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Chris Edwards in Beijing - Part 1: Previs and Virtual Production in China

THE THIRD FLOOR founder talks about cutting edge production techniques and technology in a new global frontier.

Chris Edwards has been pushing the envelope in film production techniques for more than a decade. Since he co-founded THE THIRD FLOOR in 2004, the company has become a primary force in propelling previs from little-known technique to essential component in major visual effects movie production. All services considered, from pitchvis through to postvis, THE THIRD FLOOR now estimates it is involved in 75% of all Hollywood feature productions. And Edwards is only just getting started. Last year he co-founded the Virtual Reality Company, a new entity harnessing art, storytelling and technology to explore the possibilities of VR entertainment. He is currently beating the drum for virtual production - prebuilt computer graphics taken on set to interact with the live shoot in real-time - aiming to elevate it to the same level of ubiquity as previs.

Recent projects have led Edwards to an expanding universe in the world’s largest emerging frontier in global media. China’s content creation industries, for film, theme parks, virtual reality and beyond, may be his perfect audience: still developing yet highly aspirational and, crucially, willing to embrace new technology.

THE THIRD FLOOR’s Middle Kingdom clients already include CG leaders Original Force, director Guo Jingming and, most recently, Legendary East for Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall. But rather than simply collaborating on Chinese projects, sending teams to productions or doing the work in LA or London, Edwards plans to go deeper. At the Advanced Imaging Centre For Future Visual Entertainment (AICFVE) conference in Beijing this past December, he announced his intention to launch a high-end internship program to train the next generation of Chinese creators and cultivate further ties. After his presentation, I sat down with him to dig in to the details.

Chris Colman:  What were your first interactions in China?

Chris Edwards: I was invited to be a guest judge at a short film festival in Shenzhen, maybe seven or eight years ago. I also toured the animation facilities and the government sponsored training programs. That was the first time I was exposed to Mainland China's talent and it was unbelievably impressive, even back then. Then on subsequent trips out, I visited a number of universities and saw some of the student work. I was so impressed by the talent and the diversity of disciplines that were being nurtured that I went back and told all my friends and colleagues, "We are underestimating China, big time."

CC: What made you feel that THE THIRD FLOOR could have role to play in China?

CE: I felt that this unbridled enthusiasm was going off in so many different directions that perhaps structuring media using previs could be a way to bring it all together, to bring all of these specialist teams and creators to work on one project that can be profitable and widely accepted all around the world. But I knew that that had to be born from within China and we would just be the support medium to help out those Chinese creators. We’re hoping to work from within China, building global content and, through an internship program, we want to help train the best of the best Chinese creators and give them the real world experience working on the highest end productions.

CC: At what stage are the plans now?

CE: Currently we're looking for the right partner in China that shares the same vision for the future of China media, to be our co-developer of this workforce. It's not just about pushing Western media on the East. It really is about working with local creators, to bring them up to a super professional world-class level and hopefully exceed the industry standard. To do that, the smartest producers in a studio are going to have to be selfless, they're going to have to think about the big picture, the long-term goal of how to create the best media together, using the entire world’s resources to support local IP, to help make it celebrated all around the world.

CC: How do you go about training the next generation of top talent in China? Is it just a case of giving them experience working on Hollywood projects?

CE: My suggestion, regardless of country, is to reach out to industry professionals, to companies that are doing the best work, and try to build those bridges so that there can be this fluid exchange of talent. I know our clients are very open to this. They're allowing us to place what we call “apprentices” on some of the top shows on the planet. It's such an extraordinary internship, one that I wish I’d had. I think it's going to really take that combined effort - technology, innovators, industry standard companies and the university education system - all working together to train the next generation as fast as they need to be trained, to keep up with the fast pace of the innovation.

CC: What kind of skills are you looking for from Chinese apprentices and across your team working on Chinese projects?

CE: We like to see artists at the top of their game for the discipline that they're concentrating on. We strive to work with people who are always improving themselves. We need the next generation to help bring our countries together, to help create the most globally accepted media. Again, it's not the Eastern way, it's not the Western way, it's something new that we haven't really seen yet.

CC: What are your reflections on the L.O.R.D film project?

CE: We were involved in staging the action for about half the movie, under a ridiculously short time frame. We had a great time working with Guo Jingming and his cinematographer, Randy Che. I was super impressed with Guo Jingming's creativity, how smart he is. We felt honored to be there at that moment where he was crafting this visually, very dense story. The all-CG format was really interesting and very ambitious. 

CC: Why did he want a full CG version rather than a hybrid?

CE: I think he really wanted to take people on a journey into a completely fabricated world of fantasy. He was a big fan of some amazing artists in Japan that create these magical paintings, so I think he was putting all those pieces together, and the only reliable way to do it very specifically was a completely animated production.

CC: Refining the use of previs in China, and bringing in new techniques like virtual production, will take time.  Many filmmakers in the market are currently struggling to integrate it.

CE: What is great about China, and also one of its Achilles heels, is that there is a lot of enthusiasm for the next new thing. I see it in malls with the VR kiosks. It’s very impressive that this has happened in such a short amount of time, but it can go a little too quickly, leading to the misuse, or not quite professional use of the technology. The key is to look at the long game. We need to be working on the hard stuff, the process, the procedures, the naming conventions, all of the steps to work towards the new way of making a movie, the way that China wants it to be. It's about taking the best pieces of what has worked all around the world and putting it into a new construct. I'm not just here to help the next generation of filmmakers. I'm here because I feel like there's an opportunity to do something really revolutionary, something that is going to come together a lot quicker. I just know that with our influence as part of that melting pot of ideas, perhaps we can help shape that future.

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.