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Building A Home for Story, VFX and Technology in China

An ambitious new Beijing Film Academy initiative seeks to elevate Chinese content creation for the modern era.

It would be easy for outsiders to assume it’s all smooth sailing in China’s film industry.  Western media marvels at Wanda’s $4.9 billion production behemoth in Qingdao as well as VFX-fueled spectacles earning massive sums at the Chinese box office.  American conferences trumpet a new era of Sino-US cooperation, led by a raft of Chinese investments and co-production deals with Hollywood studios.  Soon, they say, China will create “global films,” that can be enjoyed equally in Luoyang, London or LA.

Yet all this has little in common with the reality of Chinese films produced over the past 30 years, none of which have traveled well or been driven by visual effects.  Chinese media creators face significant challenges as they try to adapt to the demands of the market and bring the country’s visual entertainment industries up to a world-class level of quality and production capacity.

On the ground, one group is mobilizing for the difficult journey ahead.  The Advanced Innovation Centre for Future Visual Entertainment (AICFVE) is an ambitious new initiative led by China’s leading film school, the Beijing Film Academy.  In early December, I traveled to Beijing for AICFVE’s inaugural ICEVE conference to learn more about its plans for guiding China into this new frontier.

Growing Pains

Around 600 films are made in China each year.  But as John Dietz, a VFX supervisor with 15 Chinese movie credits, put it bluntly on stage at the AICFVE conference, Making films in China is incredibly difficult.”  Budgets are lower because, unlike films made in Hollywood’s well-oiled machine, Chinese films have fewer means of generating revenue - they don’t make money overseas, IP exploitation at home is less defined and production schedules are tighter with investors impatient for return on their money.

Another noted issue is that the volume of projects creates more production jobs than there is available talent to fill, which fosters a mercenary culture that sees individuals jumping between roles and studios for better wages or titles rather than spending years mastering their craft.  Without experienced producers, managing complex productions and integrating the latest VFX tools and techniques becomes a struggle.  PDI co-founder Richard Chuang, speaking at the AICFVE conference, said he feels there is a general lack of “integrity” in Chinese moviemaking, from imaging through to production management and business practices.

Meanwhile, communication with and integration of western expertise has been stunted and remains problematic for the most part, fed by enduring notions of mismatching budgets and insurmountable language and cultural barriers.

As for China’s leading art house directors, Zhang Yimou is the first to embrace visual effects in a big way for the newly released The Great Wall.  Few others working since the late seventies are accustomed to modern visual technology.  Perhaps the most important consideration as they make the transition will be protecting the sanctity of story.  Generally, for China’s film financiers, the tangible value of their investment is in technology, while creativity is ephemeral.  The danger is that, as Digital Domain co-founder Scott Ross puts it, the “tail starts to wag the dog,” -- technology driving projects rather than story.

In its immaturity, Richard Chuang sees an opportunity for China.  Rather than focus on catching up with the West, the country should be embracing and exploring new forms of media production.  He says the studio model, with big teams and long turnaround times, is in decline. “The film industry is a very old process,” he says.  “I think China has the opportunity to turn it upside down… It's time to reinvent the whole entertainment process, so we can create a lot more content, more quickly for this hungry new audience.”

Take virtual reality, for example.  China has already become the only country to monetize VR in any meaningful way with the emergence of physical, offline locations, VR cafes and soon, VR theme parks.  China is also home to over 100 headset manufacturers selling their wares at affordable prices and passable quality.  Combine that with high penetration of smartphones and the world’s most integrated mobile ecosystem littered with VR apps, and you have a recipe for consumption on a vast scale.   The problem, and the opportunity, is the dearth of quality content needed to fill the growing number of platforms.

Though some universities are innovating ahead of the curve, in general, tech research and development is lagging and most institutions remain less well connected to industry than they need to be.

Perhaps China’s most important challenge is reforming an education system that is already struggling to train sufficient numbers for the current demand, let alone future generations of innovators to fuel a creative and technological revolution.

Advanced Innovation Centre for Future Visual Entertainment (AICFVE)

To address these and other pertinent issues, the Beijing government’s Department of Education is investing US$8 million every year for five years to form the Advanced Innovation Centre for Future Visual Entertainment (AICFVE).  The deal is renewable each subsequent five years for at least a decade.

AICFVE aims to provide a supportive backbone for the film and imaging technology industry’s rapid and substantial growth and, explains AICFVE chief scientist Chen Baoquan, to promote the best use of emerging technology to tell stories and build a profitable industry.”  He continues, “The AICFVE will be a community to bring technology and art together.  It will be a researcher, developer, connector and a sorter of technology, artists and content.”

Perhaps AICFVE’s most critical role will be acting as a central hub for China’s visual entertainment industry, building both a coherent community at home and a bridge to the international industry.

AICFVE will serve a similar function to the US-based Advanced Imaging Society, with whom it is partnered.  It will run masterclasses and workshops.  It will showcase work and technological breakthroughs.  It will consult on content development and, while not a “brain trust” in the Pixar sense, will ensure that technology remains in the service of storytelling.  It will address the socio-economic, moral and philosophical questions associated with the rise of artificial intelligence and virtual reality.

The center is partnered with 10 art and technology universities around China and will run exchanges with the US and Europe.  It will be housed in a new Google-inspired open plan facility, with rest pods, games and natural light throughout, currently under construction on the BFA campus and set for completion in early 2017.  Over the next year, AICFVE’s staff will grow to around 100 engineers, programmers, scientists and administrators.

Same Old Story?

Of course, talk is cheap, or in China’s case, very expensive.  China’s creative evolution has brought with it much pomp and circumstance: extravagant signing ceremonies with no follow through; multi-million RMB tech parks equipped with the latest tools but no staff knowledgeable enough to operate them; highly-paid Western experts paraded out as symbols of innovation yet having no engagement with the projects.  These results continue to foster hefty doses of industry skepticism aimed at each new highly touted “pronouncement.”

I have witnessed my share of the above and other sporadic, failed efforts by companies and individuals to foster such a community.  The AICFVE feels different.  Not because its first conference attracted Hollywood filmmakers like The Third Floor founder Chris Edwards, or Demetri Portelli, 3D stereographer and supervisor for Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, but because, ultimately, they are invested in its success.  The Beijing Film Academy has graduated most of the celebrated Chinese directors of the past three decades, names like Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Jia Zhangke.  It wants to lead the next wave.

Transparency is important to AICFVE and, in an unusual move, I was invited to sit in on the first committee meeting.  The combined experience and expertise present in the room was impressive.  Each aspect of the center’s objectives is covered by an appropriate industry heavyweight.  For questions of integrating new technology for better storytelling there is Scott Ross, pioneer of the transition from film to digital in leadership roles at ILM, LucasFilm and Digital Domain, and Richard Chuang, co-founder of PDI and a driving force in the rise of computer generated animation.  For community building, AIS president Jim Chabin has years of experience, while Ludger Pfanz is founder of the BEYOND Festival, a growing global discussion platform for artists and thinkers.  For computer science, graphics and research, there is Kurt Akeley, co-founder of Silicon Graphics and current CTO of Lytro, the Silicon Valley company developing light field cameras; James Foley, co-author of the seminal computer graphics textbook and founder of leading research facility, GVU Center; Disney Research senior research scientist, Alexander Sorkine-Hornung, and ETH Zurich professor of Computer Science, Dr. Olga Sorkine-Hornung.

In the short term, AICFVE will begin to build awareness with weekly events.  As it does so, Charles Wang, professor at BFA and COO of AICFVE, urges the local and international community to reach out.  “Sensitivity to people’s needs are vital as we rally this community,” he says.  “This project has so much potential.  We want to bring everyone along with us on this journey.”

You can find the AICFVE website at http://fve.bfa.edu.cn.

Chris Colman's picture

Chris is a writer & producer based in Shanghai. He’s the founder of the China Animation & Game Network, encouraging communication in the industry via live creative networking events.

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