Making Films, Wigs and Special Effects Among the Rice Paddies by Peripatete


My driver is as unfamiliar with the roads that weave through Bangli’s outlying areas as I am, so we stop and ask for directions to Abuan at least a dozen times before we spot a building the size of an airplane hangar looking entirely out of place among the fields, compounds and temples. And yet, this nondescript facility and surrounding structures is home to a global and multi-faceted business that has been thriving among Bali’s rice paddies for nearly two decades: workshops that produce wigs, costumes, special effects and makeup cases, and a film studio with state-of-the-art equipment.

Swiss-born Orlando Bassi, 48, stands in the middle of a small windowless room surrounded by shelves full of tripods, spotlights, film cameras and related paraphernalia. Despite being dressed in black from head to foot, a pair of red suspenders provides the first clue to his boundless energy and creativity. Bassi places his hand on a piece of heavy black machinery and smiles. “I was 16 when I visited a commercial video. I was sitting on a dolly and said I want to have something like this. But they cost one hundred thousand dollars. It was clear that I would never get one.”

Not only did he eventually get a dolly, but three years ago, Bassi built the first professional quality film studio on the island. “Movie Studio Bali was always my dream,” says Bassi. “I always wanted to have a studio.”

But Bassi’s Bali story begins long before he broke ground on a film studio in Bangli.

He was a makeup artist working on productions in Europe when he recognized a need in the theater industry for more readily available wigs. So Bassi established a company in his hometown of Buchs, Switzerland, to fill in that gap. He sought out affordable wig suppliers around Asia – mainly in Korea, until production moved to China – at which point Bassi balked, backed out and lost his investment. Eventually his searches led him to Surabaya and Java, where he found a company processing hair; and to Bali, where a Dutch company was making wigs for the entertainment industry in the Netherlands.
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During his frequent visits to Bali he befriended an employee of the Puri Indah Resort (currently Arma Resort) where he stayed. Nengah worked at the reception desk, organized a car for Bassi, and showed him around the island. “When we first met, Nengah always pushed me to build a hotel,” says Bassi. “But I told him I wasn’t interested in hotels and didn’t have enough money.”

When Bassi became frustrated with the local company he had commissioned to create wigs, he asked Nengah to set up shop with him instead. “It took nearly a year until Nengah agreed. He always said ‘I have to talk about it with my family.’ And I always wondered ‘why can’t he just say yes or no?’ Nengah eventually signed on and organized all the paperwork; but it would take time until Bassi began to appreciate the importance in Bali of involving the family and banjar in many aspects of his business.

He also had to find a way to navigate through the uncertainties of Balinese culture. “At the beginning with ceremonies, we accepted everything. Then we tightened the rules because our standards are for the highest levels of wig-making in the world. But it’s against the Balinese concept (jam karet), if you make it today or tomorrow they don’t care. But if we say today, then it has to be today, because the FedEx truck is coming and it has to leave today.”

Over the years, Nengah has come to understand the importance of clear delivery times. “Because in America and Europe there is no Galungan.”

Even today, Bassi admits, “it’s always a compromise between religion and the company.”

In 1998, with an investment of $10,000, hand-made drawings and a building measuring 150 square meters, Bassi and Nengah launched Sari Rambut. Then, Nengah’s hotel co-worker, Wayan, joined in and the two men were invited to Switzerland for four months of intensive training – in wig-making. “It was unbelievable!” exclaims Bassi. “The first week that they both made wigs that were of high enough quality to be used. That was, to me, very surprising, because when I trained other people, they needed forever just to learn the knotting technique.”

Nengah was surprised himself. “I had never used a sewing machine before.”

This lack of experience, that many would consider a handicap, was to Bassi an advantage. “That’s what is very good about the Balinese. They already have the feeling of craft-making in their hands because they learned it in a way. You don’t have to teach that. It’s very easy, you show them something, they see it and they can copy it.”

When Nengah and Wayan returned from Switzerland, Bassi hired ten villagers – also without sewing experience – who apprenticed under the Balinese men. But with limited access to electricity – “maybe two hours a week” – Bassi decided to invest in a manual sewing machine instead. By 2005, with almost forty employees and an expanding base of customers overseas, the company needed larger facilities. More structures were added, more staff was trained.

A couple of spin-off companies were also getting off to a good (if not shaky) start: Tas Merah (Red Bag), a company that produces high quality make-up cases and related accessories; and Tiga-D (3-D), the special effects branch of the company. “Tiga-D started when a client came to Bali to do wigs,” says Bassi. “He wanted a dragon nose and dragon ears from foam, but he had no time. I said we can try to do it here. So we bought the materials locally and made the nose and ears. That was the beginning. And now, we make special effects for films and theater.”

As for Tas Merah, Bassi is proud of his achievements in the face of stiff competition from China. “Here, one bag is made by one person. It takes a lot longer and you can’t do mass production. But I believe that the quality is better and the soul of the bag is different.” His talk of a bag’s soul is intentional, because he sees it as an extension of the employee who produced it. “We will start maybe already this year to customize each bag, with the name and picture of the person who makes it. You can even go online to read the story about this girl who made the bag. We want to show that we pay them well, they have a good environment and the way they make the bags isn’t under the same pressure as someone who has to make 1000 zippers in one day.”

With such a philosophy, it’s not surprising that employee satisfaction at Sari Rambut is high. “Some people have a real passion for the company,” says Bassi. “They understand and are proud of what they do.” Bagus, the operations manager and longtime employee, doesn’t mind the long drive up to the office from Denpasar every day.?? “You can’t get a job like this in the city.”

As for Nengah, he readily acknowledges that other jobs are available –for himself and the other employees. “I can be a tour guide or work for another company. But I put myself into this place. It’s already in my blood.”

For Bassi, gaining recognition as the biggest wig manufacturer for theater and film industry in the world comes with the responsibility of providing the highest quality hair for his wigs. To ensure that he can meet his clients’ stringent specifications, he stocks a massive inventory of hair – boxes of real and processed hair piled from floor to ceiling. Animal hair – yak, camel, buffalo – is mostly used for historical hairstyles, while horse hair is used – rolled, boiled, colored, brushed and wefted – into barrister wigs that are regularly used in the UK, Malaysia, Australia and some Arabic countries. “We’re the only company that still produces barrister wigs for England.”

“But mostly we use human hair,” says Bassi. “We have Indian hair, Indonesian hair, Brazilian, European.”

Hair dealers based in the Ukraine, Russia, Brazil, India and now also around Indonesia, collect and ship boxes of hair to Bassi. “The Brazilian guy jumps into the UN staff cars when they visit the villages. He has a book of photos of girls that cut their hair. He offers them to cut and sell their hair, and shows them how they will look. Sometimes they agree or maybe have to meet with their family; sometimes the whole village comes together to discuss.” The dealer avoids paying cash for hair because of his concern that the money will be misspent. “If there are 20 or 30 women who want to cut their hair, they might get a roof built, a water pump installed. So for example cutting hair of 20 women is equal to one thousand dollars, but instead of the money the hair collector will help to build something for the village.”

From hair-collecting and wig-making, the leap to costume-making, special effects and makeup cases entailed little risk. But daring to set up a full-fledged movie studio in Bali was another matter; Bassi had to exercise a little more audacity, and to believe that it would pay off at some point. An American director planted the seed when they collaborated on a film in Jakarta. “He said that it would be great to shoot in a studio with a special effects place right next door.” With his FX workshop already in place, Bassi built the Bali Movie Studio and used his money to buy cameras, lights and equipment to outfit the place.

Now commercials, films and music videos are produced in his studio. In the works are horror films such as Bali Vampire and Spiderville – about a Balinese village where the locals worship oversized spiders and humans are sacrificed as offerings. English-language childrens’ television series are also in development, including original stories about travel, adventure – and a submarine. An onsite post-production facility is also on the drawing board.

Meanwhile, Bassi continues to furnish wigs, costumes and special effects (silicon-made bloodied-looking body parts are sprawled out on shelves in the workshop) to an ever-growing client base across the globe that includes Broadway (42nd Street, Les Miserables, Wicked), London’s West End, Amsterdam’s Opera and Ballet, and Hollywood (10,000 BC, Hercules, Doomsday and the recently-released blockbuster Exodus).

Not bad at all for a man whose youthful dreams once consisted of owning a single piece of movie-making equipment – and who would never have imagined that his dream would take root at the edge of a Balinese ride paddy.

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