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Base FX’s Christopher Bremble Talks About MONSTER HUNT And His China Adventure

"It was clear to me that in 2002, Hollywood has been migrating to Vancouver: all movies began to be shot in Vancouver; postproduction was beginning to move to Vancouver; I had lots of friends who were getting Canadian passports so that they could work in Vancouver – you know, if your grandparents were British, you could get a Commonwealth passport. That summer, I had a revelation that eventually the film business would turn left and go to China, and I thought: ‘I am not going up to Canada and then go to China – I am just going straight to China.’ So I began to meet everyone I could meet, and I flew here and spend two weeks every month in China. It was a big investment of time and I gradually got to know lots and lots of people.

In the film history of Base FX, we had a lot of clients from Hong Kong, because I got to know them first – they were also beginning to migrate to Beijing. Up until 2000, the Chinese films were terrible, whereas the Hong Kong film business was really vibrant. Right about 1998 to 2002, there was a shift that all the Hong Kong directors were coming up to Beijing. So it was just looking a little further out than my peers. I knew I wasn’t going to do production, or write or direct movies for China, but I could do post; I could do visual effects and I always liked it, so I worked to find a way to be successful here."

After MONSTER HUNT’s premiere, industry professionals had really good comments about the film’s VFX. Quite different from other Chinese films, this one’s VFX was mostly achieved by a China-based company, Base FX, so THE CHINESE FILM MARKET invites its founder and CEO Christopher Bremble to talk about Base’s role in this record-breaking fantasy blockbuster, the China market, the importance of tax rebate to the VFX industry, and more. Up till today, this film has raked in over 330 million in Mainland China.

VFX in MONSTER HUNT

For some of us (in Base FX), MONSTER HUNT was a five-year journey. But for Bill and Raman, it’s probably longer than that. When Bill first came to us, we (Base) were a quarter the size we are today. The movie’s got bigger and we are getting bigger. In the earlier days, they were a lot of “Is this possible?” “Could this be done?” I was always honest that this was going to be a very difficult and challenging project for this company. I never said “Oh, this is easy, and we can do it.” Our approach was to let Bill understand what the challenges would be and where we would struggle. So in late 2011 and early 2012, we did a test. The initial test was the Queen interacting with the main male character Tianyin. With the test, Bill felt comfortable moving forward, not just with Base, the visual effects company, but also with the idea that this could work. Raman is an incredible director, very diligent. But it was: Could this film be entertaining? Could it be fun? Because it is a monster movie. In the early days, there were comments about the script: How can monsters be good? Could the audiences fall in love with a good monster? How could we reach the audiences?

We began the second round test into May 2013. We said: Go! So for us, this was over two years of full-time production. There was a lot of work, a lot of long days. Obviously, there was some casting problems and that made it a bit challenging in a resource’s perspective: starting and stopping work and waiting for further notice. It was interesting: We were doing a lot work on Hollywood pictures and in the earliest days of MONSTER HUNT, there was a lot of push-back and stuff – “I don’t want to work on that. I want to work on TRANSFORMERS. I want to work on CAPTAIN AMERICA.” It was really wonderful to see, within the company, the staff gradually realized that this actually might be the most important thing they could work on in their entire career.

You know, there’s always a lot of hesitance about visual effects in Chinese movies, because for the most part, they have not been done well. The audiences were nervous, when they think about a Chinese visual effects movie. The directors were nervous to work on visual effects in their movies. Three years ago, producers would say: “This is a big visual effects movie”, but the audiences didn’t want to see that, if it was a big visual effects movie. So the staff initially thought: “Oh, this is going to be one of those movies that disappoint people.” I made a promise that we would not let that happen: The work we did on the movie, regardless of the budget, regardless of the time, would be of the highest level in terms of the quality. Part was that we did bring our alliance partner Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) into the process. VFX supervisor Jason Snell was working with us on set. Jason was great. He was a good friend. That was just to make sure for the very initial production that everything was to make sure Base to succeed at the highest level. We had our people on set as well, but bringing Jason was a really good insurance policy for us.

When we got into the “look” development, regarding the creature, it was really helpful to have people like John Knoll at ILM as the Chief Creative Officer. John is one of the most knowledgeable people about visual effects in the whole world who have really built this industry with their intelligence. So when Raman had doubts about the technical aspect of the film, we could get John on the phone so that Raman would feel safe.

Once we got going, earlier challenges were really just the look of the creatures. There was a fair amount of tension: Base is a visual effects company – we come from a photo-real world. Everything has to look photographic and real. Raman comes from an animation world, where everything is stretchy and defies the laws of physics. We wanted to know what the bone structure was while Raman wanted to know how the faces could distort, so there were very different agendas coming into the project – what we wanted to know, and to a degree, what the creatures should look like. I feel like what we got at the end of the project is something pretty magical. My hope is that people will start to think differently about what’s possible creatively in Mainland cinema.

The Team

Ultimately, I think they are only 14 artists (in Base) that were not on MONSTER HUNT. I think, in the credits, we have about 240, most of them Chinese. We also have a small number of contingent international artists.

In the early days, we were really Chinese and we were mostly getting small jobs. As the ILM relationship took off, we got a lot better and a lot faster. This was coincidental that the VFX business in North America was really suffering, so we were able to go out and get some really fantastic, top-level supervisors from the U.S. and Australia. So for about a year and a half, we had a lot of foreign leads in the company. But for a host of reasons, mostly was that they were never planning on spending the rest of their lives in China. By early 2014, most of the foreign staff was gone. So now on the creative side, we all run in Mandarin. There is very few none-Chinese-speaking staff. We have a few artists that come from India and Malaysia, but beyond that, it’s a fully Chinese staff. We are committed to China. We are committed to the market. We are committed to what we think is an exciting future game.

As a company, we are dealing with the fact that every one of our local competitors would like to hire one of ours – they’ll pay them anything. When they pitch potential clients, they would say: “We have 6 Basers.” That’s their pitch. That’s how they get work. That makes our team upset, and that can be quite a challenge. I am actually proud of that. I am excited that we have a pipeline of talents – they are not just get recruited by our competitors in China; they are getting recruited to work in New Zealand, in London, in Vancouver. The world has heard about the talent we have here. There are Base artists in almost every major facility.

We are hiring fewer foreign artists, by all means. I think the eventual work migration into China is going to happen. For the artists overseas, we are excited and we are supportive. Look, I am living overseas and I am an American. How can I tell someone not to take an international approach to his or her life, work and career? You know, these artists will eventually come to China, bringing better skills, better communication, collaboration, and techniques. So we still have the responsibility of finding young talent and developing them into creative professionals.

Before we became a VFX company, we were a school with eight teachers. Education still takes about 30% of the agenda. The average age of the Base artists is 25 or 26. They are from all over the country. Most of them come from some level of animation. It is nice that in the last few years, animation, computer sciences and computer graphics are becoming a larger part in the university curriculum. Ten years, there was almost one school with a good program; now, almost, every school has one. So the talent that is coming out of the university is better that ever, and obviously, they are more bilingual. They’ve got a better media culture, because they can get everything online.

The Alliance with ILM

The ILM relationship is that they came and found us. They heard about us through the Emmy that there was a company in China who did the work. When they finally got me on the phone, within ten days, they were here. At the end of our first meeting, I think that they were in our office for an hour and a half, and they gave us our first job, which was I AM NUMBER FOUR. It all happened very fast. We fit into their culture. We got some of their staff coming to work for us, and we got some of our staff leaving to work for them. So it’s been a good relationship in that way.

PACIFIC RIM was a big moment for us – the first time we were given a big chunk of the show – about a fifth of the work in that movie. It was a great movie; ILM gave us a crazy amount of trust. They really trusted us. They shouldn’t give us so much work as they did, but we made it work, got it through.

Because even with the ILM relationship, we still have to earn our award. They decide what we can do based on what we have last done and the level of complexity: we still have to prove ourselves on every project we do. So TRANSFORMERS was a big event for us because it was so iconic in China. It was every artist’s dream to work on that show. We got about a hundred and seventy on that show.

And then I would say MONSTER HUNT. For me, it is the most important project we have done, for several reasons. One, we hope this can inspire the industry and the audience to push for more and ask for more. My friendship with Bill Kong is a big part of my career. There are very few people in China or Asia who know film as much as Bill does. I am proud that our work can make Bill happy. And then, it doesn’t hurt that the VFX supervisor on the show is my wife, so I’ve been watching her step forward and lead the team on something really difficult. I’ve lived in this film both in the office and at home, because on bad days, we take it with us. That’s been a great gratification in seeing her succeed.

The Market

For us, MONSTER HUNT is really our first big step. Bill spent the money and made the movie he wanted to make. If the audiences stand up and support the movie, it performs well – then the producers will be more confident about their investment in movies.

We are going to see how the Chinese film market develops in the 18 months. We’ll see the model – does the Chinese film business become like France? Which is, lots of drama, some comedies, every year, one or two films break out, make it internationally, but largely French productions, shown in France. Or is it going be more like the U.S.? Which is, a content engine, able to tell stories on a world stage. With MONSTER HUNT, Bill certainly is aiming for a film that can play in the whole world and be entertaining.

The VFX Business

The visual effect business is a very tough business. It is hard because you are combining two businesses that are on their own very difficult business: just-in-time business is a hard business; and then research and development is a hard business because you are spending a lot of money in the hope of finding profit. We are both. We are just-in-time research and development – that’s what the VFS business is. It is to put two very difficult models together.

There is a lot of discussion about this. You know, animation is not so difficult because animation has a long history being time and material based. You pay for the artists for a period of time. If you need more time, you pay more money. While visual effects is shot-based: it’s all about bidding and competition. So the best company is only able to secure the revenue that the worst company is willing to accept. Otherwise you lose the work.

In China, it is almost exclusively the price. Base today has maybe four clients in China. Very few producers in China would come to us and be willing to make the investment required for what we do. If a client comes to us and says: “Well, I want to hire you, but I only have this much money.” That means I have to tell the artists that they cannot do their best work, because ultimately it’s time. We don’t do that. Through our relationships in the U.S., we work on the best IP – we did an Academy-nominated film last year, we did the TRANSFORMERS franchise, we did the PACIFIC RIM franchise; in the TV business, we won 3 Emmys, so we don’t work for people that want it cheap; we work for people that demand it good.

To our western clients, we are quite cost-effective; to the domestic clients, the challenge remains – if you are making a movie for the Chinese market, you cannot spend western prices – you don’t have an international audience, so that limits what we can do in China – very few clients. They are very few (Chinese) who would knock on our door and say I am going to make a movie with international quality – that’s what makes our business difficult.

After Base, I would say Pixomondo Beijing is a good company, but they are tenth of our size. The big international companies are certainly looking into China, trying to figure out what to do. They call me, so I am friends with most of the CEOs in these companies. We have a pretty open dialogue about when is the time for their presence in China. Today, could WETA open up in China and be successful? It’ll be hard, you know. Because WETA is used to have a certain amount time and money to do what they do, but the producers in China are still not willing or able to give them the market to expand. In about three years or five years, if China’s theatrical business continues to grow at the pace as it is today, or even a little slower, then it would be worthwhile for those companies to actually have a presence here in China from a production capacity’s standpoint.

The Importance of Government Support

When we look at the core visual effect business, there are still some big question marks about the business and the business model. One, technology and software are getting better and faster, so the cost of labor (a portion of the VFX) is likely to go down. Overtime, it is going to be more about talent, than cost. The industry is still cost-based.

The biggest question mark for this industry worldwide is tax rebate – at what point does the industry become so dependent on tax? Right now, China is the only country that has a VFX industry but doesn’t have significant financial support. Korea, significant financial support: up to 30 percent of the operating budget of the Korean companies are funded by the government. It is more like a grand subsidy program. Canada, up to 35 to 50 percent of the VFX industry is subsidized by the government. New Zealand is about 25 percent. London is about 20 percent.

The Canadian VFX industry was grown not because of the talent, but because of the government support. The New Zealand industry was grown partly because of Peter Jackson, but won’t survive without government support. The British industry was grown because of HARRY PORTER and government support. Because the first HARRY PORTER VFX was done by ILM and Digital Domain, there was a feeling in London that: “Wait, we should be doing this. This is a lot of money.” In order to make it work, the government could rebate to incentivize studios to leave the post-production work in London.

China is the only country with the VFX industry growing without clear government support (yet). Due to China’s unique circumstances, government support would be tricky if it wants to compete, because the kinds of subsidies that can be done in those western countries, by the very nature of the Chinese law, it cannot be done here. There is going to be a very thoughtful look at how the industry is going to grow, and what is the best way to support the industry, and to support talent.

From an industry perspective, those tax credits have definitely benefited the jurisdiction that have them. Canada has grown a tremendously large film and post-production community on the back of the government support. Certainly London has a very vibrant and creative community. And obviously New Zealand, I think it is the largest employer, after the government.

So you can see this industry, if supported well, can be sustainable. It creates jobs. And you are building creative and managerial skills that actually do transfer into other industries – it’s kind of a nice win. We just haven’t been able to get the government’s focus on this part of the business; we’ve been focused on the movie business: financing, distribution and marketing, but a little bit less on post-production.

There were some attempts earlier on, but things went badly, so the government took the step back. There was a moment when Galloping Horse and Digital Domain came together and the government began being very focused and was going to use that as a test case to build an aggressive tax rebate to subsidize the industry, and Wanda was going to be involved. So there was a moment when there would be a real push-forward. Obviously, Galloping Horse and Digital Domain both ended up stumbling a bit as companies, so that effect did not materialize. But it does not mean the intent wasn’t there, it is just the guanxi isn’t there to push it forward.

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