The secrets behind Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon's soaring stunts
I’ll believe it when I see it.
That was Yuen Wo-Ping’s reaction when director Ang Lee asked the renowned action choreographer in 1997 to collaborate on a movie still two years off. ”In Hong Kong, we talk about projects six months ahead of time,” says Yuen, who was then working on a film that would set the stage for fantastic feats to come: The Matrix. ”I thought, ‘Two years? This may not happen.”’
But it did. And four years and 10 Oscar nods later, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the year’s see-it-to-believe-it spectacle.
Here, Yuen and cinematographer Peter Pau reveal how they conjured those flying fights.
WALL OF FAME In the movie, legendary warriors Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat) and Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh, right) and tempestuous young Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi) owe the supersize spring in their steps to a mystical martial art. In reality, to fly from spot to spot the actors were dangled from cables strung between two cranes, then pulled from the ground by Yuen’s 15-member team. Other times, a single crane was used not just for hanging and hoisting, but for moving as well. ”Very tricky,” says Pau, who adds that Yuen’s crew tested each stunt at least five times before shooting. This kind of wire work is common in Hong Kong action films, yet Yuen says Tiger takes one bold leap forward. ”We tried to use long shots to shoot the flying scenes. In the past, we would use just very fast cutting,” he says, pointing to the movie’s first set piece, a long, moonlit chase up walls and over rooftops (below right), which had Pau’s cameras chasing after the actors on cranes of their own. Why the long shots? ”I thought it would be much more challenging and much more beautiful.” Yuen’s pursuit of heaven was hell on the cast. He says he had the fight scenes choreographed about a month before shooting but his intricate kung-fu ballets weren’t usually taught to the actors — who learned only fundamental movements during preproduc-tion — until the day of shooting. ”We did not have any storyboards. We went along with day-by-day planning,” says Pau, though he adds that his previous experience on HK action films had prepared him for as much. Not so lucky was Chow, who had never done wire work before: His first time strung up took 18 takes to satisfy Lee. ”Afterward,” says Pau, ”Chow would laugh and joke, ‘Ang f — -ed me 18 times my first time!”’
DIP COVER Jen Yu and Li Mu Bai’s treetop tussle comes to an astonishing climax as they leap from the limbs and skip across a lake to nearby rocks — in one take. ”It was one of Ang’s dream shots,” says Pau, ”showing his poetic style and taste for action.” Yet it was one of the few that couldn’t be created in the camera. In theory, Lee wanted Zhang to barely toe the water’s placid surface; in execution, she dipped too deeply and couldn’t safely land. Enter Manex Visual Effects, the U.S. outfit behind The Matrix, which merged eight takes and embellished them with digital animation. Manex worked on some 60 other shots, while HK-based Asia Cine Digital erased wires and cranes (left) from 300 — the bamboo sequence alone took two months. Still, as Pau notes, ”Crouching Tiger is not a ‘visual-effects’ film. We wanted to use human hands to create our magic, rather than send everything to digital effects.”