Cautious yet flexible expansion at one of China’s top VFX studios has caught the attention of both the Middle Kingdom and Hollywood’s biggest players.
Base FX founder and CEO Chris Bremble first saw the possibilities that lay ahead in the Middle Kingdom while completing post-production work on his second film, Deep Rescue, during his first visit to China in 2002. As he recalls, “On my first morning, I opened the curtains of my hotel and watched a group of 150 workers knock down a building with sledgehammers - they were doing all seven floors at the same time. It was absolute chaos. It reminded me of a film set (I’d done a lot of low budget shows), and I had this thought that there were real opportunities for filmmaking in China. So I decided to stay.”
In the almost ten years since officially forming in 2006, the company has grown from 12 artists to over 450, with offices in Beijing, Wuxi and Xiamen, and has created visual effects for over 150 movies from both Hollywood and China. Their television credit list includes Agent Carter and True Detective, as well as three Emmys for the Starz series Black Sails and two groundbreaking HBO series, The Pacific and Boardwalk Empire. They have struck up a strategic alliance with Hollywood visual effects powerhouse Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and content agreements with Chinese internet colossus Tencent.
In 2015, the company delivered the last of their almost 1000 shots for the box-office hit animation Monster Hunt, confirmed their involvement with ILM as visual effects provider for Zhang Yimou’s new feature Great Wall, and is soon to start on Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War and Paramount’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2. Alongside the high profile service work, the company has been quietly developing pipeline infrastructure for full CG animation production. Base is also taking a pioneering role in education within the Chinese visual effects industry, currently building a world-class training school and laying plans for an unprecedented national association of visual effects companies.
In spite of the successes, there are still significant challenges ahead for Base and the overall Chinese industry. Over a serious of wide-ranging conversations, Bremble and I discussed the state of the Chinese visual effects business, his plans for Base and how they and other domestic companies can navigate the challenging waters ahead.
Bremble and Base
I first met a relaxed looking Bremble on a mild winter day in Shenzhen at Siggraph Asia 2014, the first time the conference had been held in mainland China. News was just breaking that afternoon of Base’s new strategic partnership with internet giant Tencent. He explained that what makes Base unique is diversity and flexibility. According to Bremble, “We’re able to do very high-end mainland Chinese work, whether it be Flowers of War, Breakup Buddies, or Monster Hunt. We’re also able to work on Hollywood pictures through our ILM alliance. We also have a really strong TV business. We’ve augmented that with theme parks, because they’re becoming a lot more like movie theatres. We can shift resources based on where the client schedules are, and be fairly nimble. Having a team that can jump into any of these specialties and succeed allows us to have relatively balanced cash flows, which has always been the pain point for the industry.”
Commercial work, a much larger part of their business in the early years is becoming less of a focus. “For us, commercials are akin to running a sprint in the middle of a marathon. We’re marathon runners,” he notes.
In early 2014, Base’s third production studio opened in the southern coastal city of Xiamen, focusing on high-end work for US clients. The digital delivery and video review system for overseas clients means that location is not an issue. Their Beijing headquarters, located in the bustling commercial hub of Sanlitun where I met Bremble for the second time in June 2015, creates visual effects, is home to their original content development and, crucially, acts as a front office for meeting key domestic clients and filmmakers.
As Bremble describes, “They want the tangibility of walking into our Beijing office, seeing the work being done and talking to the artists, engaging us and being able to affect the outcome. Our local clients are very hands on, and want to interact with the talent. On Monster Hunt, we had Raman [Hui, the director] in the office almost every day of post, and that was critical to the film’s success.”
Their most prestigious domestic client to date is the director, producer and writer Zhang Yimou. Since the late eighties, Zhang’s thoughtful, provocative and emotionally-charged films, despite dealing with uniquely Chinese subject matter, have transcended borders, winning admirers and awards at international festivals and an Oscar nomination for Hero in 2002. Critically acclaimed classics like Raise the Red Lantern and House of Flying Daggers have cemented his status as China’s preeminent filmmaker.
Bremble first met Zhang on his 2011 World War II saga Flowers of War, starring Christian Bale. He has nothing but praise for Zhang, noting “He’s a consummate professional - a superlative talent. My best days in this industry have been with him walking us through what he wants on projects because he speaks so clearly and creatively.”
Two years after Flowers of War, the company had another opportunity to collaborate with the director, this time on Quasimodo, the re-titled Hunchback of Notre Dame project from Warner Bros. that Zhang was then slated to direct, only to have an eleventh-hour management change at the studio scuttle the project. Says Bremble, “We put together a great concept package of artwork with previs and a story approach that [Zhang] designed. It was just a great experience. He really engaged us and let us be creative with him. But… two weeks before the final creative meeting to get the green light, there was a change at Warner Bros. and that was the end of it. It was beautiful work. The project initiated our investments in our art department and previs teams, but we were disappointed it didn’t move forward.”
Despite the disappointment, the intention to collaborate remained. During our SIGGRAPH Asia meeting, Bremble could only confirm that Zhang was ready to “blow things up.” By the time we met again in Beijing this past June, Zhang had been confirmed as director on Legendary’s $100 million monster epic, Great Wall, the first time he would direct an English language movie, marking a dramatic departure from his usual subject matter. The VFX bidding process, which Bremble describes as “intense,” had been completed and the job had been awarded to ILM, Base’s strategic partner, meaning the project will be a major part of Base’s life for the next eighteen months.
Shooting began in March 2015 in Beijing and Qingdao, east China, with a Base team on set to support the ILM team. Bremble remained tight-lipped about the specifics of the story, but spoke enthusiastically about what the movie meant for big Chinese VFX moviemaking. “Hero is still the best performing Chinese movie in America,” Bremble says. “How do you double down on that and build something even bigger? This is the first time that a major Hollywood company, Legendary, is making a movie of this scale in China. They have been very focused on the market – Pete Loehr, head of Legendary East, is among the most knowledgeable on the China market. We always approach our work with a degree of humility, and on this one, you can throw in a bucket of joy. We’re excited to support it. Our job is to bring some pretty massive scenes to life.”
When asked why he thought Zhang had made such a radical move, from creating thoughtful social commentaries to effects-driven event movies, Bremble hypothesized it was a logical progression at this stage in his filmmaking career. “There’s a long history of the auteur tradition in China - film as a director’s perspective on the challenges of existence,” Bremble explains. “What’s happening now is that film in China is shifting its focus from cultural and historical themes to entertainment. As he has throughout his career, I would guess that Zhang is focused on leading that transition, not following it. He’s made some of the best auteur films out there, and now its time for something bigger, bolder, and breathtaking.”
The Race for World-Class Content Creation in China
If all goes as planned, when the film is released in late 2016, Zhang will be one of the only Chinese directors to have achieved an international box-office success. Though the chance to plant the flag as the first may have been lost with the unexpected international success of Raman Hui’s Monster Hunt, there is still a gaping space in the local and international marketplace for Chinese VFX-heavy and animated movies of genuine quality.
With the recent successes of The Monkey King: Hero is Back as well as Monster Hunt, the race to box office glory is intensifying with a number of ambitious movies currently in development in China. With Base having recently completed their new pipeline for full CG animation, Bremble shared his concerns about Chinese studios rushing to produce films, specifically with regards to fully animated features. “I want to see domestic companies succeed, but I worry that they’re in a rush, that they’re not taking the time to develop story. There are a whole host of issues - marketing, story, style and a marketplace that is continuing to choose western media. If you look at the 90s generation in China, they are choosing to spend their money on Jurassic World, [Fast &] Furious 7 and Avengers. The last couple of years had really strong performances by domestic movies and now you’re seeing Hollywood’s response, which has been to start pulling Chinese elements into the stories and be more relevant. Hollywood film will do about $2 billion in business in China this summer. The Chinese film business is going to struggle a bit. There’s a lot of news on the success of the blackout films: Monster Hunt, Pancake Man, Monkey King: Hero is Back. But there are a dozen or more animated films that have failed, and another eight or nine on the way that may struggle. China has the capital to make these films, but still lacks the talent base to make them a success.”
The rush makes up part of what Bremble describes as the “Golden Age” of content creation in China, comparing the current situation to that of the 1930s in Hollywood. According to Bremble, the similarities are many. As he explains, “I don’t have enough hours in the day to engage with all the material that I’m seeing. The distribution platforms are about to open up their pipes and there’s not much to go in them - we’re going to see a lot new of content creation. Some of it is going to be crazy, some is going to be awful and some is going to be breathtaking. The Hollywood studios were putting out a new movie every week in the 30s. There were a lot of crap movies from that era, but the volume approach created some amazing films. Nothing develops talent better than opportunity.”
The Challenge of Finding Creative Talent in China
One of the most tiresome stereotypes about China is that Chinese people aren't creative, as if there is a gene missing in their makeup. Bremble sees it only as a matter of time before the lazy stereotype is dispelled for good. “If you think China is the way it is, and will always be, read De Tocqueville when he came to the US in the 1830s,” he states. “He said Americans were crass, money-focused, a nouveau riche society. For an aristocratic European at the time, it was easy to look down on Americans as a newly emerging society. But it was temporary. Everything that foreigners find uncomfortable about China is temporary. I’ve watched an amazing transformation over the last 13 years. Its not all good, but the positive elements are accelerating.”
If the education system in China is failing to nurture talent, where are Base’s creatives coming from? Bremble explains that many are Chinese graduates from US film schools who are now returning home, discouraged by the inaccessibility of the Hollywood industry. He notes, “They are coming back with a sense of how to tell stories and with, I wouldn’t say Westernized, but a globalized perspective. They’re bringing a fresh approach, not only on film as entertainment – they tend to be fans of Michael Bay as much as Chen Kaige – but also in Asian culture as part of a global culture. The trend in China is toward globalization with Chinese characteristics.”
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.