As the producer of a few CCTV (China Central Television) shows Zhen Li has gotten the opportunity to do things in the US that many Americans only dream of doing. For example, what self-aware Star Wars fan hasn’t dreamt of finding themselves with full access to the birthplace of the magic of the film series in order to become one of the films iconic characters? Li has done this…and so much more. From getting his “Star Wars Geek” on to delving deep into the political and historical relations between these two cultures, Li has revealed the comparison and contrast of two great civilizations. From his beginnings in China (Zhen won a talent program competition to become a TV host) Zhen threw himself into behind the scenes production and quickly became one of the most sought after producers in China, one who also gained access to Hollywood via his work in Chinese productions like the CCTV programs “Documentary Dream Road” and “2014 Spring Festival Star Wars Series Special Program.” Li’s time in front of the camera enabled him to quickly become a knowledgeable, effective, and respected producer.
The Star Wars franchise is almost certainly the most influential and profitable in the history of film. Now in its fourth decade of production and creating fans, it shows no sign of slowing down. Generations of Americans share an obsessive affinity for the films, their storylines, and characters. China is no different in their love of the series. Producer Zhen Li was able to fulfill every Star Wars fan’s dream when he was sent by CCTV to oversee the filming of a three-part documentary at Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound titled, “2014 Spring Festival Star Wars Series Special Program.” Li confesses, “I’ve been a fan of Star Wars since I was very young, thus I was very excited to visit the company that produced the Star Wars series and meet with those legendary filmmakers. When I saw the original trilogy, I was 6 years-old. I believed that this world truly existed. Everything was so real at that time! As a mischievous boy, I had a great imagination about life in outer space. It was the beginning of my interest in Sci-Fi movies.”
Consider this; the Chinese Spring Festival is a time of year which is known for family viewing of special programming and higher than normal viewership. As the only nationwide professional film channel, CCTV-6 covers a population of 852 million. Its average annual ratings and market share in the national TV channels is among the best. The “2014 Spring Festival Star Wars Series Program” was among the top three rated programs in its time slot, meaning a viewership in the hundreds of millions.
Besides hiring the entire local crew for this production, Li Zhen also coordinated the shooting in Lucas Film, Industrial Light & Magic, Skywalker Sound, organized and conducted interviews with important figures, such as John Knoll (Oscar winning VFX supervisor known for AVATAR, Star Wars IV & VI, Mission Impossible, Pirates of Caribbean), Chief Creative Officer at Industrial Light & Magic; Benjamin A. Burtt (2 times Oscar Sound Award Winner known for Wall-E, Star Wars IV, Kong: Skull Island, Jurassic World, etc.); Matthew Wood (3 time Oscar Nominee known for Star Wars I & III, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rogue One, Guardians of Galaxy, etc.). While the massive attention the viewers gave this series was the most rewarding, Zhen admits to a close second stating, “I was C3PO for an hour. I put on a motion capture suit which had more than 30 reflection dots attached. The suit covered my body from my head to my hands and feet. I walked in to the motion capture stage where I believe there were more than twenty-four cameras placed from different angles capturing my every movement. On the computer screen I saw C3PO moving as I do. Somewhere deep inside me, my six-year-old self was jumping in the air with joy, but I was cool and professional on the outside.”
“Documentary Dream Road” is a CCTV 32-episode series telling the story of China’s last century of history, through revolution, destruction, construction, and reform, that offers an accurate and well-rounded explanation of how this nation achieved everything it has today. Zhen Li was a producer on this incredibly popular program. The two episodes which focused on China/US relations, the “Sino-US icebreaking” and “Big country diplomacy” were filmed in the United States. During the shooting, Li Zhen visited the headquarters of Boeing in Seattle, Microsoft headquarters, Amazon headquarters, and also visited the Nixon Memorial Museum located in the city of Yorba Linda.
One of the most influential US figures in American relations with China was President Richard M. Nixon. Nixon’s grandson, Christopher Nixon Cox, travelled to California to be interviewed for the program about the former president’s historic trip to China in 1972 attempting to build a bridge between the two countries. While the discussion of these two international powers was at ease, the requirements of the production was not the same. Zhen confirms, “Besides the 30 episodes shot in China, I only had a month to deliver the footage of the two episodes shot in the US. As the producer, I needed to build up a camera department and sound team within a week; then find good cameras, lighting, and sound equipment within budget…and of course negotiate contracts with them. At the same time, I got a list of people’s names to interview, but none of the them had been contacted yet. I immediately began approaching them about being in the program. By default, I was the one to interview them, which meant that I also needed to prepare more questions in addition to the ones the Chinese team had given me. All this work overlap made it quite stressful. In the end, the results were amazing…but it’s not the type of schedule one hopes for.”
Even though Zhen Li is comfortable on camera and is sometimes pulled back in front of it, he admits that his true desires exist on the other side of the camera, far from the public view. It’s the stories and the challenge of setting the essential parts in place, in a proper order, that really entices him. The eclectic nature of his work: documentaries, films, TV, all of these share one common element…a producer who propels them to greatness.