Visual Effects in China

by Graham Edwards

"Monster Hunt"

Whichever way you look at it, China is huge. Not only is it home around 20% of the entire world’s population, but it’s third only to Russia and Antarctica in terms of land area.

China is big in the movies, too. With a box office of nearly $5 billion in 2014, and its number of cinema screens growing exponentially (over 23,000 in 2014 compared to around 4,000 in 2008), it’s set to get even bigger.

All this growth means that Hollywood productions are desperate to make films that appeal to Chinese audiences – not to mention investors. Conversely, Chinese doors are gradually inching open to admit more Western films into the country’s cinemas, with the Chinese administration now permitting the distribution of 34 foreign films each year, compared to 20 just three years ago. This summer’s biggest hit, Jurassic World, relied for nearly 20% of its $524.4 million debut on tickets bought in China.

Meanwhile, following the success of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000, homegrown Chinese films have begun to capture the imaginations of Western audiences. Recent hits include the VFX-heavy fantasy film Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal, John Woo’s The Crossing and the phenomenally successful Monster Hunt, which shortly after release became the biggest-grossing Chinese film of all time. The success of these and other movies proves the appeal of effects-driven movies in all corners of the globe.

Watch the trailer for Monster Hunt:

So, what’s it like working as a VFX artist in one of the world’s fastest-growing motion picture markets? How does the nature and quality of Chinese visual effects work compare to what’s produced in the West? How do budgets and deadlines differ?

Eager to learn more about the state of the art in Chinese visual effects, Cinefex put these questions and more to Wil Manning, VFX supervisor at the Beijing branch of international visual effects company Pixomondo.

How long have you been working in China?

I’ve been working for Pixomondo in China for five years. I spent the first half of that time doing commercial VFX supervision and art direction. The second half has been focused on feature film work. My experience is purely within the local market, although there’s the occasional co-production. I started supervising and producing on my first feature for Pixomondo in 2013, and by the end of this year I’ll have eight feature supervision credits under my belt, plus a couple of other miscellaneous credits.

What drew you to China?

I came here because I thought China was at the start of something pretty amazing. China was growing, changing. If you want to make an impact – to be a part of something and help forge it – then China is the kind of place you go. Besides, I guess I felt like doing something really different, having an adventure. And China has been, if nothing else, a very interesting adventure!

How does Pixomondo’s Beijing branch integrate with the Chinese film industry as a whole?

Our Beijing branch has always been interested primarily in the local industry – we work on a lot of Chinese features – but we’ve also done plenty of work in commercials and international features. What we don’t tend to do is typical outsourcing work. In fact, on most features we’re sending out wire removals and extractions to other vendors, and instead trying to focus on building up our creative chops. We’re super-busy, and it’s amazingly exciting to be here working on these shows.

Do you need to be based in China in order to work on Chinese films?

The broader Chinese VFX industry is very much in a constant state of flux, as a result of government mandates and market forces, both of which continue to change rapidly. If you’re not on the ground here, then I’d argue that you’re not able to keep up with those changes. That makes it very hard to engage with the local market.

One of our focuses has been on building and keeping a strong and stable team. We need people who understand directors and have experience here. The majority of our team are mainland Chinese in nationality and they’re amazing artists. They engage with Chinese as well as Western cinema, and we try to run a facility that they want to belong to.

How do VFX for Chinese films differ from what’s produced in the West? How do the budgets differ, for example?

Budgets have a huge impact on what’s possible in VFX. Currently, the budgets in China are not high.

Consider the Harry Potter, Transformers, or Marvel features – any of your average tentpoles. These can break $800m worldwide, which means they can afford very large budgets. Bigger budgets make bigger VFX possible, as well as more carefully and preciously crafted VFX.

Compare this to local Chinese mainland films, which have yet to bust $250m – in fact, many films that are considered big releases don’t break $100m. But the Chinese market is growing – at an astounding rate of around 35% a year. It’s already the second largest in the world, and expectations are that it will surpass the flat North American market (US and Canada) within three years.

"The Monkey King" posterHow heavily do these lower budgets impact on the quality of the visual effects?

If you watch a lot of Chinese films, you’ll see a heap of bad VFX. Bad edges. Poor extractions. Mistimed plates. Missing grain. Painful animation. Mediocre lighting. It makes trained eyes bleed and gives me nightmares. Part of what we’re doing here is trying to put a stop to this, to make quality control part of the process.

For example, I recently watched The Monkey King with a supervisor friend in L.A., and they were amazed at the lack of finish on the show. Then I mentioned that, as far as I know, the 1,800 or so VFX shots were all completed within three months. My friend was still amazed, not about how these shots passed quality control, but about how the hell anyone could do that much work in such a short time. And why they would agree to it to begin with!

Give us an idea of what that kind of workload means in real-world terms.

If you sat with the director to start reviewing those shots in the last month of production – after two months of work, in other words – you’d need to get through 100 shots a day just for one round of directorial review. Where do revisions even fit into that kind of schedule?

Watch the international trailer for The Monkey King:

Is the situation likely to improve as the Chinese market grows?

Yes. I think that as budgets increase – and they most certainly will – these films will become more and more competitive aesthetically with their Western counterparts. And, while there might be a shortage of time and money on these films in the meantime, studios are not letting that stop them. There is no shortage of ambition in China.

How are you preparing for the changes to come?

One of the things we’re doing is to actively seek out those directors and producers who are concerned about quality in visual effects, and engage them in discussion. We want not only to provide a reliable service in a market which is constantly changing, but also to influence the direction of the industry by being involved at a local level.

We’re already seeing a lot more smaller features coming to us because they have invisible effects, or they need amazing design, and they want to be able to trust that it’s going to be done right. They want someone they can depend on because, in the Chinese industry, that’s a very difficult thing to find.

The bigger fantasy films will come in time, but there’s a lot more money at risk with high budgets at the moment because of the cap in earnings. Also, when it comes to realism, fantasy is a lot more forgiving.

"Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal" posterHow do you go about bidding for work?

Fixed bids are very common in China. I personally don’t mind them, and have had a lot of success on smaller shows working with directors to manage the money. Directors have almost full control on sets here – producers are rarely around, and usually don’t interfere.

There are a lot of facilities here that will bid a show at a flat fee off a script. They get awarded the show, and then just work until there’s no money and no time left. The result is the director is trapped into a compromise situation – they literally run out of time for revisions, and the film is not ready, but they have to take it to market. It’s underbidding in a way that beggars belief, and it hurts the industry here, as it surely does elsewhere too.

What sort of working relationships do you typically have with Chinese directors?

We spend a lot of time personally in contact with directors. We use WeChat to communicate, we’re emailing each other directly, we go out to dinner together. It’s rare for a facility supervisor to not be directly involved with the director, and it’s equally rare to be dealing with producers and the production studio, except where money is concerned.

Do you generally work through a production VFX supervisor?

No – there is rarely a production or studio-side VFX supervisor. This is changing, but for many films this role is one we naturally step into. In a way, we represent the directors, and we ensure they get what they need. This includes making sure quality standards are adhered to.

This is a difficult thing to understand from a Western point of view, but when you have production companies that don’t need to ensure VFX quality to sell their films, paired with directors who obviously do care, it’s important to be there and to be a responsible player.

How about deadlines? Are they always as tight as you’ve described?

The Chinese industry is highly driven by getting to market. This means we work to some of the most amazingly short deadlines you’ve ever seen. Right now, with all the growth, the situation is not really improving. Investors are often private, or groups of studios, and they want their returns within the timeframes specified. Release windows are highly contested, and will make you rethink everything you thought you knew about working fast.

Do you work a lot with South Korean companies?

Yes. If you’re doing VFX in mainland China, then you’re working with South Korean VFX companies a lot of the time. Their industry is highly evolved and full of skilled, talented, hard-working artists. They have their own issues too, but the Chinese and South Korean film industries share a lot of ground.

Most of the visual effects for "Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal" were created by Korean VFX company Macrograph, with the exception of this underwater action sequence, delivered by Pixomondo.

Most of the visual effects for “Zhong Kui: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal” were created by South Korean VFX company Macrograph, with the exception of this underwater action sequence, delivered by Pixomondo.

What’s the one quality you need to survive in the Chinese VFX industry?

An ability to think outside the box.

What we at Pixomondo do exceptionally well is to solve people’s problems. If our clients don’t have enough budget for their A-plan, we try to work out a B-plan, or propose an alternative methodology. When our clients come to us with problems in post-production supervision, we go around to visit the vendors and help them get systems working. We sit with our clients and point out what is not good enough and why it should be better.

It’s all a little strange at the beginning, but if you have a passion for making films and just want to get shit done, then it all comes naturally. You just do it.

The VFX-heavy fantasy "Monster Hunt" is now the highest grossing Chinese film of all time.

The VFX-heavy fantasy “Monster Hunt” is now the highest grossing Chinese film of all time.

So, what does the future hold for visual effects in China?

Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is audience expectation in China. My hope is that, over the next few years, the audiences here will become more discerning and more demanding of filmmakers. I feel like this is starting. You hear comparisons of Game of Thrones to Chinese features, and audiences are starting to ask questions.

Frank conversations with producers and investors here will tell you that the quality of a film’s VFX isn’t something they rate highly. That’s because, from a business point of view, it just doesn’t matter much yet. I believe that will change. As it does, Chinese cinema will come into a renaissance.

As the market expands and these changes take hold, will Chinese films become more Westernised?

Not really. That’s not how China works.

There’s a tendency in the West to think that China is trying to expand beyond itself. If my time here has taught me one thing it’s that this country is very internally orientated. That’s not to say it isn’t aware of the outside world, but Chinese people will always want to have Chinese stories as well – and they have a market to support it. So they’ll keep making the films they like.

Will Chinese cinema be influenced by the West? Sure! Absolutely! But it will still become its own thing, similar to how Japanese film is its own thing. The outside influences are still present, but the net result will be something unique and wonderful in its own right.

2 thoughts on “Visual Effects in China

  1. A few horror stories on how NOT to do VFX business in China would have been “interesting”, Mr Manning.

    • To be honest I think most of the reasons VFX projects get into trouble here are pretty much the same as in the USA: miscommunication, poorly defined scope and general project mismanagement, being the primary culprits.

      Although there are other more colloquial reasons. For example Beijing doesn’t really have a freelancer market to speak of so ramping up is tough. And the employment laws are geared so it’s hard to hire people just for short term contracts. The result is less flexibility in terms of facility overheads (you have a more static count of employees) which has an impact on why shops take certain jobs.

      And then there’s just doing business in China. Cultural understanding goes a long way to offset this, as does an understanding of the political and economic forces at play, but some new comers have found it hard to adjust.

      But apart from those general circumstances I’ll have to politely decline going into specific examples of horror stories 🙂

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