T-Rex, Shaq and Shanghai: MPC’s First Six Months in the Middle Kingdom
Global VFX powerhouse MPC’s expansion into China shows that despite considerable challenges, opportunities are there for the taking.
By all appearances, China continues to be a fertile ground for the advertising industry. With brands still willing to spend big and creative briefs becoming more ambitious, the domestic market is an attractive proposition for post-production houses looking to capitalize on the demand for high-end visual effects services. The latest major player to move in the marketplace is MPC, who this year on January 8th continued their international expansion by opening their 10th worldwide office in Shanghai.
MPC, a Technicolor company, has consistently won the highest industry awards for both their commercial and feature film work, having a hand in household-name blockbusters like Godzilla, the Harry Potter franchise, X-Men, Prometheus and Life of Pi. The global visual effects leader has facilities in London, Vancouver, Montréal, Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam, Paris, Bangalore, Mexico City and now, Shanghai.
Six months into their life in China’s commercial capital, MPC Shanghai general manager Steven Marolho spoke frankly about the company’s China objectives, the challenges the studio faces building their business base and how they are enjoying life in the Chinese advertising industry.
The new Shanghai studio will be solely focused on producing commercials. While Beijing is the home of moviemaking in China, Shanghai is the commercial heart, with the highest concentration of creative agencies, fashion and design brands in China. The city is an exciting place to be in 2015. With the creative atmosphere frequently compared with that of Paris in the 1930s, there is vibrancy within the arts and industry, particularly amongst advertising agencies, who are beginning to spread their wings and express themselves.
According to Marolho, “Everyone is liberated. Directors, creatives and artists are all enjoying the process much more. That’s a big change. Good work propagates good work, so as the bar goes up, we can only expect more.”
It could be said that Shanghai is currently sitting in the creative sweet spot where budgets remain healthy, but economic growth has slowed to the point where clients are becoming more strategic with their resources. In other words they are demanding more bang for their buck – Marolho is keenly aware of this, having operated in the market since 2009. Says the GM, “Five or six years ago, sales were moving so fast, even tracking a campaign was hard. You wouldn’t do one ad every six months, you’d do 20. It felt like desire for a great, creative outcome was pretty low. As the economy slows, advertising gets smarter, it becomes more visible whether it’s making inroads or not. It’s more about the storytelling.”
However, it is only recently that production quality in China’s advertising industry has markedly improved. In previous years, the much-discussed stereotypes were all too true – uninspired work gave rise to unoriginal output, even direct copycat Chinese versions of western commercials. Storytelling was lazy and the visual effects were well below international standards. Through it all was a feeling that it didn’t really matter anyway, since the audience was relatively unsophisticated.
In recent years however, with access to the internet and video sharing sites becoming almost universal nationwide, and with the rapid growth of cinema screens in second, third and fourth tier cities, Chinese consumers are being increasingly exposed to the best that Hollywood visual effects and international commercial productions have to offer. Tastes are gradually becoming more sophisticated and with it there is a greater expectation of quality. As Marolho explains, “Expectations have changed enormously. The taste level of the market is becoming more mature and more informed. We always used to hear ‘But it’s China’, but now there are fewer separations between what is an international-looking commercial and a China-looking commercial. It’s more about staying on-brand than trying to appease a particular market.”
There are still creative hurdles to overcome. The sheer size and unpredictability of the Chinese consumer base means that for all the creative zeal, the risk associated with any radical new campaign is magnified, leading to a cautious tempering of ambition. Marolho has a pragmatic outlook. “The maturity of the market will go hand in hand with people at every level being inspired and confident.”
It’s here that MPC Shanghai intends to play a key role in bolstering the industry by inspiring confidence in clients and agencies that amazing results can be achieved. This, Marolho hopes, will embolden agencies to strive for more audacious campaigns. Referring to MPC’s recent Coca-Cola spot, featuring an impressive CG T-Rex, he suggests, “People will watch it and won’t believe it was done by a company in China because there’s no heritage. Bit by bit I hope we’ll inspire people to come up with more creative ideas that need visual effects because there’s a confidence it can be done.”
While China presents a major opportunity for post houses, it does bring with it significant challenges. First, there are cultural working differences. Production schedules in China can be extremely demanding and it is not unusual for staff to work nights and weekends and for clients to demand extra working days for free. Marolho suggests things are improving, but that with industry leading work comes expectations.
Progress in China can be slow. Clients typically require approval by a host of different decision makers. Campaigns often spend excessive time in discussion and not enough time in production. This is compounded by the relative inexperience of both brands and agency producers in dealing with computer generated imagery, which can lead to poor planning, failure to bring the post house on board early enough and insufficient time allocated for post-production.
“In China the schedule is one week, small job. Two weeks, middle job. Big job three to three and a half weeks,” says Marolho. “If it’s a complex job, there’s a lot to do. Every now and then you get a couple of months post, and they’re usually so big and crazy that the extended time is just to make you feel better. But we’ve had some wins. There have been quite a few situations where we’ve been involved early.”
One notable example was the MPC spot for Harbin beer. The commercial required that Shaquille O’Neal, Taiwanese rapper MC Hotdog and film stars Zhang Zhen and Sun Li Hong interact in the same space, even though in reality none of them were ever in the same room.
“Our VFX supervisor worked very carefully with the production company and director to break down the shots, to go onset to completely visually supervise the shoot, to take down all the material, then to do the pickup shoots with the star in Taiwan, then to fly to Atlanta to shoot Shaq. Then we had to bring all of that material back and have it match seamlessly,” explains Marolho. The spot has proved a valuable case study for what can be achieved with good planning, which is so often a problem on Chinese commercial productions.
“The best ways to teach people about the best process is through examples. When people see it they say, ‘We want that’ and we can explain how we did it. Without planning these things would never work.” Marolho continues, “As long as every company out here approves that the planning adds value, I think it’ll grow into a bigger part of everything. It’s always going to be a challenge because people seem to be very time-poor in China and sometimes that can affect the quality.”
MPC clearly understood the dangers of operating as a satellite and has invested heavily in equipment, software and people, building a self-contained, fully-equipped, fully-staffed studio on the ground in Shanghai. They are able to operate, for the most part, as a stand-alone entity, serving clients directly. Marolho is keen to drive home the point. “A lot of production companies have offered the world but really not backed it up locally. You need to be able to finish what you started in that shop without internet connectivity reliance, and without the time zone reliance. When you fail to deliver, it becomes evident that you’re not in control – and people don’t want to give their projects to people who aren’t in control.”
To that end, the studio has assembled a powerful workforce to back up the tech, with an experienced team overseeing the process. Marolho himself started in the Chinese post industry in 2009 as executive producer for Smoke & Mirrors, returning again in 2012 with Technicolor, before joining MPC at the beginning of 2015. Alongside him is executive producer Loris Paillier with 15 years in the industry including three in China and seven with BUF in Paris, and head of production Lily Li, who boasts 15 years local experience. All three know what it takes to succeed in the notoriously challenging China market, and bring with them a wealth of good guanxi, an invaluable asset in a market where personal relationships can make or break a business.
They have also put together a strong roster of senior artists from across Europe, the US and Australia, including lead colorist Vince Taylor from Melbourne, to complement the roles filled by local talent and producers. Any gaps in the team’s skillset are filled by individual artists within their other worldwide facilities or, if required, by bringing staff to China.
This significant investment in both creative and technological assets on the ground in Shanghai is at the core of MPC’s China strategy. Says Marolho, “This market needs to be taken seriously. It’s huge with massive potential. It’s got all the big brands, it’s got everything that everyone in the market could ever want. There might be some cultural and business practice differences, but in the end, if clients in China don’t know that you’re serious then why would they take you seriously?”
A key boon to having artists permanently based in China is that it allows for more communicative and collaborative personal relationships to develop between clients, production companies, directors and the artists themselves. One of the most important relationships is with the VFX supervisors. Unlike some post houses, at MPC, having a VFX supervisor onset is compulsory. As Marolho explains, “It’s part of the package. By going on to the set you take responsibility, which makes people more responsible. Directors love you for it. Strong relationships develop. When directors and supervisors click onset, it’s a great flow.”
Where budgets are healthy and opportunities are plentiful, there will inevitably be fierce competition for work. However, the studio is not in the business of “competing” or trying to snatch up jobs where they can. “The key thing is not how much you do, but can you do it well and can you deliver?” notes Marolho. “It’s about great work, great service, good relationships and then you deliver and deliver and keep delivering. We’ve never missed a delivery.”
Since their January launch, it’s been so far so good for MPC, with work coming thick and fast in their first half year. The studio has already completed jobs for fashion and beauty brands, a large proportion of the market, such as Lynx, L’Oreal and Levis, alongside automobile commercials for Volvo and Chang’An. Other high profile jobs have included campaigns for Chinese phone brand HTC Global, Sprite and a sumptuous passion project collaboration with New York installation artist Justin Cooper.
The Coca-Cola spot though, remains arguably their most high profile success story so far. The ambitious brief required creating and animating a photoreal dinosaur, integration effects and entire environments in just four weeks. On top of that the T-Rex was to perform in almost every shot and in daylight. According to Marolho, the studio jumped at the opportunity. “As a VFX company that does a lot of creature and character work, it’s exactly the sort of thing that we want to be involved with. The team pulled it off with support from the Los Angeles and Bangalore studios.
Marolho notes the significance of the achievement. “This is a Chinese created ad. It’s great for Chinese advertising, great for McCann [the advertising agency] and great for the Coca-Cola China team, to produce work which their counterparts in other market are saying, ‘I wish we’d done this.’ For us it is a milestone.”