What happens when Taiwanese puppet company PILI International Multimedia and Japanese anime companies collaborate on a project? We get an incredible work of art called Thunderbolt Fantasy. Gen Urobuchi wrote the story, and it caught the attention of many anime fans. But how did the puppets, or what’s also known as Bu-Dai-Xi in Taiwan, come about? We had the fantastic opportunity to interview the President of PILI International Multimedia, Liang-Hsun Huang.
Could you briefly describe what PILI International Media does for fans not familiar with the company?
Liang-Hsun Huang: Bu-Dai-Xi is a century-old cultural entertainment that continues to advance with the times and has, in the present day, evolved into television drama and movie formats that combine sound and lighting special effects. For overseas audiences, we are a production company that uses puppets to perform animation.
For many international fans, we’re familiar with puppets and muppets but its impact is different and massive in Taiwan. Could you talk about “Bu-Dai-Xi” and why it is unique in Taiwan/how it differs from other forms of puppetry?
The original Bu-Dai-Xi puppet show used Glove Puppetry, in which the puppets operate more like on Sesame Street. It is closer to puppet animation nowdays. Unlike Marionette Puppetry and Rod puppetry, Bu-Dai-Xi belongs to the category of hand puppetry. The first Bu-Dai-Xi shows all imitated traditional operas, such as Peking opera, so they used traditional opera facial makeup and acted out historical stories or adaptations of traditional novels, etc. Bu-Dai-Xi originated in Fujian, China. After it came to Taiwan, it has been moving with the times. In the 1970s, Chun-Hsiung Huang (my grandfather) adapted Bu-Dai-Xi into a format fit for television, allowing Bu-Dai-Xi to gradually evolve from small outdoor stages set up to offer prayers to gods and deities to television shows that are meant for mass entertainment.
At the time, Chun-Hsiung Huang created brand new stories and broke away from historical stories and traditional novels; the puppets’ designs were also no longer based on traditional opera facial makeup. Incorporating music and elements popular at the time, the show was broadcasted on television and created a mainstream entertainment phenomena that was uniquely Taiwanese. At the height of its popularity, it reached 97% peak TV viewership in Taiwan, laying the foundation for the far-reaching influence of Bu-Dai-Xi shows in Taiwan. That’s why even now, Pili continues to broadcast two episodes with all new content every week, and has a large number of loyal fans.
In addition, compared to overseas puppet shows, which focus on children as their audience, puppet shows from the East originated from traditional operas, and as such are meant to be performed for adult viewers. The main audience is adults. These puppet shows would include martial arts stories, lots of classical poetry, and many literary elements.
What goes into creating a new puppet/character in terms of character design, planning, and crafting the actual puppet? How long does it take to make a puppet, from character design to finished model?
Basically, the longest time spent on a puppet is crafting its head. To complete the entire puppet, the process that goes from crafting the puppet head, to costume design, to hair and body shape, takes at least two months. Because now our puppet shows are televised, we need to show more details on camera. But at the same time, we must also ensure that the puppeteers can operate the puppets for a long time without causing occupational illness, so the weight is controlled to be around 2.5 kg and the height to be between 80 to 100cm, depending on the gender and role designated for the specific puppet.
Originally, the [shows] were drama-in-palms, and the puppets were only 30 cm in size. By the time of television dramas in the 1970s, their sizes grew to 60 cm, and are now 90 cm. The reason for this growth is that puppet crafting is also adapting to the development of television screens and cameras. When more details are displayed on screen, the proportions also need to be increased in order to craft more details on the puppets.
As for materials, in general, traditional puppets were mainly carved from camphor wood, which is also now the mainstream. It was only in recent years that 3D printing technology would be used to optimize the overall production process. In order to satisfy shooting needs, each of our characters has one principal puppet and two backups. If there are a lot of fight scenes, sometimes we even need stunt doubles. Plus, due to the fact that the heads of the puppets are easily damaged, in order to speed up the production time, many of the heads meant as stunt doubles would be made using 3D printing.
How long does it take to film one episode’s worth of film?
One episode of the Bu-Dai-Xi show is 60 minutes, and four camera crews can shoot two episodes a week.
How long does it take for a PILI puppeteer to learn and train before he/she can perform?
Although the training process for new generations of puppeteers will differ based on natural talent, there is a saying that to go from novice to skilled puppeteer, it takes 7 years of practice to be entrusted with a main role, 3 years to get a supporting role, and 1 year of training in basic skills to begin operating the villagers for practice. That’s just under normal circumstances, generally it still depends on how delicate and difficult the movements are.
In addition, the “mentor-apprentice system” among puppeteers is actually more like a self-acknowledgement, not an explicit designation. From PILI’s perspective as a company, we do have an extensive process for the training and testing of new puppeteers.
Thunderbolt Fantasy is a collaboration between PILI, Good Smiles Company, and Nitro+. How did the project start?
The master of Japanese manga and anime, Gen Urobuchi-sensei, came to Taiwan to hold a book signing event for the “Fate/Zero” novels. During the book signing event at International Animation Festival, he passed by the booth for “PILI Fantasy World Of Puppet Art” exhibition and saw the Bu-Dai-Xi puppets and film clips for the first time. He said that “[I] never imagined that this kind of traditional art exists in the world!”
He was deeply moved and could only think about how he could introduce PILI to audiences in Japan in his head. He immediately bought a DVD set of “The Wulin Warriors” and brought it back to Japan. Urobuchi-sensei, who did not understand Taiwanese or the Chinese subtitles, was entranced by the essence of the Bu-Dai-Xi art, the puppets who were able to zip around in the air, as well as the gorgeous martial arts scenes. He quickly finished the entire 30 episodes of “The Wulin Warriors,” and even reacted to the death of a character in the drama by tweeting, “ Huh? Hold on! Baili Binghong…whaat!”
The interesting part of this story is that in the eyes of many fans, Urobuchi-sensei himself is a novelist and screenwriter who often delivers “various ways to die” to his characters. At the time, everyone started discussing how sensei would be surprised by the death of a character in PILI. And on March 1, 2014, I just happened to see sensei’s comment on Twitter. I have read his novels myself, but I never thought he would mention the name of a PILI character on Twitter. I thought it was very interesting, so on the same day, Urobuchi-sensei and I expressed our mutual interest to work with each other through our individual channels.
After that, PILI officially signed a three-way contract with the Japanese game company Nitro+ and hobby merchandise company Good Smile Company. A Taiwanese and Japanese collaboration known as the “Thunderbolt Fantasy: Sword Seekers Production Committee” was formed and we invited Gen Urobuchi, who was Nitro+’s vice president, to be the chief supervisor of the project, thus creating “Thunderbolt Fantasy: Sword Seekers.”
The show is a fusion of Japanese and Taiwanese culture and media. How did/does PILI impact the show in your opinion?
Actually, the show was definitely affected by historical factors. Taiwanese design elements and content already have a lot of Japanese influence. The most important thing was to iron out the differences in manners of expression, since there are minor variations when it comes to sense of aesthetics. In the case of “Thunderbolt Fantasy,” it was originally intended for the Japanese market, and since Urobuchi-sensei was responsible for the entire production process, after we reached a point where both sides have had thorough discussions, the final decision was handed over to Urobuchi-sensei, who was much more familiar with the Japanese market.
Nitro+ was in charge of the character designs in “Thunderbolt Fantasy,” and Good Smile Company was our consultant on puppet modeling. First, a 2D character design was created, then PILI would transform the character design into an actual puppet after resolving the gaps in converting 2D to 3D, such as material choices and so on. During the process of collaborative creation, the result was generated through nonstop mutual communication and respect. The end product exhibited a distinctive anime/manga style that was based on the 2D design and feel. But it was still a bit different from typical anime. For example, the characters’ body shapes are closer to the 8, 9-head to body ratio of actual humans, which is rather rare in Japanese shounen anime and manga. Also, in terms of scenery and props, there would be relatively more details and a more realistic feel. In the transformation from 2D to 3D, we tried to adjust for the differences that were created in that process.
Nowadays, there are special effects and SFX that can be applied during editing. How does PILI factor that while acting out the scenes, especially in action-packed scenes for Thunderbolt Fantasy?
Actually, although the “TBF” series has many anime elements, the actual shooting is closer to that of a real-life drama. It is necessary to “break the barrier between 2D and 3D” and present the exciting magic and sword energies from anime in a format that is integrated with realistic environment. More than 70% of the scenes in the drama were shot in actual settings, while the CG parts were mainly used to highlight the effects of the character’s moves. This also meant that the TBF series did not have any precedents that we could reference.
For example, in “Thunderbolt Fantasy Season 3,” Kasei Meikou, the strongest villain Urobuchi-sensei has created in the series, has an important super technique based on unseeable “gravity.” The crew cross-referenced various animations and movie scenes, and ended up using natural damage reflected in things like broken branches and sunken mud to realize the abstract concept of “gravity.” This enhances the absolute power of Kasei Meikou, who dominates the entire scene.
Another advantage of shooting in a real-world setting is that the video image will be more realistic and beautiful. For example, in the sixth episode, we used high-speed camera and high-spec lenses to shoot the entire battle scene, so that more of the natural elements, such as shots of exploding flames, splashing water, and blood dripping and spreading into the puddles, would be captured in richer details. In addition, it’s a lot of fun to do practical effects, and our filming crew team really enjoy shooting them.
There are several scenes that take place in the rain. Are the puppets allowed to get wet? How are the water effects done so as to not to damage the puppets?
We actually had to expose the puppets to the rain in order to present a more realistic effect, so our puppets and puppeteers were getting poured on for real. The scenes with explosions contain real flames and sand, etc. There are no special protective measures, so that’s why there is a need for so many stunt doubles and backups to switch puppets out.
Any final comments to international fans while they watch the 3rd season of Thunderbolt Fantasy?
If you like our work, please don’t hesitate to share it with your family and friends, so that more people can see this unique cultural art!
Official Website: https://www.pili.com.tw/about-en.php
Official Twitter: https://twitter.com/epilinet
Official Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PiliFantasyWarOfDragons/
Coordination by Eugene H. and Sze C.
Special thanks to PILI International, Liang-Hsun Huang, and Eugene H. for the special opportunity!