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July 17, 2010

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Making a great painting come alive

THE wizards behind the spellbinding centerpiece of the China Pavilion are Crystal CG, an innovative digital technology company in Changning District. Fei Lai finds out how they animated "Along the Riverside During the Qingming Festival."

The highlight of the China Pavilion at the World Expo Shanghai is undoubtedly the awesome 130-meter-long mural that duplicates -- illuminates and animates -- one of the most famous paintings in China, "Along the Riverside During the Qingming Festival."

It is a vivid and meticulous panorama of daily life during the Northern Song Dynasty (AD 960-1127). Lanterns sway in the breeze, camels walk along, scholars stroll and chat, vendors hawk their wares, a blacksmith hammers in his forge.

The 5.28-meter-long original depicts 814 humans, 60 animals, 28 boats, 20 vehicles, nine sedan chars and 170 trees, among other things. And it's a worldly whirl of daily activity, from tomb sweeping to tending fields, juggling, selling wine, grain, gold and lanterns. There are monks, businessmen, fortune tellers, scholars, carpenters, doctors, innkeepers and many more.

This scene, depicting life in Kaifeng, formerly known as Bianliang in eastern Henan Province, was painted by Zhang Zeduan (1085-1145).

The animation is significantly enlarged, and visitors are mesmerized.

For three months before the Expo it was borrowed from museum keepers and kept under security at Crystal CG, a digital technology company in Changning District. There it was turned into an electronic version in which all the characters move, the waters flow, the buildings and lanterns are lighted.

"The creative digital scroll demonstrates the China Pavilion's goal of showing people the past, present and future," says Yu Zheng, an exhibition director from Crystal CG.

"When the classic work is injected with advanced technology, it shows our reflection on urbanization and our hope to contribute more to the world," says Yu.

From the time of inspiration to completion, it took a young creative team almost two years. Their average age is 27 years old.

The dynamic version of "Qingming" is 130 meters long and 6.3 meters high, 30 times the size of the original.

Unlike the original work, which only displays a busy city and rural scene by day, the digital scroll showcases a nighttime view of lighted homes, lanterns and candles, moonlight on the flowing river and other sights.

With 12 projectors running simultaneously, the scenes alternate every four minutes -- two minutes for day view and two minutes for the night view.

Modern multimedia technology makes the characters move. At a forge, a blacksmith pounds his hammer on an anvil, sometimes stopping to wipe the sweat off his forehead.

A team of camels walks slowly along, watched by people whose expressions change. A boat is about to pass under a bridge and the crew is busy taking down masts as the vessel plows along.

"Our work has more elements than the original," says Yu of Crystal CG. "We have consulted many experts in history and culture to make all the characters and scenes precise and authentic, as they would have appeared in the Northern Song Dynasty."

During the day, 691 characters appear, while at night, 377 go about their business. The face of each character was vague in the original work, so the technical team restored their appearance, gestures and garments. Extensive research was carried out into each character's behavior, expression and movements.

"Each character has a different identity, background, movement and expressions. But they should all look like people in the Northern Song Dynasty," Yu says.

"Since the work and characters themselves are 30 times as large as the original, we had to ensure that their expressions were vivid and appropriate and their appearance and movements precise."

"We've made great efforts to stay true to the original work. More than 60 percent of this work is identical."

Yu outlined the production procedure.

First they removed all the characters and worked on the background -- buildings, pavilions, terraces, rivers, fields and trees -- filling in the details and animating the flowing river, swaying trees, crops and so on.

Second, each character was designed with 3-D technology, then color was applied and they returned to two dimensions.

Third, the background was mixed with animated characters.

The creative team also used for reference embroidered portraits taken from "Water Margin," one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature. Even the donkey carts, ox carts and small sculls used by boatmen were researched.

The same attention was paid to authenticity of the landscape, the structures, bridges and other features -- all had to be identical to those depicted in history texts.

Take a simple lantern for example. The creative team used more than 10 kinds of lanterns that were essential to create the night view.

"From historic records, we know lanterns were hung at the gates of homes, government offices, stores and other places and they varied in size and shape according to their location. We have paid great attention to these details," says Yu.

The flowing river too looks so real that some visitors reach out to touch the digital waters.

"Water has special meaning in Chinese culture and is tied with numerous auspicious legends," Yu says. "To match the theme of 'wise river,' the team decided to introduce the water element at the very beginning."

In addition to the "Qingming" mural, Crystal CG is responsible for the digital productions in the China State Shipping Corporation Pavilion, the Hainan Pavilion and the China Railway Pavilion.

In 2008, Crystal CG worked on the opening and closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing.

"The six-month Expo lasts a lot longer than the Olympics, making high demands on our multimedia system's stability and maintenance capacity," says Yu.

With the success of the "Qingming" masterpiece, the company is beginning to focus on the culture industry and plans to interpret more classical paintings and calligraphy through multimedia.

"We are planning to revive and replay traditional customs and legends with multimedia technology," says Yu, "and we want to bring new highlights to the China Pavilion in the next few months."


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