Guest post from Jonathan Poston M.E.
Up until now, this story has never been told in print, only lamented in subsequent international business courses I taught, and reminisced about in random “China-talk.”
It was a year of peaks and valleys like life tends to serve up, but at the start of 2008, I was surfing at the height of a 100 ft. wave. I had just moved to China to teach business communications at an American university’s international business school. I probably should have stopped there to simply enjoy the teaching experience and the rich culture forever modulating around me. But I didn’t.
I started taking kung fu (gong fu-功夫) from an amazing martial arts master, and just as I was getting into it, I was also thinking about offering an experiential extra credit project for my business students. Hey, what about producing a kung fu instructional video? But since I would be spending my own money for start up costs and the students should feel like they’re a part of something real, I decided I should run it like a business.
I enlisted six or seven (unpaid) student interns, a team of students, under professional direction, from a nearby film school, and a star kung fu master; with plans to recruit a musician to compose and play erhu music in the background. It was all quite ambitious since I personally had no experience with film.
I worked with another colleague, who happened to be a licensed international business lawyer, to draw up contracts for the students and talent. It basically said I would retain rights to the video to do with it as I wanted. In exchange students would get extra credit, snacks on the set, a real business internship-like experience (which didn’t exist in their business program), etc.. The first step was getting them to sign on. Then one of them knew the film school director and introduced me to him.
Negotiating with the film director with a Chinese business student translator seemed easy enough. They would do everything for less than 10,000 RMB, with only a five hundred or so deposit to begin. They agreed to drag their equipment up the mountain to a traditional kung fu training site I had found to film the video. They would also be making required edits and producing a master video cd from which I could make copies. The kung fu instructor would participate for around 1,000 RMB, with only a few hundred up front to start. It would be fairly inexpensive to find a music composer and integrate some cool erhu tunes it into the video too.
Everything was on target and we were all making pilgrimages up the mountain (no understatement as we had to literally haul the equipment up raggedly ladders and gnarly mountain paths for a half hour or more to reach the place).
Filming went smoothly for a while. Background logistics like subtitles, voice over translation in English, etc. were also part of the production mix. The kung fu expert tirelessly conducted his sequences at multiple speeds and relayed to the subtitle / translation voice-over copy writer how the moves worked and any other special meaning that should be imparted. Students directed everything: angle, costume, set props, spoken instruction, translation, keeping passing hikers a bay while the shoots were taking place, etc. etc. Everyone was getting really excited, and the energy just kept building.
Maybe everyone was getting a little too excited—perhaps, some thought: we’ll be famous. In fact, the set took on an air of “Hollywood.” It was like a billion dollar movie deal just landed out in the middle of the forest, and the ego charging our lofty set came in mammoth proportions. It’s easy to see how it would too: It was a behemoth project, and exceedingly complex for the amount of time we had (a semester), and everyone was working so hard. I was personally spending every bit of my free time on it, day and night.
It’s here that the house of cards began to shake…to be continued
Disclosure: The above story is told with as much accuracy as the author can recall. Names and places aren’t listed for privacy and security purposes.
Jonathan Poston M.E. is Chief Content Officer at FastPivot and Editor-in-Chief for “Learn Chinese Business” Blog. Mr. Poston also leads cross-cultural and business workshops around the world. Contact him by email (Jonathanposton@gmail.com) to book a seminar.