ANNECY, France — Tuesday’s Works in Progress session at the Annecy Festival for Base FX’s “Wish Dragon” announces far more than the first 3D animated feature from a well-respected visual effects company, although it certainly did that. The session was a proclamation from a company intent on establishing a foundation that will be used for years to come in producing triple-A animated titles for a domestic audience of more than a billion people. “You don’t build a factory to only produce 10 cars,” said Staphylas of Base FX’s long term ambitions.“
Representing Base FX at the festival, for which China is the official guest country, were director Christopher Applehans, studio head of character animation Olivier Staphylas, Strange Weather producer Aron Warner, and from the Chinese studios, Sophie Xiao.
Base FX’s move into high-end, high-production-value Chinese animation is a calculated gamble, but it’s one which the company believes is doable if handled the right way.
“We are learning from where other companies struggled,” noted Staphylas. “In the past, it was big American studios wanting to enter China with a bang.” He pointed out that with its long history in the country, Base FX as a company already has a leg-up on its predecessors in its understanding of the market and the culture.
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Base FX’s commitment to its domestic market is most obvious when looking at its already assembled crew, which is a 50/50 mix of Chinese locals and ex-pats. The company is recruiting its staff from local industry professionals and a pool of former big American studio animators and designers, many of whom had been trained by Staphylas during his tenure at DreamWorks in India and China. “We basically grabbed people that weren’t feeling satisfied by the Hollywood mindset.”
It is also important to note that the film is not a U.S.-China co-production. 100% of the funding is coming from China and “it’s important that our mentality is that this is a Chinese film,” noted Staphylas.
It is important to Base that the ex-pat animators understand what they are animating. Xiao recalled: “We sent all the animators to Shanghai and made them eat all the street food and fall in love with some local boys and girls,” drawing a laugh from the packed auditorium.
Of the myriad of ways in which the original idea has been modified for the domestic Chinese audience, a few stood out. Applehans recalled that he originally wrote Din’s mother based on a strict Asian-American model but that the first question asked by the Chinese staff after reading her parts was: “Why is the mom so nice?” Additionally, Warner pointed out that what the American staff thought was a small apartment was, “at least four times too big,” for a character in Din’s situation.
The most touching moment of the conference was when Applehans discussed who he believed his audience was. “We would go up to strangers [in Shanghai] and ask: ‘If you had three wishes, what would they be?’” adding the caveat that the wishes must be for their kids. The answers were always the same: ‘I want them to get a good job, make a lot of money, and have a nice apartment.’”
Applehans then asked kids what their three wishes would be, which received a much broader range of answers, but one in particular stuck out. “He was just quiet for five minutes thinking so hard about it, like it was real. He looked up at me and he said: ‘I wish my parents were younger so I could live more of my life with them.’ I thought about this kid who was such a fragile soul and him going into this world that is changing so fast, and I felt like right then I knew whom I was making the movie for.”
“Wish Dragon” will be a contemporary retelling of the Aladdin fable set in modern day China. All of the key elements of the tale will be present, with additional sub-plots added to speak directly to the target Chinese audience.
The main character, Din, is a young man raised by his single working class mother. One day Din stumbles across a dingy jade tea pot which hosts a magical wish dragon, Long, who will grant Din three wishes. Despite his centuries of existence, Long has gained little wisdom about the world and how it works, and really only values gold. The dragon is only visible to Din, a vehicle which will be delivering moments of comedy throughout the film.
After accidentally using his first wish to make himself a kung-fu master, Din shirks conventional wish-usage wisdom and decides he will use his remaining wishes to reconnect with his childhood best friend and would-be soul-mate, Li Na. Long is incredulous towards the fact that Din would use his wishes so carelessly and just wants him to make the wishes as each wish dragon must serve 10 masters before they are allowed to return to the spirit world, and Din is Long’s 10th.
While the as-to-be expected love story is key, the creators emphasize that equally as important will be the relationship of Din and Long, and the way in which they help each other grow.
The film has a tentative release window of late-summer 2019, an ambitious date for a fledgling company, but one for which they are sure they will be ready. “I’ve worked on films that didn’t even have a script at 15 months. I have no doubt we can do this,” asserted Warner.