VFX Compositor Xiaoli Zhang honors the Wu-Tang Clan in award-winning series

Xiaoli Zhang - Wutang

As an industry leading compositor, Xiaoli Zhang is far more than a highly skilled visual effects artist. Rather, she sees her primary role as a storyteller. Through her work, she ensures that the visual aspect of a story is all encompassing, adding or removing anything that would deter the audience from being taken to a different place and time.

“Storytelling, in my personal opinion, is the most important part of a film or television, or even a commercial. My job as a compositor is to support that storytelling. When directors want something in the story that can’t be filmed in practical, they will shoot these in greenscreen or bluescreen or even do it completely in VFX, and what we do as a compositor is to help make the dream come true,” she described.

Throughout her esteemed career, Zhang has shown the world what she is capable of, working on hit shows and movies. These include highlights such as WILD: A Safari Experience, Netflix’s Inventing Ana, Fox’s 9-1-1, and the Emmy Award-Winning The Good Doctor, to name a few. Whenever she embarks on a new project, she is doing what she loves, and that is what fuels her.

“I think I’m a person with a lot of imagination and this is a very important characteristic for being a compositor. Doing a job that can fit my talent is quite rare and valuable. Also being a compositor means a lot of possibility to make things happen. By using the computers and my imaginations, I get to make a different world,” she said.

One project that Zhang really got to dive into her imagination was the American biographical drama streaming television series Wu-Tang: An American Saga, created by The RZA and Alex Tse. The show portrays a fictionalized account of the formation of the Wu-Tang Clan, the iconic hip-hop group formed in 1992.

“There are many scenes in this show that to me are very creative and music video- like. As an artist, I love experimenting and working on things that are creative. Plus, I’m a big fan of Wu Tang Clan, so this was quite enjoyable. I had a great time revisiting the New York hip-hop scene of the 1990s. It was quite instructive and put a lot of the lyrics from my favorite hip-hop groups in context,” she said.

Working on Wutang: American Saga was a complex and challenging task, but Zhang was more than up for it. The show featured a variety of shots, from cleaning up the production lighting to complex 3D compositing scenes. Zhang’s immense experience in these types of shots made her pivotal to the team. 

Her first set of shots working on the series was taking an actor’s tattoo off of his moving arm. Immediately, Zhang knew that directly blurring the tattoo would not work, a mistake that less experienced compositors may have made. Doing so would blur everything and there would not be any skin details left, making it noticeable to the audience. Instead, Zhang used the Image Frequency Separation technique to essentially separate and blur the tattoo in high, mid and low frequency. This way it kept the skin details but it also took away the tattoo. She also 2D tracked the garbage roto shape and graded the skin to be a bit brighter to match his surrounding skin. 

“I love this show. Excellent casting was done, the screenplay is superbly written, and each installment of the compelling plot leaves you wanting more. Enough source material exists for ten or twenty seasons of this show. It is an epic series based on real events that tells the inspiring tale of tenacity and unwavering spirit in the face of adversity. An authentic family tale of ups and downs, rivalries and bonds between brothers, betrayal, and forgiveness. The path to success is never simple, and neither are families, yet the Wu Tang family managed to succeed. I think this show definitely is inspiring for the audience,” she said.

Wu-Tang: An American Saga began streaming on Disney+ Star in September 2021, available to the platform’s 221 million subscribers. It was very popular upon release, and was the 10th most in-demand United States streaming series at the time, across all streaming platforms.

“I know it’s a creative show and you don’t have to be a fan of Wu-Tang, rap music, or even music in general to enjoy the performance. It is a grim, urban tale with fantastic music. I have faith in the show that people will love it,” concluded Zhang.

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