"Invincible," a highflying martial arts adventure airing Sunday on TBS, is the brainchild of international action superstar Jet Li with Oscar winner Mel Gibson serving as an executive producer. Li played Gibson's nemesis in "Lethal Weapon 4."
And just like any Li feature film, "Invincible" is a showcase for spectacular martial arts fight sequences. Handling the high-wire act was someone who has worked with Li numerous times--noted Hong Kong action coordinator and director Tony Ching, who helmed the complicated action sequences in which actors perform stunts while attached to wires.
In "Invincible," Billy Zane of "Titanic" fame plays a mystical leader named Os who trains four warriors to defeat the Shadowmen, a group of otherworldly evildoers intent on destroying all that is good in the world through a powerful ancient artifact that was long thought to be lost. David Field plays Slate, the charismatic leader of the Shadowmen.
Shot in Australia, "Invincible" is a little bit "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" meets "The Matrix" and "X-Men" with a bit of New Age philosophy thrown in for good measure.
Bringing "Invincible" to the small screen was a complicated procedure that included extensive pre-production planning, and utilizing two directors working simultaneously with separate units in order to complete the project in just 23 days.
Jefery Levy ("Inside Monkey Zetterland"), who directed the non-wire work, was also the main scriptwriter. "All the action was in the script and it was completely envisioned and storyboarded," says Levy. "It had to be in order to accomplish what we accomplished in such a short period of time. I happened to know a lot about the martial arts world and I was able to put on paper how the sequences were going to go. That was really helpful in terms of organizing the whole thing."
From the outset, says Levy, Li wanted the film done like a Hong Kong action flick. "You have a main unit director and you have the action unit," Levy explains. "I chose the locations where I knew both units could work simultaneously so the actors and I could walk back and forth between them. I had a very strict set of rules for the style of the movie which was set up from the get-go.... We had to maintain that look, a very stylized look."
Most Hong Kong action movies, says the director, are done on the cheap with hand-held cameras. "The rule on this was no hand-held," says Levy. "I wanted a very smooth, elegant look to it."
Most films are shot at 24 frames per second, but Levy shot more than 80% of "Invincible" at speeds running from one to 150 per frames per second. The action unit didn't shoot any of the dialogue scenes. "If it had dialogue, the main unit shot the action. The main unit shot about 25% to 30% action. If it had wires, it was shot by the wire unit, and if it didn't have wires, we would talk about who was shooting what."
Adding to the challenge of making the film was the fact that wire director Ching and his staff didn't speak any English. "I had an interpreter," says Levy. "The storyboarding sessions were quite excruciating because really I had to stand up and kind of act out what was in the script."
In his role as Os, Zane gets to do wire work--climbing walls, hovering in the air--as well as martial arts. "The training sessions, I guess the objective was to look good doing it."
Special Effects Matched
to Nature of Characters
Shuttling between the two units for 23 days, says Zane, was equivalent to doing a 46-day shoot. "But it was brilliant, and the energy of Tony Ching and his crew and the rate of what they shot was amazing," he says.
But wearing the harness for the wire work, he likens to a "Hong Kong wedgie." Still, Zane adds, "it is worth it just being seen forever [on film] flying through the air, hovering and climbing the walls."
Calibre, a Canadian-based special-effects studio, created the 150 effects shots used in the film. "It was a relatively compressed schedule," says Anthony Paterson, the visual effects supervisor. "We had to plan the effects very carefully. Because I was able to go on location and be on the set with the directors and the production crew, we were able to have a great deal of control over the elements that we were going to require to be able to do those effects with a quick turnaround. That said, the most important thing for us was the quality of the visual effects."
The visual effects also had to be related to one another like the magical entrances and exits of Os and Slate. "Each one was tailored to the character or the individual," says Paterson. "Os starts at the beginning of the show with simple exits and entrances and then as he becomes more and more working for the forces of good, his exits and entrances take on a type of white light technique. Slate, who stays evil throughout the show, stays liquid and energetic."
"It was definitely more of a challenge than your average TV movie or pilot," says producer Janine Coughlin of Alliance Atlantis, the company producing the movie with Gibson and Bruce Davy's Icon Productions and Li's Qian Yang International.
Before hiring Levy, the producers looked at nearly 100 different directors. "We knew [hiring the right director] was critical in getting a look for the show," says Coughlin. Icon had a relationship with Michelle McGahey, the production designer who had worked on "The Matrix" and "Mission: Impossible 2." "That was [also] a decision in getting the right look. We kept emphasizing over and over, it needs to look really special, really wonderful--like a feature."
If "Invincible" does well, it could become a weekly action-drama. Coughlin reports TBS has until January to decide whether to pick it up as a series, though she admits it will be a challenge to make that conversion. "But we learned a lot in the way we approach a movie," she said. "You know how the action sequences work and how to make it more efficient. It will be a challenge, but definitely doable."
"Invincible" can be seen Sunday at 7 p.m. on TBS. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).