As a growing part of the global visual-effects industry, China offers more than low costs and outsourcing. Liz Shackleton reports

With China courting so much attention, the spotlight is also slowly being turned towards the territory’s post-production industry and its capability in visual effects.

Compared to its giant neighbour India, which has long been a destination for outsourcing VFX work, China is relatively new at this game. It has a huge animation industry, but until around five years ago local producers tended to go to the US, Australia and South Korea for high-end VFX work.

‘The Chinese government wants to keep some of this work in China, so standards will improve’

Billy Wu, Technicolor

But with the local film industry booming and international interest in China growing, the country’s VFX sector looks set to see rapid development. “It is likely that with the growing number of co-production movies, some part will have to be done in China, so we will gain more experience,” says Technicolor’s Greater China president Billy Wu.

Even if the anticipated co-production work does not appear, China’s local producers are under pressure to make more sophisticated movies, in order to compete with Hollywood, and more international films are sending segments of VFX work to Beijing and Shanghai.

Stepping in to satisfy the demand are a handful of local companies, and the outposts of global companies, who are working hard to bring China’s VFX industry up to international standards.

BaseFX, founded by US film-maker Chris Bremble in 2003, started out working on Sci-Fi Channel movies and straight-to-video fare, but has since worked on several films with George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) including Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol, Super 8 and I Am Number Four. The Beijing-based company now has a deal to work exclusively for ILM on Hollywood pictures, but can still work with other companies on indie movies, TV projects and Chinese films.

“There is a combination of benefits in both culture and cost when you’re working in China,” Bremble says. “The people who visit our studio are shocked by the focus and discipline of the artists; there’s an intense passion and ambition to succeed.”

The biggest problem faced by VFX studios in China is the lack of trained artists, and while western studios rely on a pool of freelancers, there is little freelance culture in socialist China. Many Chinese VFX and animation studios have attempted to solve this problem by setting up training academies and charging students. These are often more profitable than their VFX work, but while they churn out thousands of animators, they are not producing VFX artists capable of high-end work.

Bremble’s approach is to recruit students from universities and train them while being paid on the job through the company’s Base Camp programme. “This enables us to develop a brains trust and build up knowledge - we do things our own way and have our own processes,” Bremble says.

This approach also enables BaseFX to challenge conventional wisdom that China can mobilise huge numbers of people but lacks creative flair. The company has handled entire sequences on movies such as Ghost Protocol.

‘People who visit our studio are shocked by the focus and discipline of the artists’

Chris Bremble, BaseFX

Likewise, the Chinese facilities of global VFX company Pixomondo have started to handle complete sequences on films including Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Fast & Furious 5. Launched in Germany in 2001, Pixomondo first came to China three years ago at the behest of European commercials clients who needed localised work, but then moved into US features and European TV movies. Like BaseFX, the company trains Chinese artists on the job through its Pixomondo Academy.

Another global player, Technicolor, is also active in China though it tends to focus more on the labour-intensive elements of US movies such as 2012 and the Harry Potter series, which are handled by its Western facilities including Moving Picture Company (MPC). The relationship works both ways as Technicolor’s China office also sends high-end work on local films such as Feng Xiaogang’s Aftershock to MPC.

These three facilities all insist they are not in China to simply take advantage of the country’s low labour costs - which may disappear in a few years anyway - but to become embedded in the local film industry and be part of the growth story in China.

“It is not just about outsourcing work to a cheaper location. Our idea was to explore what was happening here and develop a team for the local market,” says Pixomondo China COO Jan Heinze.

Bremble agrees he is aiming to improve the skills of his artists and opportunities for his clients, and he is not interested in competing solely on cost: “Our clients don’t use the cost benefit to cut budget but to satisfy audience demand for more sophisticated movies,” he says.

All three companies work on local titles: in addition to Feng Xiaogang’s titles, Technicolor has worked on films with Zhang Yimou including Flowers Of War [pictured]; BaseFX has worked on films such as Chen Kaige’s Sacrifice and Gordon Chan’s The Four; and Pixomondo is working on three as-yet-unannounced local movies that are in pre-production.

‘Our idea was to explore what was happening here and develop a team for the local market’

Jan Heinze, Pixomondo China

There are challenges in working with local producers who still tend to approach VFX as an afterthought and focus on cost. Bremble says he turns down lots of requests to supply cheap VFX at short notice at the end of a shoot. “If we push into price competition, the client still expects ILM standards so there will be an expectation gap,” he says.

But there are signs producers are starting to think differently. “Three years ago local producers were coming to us with big ideas for VFX movies that they didn’t have the budget or experience to achieve, but now they’re much more realistic,” says Heinze. “They talk about how to use VFX in a supporting role.”

While local producers will need to differentiate, rather than try to beat Hollywood at its own game, it is likely their demands for increasingly sophisticated work will enable local VFX houses to flourish. “Local producers want to export their films and do co-productions so they have to meet international standards,” says Heinze.

Technicolor’s Wu points out the political imperative: “The Chinese government wants to keep some of this work in China to create jobs and increase local skill sets, so standards will improve.”

So while China is not likely to become a huge outsourcing centre, it will probably become another key hub in the globalised VFX industry. Local artists still need to develop skills and local facilities need more experience in project management. But as with most things in China, it is only a matter of time.

Major VFX houses active in China

BaseFX Employs around 250 full-time staff in Beijing and has won Emmys for its work on HBO mini-series The Pacific and Boardwalk Empire.

Cameron Pace Group James Cameron’s 3D-focused VFX house is establishing a facility in an industrial park in the city of Tianjin in partnership with Tianjin North Film Group.

Digital Film Production Base Part of state-owned China Film Group, this Beijing-based facility is locally focused but also worked on Sony’s Ultraviolet.

Digital Domain The global VFX company is likely to ramp up in China after it was recently rescued from bankruptcy by Beijing Galloping Horse and India’s Reliance MediaWorks. Galloping Horse had previously agreed to set up a China joint venture with Digital Domain.

Dimension Plus (D+) This Beijing and Tianjin-based venture gained valuable experience in stereoscopic 3D production while working on Tsui Hark’s Flying Swords Of Dragon Gate, under the tutelage of Avatar 3D specialist Chuck Comisky.

DreamWorks Animation The animation giant has established a Shanghai facility with local partners including China Media Capital and Shanghai Media Group, which will co-produce the next instalment in the Kung Fu Panda series.

Pixomondo The global VFX group has facilities in Beijing and Shanghai, which together employ around 130 people, and have worked on films including Hugo and The Amazing Spider-Man and TV series Game Of Thrones.

Technicolor The global VFX player has a strong China presence. The company formed joint ventures with local outfits Beijing Visual Impact in 2006 and Shanghai Film Group in 2010. It also has a Bangalore VFX facility that employs 1,000 people but does not work on Indian movies.

Xing Xing Digital Founded by Wang Lifeng in 2004, Xing Xing is one of the few local companies working on Hollywood films. Credits include Tropic Thunder, Twilight and local films such as Sophie’s Revenge. Earlier this year, the company made a failed attempt to acquire Canadian animation studio Rainmaker Entertainment.