Box Office Monster: Animation vet Raman Hui earns CineAsia director honor

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A mere 12 months ago, most people–including many in the movie industry–would not have immediately recognized the name “Raman Hui.” It just didn’t ring the proverbial bell. But the release of fantasy epic Monster Hunt in Mainland China and other Chinese-speaking communities around the world certainly has changed that, its director Raman Hui becoming a hot discussion topic almost overnight.

The 52-year-old Hong Kong native, CineAsia’s Director of the Year, owes much of his sudden celebrity status to the fact that Monster Hunt has turned out to be the most successful domestically produced movie in China’s cinematic history. In terms of box-office receipts, it outperformed not only all local productions but also a veritable phalanx of recent high-profile Hollywood blockbusters. By its last screening week, Monster Hunt had grossed almost $383 million in Mainland China alone. While this was still a few millions short of the $390.9 million earned by all-time champion Furious 7 (2015) during its China run, it still comfortably left behind in its wake the next runner-ups, local film Lost in Hong Kong ($253.6 mil.) and Hollywood productions Avengers: Age of Ultron ($240.1 mil.) and Jurassic World ($228.7 mil.).

Nobody was more surprised by this result than Hui himself. Monster Hunt was his live-action directorial debut after all, and he surely didn’t anticipate that it would sweep Chinese audiences everywhere off their feet. “I never thought it would do that well [at the box office]. Thinking about it now, it still feels like a dream and I am asking myself, ‘Did that really happen?’” he confides.

The idea for Monster Hunt wasn’t even a long-term project that gradually matured to fruition. Instead, it materialized pretty much out of the blue when Hui was introduced by producer Bill Kong (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to writer and director Alan Yuen (Shaolin). “Alan, who is a very creative and funny guy, and I started talking about what interested us. In the process, Alan got inspired and started writing the script [for Monster Hunt].”

When Hui eventually set out to direct the film, it was already pretty clear to him that the movie, which dwells on a fantasy-action theme based on Chinese mythology, would primarily appeal to Chinese-speaking audiences. But after its phenomenal success at home, it came as another big surprise that it also stirred sudden interest elsewhere. “We didn't expect it to be shown that much outside of Chinese-speaking countries. I am very happy that actually a lot of different countries have become very interested in Monster Hunt [in the meantime].”

His name now lifted out of relative obscurity and firmly established in the local Directors’ Hall of Fame, Raman Hui has just begun developing a sequel, Monster Hunt 2. “But, so sorry, it’s still too early to disclose details,” he apologizes, adding that he’s too busy to do anything else for the time being. “[After Monster Hunt] I received a lot of calls from agents and producers, but I don’t think I will have the time to direct another movie while I am developing Monster Hunt 2.”

At this point it’s warranted to roll back time, because despite his only recently acquired celebrity director status, Hui is not a newbie. In movie animation circles–both in Hollywood and at home–his name has actually been well-known for years. And Hui did what many talents do: He gradually grew into his shoes.

From early childhood on, Hui just loved to draw and he let his vivid imagination run wild. It thus seemed natural to pursue a career as a graphic designer, majoring in animation. However, eventually graduating from Hong Kong Polytechnic University, he found Hong Kong’s working environment difficult and non-conducive to his talents. “[Back then] it was very hard to do animation in Hong Kong. You didn't get respect from clients and you had to work very long hours on very tight schedules, which made it extremely difficult to deliver great work,” he recalls.

Luckily, he was eventually introduced to U.S.-based Quantum Studios. “I was completely blown away by their work and working environment,” he recalls. He soon accepted an offer to join them as a cel animator and moved to the United States. “I just love doing animation and I was so lucky I got to do that as a job. In the U.S., they gave you sufficient time to do good work.”

Hui later joined DreamWorks and started working as a character designer and animation supervisor on his very first animated feature film, Antz (1998), which has become something of a cult movie that even today enjoys an enthusiastic following. “I am very honored that after almost 20 years people still remember Antz,” he says.

The next major milestone in Hui’s accelerating animation career was an even more beloved and popular movie–or to be more precise, an entire franchise: Shrek. In fact, the lovable, chubby ogre might not have been the same without Hui, who industry media often cites as “the father of Shrek,” as he developed the character from scratch. “Shrek is like a good old friend of mine. I was there when we made his final design. I was there when we designed facial controls for Shrek so he would be able to express himself. I witnessed how we came up with expressions that we felt would fit our character. I knew exactly what kind of smile would make him look charming. I knew how he looks sad and what subtle changes [were needed to] make him express whatever feeling he’s supposed to display [onscreen],” Hui elaborates. But he is also modest enough to credit the other animators on his team: “All of this only became possible because of our great crew of animators, who continuously showed their love and dedication for the character.”

Hui was closely involved in four installments of the franchise, even co-directing together with Chris Miller the third movie, Shrek the Third (2007), which like its predecessors earned excellent reviews. But in between, he also had stints with other memorable animated features like Madagascar (2005) and Puss in Boots (2011).

Today, Hui frequently commutes between the United States and his native Hong Kong, where, in his own words, “things have much improved for animators since back then.” But although his true love still lies with being an animator, he nevertheless also greatly relishes his newfound vocation as a director. “It was a dream come true. I have learned so much from different projects and experiences and am also very lucky that I got to work with so many amazing people. As a director, my job is to create a comfortable and welcoming environment for the crew to do their best work. I hope I can keep doing that.”

Hui is also gratified that he finally got the chance to return to his native realm to make Monster Hunt. “I grew up in Hong Kong and always hoped that one day I would come back to this part of the world to do something here. DreamWorks was very supportive of my decision. But I also would like to thank Bill Kong for believing in me and giving me this opportunity [to direct Monster Hunt].”

Asked how he feels about receiving CineAsia’s “Director of the Year” award, Raman Hui continues to display his typical modesty: “I am of course excited and honored to be called a director already. But never in my mind would I have thought to be [named] Director of the Year. I think this honor belongs to the cast and crew [of Monster Hunt]. I am just a representative who receives the award [on their behalf].”