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July 9, 2014

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Set designer’s art of transforming auto junk

A STAGE set designer in Shanghai has created models of “Transformers” characters from discarded auto parts, which are proving to be a big hit, despite copyright issues.

“Most boys love Transformers and watching the movies is not enough. Making a real model is really cool,” Li Weilei, who hails from Shandong Province, told Shanghai Daily yesterday.

Li, 28, is skilled in acrobatics and martial arts and has appeared in operas. He performed around China before settling down in Shanghai in 2006 and now makes props and sets for TV series, films and stage.

A military enthusiast, he made models of aircraft and tanks along with friends. The group now numbers more than 30, together building new models.

In 2012, they started making models of Transformers, the Hollywood science action blockbuster franchise based on a line of toys.

Most of the Transformers are about 3-meter-high and cost between 20,000 yuan (US$ 3,224) to 30,000 yuan each, and take nearly 15 days to make. The tallest — 20 meters high — cost them more than 400,000 yuan and took three months to build.

The effort is paying off with shopping malls, restaurants and companies renting them out for events and promotional activities.

“We did not intentionally make them for commercial use. People came to us through friends and we did not charge them much,” Li said.

Li, however, refused to divulge how much he charges to rent them out except saying they were making “very little money.”

Infringement problems

However, his home-made Transformers have led to intellectual property disputes.

Last year, when some were exhibited near Hongqiao Airport, the film franchise’s  producers warned him over infringement problems.

“We did not realize there could be problems with them. After we were warned, we removed the logos of the Transformers from our products and made some changes to  models we made later,” Li said.

“We don’t call them Transformers. Instead, we call them robots,” he said.

The film’s producers did not ask for compensation.

Besides Transformers, they also made models of props from other films.

Last year, they made several vehicles that were similar to the ones used in “Batman.” One of them was a fully-fledged car. When they hit the road with it for a ride, it was stopped by police as they did not have a license plate.

Li and his friends have created more than 100 models, including military craft and other props. Only a few are rented out for exhibits. They rent 1.3 hectares of land — paying nearly 1 million yuan (US$161,111) annually — in Huoxing Village in Qingpu District to store the models, Li said.

“It is an expensive hobby, but we really love what we do and simply cannot stop making new ones,” Li said.


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