War heroes from the Period of Destruction couldn't be casually appropriated as virtual idols. When virtual idols were first introduced, a few companies modeled their idols after war heroes, but they often distorted the real person, which infuriated the descendants of the heroes. They banded together to clamp down on the trend.
Virtual idol companies were banned from basing their designs on real-life war heroes from the Period of Destruction or even using their names. When exceptions were made, they required extensive vetting. Violators faced legal action.
There was no way he would use a fellow veteran’s likeness, and Fang Zhao never considered drawing himself. He was right there in the flesh. If he wanted to do anything, he could do it himself. There was no need for a virtual version of himself.
But Fang Zhao still preferred to draw from people and events that had left a deep impression on him. If real people from the end of days were off-limits, then he would find inspiration elsewhere.
Fang Zhao worked for two days straight, taking breaks only to eat and sleep. He labored in his corner, drafting and redrafting before completing a prototype. He wasn’t a visual artist—his sketching skills were limited. He would leave it to the professionals to polish his design. He just needed to come up with a rough draft.
Another noon arrived. It grew brighter and brighter outside.
A draft sketch appeared on the piece of paper sprawled on the desk in front of Fang Zhao. Even though it wasn’t very detailed and refined—no more than a rough outline—anyone could tell it was the image of a tree.
Fang Zhao took a deep breath. He didn’t know if it was the right decision, but this was what came to mind.
The Longxiang Tianluo was a common plant during the apocalypse. No one knew what it looked like before the end of days, but judging from its size, it was probably descended from a regular, widespread species found across the world. Many species died during the end of days, which saw a massive round of extinctions, but some plants survived after undergoing mutations. The Longxiang Tianluo, for example.
The name Longxiang Tianluo, which roughly meant powerful and sprawling, was coined by a botanist. Unfortunately, the botanist died in the early days of the apocalypse. No one remembered his name, but the name Longxiang Tianluo survived.
At a time when most plants withered, this species of tree survived the end of days. It was one of the rare plants during the apocalypse that wasn’t poisonous and actually had medicinal value. During the apocalypse, many types of medication were derived from the Longxiang Tianluo.
When designing his prototype, Fang Zhao recalled a conversation he'd had with a few old friends.
"Old Zhao, don’t you think the three of us kind of take after the Longxiang Tianluo? We were just ordinary folks before the end of days—I was a prison guard and Su Mu tended to his cattle…"
"Old Xi, you got it wrong. I was a shepherd," Su Mu corrected.
"Same thing. See, Old Zhao—a shepherd, a teacher, a prison guard, and a composer. All regular people. The apocalypse changed everything. It’s not just us. No one who has survived looks like they used to. It wasn’t for the fame—it was all in the name of survival, no matter what we became."
During the end of days, he used quite a few wooden tools made from Longxiang Tianluo. Vaccines were also extracted from the tree. You could say that the Longxiang Tianluo and mankind had survived the apocalypse hand-in-hand.
Someone once joked that the Longxiang Tianluo was another comrade.
Fang Zhao tucked away his drawing, washed his face, and headed downstairs.
After seeing Fang Zhao for the first time in three days, Yue Qing and Ai Wan both approached to chitchat.
"You’ve been holed up working the past few days?"
"Yeah." Fang Zhao bought some more food from Yue Qing’s shop. He ate while getting a tan.
"It’s not easy being a creative type. Takes up a lot of brain power," Ai Wan said.
Fang Zhao chatted briefly with Yue Qing and Ai Wan. When the sun faded, he returned to his apartment to tidy up, then picked up his briefcase and headed to Silver Wing headquarters. He went straight to the 50th floor.
He wondered if Zu Wen had pulled another all-nighter gaming in his office. His sole staffer only responded after several shouts.
"Who are you? Oh, right, the new producer." Zu Wen was still in a daze. He'd almost forgotten that Fang Zhao had been assigned to the virtual idol department. Thankfully, he caught himself in time.
"You’ve decided on a prototype?" Zu Wen asked with a yawn.
"I’ve finished a draft." Fang Zhao opened the notebook and laid it before Zu Wen.
Zu Wen stared at the page and went blank for two seconds. He rubbed his eyes and took another careful look. After a long silence, he blurted out, "Either I’m not entirely awake or you’ve gone nuts."
Zu Wen’s first reaction was disbelief. Are you f*cking kidding me?
"Uhm, if I’m not mistaken, you drew a… tree."
Zu Wen had been wondering for the past two days what Fang Zhao would come up with. He'd even wondered whether Fang Zhao would cherry pick features from various virtual idols like previous virtual idol designers had done—this nose, those eyes, this face, and that body. It'd never occurred to him that Fang Zhao would hand over a tree.
There had been all types of virtual idols—humans, animals, fairies, and demons. But as a veteran virtual idol designer, Zu Wen had never seen a plant.
If it was going to be a plant, so be it. But it had to be a unique plant, no? Cuter than usual, more attractive than the average plant, or more colorful. Otherwise, how were you going to attract a following? But Fang Zhao was a renegade.
Brother, are you shooting to become the basket case of the modern virtual idol industry?
Zu Wen stared at Fang Zhao, who nodded firmly. His world collapsed.
"What kind of tree it?" Zu Wen asked, pointing at the drawing. He wanted to rip it to shreds.
"Basically what you know as the Tianluo tree."
"Since when were Tianluo trees called ‘Longxiang Tianluo'?" A skeptical Zu Wen started typing on his computer.
"Also known as the Longxiang, the Tianluo is a product of the Period of Destruction. It was a giant among plants from the end of days." Zu Wen read verbatim from the research he'd looked up without an iota of embarrassment. "Sorry, I flunked botany. It’s the first time I’ve heard the name."
"You really want to do this? I mean, have you run it by Boss Du?" Zu Wen asked.
"Boss Du is busy," Fang Zhao responded.
"Understood." Regardless of whether Du Ang was actually busy, he didn’t want to have anything to do with the virtual idol project for sure, so Fang Zhao was calling the shots.
"How long do you need to create a detailed virtual image?" Fang Zhao asked.
"Based on your prototype, probably a week. Don’t think I’m a slow worker—it’s just me, after all. A week is pretty quick."
The prototype was like a draft sketch, the first step in deciding the look of a virtual idol. Revisions and fleshing out the design were still to come.
Virtual idols had the upper hand over real idols in that imagination was the only limit when it came to their aesthetic potential.
But how pretty could a tree look? Even an anthropomorphic tree wasn’t that attractive.
A cartoonish design could make it cuter.
Zu Wen was brainstorming how to improve the prototype when he heard Fang Zhao say, "We’ll have to prepare a music video to go with the launch."
"That’s the standard procedure. Oh, speaking of which, you need to get ready for soul casting," Zu Wen said.
Finalizing the look of the virtual idol was only the first step. Next came the more important process of soul casting.
Soul casting referred to the process of injecting life into the virtual idol, coming up with a back story, adding a voice and personality and so on.
Deciding the virtual idol’s personal history, where it came from, and how it behaved.
The point was to allow fans to better understand it.
That’s what soul casting was all about.
The launch of a virtual idol was usually associated with a music video. For example, Neon Culture and Tongshan True Entertainment released music videos when they entered Xun Huai and Fei Lisi in the new talent contest.
Typically speaking, the first music video of a virtual idol in the New Era gave a personal history and introduced its personality.
Launching a virtual idol also involved storytelling. Maybe nobody paid attention at the beginning, but if the idol became a star, you’d have to extend the story line.
Virtual idol teams planned well in advance before taking their first step.
If you only wanted to pass muster, you could fool around and keep things simple, but if you wanted to do a good job, that involved a lot of preparation.
That’s why virtual idol projects were so costly. There were too many details to consider.
"I can take care of the look of the virtual idol. You need to start looking for a voice and start recruiting other technicians. It will take an expert to engineer a professional voice. That’s not my expertise. Hiring more technicians is a must. I’m not going to be able to manage on my own much longer. Whether you make new hires or loan staffers from other departments, the sooner you decide the better. As for a starter voice, we have so many singers signed to our label. Just pick one," Zu Wen added.