Building the Industry Behind China’s Unbelievable TV Shows
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2017-09-20 05:42:21

China’s television industry is a billion-dollar business, especially with the explosive growth of online streaming sites. Yet for years, Chinese audiences have mocked the low production value of visual effects (VFX) in domestic shows as wumao texiao — “50-cent VFX.”

Whenever a clumsily animated monster stumbles into a scene, unimpressed viewers will send the derisive term across the screen in a barrage of multicolored comments. VFX supervisor Guan Mingjie says he’s developed a thick skin for criticism. “I used to feel wronged and to care so much,” Guan tells Sixth Tone. “Now I’ve gotten used to it.”

Visual effects teams often find themselves caught in an awkward position between money-grubbing producers and disappointed audiences as they work under tight schedules with limited budgets. As the VFX supervisor of “Ice Fantasy,” a recent television adaption of a best-selling fantasy novel, Guan worked on more than 2,000 minutes of footage that had to be completed in less than a year.

The audience’s expectations for the industry don’t match what producers invest [in VFX].

Guan started off as a junior compositor in 2009, when China’s VFX industry was in its infancy. Foreign-backed visual effects and animation company Base FX was founded in 2006 with 12 artists and close ties to Hollywood, and Pixomondo, a leading German firm, launched its Beijing and Shanghai offices in 2009. Most domestic studios were also just firing up: Guan’s former company, which only had around 50 staff back then, now employs 400 people.

After almost a decade on the scene, Guan has witnessed the faltering development of homegrown VFX, which faces a range of challenges — from the lag in technical skills to the lack of industry standards. The 30-year-old recently opened his own studio in Beijing, which he hopes will set an example of the standards and systems he would like to see across the industry.

“It won’t make money for the first few years,” Guan says. “My main goal is to implement my vision and prove that a project will have a better result if I keep a close eye on the whole process, starting with pre-production.”

To explore the past, present, and future of visual effects in Chinese television and film, Guan shared his experience and insight with Sixth Tone. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VFX supervisor Guan Mingjie speaks with staff via walkie-talkie during filming in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, September 2017. Courtesy of Guan Mingjie

VFX supervisor Guan Mingjie speaks with staff via walkie-talkie during filming in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, September 2017. Courtesy of Guan Mingjie

Sixth Tone: What was it like when you first stepped into the industry?

Guan Mingjie: In 2009, there was no such term as wumao texiao in the domestic television and film industry because audiences didn’t pay much attention to this aspect of production. It wasn’t until Zhang Jizhong’s remake of “Journey to the West” [broadcast in 2011] that viewers started to realize the importance of VFX. But many companies [involved in the show] went bankrupt because of this project. The series contained a large number of scenes that needed post-production, but the market price was inadequate, so the companies couldn’t sustain themselves. In fact, even now, the market still isn’t in a good state.

Sixth Tone: How has the industry developed over the years?

Guan Mingjie: The whole television industry, including production companies, has come to value VFX more and more. Audiences, too, have pushed the industry onto a path of continuous progress. The advent of the wumao texiao insult put much pressure on VFX companies.

Of course, in many cases, we take the blame for others: Audiences can’t see the internal process, only the end result. The audience’s expectations for the industry don’t match what producers invest [in VFX].

The first factor is time, and then second comes money. In terms of technique, domestic companies can’t compete with international ones, but they can handle 80 or even 90 percent of projects if they have the time and capital. The problem is that the industry hasn’t been granted an ideal environment. Things are getting better — better than when no one cared about it.

You can’t forget to bring some props and then ask us to add them during post-production. For example, a regular knife might take me a week to model on a computer.

Some changes can be attributed to the release of the film “Avatar” in 2009. The film was a stimulus for the VFX industry as well as for domestic audiences, enlightening people as to the existence of such effects and cinematic experiences. A few other works of excellence were screened around that time — for example, “Life of Pi.”

My personal favorite is “Game of Thrones.” Besides VFX, it also offers exemplary sound, screenwriting, editing — the whole package. Our audience may only see VFX, but the triumph belongs to the whole production and shooting crew. VFX is auxiliary to storytelling.

Sixth Tone: In China, audiences seem less satisfied with TV productions than with big-screen blockbusters. Why?

Guan Mingjie: TV dramas are a lot of work for little pay. TV production teams tend to be less professional, though it varies case by case. The nature of such series is commercial and moneymaking, while films are more concerned with artistry.

TV producers don’t give you enough time to hone your craft. “Ice Fantasy” has more than 2,000 minutes of VFX shots. That’s horrible, considering “Avatar” is only 162 minutes long. No matter how much money you have, it is impossible to finish everything within one year and maintain quality, even for Hollywood studios.

Sixth Tone: Could you describe the process of creating VFX for China’s fantasy TV series?

Guan Mingjie: In principle, the VFX team should be involved from the writing stage, when the screenwriter finishes the draft script and it goes through the director. That’s when the heads of each department should come together for discussion. As the VFX division, we would offer suggestions for shooting and post-production.

But in the domestic market today, many TV productions lack preparation and coordination. Often, visual effects work is sold as part of a post-production package, varying from 5,000 yuan to 30,000 yuan ($765 to $4,600) per minute, which is very unfair to us. What screenwriters imagine is quite different from what VFX staff do. A random, single-sentence description in the script could take us a few months to realize.

On set in particular, we VFX supervisors have no say because it means trouble if shooting is delayed. But if producers looked at the big picture, they would see that they need to consider VFX in both pre- and post-production. Many badly done scenes create major setbacks for us.

A GIF compares a shot from the set of web series ‘Rakshasa Street’ with a still frame after visual effects have been added. Courtesy of Guan Mingjie

A GIF compares a shot from the set of web series ‘Rakshasa Street’ with a still frame after visual effects have been added. Courtesy of Guan Mingjie

Sixth Tone: Can you give us any examples?

Guan Mingjie: What is the role of special effects? You can’t forget to bring some props and then ask us to add them during post-production. For example, a regular knife might take me a week to model on a computer.

Every television series has these shooting mistakes, which wouldn’t be allowed in Hollywood. It’s a lack of professionalism. The VFX department should be involved in art, props, makeup, and sets.

I had trouble at my last job working on a web series. It took them two days to build and install a set. On the eve of filming, I was told to check the set. I was dumbfounded when I saw that the green screen was all wrinkled — that would mean my team would have to key and matte aftereffects frame by frame. The problem was not fixed in the end.

Maligning the competition and racing to the bottom is not a sustainable path for developing the sector.

Sixth Tone: Why isn’t the market for post-production and VFX in a healthier state?

Guan Mingjie: It’s due in part to the disunity of China’s VFX companies. Many force the price down below market value to get more commissions and end up shooting themselves in the foot. Maligning the competition and racing to the bottom is not a sustainable path for developing the sector.

I’ve also witnessed the exploitation of low-skilled labor in the industry. A large proportion of technicians have no labor rights yet work long hours overtime. Employees sometimes don’t even get a full welfare package — no health insurance or contributions to their housing provident fund. Of course, these companies are partially responsible, but overall, the chaotic market causes this problem.

Sixth Tone: In the Chinese VFX sector, what are the differences between domestic companies and those with international backgrounds, such as Base FX and Pixomondo?

Guan Mingjie: Almost all [international companies’] orders come from the overseas market. They take advantage of China’s cheap labor and favorable tax policies and bring in supervisors from abroad.

International companies usually take longer-term, higher-priced projects. Chinese television series seldom choose them because they are expensive. For example, “Ice Fantasy,” which I supervised last year, reached out to Pixomondo for a deal of more than 70 shots. Their average charge was 100,000 yuan per shot. But for a Chinese company, 5,000 yuan per shot would be quite a lot. There is a huge gap.

After all, China’s market lags more than 30 years behind that of the United States. But the demand is rising, and it is only a matter of time before it is bound to get better.

Editor: Qian Jinghua.

(Header image: Still frames with and without visual effects from the web series ‘Rakshasa Street.’ Courtesy of Guan Mingjie)