Standing by in this decidedly high-tech corridor, are you ready to fly over Taiwan? (photo by Kent Chuang)
To reach your seats at i-Ride TAIPEI, inside the Breeze Nan Shan shopping mall, you first pass through a high-tech corridor. Then, once you are strapped in, the lights go off and you have the sensation of being lifted bodily into the air. The visual effects transport you through a corridor of light beams, from which you jump into an azure sea. As the white Lanyu Lighthouse appears, a warm breeze strokes your face. “Ah, it’s the warmth of southern Taiwan.” This realization barely registers before you are carried over a mountain to see the rice fields and the Takeshi Kaneshiro Tree of Chishang and the beehive firecrackers of Tainan’s Yanshui. When the journey ends after nearly ten minutes of flying, you find yourself still wanting more.
This is “Fly High Over Taiwan,” a 5D virtual flight experience produced by Brogent Technologies Inc. that draws on the sensations of five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and proprioception (the sense of movement and body position). As you sit beneath a domed screen nearly three stories in height, your seat moves in three dimensions—up and down, side to side, and backward and forward—as you dive, climb and glide in simulated flight. At times, droplets of water hit your body and aromas engulf your nose. It is an unparalleled experience of flight, even for those who have flown in an airplane or have been paragliding.
Crafting an uncommon experience
In 2013 Brogent successfully launched its “FlyOver Canada” virtual flight ride. In a few short years, the flight theater attraction, which was developed in Taiwan, has made its mark on the world, quickly becoming a big attraction in European and American amusement parks. To date tens of millions of people have experienced it.
“Our success with ‘FlyOver Canada’ made the company want to bring that kind of experience to Taiwan, so we came up with the idea of shooting the footage for ‘Fly High Over Taiwan,’” says Ling Chen, a planner and screenwriter at i-Ride.
Unlike most documentaries on Taiwan, “Fly High Over Taiwan” takes a first-person perspective so that the audience can really experience “flying” for themselves. A camera with a fish-eye lens was put under the nose of a helicopter to capture the vantage point of an eagle. Every scene underwent elaborate planning, with great thought put into how the movement of the camera during each long take could engender the sense of flight, explains aerial director Andrew Wang.
James Chai, who has been working as a flight instructor for Daily Air after retiring from the Air Force, has more than 30 years of flight experience. As a result of his flying duties, he has had the chance to see elegant manta rays off the north coast of Taiwan and hundreds of whales and dolphins jumping off the east coast. But he could only enjoy those beautiful sights alone and was unable to share them with family and friends, he says with regret. He piloted most of the flights going out to collect camera footage. “At this point there are few sights that can truly move me,” he says after seeing the finished product, “but ‘Fly High Over Taiwan’ touched my heart.”
Moving scenes of home
“I wouldn’t so much say that the production aimed to convey the spirit of Taiwan, but rather that the team, who came from every corner of Taiwan, made use of the medium to express their feelings about this place from childhood to the present day,” says Ethan Lo, who was in charge of planning and storyboarding for the film.
Every frame required painstaking effort. To give each scene a sense of immediacy and tension, the director would communicate constantly with the pilots to ask them to fly lower or get closer. “The director told me to imagine I was a fish jumping out of the water, to imagine I was a bird flying close to a cliff, to imagine I was a hawk swooping down,” says Chai. For instance, when they were shooting at the Bagua Tea Plantation at Ruan’an in Nantou’s Zhushan Township, for the sake of visual tension the helicopter flew about seven meters above the nearby power lines. It was so low that the tea farmers’ bamboo-leaf hats were blown off their heads. The visual effect of the diving and climbing, combined with programmed seat movements added in postproduction and the release of aromas at appropriate times, truly gives one the sense of being in a tea plantation.
The team skillfully edited footage from the Jianan Plain of high-speed trains passing through yellow fields of rice and of the procession of believers following the deity Mazu on her annual pilgrimage, juxtaposing Taiwan’s high tech with its traditional culture. With the magnificent bird’s-eye view of the procession of believers, it’s no wonder that Ling Chen says, “What we want to convey is how our homeland moves us.”
Every shot a gamble
Waiting for the right weather and light is a regular part of life for filmmakers, but shooting from the air posed special challenges. Every retake required the helicopter to return to the starting point of its flightpath. There were even cases where insects hitting the camera required midflight returns to the airport to clean the lens.
Likewise, when shooting under water, you have to wait for the right sea conditions. Just because there are no waves on the surface doesn’t mean that it’s peaceful underneath. Those shots of close encounters with schools of fish, corals and turtles are the result of three days of hard work from the team.
Being at the mercy of the weather is part and parcel of filmmaking, especially when it comes to aerial photography. The crew recall that when they wanted to capture the Mazu pilgrimage procession as it crossed the Xiluo Bridge, it was raining constantly, so the question was: “To fly or not to fly?” Nobody had the courage to take the risk until Andrew Wang said, “Let’s do it!” Perhaps through the intervention of the deity herself, the rain suddenly stopped for the last hour of daylight and the filming went smoothly. “Every time we went up to shoot, it was a gamble,” says Wang.
To add a little human interest to Taiwan’s majestic mountain scenery, two members of the crew hiked to the area around Mt. Dabajian and Mt. Xiaobajian. The production team’s Su Ren-hong and Liao Chien-hung were the “lucky ones” who got the assignment. Neither of them had much previous hiking experience, so they simply steeled themselves to the hardship and pressed onwards and upwards. Their journey started from the Guanwu National Forest Recreation Area in Hsinchu County, and the trek up and back took a full seven days. In the mountains their cellphones had no signal, and their only means of communication was a satellite phone. Unexpectedly, the low temperatures on the slopes caused the phone’s screen to go black as the rest of the team was awaiting their report to decide whether the next day’s film shoot could proceed. When they finally managed to get a call through, they begged executive producer Su Tsung-tsung, “Please do shoot tomorrow! We bust a gut to get up here, and we can’t do it again!” Liao Chien-hung and Su Ren-hong thus recall how capturing just a few seconds of footage of two small figures on a mountain ridge waving to a helicopter required so much preparation and support. As Ling Chen says, “Simply put, you’ll only succeed if you’re in the right place at the right time.”
As the crew discuss their experiences—both the bitter and the sweet—they only laugh about their personal hardships. But in their constant quest for high-quality footage, they always wanted to include even more images of Taiwan’s beauty. Chen lists some of her regrets: “It was a shame we missed the sweetgums turning red in Smangus. That year the weather was strange. A landslip took the road out the day before we wanted to go up the mountain. Then there were the shimmering ‘blue tears’ of bioluminescent algae in the sea around Matsu, which we missed due to difficulties involving nighttime shooting on the outer islands. And there was that time we flew to Jiaming Lake and the water level was too low, plus the area was closed to visitors….”
At the end of the show, some audience members remarked on how moved they were when they saw their hometowns, the source of so many personal memories, filmed beautifully from vantage points they had never seen before. “I’m gratified that the entire film, from the filming equipment and the i-Ride hardware, to the music, to the postproduction and editing, was ‘made in Taiwan.’ It really inspires pride.” Su Tsung-tsung points out that regardless of how hard it was to shoot, it is a work by children of Taiwan, and Taiwan can take pride in it.