Tech base to boost visual special effects market
More eyes are turning from Hollywood to China’s film industry visual special effects, as the demand continues to grow rapidly. Still, Chinese VFX teams are comparatively at an early stage of development.
Most Chinese big-budget movies routinely hire overseas teams or companies to work on the VFX part rather than hire domestic counterparts. The Taking of Tiger Mountain, a film by Hong Kong director Tsui Hark, released in December, has been a success, taking 881 million yuan ($143.9 million) in box office receipts. The producer, however, hired a South Korean VFX team to work on the film’s tiger scenes.
“The movie visual special effects sector is still in the initial stage, where challenges and opportunities coexist, as can be indicated by the fast-growing box office receipts in the country,” said Zhang Gedong, vice-president of the School of Animation and Digital Arts at the Communication University of China.
China’s national box office surged by 36.15 percent year-onyear to 29.6 billion yuan last year, according to the State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television.
The rosy box office performance of some Chinese movie productions with visual special effects in them in recent years also have provided a shot in the arm for this sector, said Zhang.
Driven by the demand to produce higher quality movies with excellent VFX content, during the fifth Beijing International Film Festival in April, a movie visual special effects industrial base was set up by CITIC Guoan Investment Co Ltd and New Bridge Media USA. The base is aimed at creating a platform where excellent Hollywood VFX artists and leading technology are introduced to serve the fast-growing Chinese film industry, as well as training the inter-disciplinary VFX talents that could do the part of the work that will be globally accepted and admired.
Several renowned Hollywood VFX supervisors and artists are in collaboration with this base, including Tom DeSanto, the writer and producer behind some of the biggest franchises in movie history, such as X-Men and Transformers; Joel Hynek, a visual effects artist in Hollywood who has been nominated for Best Visual Effects for the Academy Awards a couple of times; and Jeff Kleiser, a well-known visual effects supervisor in Hollywood, who has worked on Tron, X-Men, Fantastic Four and Jet Li’s The One.
Although they haven’t really talked about the specifics, Hynek said, “I think my role would be to help or to teach Chinese students, professionals how to appeal to an international market, which is similar to what I have done in India, teaching them how to make their movies more Western, more global”.
Speaking of the difference between Western and Asian movies, Hynek said, “In general, Western movies are more linear — the way they tell a story, from start to end, it flows, while Asian movies seem to jump around a bit in how they tell the story, like different the movie art, and it is getting more and more integrated with the story structure, film editing and style of cineframe, Zhang said.
Over the years, filmmakers’ inadequate attention to the postproduction of a film always leads the work in visual special effects to be pretty hard and counter-productive, as they won’t take the VFX part into account before and while shooting.
The success in both box office and reputation of The Taking of Tiger Mountain had a lot to do with its director’s taking VFX seriously.
Besides attaching enough importance to the VFX work for Chinese moviemakers, the talent cultivation also holds a crucial spot for the whole industry.
“The purpose of us setting up this base is not limited to serve the filmmaking, as we hope that it could be a supplement to the university education in a practical way,” said Qu Jianping, president of Guoan New Bridge (Beijing) Media Investment Co Ltd, who’s also visiting professor of Beijing Film Academy.
When the base has got film projects to work on, it will give priority to selected students chosen by universities and the Hollywood advisors to participate in these projects, giving them the chance to practice and improve in real movie projects, Qu said, adding that people who are talented and skilled in this field but from outside academic institutions also have the access.
The Communication University of China has also made some attempts in better satisfying the market demand for talents.
“The largest paradox in the education is that VFX is a dynamic concept, while the major is static. Probably after our students finished the courses, the related concepts are already obsoleted,” said Cui Yunpeng, director of digital art at the School of Animation and Digital Arts at the Communication University of China.
Qu added that part of the training plan of the new base is to transport excellent Chinese university students who speak fluent English to studios or universities in the US.
The opportunity to get involved in a real movie project is precious, not only for university students, but for domestic VFX companies as well. As a majority of domestic VFX studios don’t have the chance to participate in such projects, they just keep working on low-end projects, thus being beaten by overseas teams easily.
“The cost of me hiring people in the US is too high. If I can get the talent in China to do the whole shot for me at a better price than I can do in the US, I can partner with them, and it only makes sense for me to do that,” said Kleiser.
“But the important thing is that organizations like this or other schools develop higher levels of capability, so companies like mine would say I want to work with the Chinese company because they have a higher skill set,” he added.
“Programs like this base elevate the level of the talent on average. Chinese artists are absolutely going to be beneficial both for the Chinese animation visual effects market and the global market, because we’re able to do more work of better quality at a lower price, which is all producers look for,” said Kleiser.