Director: Yingran Zhao
Hello Yingran! Welcome to the SIFF!
1.First of all, Zong is extremely innovative. How did you develop this storyline?
I am very grateful for the recognition and affirmation from SIFF, which has given me personally and the Global Zong Team a lot of strength and courage to continue moving forward.
All the gameplays and sequence of events happening in the world of Zong come from my real life experience. The 28 main NPCs in Zong come from real people I have met on earth. They are the 28 people who have had the most profound influence on me in my life so far. The Five Clans of Corruption in the world of Zong are also derived from real people I met on earth, and they have had a profound impact on my life experience from another perspective. The creation of other little creatures and the creation of minor beings in Zong are more from the books I have read since I was a child and my observation of the details of this human planet.
For example, the snake that has chicken’s claws designed in the 11th level of Zong is from my childhood experience. When I was a child, I had relatives who raised snakes, and at that time I was only 7 years old. I saw that the little snakes were very smart, so I often went to talk to them as if they could ever understand me. As time went by, the little snakes became my best friends.
Another example is Papaver Rhoeas designed in the 4th level of Zong. I often got sick when I lived in the deep mountains at an early age. My grandparents were very poor and had no money to send me to a doctor, nor had they ever seen a doctor in their lives. When my stomach hurt, they used the seeds they picked up on the mountain to boil water for me to drink. As they have never walked out of that deep mountain in their entire lives, my grandparents did not know how to read, and they did not know what seeds it was to relieve my stomach pain. When I went to junior high school, I learned a lot of so-called “knowledge” and read a lot of books, then I got to know that the seed was called Papaver Rhoeas. So the inspiration for the sparkling flowers you see all over the sky is from my life as a child.
2.What inspired you to step into this VR world?
I never deliberately define a lot of things in this world, everything is the result of going with the flow inside my heart, including the life event of me entering the VR industry.
When I was in kindergarten, I wanted to create a world, but there were not so many details at that time, I just had a general idea. I felt and believed that there was life outside the earth, so I began to think about life in that world. What is it like? Later, after many experiences and events in life, I had a richer source of inspiration, and a more solid methodology of learning the knowledge and the technology, which gave me the real ability to put my imagination into practice.
I have been in the entertainment industry since my first year in college, and have been deeply involved in film, television, music, live performance, publishing, copyright law, games, etc. Due to the background, I possessed the ability to ask myself one question: Which is the best platform to show the world I want to create? Or, which is the best medium to carry the world I want to express? After going to college, I began to answer the question I wanted to answer with my rich working experience in the entertainment industry. When I was studying in the US, I had the opportunity to do a VR-related research project for Sony Music Entertainment in 2016. At the time I was very interested in this topic, so I began to conduct a lot of research on hundreds of VR companies and their products in that landscape. There was one time I also had the opportunity to put on the headset and experience inside the VR world at an offline event. I remember the first experience I saw at that time, probably in a dark hole, the stars twinkled all over the sky, and the beauty of that moment was enough to shock people, as if I could pick up those stars and touch the Milky Way. That intense beauty woke up the most sincere yearning in my heart. That level of profound emotion had never been carried by any flat media. But at that moment, it was clearly and consciously stimulated in VR. So I decided that I would let this medium carry the world I wanted to create since kindergarten. How time flies, it’s been 7 years since I made that decision, and I’m glad to see my own perseverance in the past 7 years working in the VR industry, though it’s been extremely hard, and it may continue to be.
3.How would you describe your directorial style or approach?
Goal-driven. I wrote the script alone for five years. Since the script originated from my life experience and it was written by me, I have a clear mind about what needs to be done. The framework of the world of Zong, the player’s growth systems, rules of using Creatura Voluta, so on and so forth, everything has been repeatedly carved in my mind for many years. When the entire script formed in shape at the end of 2020, the number of words alone exceeded 1 million. Therefore, what the world looks like, I am very certain about every tiny detail within Zong: When can the Osteosprectral Tiger that appears in the 2nd level be summoned by the player again, what the colour of Zong’s canaries appearing in the 5th level is, I am very clear. Because all of the details are extremely clear in my mind, when I started the production with the Global Zong Team, though we are working entirely remote across 10 countries, what needs to be done is very clear. It’s only that we need to communicate to different people to let each teammate understand the part that needs to be done. Most of the things in the production process are done at one time, I personally do not appreciate the working process of revising again and again because of the lack of clear goals of the leaders.
4.What are some of your favourite films or directors that have influenced your work?
From the summer I interned at Universal back in 2012, I have worked in the entire entertainment industry for several years, so I know that it is not easy for all the people behind the scenes. Many directors and movies look sparkling in the eyes of the audience. In fact, their sadness and sweat behind the scenes are unimaginable to many people. We only see them wearing suits and evening gowns to win awards on the red carpet, but we might never know all the days and nights just for making that one shot. And it is even harder to imagine how difficult it is to create all of those artistic details, so I respect all the directors and their works. They are my teachers on the road of life in my heart. If I had to choose one of my favourites, it would be Ang Lee. If I had to choose one movie, it would be Match Point.
6.Can you walk us through your creative process when starting a new project?
For any brand new thing in this world, it must be the most difficult at the beginning. This is especially true for people who do creative work. Simply because creation and innovation are not things that are supplied on demand, nor are they implemented according to a certain logic, reasoning, and order. Instead, it is deeply rooted in one person’s understanding and cognition of abstract propositions such as life, emotion, birth, death, feelings, etc.
The first step must be to figure out what you want to create or innovate. This process is the most difficult one, because it requires self-reflection to an in-depth level. And everybody knows that self-reflection is painful and heavy. Innovation must come from the nature of life, you are the only person who knows what you have experienced when you are five years old, what you have carved in your mind when you are ten years old, all of these feelings and life events only known to your heart, no one else can help you, you need to focus on your life and see what you want to create.
After figuring out what you want to create, it comes to the process of constructing the framework of your creation or innovation. You have to start building the details, and the polishing of the details is also extremely difficult. Each detail shows everything about you: what books you have read, who your role models are, the life experience of your role models, who you have loved, what this person has said to you, what kind of characteristics this person has, what your home looks like, who is in your home, where have you been, who you have met in those places, what interesting things happened in those places…. All of these thoughts and reflection will enrich the details of your creation, and these details are determined by the strength and the power of your life itself. The deeper your life is, the easier it is to fill in the details. Otherwise, you will struggle and lose the faith to move forward.
After the details are filled in, it comes to the stage of inspection. To check whether there is a logical error in the structure of the entire world setting is very important. For example, at the 11th level, I introduced a plant that only exists in the world of Zong, and said it would appear later in my script, but as I was moving ahead, if I completely forgot about this matter, then there will be no appearance of this plant after that gameplay, so the structure of the entire worldview is not perfect from the logical perspective. Therefore, the last step of creation must be repeated inspection. Creation has no size, not only grand works need this step, any works need to be repeatedly and strictly reviewed, in order to create first-class works, this stage of the creation process is to test the creator’s literary skills or profound artistic cultivation.
7.How long did it take you to develop the novel?
When I was in kindergarten, I started to imagine this world. I started to write down scattered ideas and inspirations on my notebook one after another when I was in college in 2012. I decided to enter the VR industry after working on a Sony project in 2016. At that time, I started to seriously write some storylines. Then at the end of 2020, the script is almost done, so it took about 5 to 10 years.
8.Zong is a beautiful world. What did you keep in your mind while constructing this world?
Authenticity and Kindness.
If anything in this world is slightly less real, it is difficult for that object to obtain true beauty, because the essence of beauty is a kind of power and a profound influence. It is a kind of power that affects other people’s lives to yearn for hope and greatness. In order to produce a world of this kind of power, and to let Zong have the indelible beauty of time, me and the Global Zong Team are trying to produce everything in the most authentic way. But this pursuit of reality does not affect all the surreal things we design, such as transparent tigers, captives confined under the Bridge of Atomos, this magical fantasy I designed and the pursuit of authenticity are entangled with each other.
In regards to kindness, everyone in this world likes kind people, and no one will yearn for an evil friend from the bottom of their hearts. Of course, in real life, there is no way to guarantee that the people we meet must be kind, which leaves us no choice but to yearn for a kind heart. When designing the 28 NPCs in Zong, I have always adhered to the original intention of bringing players a kind world. Every word they say takes into account the feelings of the players, and all their encouragement and trust to the players is also what we hope to deliver. I believe the world of Zong is a manifestation of goodwill.
9.Can you share any memorable or unique experiences you’ve had while working on this project?
In June 2022, when we were preparing to launch the 1st and 2nd levels of Zong on Quest Lab, we encountered a very big technical problem, which was about frame rate. Although I learned the basic codings and algorithms while in school, I was not from a programming background. We realised this problem on the eve of the launch. Our programmers at the time did not know how to solve this technical difficulty. Since it was very early, no one knew of our existence, it was very difficult for the project to recruit people. Of course, this is related to my own lack of a strong technical background. So at that time, I wrote some emails to many well-known game programmers in the world about the problems encountered by the project. However, most of them told me that this was hopeless. There was no hope that it could be resolved, and it needed to be redone from the beginning. At that time, from a completely empty scene to filling all the materials, the development had already started for a year. Without a partner, I did everything under intense pressure alone. If I were to start again, it would definitely be very frustrating. However, if there was really no way, I was ready to accept it and restart again. In my eyes, as long as I was willing to move forward, there would be no failure.
Luckily, at the same time I was trying my best to keep searching for great talents around the world, and I found a game programmer who was still in school, but he made a very strong impression during our first interview call, so I decided to bring him in and see how he would solve this technical obstacle. Impressively, he solved our technical problem within two weeks. I think this must be a very special and impressive event because everybody is telling you “sorry, there is no hope”, suddenly, hope appears, and the first two levels of Zong were launched.
10.What obstacles did you face? How did you solve them?
In fact, from creating Zong to putting all the scripts into practice, every step was very difficult, and no day was easy to pass without any difficulties to deal with. Some were technical problems, some were art problems, some were recruitment problems, some were script translation problems, some were original music creation problems, some were visual effects problems, and some were lighting problems….
But among these many problems, the most difficult one is definitely the problem of forming a team. At the beginning, I was alone with the script and no team members. At that time, I was looking for programmers and artists in China, but it was very difficult. Most people thought it was impossible to produce such a giant idea, so many people refused to work with me. I thought it was very weird at the time, because everyone talked in a way as if they knew for sure what was going to happen in the future when they stood where they were, and I thought it was very weird that everyone was judging a lot of things based on their own limited life experiences and imaginations. So I began to expand outward, and began to contact foreign artists and programmers through LinkedIn, but I didn’t expect things to go very smoothly. Many artists were deeply attracted when they first heard me talking about the world setting of Zong, so I started to expand and form a team abroad. As of June 2023, we have completed the production work for the second year. Although the team of Zong is only around 20 people, it covers ten countries around the world. Our entire team collaborates remotely. In the process of remote collaboration, there are many difficulties that we need to constantly reconcile, but they cannot hinder our steady progress in development. All the talented artists and programmers in the Global Zong Team were carefully selected by me. This team was very hard to build, but the result was surprisingly efficient and harmonious.
The process of entrepreneurship will never be smooth sailing, but as long as we always adhere to the original belief, then we will be able to overcome unknown difficulties and reach the fruits of success.
11.How do you balance your personal vision as a director with the expectations and demands of the audience?
As the VR industry is a very unique industry with its previous development history, this is a very special question, and the specific answer will only be revealed by time. From 2015 when the global VR industry ushered in a batch of investment hotspots to today, the global VR industry has experienced repeated entanglement of peaks and underestimations. In this process of entanglement, some people have been completely disappointed by the VR industry, while some people have just come in and feel that there is still hope for everything. And there are indeed some people who have been persevering very hard in this landscape in the past years.
At the audience level, all the VR experiences you see in the market now are basically repetitive content. Many people who have never experienced VR, if you tell them that what you are doing is a VR experience, then they immediately think of first-person shooter games or roller coaster experiences, which is the public’s perception of the entire VR industry. So far, the VR industry has not produced a brand new world for people to immerse themselves in, and developers around the world who develop VR projects are very clear about this in their hearts.
Due to the specificity of the entire industry, and the fact that the VR industry has not yet occupied the mainstream market, the audience actually does not know what they want. If you ask them to think, they don’t know what to think, because the audience is the audience, and they are not the people who are engaged in “innovation” after all.
Nature created mountains, it did not ask the human race if they needed mountains. Nature just directly did. The universe created the earth, it did not ask Mars if it needed this earth to be its companion. Time created history, it did not ask the earth if it needed history. All the great creations in this world are not the result of considering needs, but miracles created from the ontology of life. Will the audience like Zong? This is a question that time will tell. For the Global Zong Team, we just need to keep practising and doing our best. For me, I just need to keep doing what I have always been doing. The rest will be answered by the universe.
12.As a storyteller, what do you wish to offer your audience?
Love and peace.
In this era of information explosion, many things that were very precious in the past have become very “cheap” and “casual”, such as love, family, friendship, and many other things. Human’s emotion evolution has gradually become impetuous, unable to calm down, unable to look at many problems objectively. Compared to our human ancestors, human beings in our current era have become very scared and afraid. Many people know that the data of mental illness around the world has been rising rapidly in recent years, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, coupled with the economic downturn over the years, and even the international wars have emerged one after another, the mental health of people around the world is declining. I hope that Zong will bring some love and peace to the human race in this very special historical stage. I have always believed that the ultimate greatness of human creation is to make the world a better place, regardless of the approach of achieving such.
13.What are your future goals or projects that you’re excited about?
There are 100 levels in Zong, and the draft script of the entire world has been completed. That is to say, regarding where to go and what to do, I am very clear in my heart. In terms of production, we are still in the early stages, and the current production progress has just progressed to the 6th level. We plan to launch the first seven levels of Zong on Steam by the end of 2023, hoping that everything will go smoothly. As for future plans, because Zong is a revolutionary project, I personally should be keeping working on Zong until it achieves world-renowned success. There are still many technical difficulties that need to be resolved one by one, like physics, cloth simulation, speech recognition, optical character recognition, and many others. I will adhere to the original intention of creating Zong at the beginning, and strive to bring light and hope to human beings who are experiencing suffering and pain.
14.Lastly, Yingran, share how you enjoyed working with the SIFF!
The experience was very good, the staff of SIFF was very friendly, and all my questions were answered in a timely manner. But most importantly, I found SIFF very inclusive, it is really recognizing great independent works, I also found SIFF very respectful for recognizing different cultures around the world. I think SIFF has the best jury and the friendliest staff. I’m enjoying working with SIFF.