Table tennis, also known as ping pong, is considered the national sport of the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese table tennis team has not only dominated the Olympic Games, but also reigned supreme at the world championships and world cups for decades. Indeed, there have only been a few rare occasions when the nation did not manage to land a clean sweep of gold in major championships. But there was one time, back in 1989, when Sweden usurped China, in a shock which ran to the core of the national psyche if the new film Ping Pong: The Triumph is to be believed.
This sporting drama, based on the seismic loss at the World Table Tennis Championships and the team’s redemption five years later, is cast by co-directors Deng Chao and Yu Baimei as a tale of the underdog rising to meet a challenge.
Deng himself plays the team's chief coach, Cai Zhenhua, striving to lead his team to win the Swaythling Cup against arch rival Sweden at the World Team Table Tennis Championships in 1995.
“We knew a lot of the drama was going to center on the tables so I had to find interesting ways of conveying the fast moving action and of varying the coverage,” explains cinematographer Max Wang, who previously worked for the directors’ on Looking Up and Devil Angel. “That led me to think of using FPV drones and overhead cable cams.”
Wang devised a one minute 40 secs long single shot that begins with the Trinity operator standing on a GF16 crane before stepping down to walk with the lead actor using the Trinity Stabilizer to follow him down a street.
“In addition, there was a sequence scripted where we needed to suggest how desolate and shocked the players felt after losing a tournament,” Wang says. “For this we thought of deploying bodycams so that the camera is close-up on the player faces as they exit the stadium.”
“For these reasons alone we needed a small and lightweight very high quality digital cine camera. For me, there was only one choice.”
Wang used multiple RED V-RAPTOR and RED MONSTRO VV along with RED’s KOMODO camera.
“In most scenes we operated single cam but for the ping pong scenes I used every camera at my disposal. I assigned my operators to cover different angles and, if we had a spare camera, I’d prepare for the next scene either on a crane or a dolly.”
KOMODO was mounted on the drone for FPV shots. “For me, it is the holy grail of lightweight cameras,” he says.
Born in Taipei, Taiwan and moving to the US to study at AFI, Wang hadn’t grown up in mainland China during the time of the movie’s setting in the early nineties. He says this provided him with the advantage of being more objective and able to adapt to the director’s vision when determining the period look.
“Normally I am the one with lots of ideas for the director about visual look and tone but here directors Yu and Deng had very strong ideas. It meant that I was able to design a look with objectivity rather than it being based on my memories of the early 1990s. We had a long conversation about how it should look. Out of this we decided to use softer lenses. I interpreted this to select a range of vintage Lomo primes for RAPTOR plus a set of super lightweight Kowa anamorphics.”
The V-RAPTOR’s capability to shoot high speed was another important consideration for the filmmakers.
“You can shoot250fps comfortably with the V-RAPTOR and it was just so flexible since it was always available as an option should Deng or Yu require,” Wang says.
Extreme high motion shots were captured on Phantom at 1,000fps with footage “blending in superbly” with the RED camera reports Wang.
Several scenes, such as one in a park, were set at night and lit to keep the real location atmosphere of the street lamp sources. Others such as those in the gymnasium where the Chinese team practice are filmed to mimic the fluorescent lighting typical of such places and illuminated by powerful daylight sources through windows.
“The RED holds up so well in any kind of light. In the park we pumped ISO 1,600 and I knew we could get the detail in the picture. In some scenes, such as when our new team members get off the bus to the practice hall and again in the gymnasium mixes extreme highlights of strong sun with deep shadow and both areas of the picture hold up extremely well.”
Photography took place in 2022 in China when the world was experiencing the challenges of shooting under strict coronavirus prevention measures. Main location work was in Beijing and Xiamen, which is a three-hour flight from Beijing.
“It was a nerve-wracking time since we couldn’t gather many people in one place at the same time,” says Wang. “That’s when communication with my directors in pre-production was so important. When we got to the shoot we knew exactly what we wanted to achieve.”