In designing the make-believe world of Cinderella Moon, Production Designer Zhai Tao not only modified existing locations in Yunnan to fit the story, but he also designed nearly every prop in the film and supervised the creation of each one by hand. On this page you’ll see some of his designs and plans for props such as the King’s wedding sedan and the Astronomer’s telescope.
ZT: Maybe it was fate! Somehow Richard chose me in the end, and even now I think back on what a hard but fun journey it was!
Q: How did you become interested production design? What’s your favorite part about it?
ZT: I’ve always been interested in the arts, and I majored in oil painting from the Chinese Academy of Art. The movie industry inspired my generation in a unique way, so I wanted to express my artistic feelings in a medium more direct than paintings. My favorite part of being a production designer is using what I know — architecture, painting, model-building — to express the script.
Q: Did you know right away how you wanted things to look and did shooting in Shangri-La effect your approach?
ZT: I fell in love with the story as soon as I read the script, not just the Cinderella fairytale, but I was also excited about creating a true, beautiful fairytale in the land of wonders: Yunnan. We were so lucky to shoot there. It’s been given the name “South of the colorful clouds” in history, because there are so many minority tribes living there who have numerous local cultures and customs.
I really like the term magic realism. I wanted to put an emphasis on telling a familiar story but in a unique, Chinese way, to create a true world where miraculous things happened. After we scouted in Yunnan, I had these images in my mind of a beautiful kingdom visually distinguishable but without the limitation of nationalities, a place that looked marked by time but was not part of any particular history.
Q: Were you influenced by the Disney Cinderella?
ZT: Cinderella Moon is totally different. We never wanted to create a fantasy movie. Everything started from the magical land of Yunnan. We searched for inspiration from the local Dong-Ba culture and wanted the Chinese culture as it was expressed in Yunnan to help express the characters: simple but vivid. The final visual effect stresses realism combined with eastern art.
Q: What were the benefits of shooting in the various locales and what were some challenges?
ZT: Most of the sets were located in remote places. The benefits were that the places were rustic and untouched and seemed mysterious, but at the same time, there were so many challenges. Transportation, for instance. We carried equipment on mules, used local stones for props — a fun experience!
Q: What are some props in the film that had to be built?
ZT: There were so many props, and almost all of them had to be made by hand. Some special ones: the marble tub that Mei Mei bathes in the hall; the Dowager’s sedan chair and King’s sedan; the Astronomer’s instruments; and the tools Mei Mei uses to make pots. There are so many different minority tribes in Yunnan, and different kinds of styles. Richard asked the art and prop departments to give him the most humble tools from as many minority tribes as they could, so the art department constructed an invented culture based on the Dong-Ba people — architecture, props, vehicles.
It was harder to create the props for the royal court than for the villagers. We had to create everything for the palace: the king’s chair, his altar, the astronomy instruments. Since the props were all based in different eras, we focused more on the look and artistry than on the historical accuracy of the look. Whether it was a palace or a hut, we designed it with heart.
Q: Why do you think people should go see Cinderella Moon?
ZT: It’s a beautiful fairy tale that returns Cinderella to her eastern origins and creates a world that both seems both real and like a fairytale. Who wouldn’t want to see that? I’m sure everyone will enjoy it.
(Be sure to check out the gorgeous sets slideshow that features Zhai Tao’s creativity on full display.)