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Take a look at the most popular/top earning films and you’ll see a slew of action films. Audiences around the world love a film with excitement and energy. The heroes are bigger, as are the pyrotechnics and fight scenes. To create an escapist environment for fans of this genre takes many accomplished professionals. Chances are that when you watch the daring feats on screen you are not thinking about the dialogue but without it you’d be taken out of the moment and have a less enjoyable couple of hours away from your daily life. The often unsung heroes of the action film world, dialogue editors like Zoe Zai, are the ones who help us hear the quips, exclamations, and more contemplative moments in films of this ilk. Because the dynamic range is so profound, ensuring that the dialogue blends with the environment of each scene can be challenging. Zoe’s work on Macau Lotus production Tina Ma provides a great example of how an accomplished professional such as Zai manages the diversity of such scenes.

By the time Zoe arrives to work on a production, the filming has been completed and the voice recordings have been obtained. A variety of microphones are selected on set and utilized. Finding the best takes and the most appropriate ones is akin to digging in the earth to find a coin or hidden treasure you know is there but must be uncovered. Zai’s work on Tian Ma placed her alongside remixer Will Riley, known for his work on films such as Grown Ups 2 ($134MM Worldwide), multiple Oscar nominee The Help, and others. Zoe selected the appropriate microphone recordings (for example, boom or lavalier, etc.), stretched out the beginning or end of takes with long room tones to make organic/smooth transitions between different cameras in the same scene, noise reduction, fade in/outs, and a plethora of subtle yet vital tweaks to the dialogue of the film that enable it to be the adventure story so beloved. The contours of dialogue in Tian Ma are something of a film within a film. Together, Zoe and Riley manifested a verbal focus which augmented the intent of the characters in this story.

Tian Ma is an action film with both Mandarin and English dialogue. While the bilingual aspect of this production gives further evidence as to the relationship between the film industries of the US and China, it also communicates that the same ideals are present in both cultures. The action is set in Ocean City, a quiet metropolis where many come seeking fame and fortune. One such individual is Olympic boxing champion Ma Liang (Aaron Ly of 47 Ronin w Keanu Reeves, Now You See Me 2 w Mark Ruffalo & Woody Harrelson), who has unfortunately lost everything gambling. In contrast, Ye Lin is a hard-working and loving father who would do anything to save his terminally ill daughter. Ye meets Johnny Malone (Dennis Oh of CBS NCIS: New Orleans) who gives him a mission that could reverse his daughter's destiny. Amongst all this, there is a looming nuclear war crisis that could lead to the annihilation of mankind and the only man capable of circumventing this is the mysterious heroic legend Jack Kao (Mai Zhongren).

Among the strong cast, Zoe’s work with the Aaron Ly’s role of Ma Laing is exceptional. Laing’s arc in the film is substantial as he transforms from a down & out gambler contemplating suicide to a hero who accepts a mission of greatness provided by Johnny. Laing’s metamorphosis from pugilist to intuitive observer of character is not only displayed in his fighting style but in his confidence and purpose. Zoe notes, “Sometimes what I do is about the mechanics; picking the right microphone and making sure levels and background sounds match. Specifically, for Ma Laing, his character changes so much in the film that I had to pay extremely close attention to the emotional journey he was on. As he changed, so did his mannerisms and conduct. There was a fair amount of mind reading. I had the opportunity to stretch myself a bit for this one and I really enjoyed it.”

Author: Kelly King
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