special effects. The final decision is his. The director would tell us what he wants: for instance, in one scene in a garden, Neo starts fighting someone but as he fights, the person multiplies until there are about 100 of them. Then, we just went and worked out how the fight scene should look. Once we got the director's OK, we went ahead with that.
Did you have to compromise some authenticity to make the action look better with digital effects?
I've never worried about digital effects. The Wachowski brothers are very clear about how they want a scene to look. They give specific instructions and explain what they expect the digital effects to do, so we just match the action with the effects.
The audience expectations on "Matrix Reloaded" and "Matrix Revolutions" are high. Has that increased the pressure on you?
Actually, there wasn't much pressure. When I was making "The Matrix," no one would have imagined it would make so much money around the world. No one would have predicted that "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" could have done so well in the U.S. either. It came as a pleasant shock. So I don't let the pressure get on to me.
How do you feel when you see your work influencing films that have been made since "The Matrix" was released?
They're only copying the film and the director's vision. Actually, I think it is a good thing and it's quite amusing to see a film being copied like that. It is a kind of honour.
Your contribution to "The Matrix" is obvious. How has the film enhanced you both professionally and personally?
The film has actually done a lot for Hong Kong action. It has taken Hong Kong action out of its niche and presented it to the whole world.
Three films have brought your talents to the attention of U. S. film lovers. How did the experience of working on the films differ for you?
I never, ever thought I would one day be tackling the U.S. market. For instance, when I made "Iron Monkey" years ago, my only considerations were to make a movie that could satisfy the audience and my bosses. After making "The Matrix," I told the directors that I was quite confident that the film would do well. I never dreamed of the kind of success that the films have had. There's no sure thing in this business.
What was it like working with the Wachowski brothers?
The Wachowski brothers understand action movies very well. Most of the time, they would actually tell me what they expected from the sequence. We'd demonstrate what we'd choreographed and they would ask us to make whatever changes they needed. Their method of filming is quite different from other American directors; in fact, their style is closer to the Hong Kong style. For instance, Hollywood directors usually use several cameras to film an action sequence. The Wachowski brothers only used one camera. That's what we do in Hong Kong. They'll find the best angle and work from there, unless the scene is especially dangerous or has complicated effects.
Was there an opportunity for you to learn from them?
I felt very comfortable working with them and I think I did learn things from them, but I can't think of any specific examples at the moment. I just admire their grasp of what is entertaining and what isn't.
How much of your own kung fu did you utilise in the choreography of "Matrix Reloaded" and "Matrix Revolutions"?
Not much. I have realised that what you learn in actual kung fu is of little use when you implement that in front of a camera. You have to add some creative moves to it. What we learn is very staid and does not change. But in movies, things are changing constantly, so you actually have to match the action with the characters and storylines and the scenes. You have to be more versatile.
You've worked with both Asian and Hollywood actors. Have you noticed any differences in how these two groups respond to your training?
It's not a big difference. It's just the Asian style of fighting and the Western style are different. Asian stars are usually more familiar with doing action so they really don't need much training, but Hollywood stars need to be trained. If they are not trained, they don't look good. The Hong Kong solution is also quite simple: Can't fight? Just use a stunt double! With "The Matrix", the Wachowski brothers wanted the actors to do all their own stunts. Keanu had to fight in over 30 scenes so he needed to have longer training time. At the end of the day, it all depends on the director's expectations.
Movie critics and fans often associate you with wirework. Can it still be pushed creatively?
There's always room for change. Computer effects are one thing, and action is another, but packaging the two together will give rise to something more interesting.
What are your criteria now for working on new projects? Is the "East-meets-West" element an appealing factor?
As long as I feel that I can do something interesting on the project, I would take it. The East-meets-West concept is very difficult. I think it fails more often than it works, unless it is a film like "The Matrix" where the elements are all western and then they just add in the Hong Kong action element.
You spent a lot of time training the protagonists of the movie; did the villains get as much training time?
Yes, they spent the same amount of time training but they didn't train together. We just separated them into different groups.
What else is coming up for you?
I'm taking rest!
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