Director Chris Appelhans bucks conventional industry “wisdom” by choosing VFX powerhouse as partner for first foray into crowded and uncertain Chinese animated feature film market.
It should have been a simple decision for writer and director Chris Appelhans as he shopped his one-page animated feature film treatment for a movie called Wish Dragon around Hollywood. Met with immediate, seemingly “too good to be true” enthusiasm from studio execs racing to push any “fantastic” idea for a Chinese animated film into production, Appelhans could have easily taken a fast, generous payday with just a handshake. But, something didn’t seem right about a process where “easy” began feeling synonymous with “ill-advised,” a process where his short term financial gain would come at the expense of emotional honesty and long-term creative success.
Enter Beijing-headquartered visual effects studio Base FX. Cautious, careful and conservative are three words almost never associated with Chinese animation studios. Yet those three words exemplify the growth strategy Base CEO Chris Bremble has stuck with for over a decade, a strategy that has guided the studio’s consistent, hard-fought growth within the arguable crazy but always treacherous world of Chinese entertainment production. By working on a prudently selected set of both Chinese and international visual effects projects, Base has grown into one of, if not “the” top VFX producer in China as far as quality and ability to deliver that quality on time and on budget. Through their work on films like Monster Hunt and with ILM on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Transformers: Age of Extinction and the upcoming The Great Wall, Base has consistently demonstrated it can deliver on increasingly bigger and more sophisticated high-end projects.
But making an animated feature film is not the same as producing even the most impressive visual effects. Always one of Bremble’s long-term goals, entering the “Chinese IP Derby” means so much more than wanting to own a film rather than just work on it. Far too much Chinese production money has and continues to pour into ill-fated projects where the driving creative force remains pointing to one of a few successful films and exclaiming, “Make me one of those!” For serious investors, barriers to entry are extremely high. Few are willing to make the enormous and daunting long-term financial commitment needed, let alone practice the patience required to build a development and production pipeline capable of generating top quality stories with the look and feel Chinese audiences expect -- Lightchaser and Original Force are two that come to mind. Bremble waited years before deciding there was sufficient talent and the right financial backing to launch a feature animation studio capable of producing films that could meet his high-quality standards. And Appelhans’ Wish Dragon was the story Bremble decided would make a worthy inaugural entrance into China’s risky and crowded animated feature film market.
I spoke to Appelhans at length last week about Wish Dragon. In a long and insightful interview, he shared his reasons for choosing Base and how despite the lure of big and fast money, the desire to raise the bar and bring a new level of storytelling and visual sophistication in animated features to Chinese audiences was just too enticing to ignore.
Dan Sarto: Tell me about the film. How did Wish Dragon get its start and how did you team up with Chris Bremble and Base?
Chris Appelhans: I had a good friend in college who grew up and lived in China until he was 12 or 13. I got to know him and his family and they were really funny, interesting people. At one point, he and I took a business trip over to China for some design work we were doing and I met some of his family. They shared some really fascinating stories, including one by his cousin who had just broken up with his high school sweetheart after 10 years because he was considered too poor. She was from a rich family. They'd been together all that time, he was in his late 20s and wasn't going to get rich anytime soon and she basically said, "Sorry, but I’ve got to call it quits.” He was heartbroken. But everyone's demeanor about it was very matter of fact -- "Yeah, well, those are the rules." No one was going to fight against that social reality. I found that fascinating and very different from the West, old-fashioned on a certain level, almost fairy tale-ish.
A couple of years later, the idea popped into my head, "Gosh, it'd be so interesting to tell the Aladdin story in that kind of an environment." The Aladdin story is so classic and timeless -- it's about a peasant and a princess and the ability to grant wishes and turn yourself into anything you want. That immediately leads to questions about the meaning of life, what's really important and what your identity is based on. It just seemed like a cool combination of an old story and a totally new, contemporary world that's dealing with so many modern challenges.
Slumdog Millionaire came to mind because it was a very archetypal, simple story at the core that wore this amazing costume, which was modern India. It was an introduction to what an unbelievable, fantastic, good, bad, crazy place modern India is. Underneath that was a fairy tale.
We're trying to do the same thing with our story, so it can mean something to the Chinese audience and at the same time be a story that any American audience could see and connect with…they could appreciate exactly what the characters’ struggles and dilemmas are as well as the journey they're taking. It's completely universal.
So, I just did one little painting and wrote up a one page synopsis of what I thought was an interesting meld of that story. Of course, it involved a wish dragon instead of a genie and a teapot instead of a lamp, along with a bunch of other re-imaginings of that tale. Unbeknownst to me, there was this crazy demand all of the sudden for projects in China that was, to be honest, a pretty craven frenzy. Everybody saw the money that was available and said "Okay, how can we put anything together…"
DS: How can we get some?
CA: Yeah. I met with a bunch of American studios and they all flipped out and said, “Oh my God, this could be huge!” I just had a yucky feeling, I'd be in these meetings with executives…I remember there was one, I won't say which studio, but an executive literally stopped me two minutes into my pitch and said, "Oh, I don't even need to hear the rest of it, this is great, let's do it." I said "Well, it's a 15 minute pitch, I really worked hard on this story" and he's like, "Oh, don't worry man. Chinese people will watch anything, we just need to get this into production. We need to get it out." I was like, "Okay, not what I was hoping for."
DS: That's an awesome story.
CA: Yep. So, my agent is at UTA, and it had just happened that Base FX was represented by UTA. So I met with Chris [Bremble, Base CEO]. Chris had read another script I wrote and really loved it but told me politically, it was an untenable story to tell in China. He called me up and I said "Well, I have this other thing" and he really loved it. I sat there for a few days and thought, “God, am I an idiot for doing this? I'll make a lot less money and there's a lot less experience at Base." But Chris had given my treatment to a couple of his development people, who read it and said, "We really like this, we can relate to it, but here are some things that don't quite jive." The minute I saw that document, I told myself, “I have to do it with these guys because there's no way we’re going to somehow work with a bunch of Westerners in Santa Monica and do this story right.” I just couldn’t do it with Sony or DreamWorks or somebody like that. That's when we made the choice to work with Base. Thank God.
In fact, I’d shown the project to Aron [Warner, the film’s producer], who at the time was working at Reel FX. He tried to buy it too and was kind of pissed at me that I went with Base. The minute that Bremble called and said he wanted to do the movie, I called Aron back and said, "Can you please come produce this?" He's the best producer I know and fortunately, he was willing to get involved -- I begged him to come help, so he came on board. From that point, we started building the team we have here [in Silverlake, near downtown Los Angeles] that's doing the front-end stuff, as well as building the team over in China that will do the bulk of the production work.
DS: What is it about Base you think ultimately will help you make a better film than you'd make at another, much larger studio?
CA: The number one thing, my number one goal, is to tell a story set in contemporary China and for that to feel authentic, it must feel authentic to a Chinese audience. Anything else would be a weird appropriation. The Base team is made up almost entirely of people who've grown up in China…they are the generation that this movie is intended for. They grew up at a time when China was a pretty different country than it is today. They've been navigating within that incredible change alongside their parents and families.
That's really what a lot of our story's about. I realized we had no chance of doing that right without those authentic voices right next to us the whole way. It's not the kind of thing that an executive can help you with. It’s not the kind of thing you want executives trying to explain to you. It has to be personal. To have a crew of several hundred people who can help us with that, as opposed to some consultant at an American studio who's trying to speak for all of China, that felt like the only honest, reasonable option for us if we wanted to make something that was going to ring true.
Second, Base is one of the very few studios that has successfully navigated the turbulent waters where Western entertainment business and Chinese entertainment business and creative business overlap. You produce something that makes sense to both sides of the equation. That's something that Base has been doing successfully for more than 10 years. Those waters will be turbulent for a long time because the countries are so different and the process so complicated. I kind of looked at that and thought, "Well, it's a bit of a crazy choice but as an artist, I guess I would feel really bad picking any other route.”
DS: What was the key to bringing Aron on board and how did you go about setting up your pro-production team?
CA: It's been interesting. Aron and I know that the heart and soul of every animated picture is the story department. So after I begged Aron and he decided to come on board, we started to recruit the best storyboard artists we could find. We hit up various friends and relationships. Geniuses like Rad Sechrist, who'd been at DreamWorks for years and Josh Lieberman, who was at Blue Sky for years. We brought on Arthur Fong, who did visual development on Sausage Party, The Croods and Rise of the Guardians. And a whole other group of talented artists. We managed to find one story artist who grew up in Mainland China and lived there until she went to college. We stole her away from Blue Sky.
At every juncture, we're doing this without being able to offer people giant salaries. We pay good salaries but it’s not like we're luring people in because we pay more. It's because they like the project, the script is meaningful and it makes sense to them. It was really a personal recruitment effort. I had become friends with Darren Holmes, who edited so many good movies like Iron Giant, Lilo & Stitch, The Croods and Ratatouille. We became friends at Paramount. I went to him and said, "Join me on this crazy adventure. Read the script and if you like it at all, come help us." Soon he was on board. We recruited the most talented friends and people that we really loved working with. We’ve hit a moment in time in the industry where a lot of people are a little frustrated with the studio system. They're at a point in their career where it's not just about having a job, it's about working on a movie that they love. People were willing to take that leap and leave the safety of a big paycheck to come work on something really interesting. We brought on VFX supervisor and chief creative officer David Prescott, for example, who has worked on some of the biggest projects in Hollywood going back to Titanic and Transformers.
Production-wise, from day one, we basically took the script I wrote and started storyboarding it. Obviously, good story artists immediately make all your mediocre scenes way better. We would board a scene, then immediately, literally, the minute we finished, record and then send a pitch to our team at Base, who would then give us notes. They would say, "We thought this was hilarious, we totally have no idea what this is, and the way that your son is yelling at his Mom would never happen like that in China so find a funnier, or more respectful way to do it." They’d provide all sorts of surprising, interesting feedback.
Probably the most encouraging thing for has been that for the most part, if something made sense to us here in our little satellite LA office, if it felt emotional or it felt funny, it tended to translate to that team. There were a lot of details that we got wrong but in general, the story we're telling is pretty universal, it's pretty human. Chris was very helpful in saying, "Don't over-think this, don't try and be a Chinese person. Try your best to understand the culture and the characters and then just make it so you love it. That will probably be a much better movie than you trying to second guess things all the time." So that’s what we’ve been doing. We've certainly had some surprises and some bumps in the road. But for the most part, from the reactions so far to our test screenings, it works pretty well for this particular story.
DS: What about the challenge of putting together a CG animation studio capable of producing a film at a quality level necessary to stack up against established Western studios?
CA: Well, at the same time, the other crazy challenge has been developing this production team in China. Both on a development and writing side, we have a couple of really talented Chinese writers that help us with translation. We pick sequences and translate them into Mandarin, then record them in China with temporary voice actors, which we then re-edit. We need to see these characters speaking in Chinese. There's a whole team there that's figuring out how to make that translation effective.
On top of that, we’ve been developing the production team and the pipeline. We were able to recruit Olivier Staphylas, who was the head of character animation over at ODW [Oriental DreamWorks]. We don't pay nearly as much but he loved the project. I think he was pretty frustrated where he was but now he’s building his own animation team. We’ll need a monster team of people to execute this film. Honestly, that’s just as tough as the creative challenge, which is always terrifying. It’s hard to make a good story.
Bottom line is we're working really hard to be authentic, to tell a story that captures the spirit and some of the amazing truths of contemporary China, that's reflected in the people we hire, the studio we chose to work with and the process we’re putting in place. To me, creatively, that's a really important thing. It tells people where our hearts are. We're not the big US studio guys saying Chinese people will watch anything.
DS: So this film is considered a Chinese production, correct?
CA: Correct. It’s an all Chinese production. We are storyboarding it in LA, but only because for animation, in China - and I would guess within five years this won't be true - right now there's almost no A or even B-level story artists. There's no tradition in that role. The only way you get really good at being a story artist is to be a story artist on two, three or four movies. That's when you finally peak. That's a talent pool that's completely nonexistent in China right now.
I'm constantly sniffing and prowling around for the future stars in that arena. I just met with some kids in the UCLA animation program and I was like, "Oh, here we go. These kids are great -- they have all the education and traditions of Western storytelling and storyboarding, the hard nuts and bolts stuff, but then they have their own personal voice from living and growing up in China." To me, people like that will be the next generation of artists making animation in China. It won't be me. They'll very quickly be much more suited to it than I am. We set up story here because it just doesn’t exist in China -- we dug and dug and finally determined this was never going to happen there for us on this film at the level an audience wants.
DS: Is the film completely Chinese financed? Is there any US or other foreign financing?
CA: The full budget is funded by Base and their funding partner, CMC -- China Media Capital. And because we're fully funded, we’ve held off on trying to get a US distributor. We will be in a much better position to do that when we can show them a really good finished movie, or 60% of one. Suddenly, it's no longer a conversation where you're begging people to take a film, it’s a conversation where they're asking you how they can get involved. It's so lucky that we can do that.
DS: When can we expect the film to hit Chinese theatres?
CA: I'm sure Aron would chase me around with a golf club if I actually said I think we can do this, but I believe the goal is to have the film done before Fall 2018. I think that's doable. It will be pretty tight and depend, more than anything, on recruiting, infrastructure and pipeline. If a lot of the knowledge and expertise that Base has developed as a top VFX company transfers pretty easily then I think that's totally doable. If for some reason it's like, "You know what, we have to invent a completely different pipeline" or, “It's going to take us three, four, five, six months longer than we thought to build our A-level animation team,” then I imagine it will take longer than that.
From the start, the thing that Chris and I agreed on immediately was though we both love the story, we both feel like it's only worth doing if we make something as good as any Disney, DreamWorks or Pixar film. It has to be comparable in quality and execution, otherwise it's just not going to work.
From the very first day, CMC, Base, and everybody who's gotten involved has fully understood that's the only reason to do this. The market is starting to tell us it doesn’t want something that's shitty, something made really quickly that makes no sense
DS: Chinese audiences have clearly signaled with their wallets, or AliPay app, that they don’t want to pay money any more to see dreck.
DS: They’ve seen enough quality entertainment that they aren’t putting up with crap like they used to.
CA: We're at a place where whatever extra work, whatever extra little bit of money it might take to get us to that A-level production, the distributors, the investors, everybody says, "That’s totally worth it." Just a little more to get something to that place and you're going to hit the sweet spot. I'm sure you know the size of the Chinese market. Even if it doesn't grow at all a single day from today, we all know the size of the animation market there is crazy big. It's really a big slice of pie.
DS: And everyone is after that slice. It’s like the California gold rush. A few nuggets get found in the river and everyone goes nuts with gold fever.
CA: I hope that all proves to be true. But look at a film like Monkey King: Hero Returns. That was made for something like $11 million dollars. They animated right from the script. If you do that, one out of thirty times, you may end up with something pretty good, just through the sheer miracle of having a good team and good fortune. I don't think it's a great movie but it was quite successful. So many film people think, “Why don't we just do that?”
They don’t understand that if that was a long term, consistent and feasible way to make animated movies…do you think that Disney and Pixar just enjoy spending huge amounts of money on development, that it's fun to blow $40 million on a story before you're ready to start production? No. That's a key lesson from filmmaking and animation and storytelling that goes back a hundred years.
I don't know if it's happening now, or will happen after our movie comes out, or ten years from now, but Chinese film financiers will finally, seriously, say, “You know what, if we want to be in this business, it isn't easy, it isn't predictable, it isn't short term and you have to build a studio because it's too much work to bring 250 talented people together for one movie and then get rid of them all, just to bring them back again years later.”
There are many reasons the market in China has developed the way it has. There's lots of room for innovation. We haven’t wasted a day or a dollar in our development so far and I just don't think there are any easy short cuts. You don't just build a Boeing jet with a copy of AutoCAD.
DS: It's not a one-off business. Building a stealth fighter is not a one-off business. It's an industry.
CA: Exactly. The premise of our film is sort of total re-imagining, reinventing of the Aladdin story but in contemporary China. It’s not a complicated hook. But we're making this film with a team of really, really top talent. This film, from story down to production design, is going to be on the level of any of the big studios here. That's a really important thing to me. So much of the Chinese animation being produced right now isn't top level quality. There aren’t even aspirations to make A-level stuff.
DS: There are aspirations to get it made quickly. Quickly and cheaply.
CA: Yeah. Get it out there fast.
DS: My contention though, is that the first Chinese studio that gets a successful Western-quality animated film into theatres, they’re going to set the standard that everyone must meet from then on.
CA: You literally are stealing the words right out of my mouth when I talk about the project. Somebody will do that, they'll be the first one and they’ll become the brand that the audience understands and looks for to deliver to them. That's an amazing opportunity. I don't think it's ever going to happen with a company from outside China, where some giant studio or some investment group tries to make it. It must come from a project that people believe in, from a team that's basically willing to kill themselves. That's the crazy thing about animation. We'll hope. We'll see. We'll do our best.
DS: Yep. It's an industry of masochists working at studios staffed by sadists.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.