Albee Zhang believes it was destiny that brought her to film producing. She always fantasized of being in the entertainment industry as a child, but her traditional parents wanted her to do something more practical, like business or finance. She almost took the route her parents wished for, and applied to many majors they had in mind. On a whim, she decided to also apply for a Television Broadcasting and Directing major, which ended up being the one she was accepted to. She took that as a sign, and knew it was the choice for her. Years later, with an extraordinary career both behind and in front of her, it was definitely the right choice.
With many esteemed projects making up her resume, a highlight of Zhang’s outstanding career was working with the production team on the British game show The Cube. The show offers contestants the chance to win a grand top prize by completing challenges from within a 4m × 4m × 4m Perspex cube. The show aims to demonstrate the intense anxiety which contestants undergo as they progress through each task.
“Emotions were all magnified under the spotlight. Even though I was very familiar with the candidate’s story and goal, I still had an emotional connection while they told the refined story again. I rooted for them when they passed a level; I felt touched when they relieved their big secrets; I screamed when they achieved their goals, I sobbed when the candidates didn’t get the love of their life. In those moments, I was certain that I found the right candidates and story for the show,” said Zhang.
As part of finding the contestants, Zhang worked with other story producers to interview and search for candidates among more than tens of thousands of applications. She also selected and pitched the candidates to chief producer. She worked with the gaming ability tests to set out the gaming strategy, created story lines and co-wrote host dialogue and rundown, cast candidate's friends and family and created side supporting storylines, and worked with post-production to refine the final story. She was absolutely essential to the game show’s success.
“The stories in this show are much more realistic than working on a film. For films, the goal is making up a story real enough to make people believe. But for the reality show, I was listening ordinary people’s life story. I heard so many different types of stories and life goals, some of them were really funny, some were very touching, which all became my story pool in my later career,” said Zhang.
During filming, there were seven teams of story producers to search for candidates in different cities and areas. They went through all of the applications and filtered out some interesting candidates to do phone interviews. Zhang would do 28 phone interviews a day, endlessly trying to find the best to make her show the best it could be.
“Listening to your candidates is the key to find the sparkle. I need to fully understand my candidate’s goal before I can create a show story to carry alone their mission,” said Zhang.
For each candidate, Zhang then needed to do game tests, interview their personal story, and interview their family and friends who related to the story and would be invited to the studio. She also took on the added responsibility of trying to cheer up any candidates who felt the intensity on the show was becoming too much. Zhang knew it was more than just a game, it was a chance to tell great stories in an exciting way.
“I really loved the set as well. The main game stage was a giant glass box with very sci-fi looking lighting and decoration. Even the game introduction videos were in a robotic voice. Visually and acoustically they were super fascinating,” Zhang described.
When the show was on every Sunday night on Dragon TV during 2012 and 2013, it had the highest industry score of that time. Now the shows are available to watch on the online streaming platform. Zhang’s knack for producing led her to be extremely sought-after, and she caught the eye of Yao Xiaoying, the Chief Director/Producer of The Cube. After Zhang’s success with the Chinese home renovation television show Mei Hao Jia, she began working with Shanghai Media Group, one of the biggest Chinese satellite TV stations. That is when she caught Xiaoying’s attention.
“Albee brings relentless energy, a can-do attitude, unstoppable drive and a true passion to all she does. She cares about the candidates’ dream as much as her own,” said Xiaoying.
The Cube was a high budget TV show that had the most advanced motion capture systems at that time. Due to the huge success of the first season, the second season aimed to recruit worldwide candidates. Xiaoying was immediately impressed with Zhang’s commitment to both the project and her career.
“Yao is the best boss ever to work with. I still seek her out as a mentor. She is very open to all voices and also very energetic, optimistic and very decisive,” said Zhang. “There was one candidate on our team that was disabled, but my team was touched by his story and his passion for his motorcycle, so we approached Yao with the story. She said, ‘you know we are breaking our rule, right?’ and I said, ‘but he is a real man with guts.’ She had a moment of thought, then she told us she would take this risk. It taught me something: don’t give yourself too many boundaries while doing something you truly believe in.”
That is something she still believes in to this day, and why she has seen such success throughout her career. Zhang believes in everything she does, and she never gives up.
Photo 1: Albee Zhang, photo by Gary Kwan
Photo 2: The set of The Cube