How A Start-Up VFX Studio Helped Grow An Industry In China (And Racked Up Awards Along The Way)
At the core of any extraordinary viewing experience on screen today is the careful manipulation of digital visual effects. From creating slimy, violent creatures straight out of your wildest, sweat-soaked nightmares to fabricating naturalistic environments you’d never guess were shot in front of blue screens, the magic of make-believe is part of what makes Hollywood such a powerful cultural empire.
With technology becoming more available worldwide, Hollywood-quality production is increasingly becoming an international industry. That’s how, at the heart of Beijing’s hip international district, we found Base FX (Base), a visual effects studio composed of some of China’s most outstanding VFX talent that’s been bringing to life many your favorite Hollywood blockbusters and television series since 2005.
Base occupies an office building near Sanlitun Village, with an interior that resembles a horizontal bee hive of computer stations. The studio has developed an all-encompassing system that is capable of moving multiple projects through its in-house production stream, including concept design, modeling, animation, special effects, texture and composting. Quickly securing their place at the top of China’s VFX industry, Base was awarded Emmys for the explosive combat scene at sea in HBO’s The Pacific in 2010, and for producing the realistic murder scenes and the elegant 1920s environment for HBO’s Boardwalk Empire in 2011.
Base helps create the scenic vintage boardwalk look and feel on the set of Boardwalk Empire.
With Sunday’s premiere of Boardwalk Empire‘s new season, we find ourselves back in Base’s Atlantic City, city of sin by the shore. We decided to catch up with Chris Bremble, founder and CEO of Base, to find out more about how the studio got its start in China:
The Creator Project: Not many people think of China as a leading producer of high-end VFX work for Hollywood blockbusters and HBO television series. How did Base FX end up here?
Chris Bremble:I first came to China as a consultant on a large themed entertainment project. They asked me, based on my experience as a filmmaker, to help plan sound stages and a studio backlot for the project. I spent a year in China working on the project, and during that time met a lot of small post [production] companies and architectural rendering companies. In 2003, I went back to LA to make my next film, and decided to bring the post production work to China. It seemed a little crazy at the time, but I’ve always been interested in the path less traveled. It wasn’t an easy process, but I eventually found an amazingly passionate and creative team to work on that film. Ten years later, and half that team is still a core part of Base. It was, in many ways, not something I planned so much as something that just happened. The right people met at the right time and the right place, and from that, we’ve built something really amazing.
The headquarters of Base in Beijing houses more than 200 visual effects artists. What’s the difference between working with freelance-based visual effects studios in the U.S. versus an entire army of specialized post-production artists waiting at your finger tips?
We have to be really smart about resource planning, think ahead in terms of where we think the market will be, and manage the staff via mentoring and coaching, rather than traditional management practices. We can’t scale up quickly, which is a negative, but we also have an amazing core of knowledge that is always available to our clients and their projects. Keeping the creative team as a ‘constant’ is a really important part of our success. This is a challenging business: it’s basically just-in-time research and development. Those are two difficult models on their own, but combined, they can be deadly for a small company. You have to be able to see around the corner to make things work. So, the biggest difference is that: our need to do a lot of projections and planning in order to keep the momentum at the right pace.
As one of the pioneers of the visual effects industry here in China, how have you seen the industry grow, not just from a scale perspective, but also in terms of tech-savviness and skills?
There still isn’t really much of an industry. It’s beginning. The challenges are that producers and directors in China have the visual appetite of the US industry, but a creative industry in visuals that is 15 to 25 years behind the US in terms of capability. So, there’s a lot of frustration. Skill-wise, there are a lot of young, smart artists, but they lack the experience of working on lots of shows, seeing how the technology developed, and knowing what approach and what tools are best for the job. In the US, Canada, England, etc., you have artists with 15 to 25 years of experience. They problem solve very efficiently. Here, not so much. There’s a leadership gap, and that’s only going to be resolved with time. It will take time for the industry to develop. The technology keeps getting faster, better, and cheaper, so more and more it’s about the artists, and critically, about the leadership of those artists that makes the major difference. We’ve been focused on that problem for almost a decade now, and are beginning to see the benefits of that focus in our work and in our opportunities.
You’ve mentioned that once a friend suggested that you set up your company in Brazil because young people there are more in tune with, and excited about, culture than in China. How did you respond to that?
I disagreed with that opinion. I think there’s a lot of talk about China not being creative, not having a creative economy, and though I think there are valid examples, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It just means that it’s a smaller part of the economy—a smaller part of the population—than in the west. We’ve been very focused on how we identify and train talent for some time, as I think that’s the future. Anyone can hire a talented artist, but not many companies can identify the raw talent, and train and develop that talent into a rockstar VFX artist. That’s what we do best, I think. It’s not a skill set you can buy, or steal. It has to be in your DNA in order to work.
Base won an Emmy for working on Boardwalk Empire. How does a company of all Chinese local artists so accurately grasp the visual aesthetic and create an authentic depiction of Prohibition-era Atlantic City, New Jersey?
A lot of credit goes to the Boardwalk team. They’re great at giving us their art department’s work, sharing reference imagery, etc. A lot of our success comes from being able to easily communicate and collaborate with our clients, because we are so far away from many of them, and we rely on their input and experience in order to succeed at our tasks. We’re great at execution, but that’s all based on a close relationship with the client.
What are the major obstacles and issues that Base faces in terms of its day-to-day operations—i.e. language barriers, skill set issues? What steps/procedures have you put into place to help mitigate these issues?
It’s a very turbulent marketplace—shows change scope all the time, and we have to be able to adjust our staffing to meet those changes on a daily basis. It means we have to become very elastic. We have to be able to flex and bend and stretch to deliver to the client on time, or be the lifesaver they need on a show that’s in trouble. So, the process of managing that flexibility is a lot of work. We have a lot of meetings—usually 2 minute meetings in hallways or at producers’ desk—where we go through all the changes of the day. We have a lot of resources to manage, and the situation is always very fluid. The only solution we’ve found is hiring good people, training them well, and providing them with incentives to succeed. Good, thoughtful, forward-thinking common sense management mitigates most issues.
Base creates a flesh-singing explosive scene for Boardwalk Empire.
You’ve mentioned that becoming an artist for Base is super competive. What advice would you give to aspiring students in animation or CGI these days if they want to become a VFX artist in the future?
The three things we look for are first and foremost, a careful, creative eye. Can you ‘see’ things? Do you notice the details in an image? Does the black dot flashing in theaters that project film bother you when you see it? (And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, you probably don’t have a careful eye). We also look for passion—this is a hard job, and you can’t approach it like a job, or even a career. Working in the VFX business is about a commitment to excellence, and so we look for people that only want to be the best. And last, we look for technical skills, which is more about one’s ability to navigate and problem solve using technology. In terms of how to get a job at Base, the best way is to make something short, not too ambitious, and then rework it to perfection. We only work on three or five second shots, and we have to get them perfect, so seeing a mediocre two minute short doesn’t tell us if you know how to reach perfection. It just tells us that you don’t understand the work we do. So, short, focused, creative, and careful work. I’d much rather see a great five seconds of material than an okay five minutes of material.
The good news is that we’re always looking. We have a policy of never saying no to hiring someone we think will succeed. It doesn’t matter how busy we are, we just want to hire people that fit into our culture, our way of seeing the industry and how to succeed in it. And we’re always open with feedback, and how candidates can improve themselves.
Image and video courtesy of Base FX.