Digital Fine Art
Douglas King
Issue: Volume 34 Issue 8: (Oct/Nov 2011)

Digital Fine Art

The culture of China is one of the oldest and most complex. With a country so large and diverse, the thought of creating a display that embraced China’s ethnicity on a scale that refl ected the countrymen’s national pride would be overwhelming for most production companies. But not so for Crystal CG.

Crystal CG had faced the monumental challenge of designing and producing an exhibit that would become the centerpiece for the Chinese Pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai Expo and would illustrate the theme “Better City–Better Life.”  is was no short order for any company, let alone one that had already set the bar of “greatest” to new heights with its moving scroll animation that was part of the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“Being able to design and create these two quite meaningful ‘pictures’ for both the Olympic Games and World Expo was a coincidence and also a necessity,” says project leader Yu Zheng. “Crystal has been dedicated to providing visual expression solutions [that utilize] new media technology at the core.  ese two events were particularly demanding in this area, especially because of the trend to express traditional Chinese culture with the use of high tech.”

So how do you top yourself and fulfi ll such a design brief? For Crystal CG, you look to the past, albeit using technology of the future, to create a visual masterpiece in the present.

Work for the Chinese Pavilion exhibit began nearly two years before the attraction opened last summer. Crystal CG’s team, headed by Yu Zheng and comprising 70 artists, 40 of whom work in 3D, started the concept stage of the project by looking at the past. “We set up a special creative team comprising people from the major branches in Shanghai, Beijing, and some other cities,” notes Yu Zheng. “ is was enough to guarantee that in less than six months, we could complete this project of a grand-scene animation that has nearly 1000 persons, dozens of animals, and many vehicles and other elements.”

Inspiration came from one of China’s most famous panoramic paintings, Qingmíng Shànghé Tú (Along the River during the Qingming Festival, also known as Life Along the Bian River at the Pure Brightness Festival).  e original, painted by Zhang Zeduan around 1100 AD on light-colored silk, lushly illustrates traditional Chinese life, depicting three major scenes of daily life of the people during the Northern Song period (960–1127) in the then capital, Bianjing, which today is Kaifeng. The first scene, beginning from the right-hand end of the scroll and moving left, portrays life in the tranquil countryside, with thatched cottages, farmers, and livestock using paths that crisscross fi elds, and farm life of the suburbs. Further along the scroll, the second scene depicts commerce along the Bian Canal, while the fi nal section shows urban life in the city, with all its various activities, including a camel train passing through.

Zeduan used fi ne freehand brushstrokes and pale, yet elegant colors in his depiction of life in China at the time.

The original scroll measures 5.28 meters in length (more than 17 feet) and includes 814 human characters, 28 boats, 60 animals, 30 buildings, 20 vehicles, nine sedan chairs, and 170 trees.  e painting is famous because of its geometrically accurate images of the boats, bridges, shops, and scenery using a bird’s-eye view.

The Quilting Process

The process of converting the scroll into a dynamic digital version was an arduous task. Since this painting is considered to be China’s Mona Lisa, Crystal CG was allowed, only under intense security, to borrow the original scroll from the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City and keep it for three months with the purpose of scanning every inch of it. After scanning the entire scroll, each of the hundreds of human and animal characters had to be digitally removed. All the elements of the scroll—from the buildings, pavilions, terraces, rivers, fi elds, and trees—were separated into individual elements so that each could be textured and animated separately.

Using Autodesk’s 3ds Max and Adobe’s After Eff ects and Photoshop running on 40 PC workstations, the artists re-created the various elements, adding subtle animated details—for instance, trees and crops gently sway in the wind, while river currents easily flow. As each element was completed, it was composited back into the scroll in its original location by the art team, starting fi rst with the background elements, such as buildings, terraces, rivers, and trees.  then, the animated details were added.

One special eff ect the team added to the digital tapestry that was not present in the original painting (set during daylight hours) is the transition to a nighttime scene every four minutes—alternating two minutes for the day view and two minutes for the night view. Slowly, the scene changes from day to dusk to night, the only hint that time is shifting is the lighting of  hundreds of tiny lanterns, some carried by the 377 animated characters, and others attached to trees and shops.

In order for the depiction to be historically accurate, 10 diff erent kinds of lanterns were used in the nighttime scene—just one of the many attentions to detail the Crystal CG team included in the work. “Historical records show that during this period in China’s history, lanterns of various sizes and shapes were used according to where they were hung—be it the gates of homes, government offi ces, stores, or other locales,” Yu Zheng notes. Still, Crystal CG went to great lengths to stay true to the original work, and more than 60 percent of the fi rm’s display is identical to the original artwork.

After the background elements were completed, the artists set their focus on the hundreds of characters they had to hand-animate and reinsert into the image. Each character was designed and animated in 3D, then textured and colored, before being converted back into 2D for compositing into the scene. All the animation was keyframed within 3ds Max, taking anywhere from three hours to two days to complete per character, based on the character’s importance in the picture. And, herein lies one of the main hurdles the artists had to overcome: that of the traditional Chinese perspective of painting.

Because the original artwork used a bird’s-eye view of the scene, each character had to be animated and the perspective correctly matched to fi t the scene. “Traditional Western paintings and mainstream 3D video production software, like 3ds Max, are based on the principle of perspective,’ namely the relatively rigorous principle of descriptive geometry, while traditional Chinese paintings emphasize ‘cavalier perspective,’ which is best exemplified in the long scroll-like Riverside Scene at the Qingming Festival,” explains Yu Zheng. “With careful observation and analysis, we may find at least 10 or even more ‘vanishing points’of perspective in it. Thus, when we produce images with 3D software, we encounter the problem that the image elements we produce do not match the original background perspective. The contrast in those elements with less obvious perspective lines, such as human figures and animals, are not so sharp as to be noticed at the first sight, but those added elements with clear perspective lines, such as tables, chairs, and benches, will give us a sense of distortion. Therefore, we have to display those elements more disorderly, or make a so-called pseudo-process, so as to achieve the desired effect of blurring vanishing points.”

Another challenge related to perspective is the animation. Yu Zheng points to the clip Rainbow Bridge as an example. “There is almost no possibility of producing a rainbow bridge with 3D software that is exactly the same as the original painting because that violates the perspective principle of physics,” he explains. “For the purpose of matching the actions of the people walking on the bridge, we may find after opening the working file that the figures are made to walk on a vertical plane without displacement in the direction of the Z axis, and the  perspective of ‘looking big when near and small when far’ is produced by zooming. Only in this way can we combine it with the original base painting to produce a relatively reasonable motion track of cavalier perspective.”

The end result, though, is that the characters, while created in 3D, appear to be 2D as they move perfectly about the scene in the correct perspective.

Using 3D tools and techniques, Crystal CG re-created the scenes from a
famous ancient Chinese painting in painstaking detail.

More than 50 computers were used in the renderfarm; the render times were as short as 15 seconds per frame (using over 150 CPUs) for the 3D animation renders, to over one and a half minutes per frame (by four CPUs) for the composite output.

Overall, the project took approximately five months to complete the design, animation, and compositing.

CG Canvas

Producing the animation was just one of the challenges facing the team. Because the exhibit was going to increase the size of the original artwork by 30 times, going from 5.28 meters long to 130 meters long (and 6.3 meters high), two new challenges presented themselves: the giant frame resolution and the blending and synchronization that would be needed for the multi-projector system that would be used for the final display.

Twelve Christie projectors would ultimately be needed to show the scroll scene in its entirety
on an undulating screen that runs the length of the huge pavilion. The audience walks along the length of the screen as the entire scene plays out from end to end. A person can view the scene many times without seeing all the detail and action that takes place. Crystal CG holds three patents on the software used to control the projection system. By enlarging the scene so much, the team of digital artists had to inject much more detail than was originally found in the painting. Each element, from trees, to boats, to houses, was painstakingly textured using Photoshop, and each character needed unique clothes and facial features.

During the daylight scene alone, there are 691 characters that go about their business. The increased detail the artists added allows viewers to actually watch the characters’ facial expressions changing, especially as a team of camels walk slowly by, or as the characters go about the task of taking down the masts of their vessel as they sail along the river.

For the issue of rendering such high-resolution images, Yu Zheng says that patience, and a good renderfarm, were necessary parts of the solution. “We split the frame into 12 parts (based on the 12-projector system we were using for the exhibit),” he says. “The resolution for each part was 2048x1080, but the total resolution was 18944x1080 due to the 11 blending areas (15 percent per screen).”

The entire digital scroll was projected onto an undulating screen using 12 Christie projectors.

A River Runs Through It

One final design element that caused some challenges was the addition of a water “moat” which was placed between the viewing audience and the scroll. The so-called moat served two purposes: to keep the audience from getting too close to the scroll, and to serve as “a river of wisdom,” says Yu Zheng. In the original design, there was to be an actual water system, but problems with the physical concept made the designers rethink the plan and turn to a digital solution instead. “The implementation of real water operations and maintenance are extremely difficult. So we adjusted it into the program.”

This was done by projecting the screen of watermarks stitched together by 26 Christie projectors on the gauze so that some of the images would show on the landscaping through the gauze under it, forming the “virtual water system” with a certain thickness, explains Yu Zheng. “The effect is real and magical where the water system contrasts finely with the Riverside Scene at the Qingming Festival on it,” he adds.

After two years of development and production work on the project, Yu Zheng says the most rewarding part of it all was seeing the excited and surprised expressions on the faces of the audience as they viewed the exhibit.

After completing such a monumental project, what do the artists at Crystal CG plan to do next? Since they have already established themselves as China’s premier digital agency since their establishment in 1995, the company, with offices now in London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, and Los Angeles, will turn at least part of their company’s attention to the London Games, where they will provide digital animation for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympic and Paralympic games in 2012.

With more than 2200 young artists in their employ and offices spanning the globe, Crystal CG is an international player in 3D digital entertainment and architectural visualization. Using technology of the future, Crystal CG was able to take a masterpiece from the past to create a beautiful exhibit in the present. And, what they have accomplished for Chinese art may one day be done for other cultural works of art. Imagine a Normal Rockwell or a da Vinci coming to CGI life.

Douglas King is a freelance writer based in Dallas. He can be reached at