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How ILM Partnership Helped Base FX Become a Budding Powerhouse

Deal to offshore commoditized work has sharpened Beijing-based vfx studio’s skills

The feature film visual effects industry has all but fled California, chasing incentives to whatever corner of the map may offer them. Yet Industrial Light & Magic remains in the Golden State, in part because of its its partnership with Beijing’s Base FX.

Years ago, Lucasfilm’s leaders realized that while much vfx had become commoditized, ILM excelled in two areas that could command a premium price: high-end, research-intensive vfx, and production management for subcontractors. The key was finding such subcontractors.

Gretchen Libby, ILM executive in charge of global studios, found Base FX on a trip to China. In 2007, ILM entered a partnership with Beijing-based BaseFX that continues today.

Initially, ILM had a financial stake in Base; now China Media Capital has stepped in. But Base remains exclusive to ILM for all Hollywood studio pictures. The deal lets ILM treat Base as essentially an extension of its own workforce, so it doesn’t have to ramp up and lay people off when work drops.

“We’d establish what looks were, then they could match it and apply it to other shots.”
Russel Earl, vfx supervisor, “Captain America: Civil War”

Libby and others credit Base’s chief creative officer, Tang Bingbing, with bringing the company up to Hollywood standards. Tang instituted “Base Camp” where the company’s young workforce learned both the creative standards required and basic workplace skills.

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Dealing with a Chinese company imposed a learning curve on ILM, too. Says Libby: “Visual examples are very important. But that’s true with everybody. The business we’re in relies on visual imagery.”

ILM was cautious with Base at first, starting it mostly with limited assignments, but Base has turned into a trusted extension of ILM. It’s had important sequences on many of ILM’s tentpoles, including the previous two “Captain America” pictures, “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Russell Earl, visual-effects supervisor for “Captain America: Civil War,” says Base often exceeded his expectations. “We’d establish what looks were, then they could match it and apply it to other shots in the sequences,” Earl says.

On “The Force Awakens,” they handled complex sand simulations for desert scenes and hero shots of light sabers in the climactic fight between Rey and Kylo Ren. When light sabers hit snow and steam rises, that’s Base. Patrick Tubach, the film’s vfx supervisor, says Base has become so good he can even split parts of a shot between ILM and Base.

“That’s a unique thing you don’t normally do with other third-party vendors,” he says.

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