A Foreign Film Producer’s Experience in China
—Dialogue with John Dietz

John Dietz, a respected visual effects supervisor, producer and executive level manager. He has led teams in the USA, Australia, and China on movies that range from studio blockbusters to micro budget independents.

John began his career with Oscar winning studio Rhythm & Hues in Los Angeles on films such as “Babe”, “Mouse Hunt”, “Green Mile” and “Hollow Man”. John later joined Rising Sun Pictures, where he became the Senior VFX Supervisor, as well as time spent in the roles of Head of Production and VFX Producer on the “Harry Potter Series”, “Charlotte’s Web”, “Where The Wild Things Are”, “Terminator 4”, “28 Weeks Later”, “Hunger Games”, “Wolverine” and many more.

Since 2012, John has worked in Beijing and has creatively produced, supervised or consulted on projects such as Jiang Wen’s “Gone With The Bullets”, Sun Zhou’s “Impossible”, John Woo’s “The Crossing”, Xu Zheng’s “Lost In Hong Kong”, Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Wolf Totem”, Renny Harlin’s “Skiptrace”, and “League Of Gods”.

John also established BangBang Pictures in Beijing to provide breakthrough Visual Effects and filmmaking technology to Asia’s visionary filmmakers.

Before his speech on 7th International Conference & Exhibition on Visual Entertainment,held by AICFVE (Advanced Innovation Center for Future Visual Entertainment), Chinese Film Market had a chance to interview Mr. John Dietz. He told us about his working experience in China and his understanding about Chinese film market.

 

CFM: When did you begin to become interested in the Chinese film market? Why did you establish your company in China?

John Dietz: My background is working as VFX supervisor and as a VFX producer for over 20 years on many Hollywood films. My work in China began about 9 years ago, when we traveled here to shoot a couple of films here.

At that time it was obvious that the Chinese Film market was growing. We had started to develop our own movies and we had optioned some books for adaptation. The writers of these books were Americans, but they were telling Chinese stories. At that time we were looking to do co-productions, so we started to come back and forth between the west to China. We went into the film festivals to meet the Chinese filmmakers for collaborations, which a lot of producers were trying to do.

My main experience is in visual effects, so even though we were developing our own films, Chinese filmmakers were asking us for technical advice. So over time we began to get to know these Chinese filmmakers pretty well. Obviously, its really hard to make a VFX heavy movie and the filmmakers needed technical help. So we started to work more and more on Chinese projects in different capacities like consulting, supervising and producing. Four years ago, I decided to move here full time. Since then I have been fortunate enough to work on films with some very good Chinese directors.

Our goal is to do better work for the market, that’s why we started the company. We keep the same people and equipment and follow the same systems and processes film after film, so we won’t keep making the same mistakes. We find ways to work, supply more value, more ability for Chinese filmmakers to make better films. That’s the nature of the company.

VFX heavy films are forming a whole new film genre by combining Superhero, Sci-Fi and high concept films with Chinese culture. For VFX heavy films in China, the future is interesting and exciting. Together we will make movies that are very different, and they will be quite cool. That’s why I am here.

 

CFM: You just mentioned that the work process would cause the same mistakes or difficulties. Would you describe what kind of problem you probably met when you were working with the Chinese filmmakers?

John Dietz: I feel the business model for Chinese VFX films is quite different from the west. A producer may have one million RMB, and negotiate for a vfx vendor to do all the work. Over time, the work scope grows, until the workload gets too much, which causes huge conflicts. The business model in the west is not like this. The western producers focus on managing and then economically spending the money for the needs of the film. That’s one fundamental thing that needs to change and is actually already changing. I am dedicated to find the solution for this market.

The second issue is the overall lack of experience in making VFX heavy films. Sometimes the filmmakers go to the VFX people, and that VFX team may tell the filmmakers the wrong thing because they lack experience. This causes the filmmakers to not trust Chinese VFX in general. Both filmmakers and VFX teams don’t always have the ability or experience to work collaboratively together, so that has to be learned, and it takes time.

Another challenge is that VFX creative execution is impacted by cultural storytelling. Often the tone to a film, or the idea of a film are different in the west from in China. If you only take the concept of a western film like: “Inception” or a really high-concept movie and set it in China, the audience will think you are cheating, and may ask why you are doing a western film here in China. These Chinese genre films need to be developed, the world has to be created from the ground up. That takes a lot of research and dedication to how we build this world and the relationships between characters that can believably exist in that world. That takes a lot of work from a very early stage.

 

CFM: What are the difficulties and challenges for Chinese films using visual effects?

John Dietz: There are tons of issues: There is a lack experience; Visual effects by nature are very complicated; If you do it in the cheap place, you get the cheap work; Lots of relationship need to be dealt with. If there is no trust, how can we possibly work together with the intention to make the best film possible within the budget?

A lot of films made in China do make decisions based on money, with the intention to get the money back fast. These decisions make the process more complicated. I try to find partners that care about making a good movie. When we all have the same goal, making the best movie possible within the budget, then we can start to build trust and work together in the same direction.

Filmmaking is very important, it’s hard work and it takes time. Filmmakers all do their work a certain way, and we do work different here in China. We must try to understand each other, and that takes a lot of effort, but that’s a good thing! The movie “League of Gods” impacted me a lot. I was one of the few westerners working on the project. I understand people did not like the movie. We didn’t consider the Chinese audience enough, as the entire group in making that movie. We weren’t thinking enough about what the audience wanted. A lot of design in this movie was to make it feel more “worldly”. But it turned out to be a bad decision, it should have been more Chinese.

Time was another issue… we really needed more time. It’s a very complicated movie to make. We were trying to make everything special and different, but it was too much. We didn’t think about the cultural differences enough. Some parts need to be special and the rest need to be comfortable with the audience. We learned a lot from making this movie.

 

CFM: Would you like to introduce some important projects that your company has involved with recently?

John Dietz: We have four projects with great directors and great teams, so we’re doing exciting work. We have also optioned a few of our own scripts, and we are developing our own IP properties as well. More specifically, we work with the local directors of Chinese film in China, and we supply them with the whole tech process and the effects. The VFX work naturally leads into story boarding and precis and creatively building the film. From pre-production we manage the shoot and then all of post-production. We manage the whole process. When we meet a really hard technical or creative challenge, we tend to go overseas and help find solutions. We also work closely with the local companies to help them work alongside international talent. Our challenge is how do we keep the international companies within budget lines and technically how do we make it work here in China.

With this process the locals get better because they see the benchmark, and westerners are going to learn about Chinese culture. The locals are exposed to more of the western techniques; That’s our focus, trying to improve local talent and companies in the market, and give access for western talent to the Chinese market. In doing these two things we can hopefully bring a good representation of Chinese talent and Chinese culture to the west.

 

CFM: Now Chinese films are talking about how to meet the international audiences and markets. Would you like to give some advice for Chinese filmmakers?

John Dietz: I think Chinese filmmakers should not focus on the international market. They should focus on the local market, and really know the audience well. For genre films like superhero or science fiction or high concept, the Chinese Filmmakers should really focus on making a film that is made for the Chinese audience.

If you try to make a film for both Chinese and western audiences, there is no way creatively to target both, it’s too different. Right now, many movies are money decisions. We use VFX to focus on science fiction and high-concept genre films, and how to take those elements and build the world that a Chinese audience believes is Chinese story.

If you do that, I think it can be very different, a whole new style of film. After we have that new style, I hope it becomes interesting for the international market and our films can cross over. Other films in the market will follow that direction and that can set the tone for future movies to build upon.

 

CFM: Would you like to explain how the technical standard has changed in recent years? What is the next breakthrough in VFX technological development?

John Dietz: When we shoot film, we go to location, with actor and actress, and camera, and then put them on the set. You put the camera front of them, and you capture the image. I believe the next major step is 3D scanning over time. It’s not just capturing data, it likes a scanning all the dimensions of what’s on set. So there is idea of new technologies to capture more data from the shot. Improving the tech going from the real world into the digital world. This gives us more ability to do more digital work later. One example is using data to drive a robot like motion control. There is the real world and the digital world. The future is the space in between, and how we go back and forth from digital to real, different tools and with different techniques. These tools are very new, and we don’t know what the next generation will be, but the more data you can transfer between real and digital, the power you will have in iterating and therefore making a better film.

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