Designing an Undersea Empire

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For some time now I’ve been talking informally to several people directly involved with the Chinese/US fantasy blockbuster Empires of the Deep, being given updates and behind-the-scenes stories that I couldn’t report for reasons of confidentiality. Now that the new female lead and director have been introduced to the world in an official press conference in late April, however, I can at least give you some insight into the film’s progress — and offer a range on images from behind the scenes.

Despite a rocky history that includes title changes, a run of directors, the sacking of Sharon Stone for political reasons, and considerable on-set dissatisfaction that I still can’t talk about in detail, it appears to be progressing well. Recent acquisitions include the use of 3D cameras fresh from the Avatar set (with stereography consultant Anthony Arendt on hand to help use them to best advantage), and a new director, Michael French, whose directorial credits include Heart of a Dragon (2008) — another co-production, filmed, at least partially, in China.

Empires of the Deep (directed by Michael French for Fontelysee Pictures) is a fantasy epic set in ancient Greek times, centering around undersea empires of mermaids and other aquatic creatures. Touted as the first 3D film from China, with an originally stated budget of US$50 to $100 million (though now said to be $130 million, which makes the film the most expensive Chinese film since John Woo’s spectacular Red Cliff), the production has had its fair share of problems, with crew members coming forward to express extreme dissatisfaction with the way they were being treated (stories told to me in confidence range from the puzzling to the outrageous) as well as the perceived level of “clueless” interference coming from writer/producer Jiang Hongyu [Jon Jiang] — who hasn’t featured positively in many correspondents’ comments. Jon Jiang, who created the concept of the film, wrote it, is producing it and is largely self-financing it, is reportedly one of the richest men in China as well as being CEO of Fontelysee Pictures. Clearly he needs the film to succeed.

Pre-production rumours that Irvin Kershner (Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back; Robocop 2) would function in the role of executive producer proved unfounded. Meanwhile, the first announced director was Pitof (of Catwoman fame). Pitof left after his contract expired “because none of his advice was heeded” (according to an anonymous source) and was replaced by Jonathan Lawrence, who spent five difficult months on location and on set — continually interrupted by bad weather and unsafe conditions that shut down shooting altogether (“aside from slippery wet rocks in pouring rain, this included a cave that was falling apart and dangerous crushing equipment”) — before his contract likewise expired and the company couldn’t or wouldn’t meet his requirements for renewal.

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Jonathan Lawrence’s departure resulted in an escalation in levels of dissatisfaction and general pessimism from crew members, though all ultimately expressed their hope that the hard work of the many would prevail in the end. When I talked to him ex-director Lawrence expressed the same sentiment, even though he was not willing to renew his contract when it expired for reasons he doesn’t want to discuss publicly. Despite initial pessimism, the good directorial news is that French seems to be doing a decent job. Said one on-set correspondent: “While I was worried when Jonathan left the project, my worries were for nought because Michael the new Director rocks; he gives excellent direction and seems to work very well with his Chinese counterparts.”

On 22 April filming began on scenes featuring the Mermaid Queen — now being played by Olga Kurylenko, who was lead Bond-girl for Daniel Craig’s 007 in Quantum of Solace (UK/US-2008; dir. Marc Foster). As with many of the personnel, there had been several names attached to the role, including Sharon Stone and Monica Bellucci — but my sources tell me that Olga’s scenes have now wrapped.

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That all sounds like positive news, at least.

On Tuesday 27 April, Empires of the Deep was showcased for the Chinese media, complete with Jiang, dancing mermaids, Olga Kurylenko and other cast and crew members on stage. The following videos of the event include some raw footage from the film:

Meanwhile, the Backbrain has managed to find or acquire behind-the-scenes shots and pictures of the merfolk and other characters, along with some evocative images of the Chinese landscape in which the filming took place, as well as actual in-studio sets. Together, these give a pretty good idea of the aquatic design elements that will run through the film, and some guide to its general look and feel.

Mermaids and Mermen: Some earlier concept art depicted the mermaids in Empires of the Deep as rather “creature-like” and less human than the traditional mermaid. According to some correspondents, however, the beauty shows through in the actual filming, despite some less-than-effective head-gear and wigs. As one source commented: “The Mermaids are very sexy and take on an unexpected look. My favorite Mermaid is Zoe, played by Erika Larissa [see below], a beautiful Brazilian model/actress. She steals the screen.”

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Notice the change from wig to a prosthetic head-piece in the above pictures of Erika Larissa. When asked about this, Jonathan Lawrence commented:

“Not really sure when the corn-row thing got approved. The wigs they tried were awful. They looked like reject, trailer-trash Barbies. Some discussion went into using [the actresses’] real hair and the last I heard that was what they were going to do, then all of a sudden the actresses came to a costume fitting and I was told the rubber headpieces were the only solution…”

Another correspondent added: “The corn rows are because real hair for the mermaids wasn’t working out, and the actresses didn’t want to damage their hair by dyeing it white then purple or blue.”

As long as post-production efforts can smooth the join between head-piece and skin, thus making the head-piece look less like a rubber bathing cap, these do give the mermaids a unique and rather effective appearance.

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It appears at this point that the mermaids aren’t sporting the traditional fishtails, all available pictures showing the actresses’ own legs. Perhaps this will change (at least when they’re “in the water”) through post-production CGI. We await information on that. Either way, there is a definite “alien” look to the costume design, which in the mermen becomes darker and more aggressive:

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Spiky, sharp-finned elements, octopoid textures and an Alien-like organic quality appear to be reflected in props and aspects of the set as well. The following images of weaponry and undersea “vehicles”, though the latter are only in construction and hence lack detailing, are all reminiscent of deep-sea creatures and coral outgrowths.

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The model below, however, appears to be of a giant crab-like creature of some kind:

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Sets: the organic qualities grafted onto classic Greek architecture here are very effective, I think.

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Landscape: the part of China in which at least some of the filming took place is spectacular and evocative in its own right, no doubt chosen for just that reason.

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Miscellaneous:

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Empires of the Deep is planned as the first of a trilogy, with Jiang claiming that the second installment is scripted and ready to roll, and the third in development. It is scheduled for a 2011 release. Hopefully, it will rise above accusations of resource mismanagement, financial issues, poor production decisions, corner-cutting, inexperienced extras and the other problems that correspondents have mentioned, and realise the potential that good direction, good leads, and imaginative design work offer. One inside source put it thus:

It’s a fucking awesome concept. And so even if it sucks big time, it’ll suck in a really cool, never-before-seen-in-China way.

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12 Responses to Designing an Undersea Empire

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  2. Mario Escoto says:

    This movie looks amazing!!

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  5. George Baker says:

    Hello – is it okay to use your picture of ‘mermen’ in a kids book that I will be wrting? It would be fun….

    Please let me know if okay,

    Sincerely,
    George B. Baker

  6. Robert Hood says:

    George, I don’t actually own the copyright on those pictures. I was given access to them confidentially. If you’d like to pursue the matter, let me know and I’ll talk to you by email.

  7. Kelsea says:

    I absolutely want to see this! Even if the costuming is off, the idead of an underwater world connecting with above is fascinating. The more “creature-like” look appeals to me. The mermen look very,well, manly and intimidating.
    You need a good imagination to make such creations. imdb.com says the year will be 2013. Fingers crossed!

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  9. Rob says:

    The best chance this movie has of not totally sucking would be to add some cheeky dialogue and turn it into an underwater version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

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