Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: China’s Oscar-Winning Base FX On Keeping A Global VFX & Animation Outfit Running In Turbulent Times

Editors’ Note: With full acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that already has claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon. If you have a story, email [email protected].

Oscar-winning Base FX, formed in 2003 by filmmaker and visual effects expert Chris Bremble, has grown into one of the leading VFX and animation companies in Asia, with recent credits including The Mandalorian and Aquaman.

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Like the rest of the entertainment biz, the disruption caused by coronavirus has taken its toll on post-production, but the long-term impact on that sector will take months to be fully realized, with film and TV shoots now halted around the globe.

In the past 17 years, Base has evolved into a global business with offices in China’s Beijing, Wuxi, Xiamen and Dachang, as well as Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and Los Angeles. It counts more than 500 staff on its books and has worked on north of 200 projects, including major productions both in China and Hollywood. The company has a strategic alliance with Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic, through which it has won two Oscars for its work on Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It also has three Emmys to its name for Boardwalk Empire, The Pacific and Black Sails.

As well as VFX, Base operates an animation studio that is currently making feature film Wish Dragon for Sony Pictures with Jackie Chan and Constance Wu.

In January 2020, Chinese major Sunac Culture made a strategic investment in Base, taking a majority stake. That money will help the company survive these turbulent times and the situation is now improving in China, Bremble tells us, though the long tail impact of COVID-19 is only just beginning to be felt.

DEADLINE: What has your personal experience of the pandemic been?

CHRIS BREMBLE: I flew to London right when the lockdowns were starting in Wuhan, and it was a bit surreal; I had five temp checks at the Xiamen airport on my way out, one in Hong Kong in transit, and none in London upon arrival. No one wore masks on the flight into London, then everyone had them on four days later on the flight back to China. The world changed in three days.

Xiamen was one of the least affected cities in China (it had the fewest arrivals from Wuhan), and so while there was a lockdown, there was only a mild anxiety in the city. I spent a lot of time reassuring friends, family, partners and clients that things would be okay. I also had time to catch up and get ahead on some of our long term planning. It seemed so obvious it would be contained and life would go on as normal…

But just as things returned to normal in Xiamen, we were working through the Malaysia lockdown with our team in Kuala Lumpur, and then we were working with our team in Los Angeles as California shut down. So after an initial first week of quiet, it’s been all logistics and planning for six weeks. That trip to London feels like a lifetime ago.

DEADLINE: How much has it impacted your business? Has worked slowed down? 

BREMBLE: Our initial assessment was that we might lose a few weeks; the reality is that it’s been, for the China market and from a business perspective, like being kicked while we were already down. The market hasn’t recovered fully from the June 2018 slowdown [after the Chinese entertainment industry’s tax scandal] and this has hit the local industry hard. We’re fortunate that we have a mix of clients and projects: live action and animation, features and TV, Hollywood and China. So while some work slowed, we were able to pivot resources to hit the work we had available. That’s been a big help.

We also have a great management team, who were focused on our staff, their health, and getting everyone safely back to work. I use the pronoun ‘we’ because it was a team effort, 24/7, to keep things moving forward. A lot of courage and kindness in uncertain times.

The big fear is that for the China market, production was already down significantly, maybe 70% year-on-year. Now there will be almost zero films starting in China for six months or so. From a post-production perspective, the worst is yet to come as the current productions wrap post in the spring/summer. So the real effects of the virus will hit in a few months.

We’ve been very lucky to have a good partner in Sunac Culture, and we’re working with them to plan out the rest of 2020 and 2021, maintain our capacity and push ahead. They leaned in with resources, advice, and navigation as the government’s response to the crisis was adjusted daily to combat the spread of the virus.

DEADLINE: Have your employees been able to work from home? I assume you have some fairly high tech in your studios that may not be transportable…

BREMBLE: We did a little bit of remote work in China, but not much. We were able to get folks back into the office – with health and safety a priority – fairly quickly. Security agreements prevented us from managing some projects with remote work, so we got the folks into the office who needed to be there, and the rest worked from home.

The tech, at least for us, wasn’t a challenge, we are used to working with partners in the U.S. and have systems set up to allow for it. And for the China team, the combo of Zoom and WeChat allowed for constant communication.

DEADLINE: Have you been forced to lay anyone off, reduce salaries, or take any similar measures?

BREMBLE: Our plan for 2020 was growth; with Sunac Culture’s support we had a somewhat aggressive plan to build the VFX and animation teams for some ambitious 2021 projects. We’ll be making some changes in the business, but those are more related to balancing talent and business units between live action and animation. The slowdown in 2018 hit us fairly hard, so we’d already put ourselves into a defensive footprint prior to the outbreak. We may grow a bit more slowly or take a beat before ramping up, but we’re still looking to be growth-minded as we prepare for the opportunities we see in the market.

DEADLINE: What’s the impact been like on the VFX industry on the whole? What are you hearing from other VFX companies around the world?

BREMBLE: The VFX business is a tough business on the best of days, so while this has been a hardship, I’m guessing VFX studios will bounce back. The arrival of the virus in India – where a lot of folks have been sending work – is still an unknown, and I’m hoping it stays under control. The global transition to TV as the dominant medium, and our animation studio preparing its first release, is a bigger part of our planning than the effects of the coronavirus.  That may change depending on how the the virus is controlled outside China, but within China it’s more likely a part of our past than our future.

We’ve been in touch with other studios, and like us, they’re adapting, planning, working remotely, and outsourcing work that is time critical. The industry is fairly resilient and used to these kinds of disruptions or slow-downs.  We’re not a big studio, but we’re in five cities in three countries, so we’re all able to adapt, and our peers even more so.  I’m confident people will keep wanting quality content – demand seems strong – so once the virus is in the rear window things should normalize, which in our world means well-managed chaos.

DEADLINE: You work on projects from all over the world – how much of your business is in China and how much is international?

BREMBLE: We’re uniquely balanced between film and TV, live action and animation, China and Hollywood. On a typical day I’m looking at dailies on a U.S. streaming series, a China feature, a U.S. feature, a European animated film and something developed in our studio. We have crews in LA, Beijing, Xiamen, Wuxi, and Kuala Lumpur. It’s not the easiest task to track and manage it all, and we’ll work to rebalance the teams a bit, but we have a great deal of agility when it comes to tackling the work.

DEADLINE: It seems the virus situation is improving in China, are you hopeful that production will resume shortly?

BREMBLE: I’m hopeful that the China market picks up, but honestly it will be a year before we see any real semblance of demand, and those first few opportunities will be bid aggressively by studios very hungry for cash.

DEADLINE: How are you adapting your business to the situation, is there anything creative you can do to support your company’s future?

BREMBLE: We started adapting back in 2012, when we formed our Strategic Alliance with ILM and Lucasfilm. I certainly didn’t see this moment, but my instincts told me we needed to diversify and be smart about our business initiatives. We’ve had a few misses – usually because of not enough capital – but the animation studio has been and will be a success with [Sony Pictures Animation project] Wish Dragon, and with Sunac Culture we see the VFX business having a revival in the coming 18 months as we finish our rebalancing. The combination of our relationships in China, our KL office with a healthy rebate for clients there, and our animation team servicing our clients and ourselves, should keep us well positioned.

We’re also doing all the usual pivots on a day-to-day basis, picking up work that we may not have thought to take a while back, but that’s also a part of the rebalancing for the studio: being more agile and creative in our approach to client work.

DEADLINE: Has there been any state support in China for struggling businesses?

BREMBLE: We haven’t seen anything yet in Beijing; we have good relationships with the municipal governments in Xiamen and Wuxi, but there are limits to what can be done. The folks at FINAS in Malaysia (the country’s National Film Development Corporation) have been supportive, but again, I think everyone is dealing with this in real time so it will take a moment for the government to get organized and approach the industry.

Let’s be honest, there are bigger priorities right now, so we’re constantly assessing the situation to stay right footed, trying to find that balance between the health and safety of our team and our community, servicing our partners and clients, and working to keep the 500 or so families who look to us for their income and opportunity well employed.

Stay healthy, stay safe, and for now… stay apart!

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