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A still from "Harry Potter." [Photo: douban]If you are asked to name movies that provided a visual feast, you may think of Harry Potter movies, Transformers, and perhaps Spider-Man.
If you're a fan of these films, you might want to know something they have in common. They are all part of the legacy of Digital Domain Productions. Imaginary worlds are brought to photorealistic life with the help of this company's special effects technology.
Soon, it seems more and more Chinese stories will begin to benefit from their talent as well, since Beijing's Galloping Horse Group purchased the company at auction in September and signed a cooperation contract early this month.
Bundling the bucks
By ponying-up $30.2 million, Beijing-based Galloping Horse and Mumbai-based Reliance MediaWorks successfully bought Digital Domain, one of the leading visual effects and animation companies in the world, as well as its subsidiary Mothership Media and certain other core technologies and businesses. The two media companies will divide their prize in a 70/30 split with Galloping Horse holding the reigns of the larger portion.
Founded by Titanic film director James Cameron in 1993, Digital Domain is responsible for the effects in more than 90 movies, such as The Fifth Element and The Day After Tomorrow.
At a press conference on November 4 in Beijing, Ed Ulbrich, current CEO of Digital Domain, said he thinks the joint venture is meaningful as he believes Galloping Horse and Reliance not only have strong influence in the world entertainment industry, but also a good knowledge about the former business of Digital Domain.
Training teams in China
In an interview with entertainment news portal ent.sina.com.cn, Zhong Lifang, vice chairman and managing director of Galloping Horse said her major reason for purchasing Digital Domain is to "train special effects teams in China." She noted that China does not lack good themes or good creators for films, but China is decades behind technologically. "What we did can help [movie technology in China] jump to a very high level in a very short time." She explained currently some high-qualified Chinese movies are taken abroad for post-production special effects.
Liu Jiarui, a digital artist in Shanghai, told the Global Times in a phone interview that the Chinese movie industry only lacks advanced techniques.
Liu's opinion is supported by movie critic Ge Yin, who used the example of Chan Kaige's 2005 movie The Promise. "Many in the audience felt the special effects were too fake, especially the scene with a herd of bulls running… it looks like they are suspended in air [and pretending] to run," Ge said.
Similar trouble happened to Wu Ershan's Painted Skin II. As the Oriental Morning Post reported, Wu did not give a high score for the special effects in that movie, due to things like the computer-generated bear that does not look lifelike when it moves. It is "due to a lack of understanding and technical ability [of domestic special effects groups.] The results fall far short of expectations," he said.
An uphill climb
Despite Zhong's roadmap to a bright future, Zhu Yuming, general manager of China 3D Digital Entertainment, seems more conservative.
"The influence will not be too big," he told the Global Times. "It can help to stimulate the development of domestic special effects groups and companies, and make media and insiders pay attention to the weak link within the Chinese movie industry, but it's like Geely purchasing Volvo. It will not bring too many changes to the domestic industry chain or its layout."
Mu Wu, a freelancer with the movie website mtime.com, agreed.
"According to what Galloping Horse said, they will keep the core business of Digital Domain, which means Digital Domain will still be an American company. That makes it no different than what it was. To see it from the management angle, it is the right decision - a big change would cause significant damage to the company's credibility," he wrote. "So, in the very long term, the major business of Digital Domain will still be in Hollywood. The level of special effects in Chinese movies and Hollywood films will not have fundamental changes due to this deal."
Mu further noted that the movies in China are visually dissatisfying not only due to limited technology, but more importantly due to a lack of imagination.
Effects industry in transition
Before being bought by Galloping Horse and Reliance, Digital Domain (with assets totaling $205 million) was sitting on debts totaling nearly $215 million, according to Reuters.
Yet this dilemma does not only limit Digital Domain. Most other big special effects companies around the world have faced or are in the same boat.
Three months ago, Matte World Digital announced it would close after almost a quarter century in business. The following month,Fuel VFX, an Australian special effects company that once worked for Prometheus, also announced bankruptcy.
According to Mu's analysis, these closures are not only due to high cost inherent to the industry but also the rise of small competitors.
He noted that unlike most filming projects, which only need to gather staff like directors, actors, and technical personnel when a movie is ready to shoot, special effect companies have to keep their employees all the time, because a good special effect team comes out after years of training and melding together.
Besides, as the technology has developed, what once could only be done by technicians can now be accomplished with software, which can be purchased by small companies. In such circumstances, the deep talent pool of the big companies is no longer an advantage.
"Though the effects [done by small companies] are not as perfect as those done by top companies, the difference is not that big," Mu noted. "Who cares about the difference between facial skin and lip skin of the alien engineer in Prometheus, or who can tell the degree of realism in the light refraction of spider silk in Spider-Man?"
"For the general audience, the current special effect technology is good enough… the gap between top companies and small companies is narrowing," he wrote.
Troubles like these don't go away just because a company like Digital Domain changes owners.
"With its current production and power, Galloping Horse is not able to provide enough business to run Digital Domain, so it needs to re-plan its development," Zhu said. "Whether they can make the company profitable remains to be seen."
Zhu also said that Galloping Horse is not planning to enter the special effects market with the purchase, but more importantly aims to enforce its own market competitiveness and logistical chain.
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