Beijing’s BaseFX founder and CEO Chris Bremble discusses the process and challenges of producing animation and visual effects for the most successful feature film in Chinese history.
The success of Chinese VFX driven live-action family film Monster Hunt has been nothing short of remarkable. Directed by Raman Hui and produced by Bill Kong’s Hong Kong outfit Edko Films, the film, released this past July 16th, is China’s highest grossing domestic movie of all time, hauling in $221 million, and second highest grossing movie ever in China. It was the fastest local film to surpass the 1 billion RMB marker, and topped international box offices for two consecutive weeks, a rare achievement for any non-Hollywood film.
It should be noted that this all occurred during a ‘domestic protection period’ in which the Chinese government limits the screening of international films in order to give Chinese films greater playing time in cinemas. Nonetheless, the figures are astonishing, and all the more gratifying for everyone involved, considering the significant challenges faced during production. Most notably, three months before the movie was due for release, then-lead actor Ko Kai was arrested for smoking marijuana. Under Chinese regulations, that meant he was not allowed to appear in the movie. 90% of the cast had to be called back for reshoots and over 200 shots of visual effects needed to be re-done.
A major factor in the movie’s success is the quality of the animation of various monsters, including hero Wuba, the cute monster heir to the kingdom, and the seamless integration of visual effects with live-action. The primary animation and VFX studio, working on over 800 shots, was Beijing standard-bearer Base FX. I caught up with Base founder and CEO Chris Bremble to talk about the genesis of their work on the project, the technical and logistical challenges and what the success of the movie means for Chinese animation and visual effects moviemaking.
Chris Colman: How did you first come to work on the show?
Chris Bremble: Bill [Kong] and Raman [Hui] first came to visit Base in 2010. At that point, there was an idea of the story, and some sketches from Raman, and we began talking about a test. At the same time, we started working on The Flowers of War for Bill and Zhang Yimou, so Bill and I had a chance to start building a good working relationship. Base co-financed the test, which was 4 minutes and three full scenes, in 2011. That took a while but built confidence that the film would work, that the creatures were going to be memorable and give solid performances.
CC: How many shots did Base handle?
CB: We had about 810 shots, mostly the creature work, but we also did the city environments. Our focus was the creature work, building the assets and animating 27 digital characters, with Wuba as the focus. We had scenes with dozens of characters, three musical numbers to be choreographed, and we had to design an emotional language for the creatures that was ‘human’ enough to read, but also distinct enough for the monsters to remain unique.
We had to rework about 200 of those initial 810 shots in post to replace the lead actor. Due to the reshoots, it was a long show - we started previs in May 2013, and then went into assets in September 2013. VFX production didn’t really start until January 2014, with our original delivery set for January 2015. Once the reshoots came into play, we had to put the work on hold for three months, and then came back to it in March of 2015, with a delivery in June. The last four weeks were a bit hectic, mainly due to a few challenging shots.
CC: Where was the work done, and who was leading the process?
CB: Both the Wuxi [Eastern Chinese city] and Beijing teams handled the roto, paint, and layout work. Assets, effects, animation, lighting and comp were all done in Beijing.
The show was a first for us, both in terms of scale and complexity, but we had great leadership and they did a good job of making constant adjustments. Our VFX supervisor on the show, Tang Bing Bing, is one of the founding members of the company. She had come up through the lighting department, and is now CCO. She ran the process, working with our team leads. Our VFX producer, Jessica Yang, managed the day-to-day schedules, which was complicated by the reshoots and other client commitments. Adding to those complications, the company grew by almost 100 staff during the show, which brought its own challenges.
We had great partners on the project. Raman was in the office daily during post. He was very generous with his time, and the team had a fair bit of fun once things started clicking. The production’s VFX producer, Ellen Poon, brought her ILM, DNeg and Disney Animation experience into the process as well.
Another critical team member was Jason Snell, and the team at ILM. Early in my conversations with Bill, I’d suggested bringing the ILM team into the project, as I knew the show was bigger than anything we’d tackled previously. ILM offered Jason for the project, and he worked through prep, production, and then weekly through post, to make sure things were on track and to help put out any fires. There weren’t too many, but having Jason and the ILM team standing behind us buttressed Bill’s confidence and our work.
CC: What were some of the fires that needed putting out?
CB: The hardest part of the show was getting Wuba right. It’s also, I think, our greatest achievement. Raman had done a lot of sketches for the character, and that formed the basis of our work in creating the asset. The modeling went pretty smoothly, but we had a lot of back and forth on rigging the character, and how it would move. Raman is among the top animators in the industry, so he had very clear ideas of what he wanted, but getting that right in a photoreal, physically accurate world was a challenge.
Once we’d crossed that bridge, we then had to handle the surfacing, which was maybe our biggest ‘fire’ on the show. Our team was very familiar with photoreal creatures – we’d just finished Wolf Totem [CG wolves] and Ninja Turtles, and had previous experience on Yoda commercials and Super 8. Raman comes from the animation world, so he wanted a clean, smooth look for the creatures. We had a lot of conversations, rendered a lot of turntables, but there wasn’t a clear consensus on the level of detail for the monsters. At that point, we sent everything along to ILM, and John Knoll had a few conversations with Raman, which focused on the trade offs to various approaches. After those calls, Raman set the criteria and we all moved forward. It was a great example of our relationship with ILM. We’d worked for John on Pacific Rim, and built up some trust there, so he had a sense of what we could achieve.
Beyond the early asset challenges, the show went pretty smoothly. Bing and Raman forged a close relationship, and that kept the work on steady footing for the duration of the show.
CC: How did the re-casting of the main actor affect the work? Did you need to do whole scenes again?
CB: It was late November, we were only three months away from release and the lead actor had just been banned from appearing in movies following a narcotics arrest. There was no communication on how long that ban might last. In the meantime, we finished out any shots that didn’t feature the lead actor.
Bill Kong faced a pretty tough decision. He came back to us with a plan to get the film finished in early December. He took the crisis as an opportunity, and opened up the film, adding the large opening battle sequence, the end credit musical number, and the ‘parenting’ sequence at the temple. We started work on those sequences in January and February, while the reshoots were proceeding. I remain so impressed with Bill’s acumen - where most would fall back, he really charged ahead. Although it seemed like a catastrophe, Bill and Raman used the reshoots as an opportunity to bring more scope and humor to the film. That ultimately helped its performance in the market.
Once the reshoots started, we were getting plates from production on a daily basis, so we could get them through layout and into paint. The animation side of the reshoot work wasn’t our biggest challenge – the team was well calibrated to the characters by that point. The challenge was getting the shots through paint and roto fast enough, as there were a lot of ‘hybrid’ shots using new and old elements.
CC: Have you been surprised by the response to the film?
CB: Yes and no. I’ve believed in the project since day one. We put some money into the testing phase, and I’ve been confident in the film’s market performance. Did I think it would perform this well? I don’t think you can ever predict this kind of success. It’s now number one for all mainland films, and its looking like it will break the Fast [& the Furious] 7 record [for highest grossing of all time]. That’s an amazing accomplishment.
CC: What is the wider significance for Chinese animation and VFX filmmaking?
CB: I hope that the ‘rush rush’ mentality of the industry right now will shift to a planning and development model, but with the market growing so fast I doubt that will happen. Monster Hunt is proof that strong collaborative partners are the key to success - good communication, clear goals, and a process that allows for iterative success.
There are a lot of projects rushing into production, both live-action and animation. Most will fail to find audiences. The success of Monster Hunt is an outlier to the business. There’s a lot of reporting on the China box office, but its still a winner-take-all business, with the hits accounting for a majority of the revenue.
If Monster Hunt really does make an impression, the results won’t be seen for a few years. The creative teams behind the films of 2020 are just starting their journey now, informed by what Bill and Raman have accomplished.
CC: Does the success of the film affect your own content creation plans?
CB: We were passengers on Monster Hunt’s journey, and Bill is a master within the Chinese industry. If I’ve learned anything, it is to prepare for the unexpected, stay humble, and focus on the process. The results are never to be expected.
Monster Hunt is such a huge success, for our team, for Bill and Raman, and for the Chinese film industry. It’s opened a lot of doors for Base, but we’ll be cautious about stepping through them. We have a great business, amazing partners, and a world-class team. I’ve watched several companies falter when it comes to content. Few have gotten it right. So, we’ll stay humble, focused, and look to build new relationships. Entertainment is, at its heart, a people business, and we’re super excited to work with some amazing people in the months and years ahead.
Chris Colman is a writer and animator based in Shanghai, China, primarily focusing on Asian animation for AWN.com. He is founder of the China Animation & Game Network (c-agn.com), a national community of industry professionals.
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.