Spotlight on VFX

As the scale and complexity of visual effects for major studio titles continue to rise, the VFX industry has had to become truly global to cope with demand, with producers keen to locate projects where financial advantages make most sense. It is the UK, however, that remains the centre for the production and post of the biggest film and TV shows, with its winning combination of financial incentives, dedicated facilities and world-leading talent.

Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk helped spend on film production in the UK reach a record $1.94bn (£1.6bn) in 2016, a 13% increase on the previous year.

“The UK is a trusted brand for all aspects of film production, from set construction and lighting design to post,” says Antony Hunt, CEO of VFX studio Cinesite.

“The UK has been a centre of excellence for film creation for a number of years and is seen as a world leader in the depth and resource of its VFX community,” adds Matt Fox, Framestore’s global joint managing director for film. The UK’s digital prowess grew on the back of a strong physical production presence, stemming from the late 1970s when films such as Star Wars, Superman and Alien shot in British studios.

“The directors making those movies were among the first to seed the idea of visual effects as part of the filmmaking process, as opposed to a post service,” says Fox. “It also positioned the UK culturally as a place where production and post disciplines merge.”

During the decade between the first and last films in the Harry Potter franchise (2001-11), the UK’s VFX scene grew from cottage industry to global powerhouse and work traditionally destined for the US west coast was channelled to London. “It’s clear from speaking to executives in Mumbai, Los Angeles or Beijing that there’s a great respect for the level of polish and finishing that our VFX community is able to put on production,” says Will Cohen, CEO at Milk VFX, which was one of five UK houses involved in the creation of around 1,500 shots for Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them.

The English language plays a part, of course, as does London’s vibrancy. Soho’s geography remains unique too, with all the facilities, screening rooms and networking available in a buzzing square mile, and the supportive fiscal environment created by the government’s film and high-end TV tax reliefs has undoubtedly underscored interest.

Small-screen demand

In recent times, demand for UK VFX has heightened even further. The increasingly advantageous dollar-topound exchange rate following the EU referendum in June 2016 has made the UK even better value for US studios. Meanwhile, the unprecedented volume of high-end drama being commissioned by Amazon, Netflix, HBO and Starz — in turn prompting UK-based networks such as Sky to follow suit — has put demand for homegrown VFX at an all-time high.

“Not only has everyone upped their game but producers have become more educated about what VFX can achieve,” says Rob Harvey, creative director of Lola Post, which is responsible for VFX on TV series Ripper Street and Fortitude. Harvey was also part of the Oscar-winning team at Mill Film, which made Gladiator in 2000. “At the time it was perceived as a massive VFX film, but it only contained 80 shots of the sort that you could do now for BBC One,” he says.

Budgets have also risen in line with creative ambition, driving more VFX specialists to work on TV projects hand-in-hand with features.

Framestore, Oscar-nominated for its work on Doctor Strange, re-opened a TV division late last year. “There’s more creative work being done in TV VFX and budgets are increasing,” says Fox. “The crossover between film pipelines and the ability to leverage large amounts of VFX data means we felt well-placed to grow this part of our business.”

“The quality bar for VFX for TV is being raised all the time,” says Duncan McWilliam, CEO of Outpost, which is working on 10-part Sky Atlantic series Tin Star. “From creature design to set extensions, the type of work and skills, the pipeline and the goals are indivisible from film. You are just spreading the work over 10 one-hour films rather than one single one.”

Boutique facility One Of Us created 500 shots on Netflix’s The Crown, the company’s first long-form TV project after a decade handling sequences for features such as Everest and Assassin’s Creed. “Much of the work was on large-scale environments such as set extensions for Buckingham Palace, using the same workflow we’d establish for any film,” says head of production Matt Bristowe.

In some areas, such as posting at 4K resolution, TV is technologically ahead of features where 2K (HD) is the norm. “We’re working with a Hollywood VFX supervisor on their first major TV series and having to talk them through the challenge of handling 4K,” says Cohen. “Most major international TV series are being shot 4K.”

Global teamwork

The sheer amount of content being created and its increasing complexity calls for VFX to be a global industry. As a gauge, the films that ushered in the era of computer-generated imagery — Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Jurassic Park — each contained around 50 VFX shots. By comparison, 2015’s top-performing release, Jurassic World, boasted 2,000, and 2016’s Captain America: Civil War topped 3,000.

These volumes are becoming routine and in a decade will likely look as insignificant as those from movies of the 1990s. A single VFX house, even one with the size and track record of ILM or Double Negative (DNeg), is unlikely to complete a feature of such scale alone.

As an example, while ILM shares work on each Star Wars film roughly 50/50 between its North American and London operations, portions of that work are further distributed to other houses. Jellyfish Pictures performed the bulk of post-visualisation — a method of helping directors and executives achieve quicker decisions on final shots — for Gareth Edwards’ 2016 hit Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. “We had a crack team of five artists working nine months solidly, and out of that we landed 150 VFX shots in the movie as well,” says Phil Dobree, the firm’s CEO. Jellyfish —which also worked on Netflix’s Black Mirror — is currently subcontracted to Lucasfilm, Disney and ILM for The Last Jedi, as is One Of Us.

“With any large show, there will be the huge sequences of mass destruction or spacecraft alongside smaller standalone sequences,” says Bristowe. “That’s good for artists at smaller houses like ours whose voice may get lost in the machine working on projects [using a large number of VFX staff].”

Lola Post is one of a number of facilities that worked on space thriller Life, for which DNeg had the lion’s share. “We’re often brought in near deadline to work on a particular scene as a safe pair of hands,” says Harvey.

Working on scenes for Jason Bourne and Nocturnal Animals (for which it performed digital de-aging on Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal) helped Outpost gain attention, believes McWilliam. It too landed shots on Life and The Mercy.

For producers and VFX supervisors, distributing shots among multiple facilities spreads the risk should schedules change. The strategy also allows a production to tap certain niche specialisms in creature work or environments and is designed to maximise tax credits in different parts of the world. “Tax breaks are one of many issues at play in developing a project,” says Milk’s Cohen. “Awarding VFX contracts is about getting the best bang for buck but is also determined by the needs of the story, whether nearby locations are used and what the other financial arrangements are.”

“The reality is that incentives don’t really force a massive sea change in the location of VFX, since work has to be married to a talent pool,” says Fox. “You can transfer post to a place where production may be cheaper, only to find that it costs twice as much when the work is done poorly.”

The talent pool may be international but the sheer amount and variety of work coming into the UK means there’s no difficulty finding crew or scaling up with world-class craft skills.

“We can cherry-pick the best talent from around the world to do specialist shots, rather than overloading one facility,” says Christian Manz, VFX supervisor on Warner Bros’ Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. “You get different ways of working by plugging into different cultures. You get a European sensibility.”

The UK industry has every intention of retaining its global outlook post-Brexit, and this is particularly relevant within the VFX sector. Organisations such as the British Film Commission, the BFI and the UK Screen Alliance have ensured VFX skills capacity is front-and-centre in post-Brexit planning, and this emphasis has been reinforced by UK prime minister Theresa May who, in January 2017, announced the creative sector will be one of the five areas central to the government’s post-Brexit strategy.

“Our workforce is a global team,” says Bristowe. “I believe London will be able to attract the highest level of talent working at all levels of filmmaking in the future.”

There is also the peculiarly British character to consider. “Brits have historically been good at science, invention and art but we’re naturally very reasonable when it comes to settling and solving problems,” says Outpost’s McWilliam. “When budgets go wrong and shots aren’t going to plan, we offer a polite calmness rather than a hot-headedness, which does not go unappreciated.

Virtual production takes root

A scene in Disney’s The Nutcracker And The Four Realms (2018) features a castle with a bridge extending into the foreground. Shooting against green screen with a partial set of the castle gate, director Lasse Hallström and cinematographer Linus Sandgren could see both live action and virtual world on monitors to better frame and light the shot. Actors including Keira Knightley could respond intuitively to the CG backgrounds and characters on set, while the crew could share in the decision making.

Virtual production techniques like this are increasingly common for productions requiring any degree of interaction between live action and virtual worlds. The process makes filmmaking nonlinear, collapsing the previously segmented disciplines of pre-production, shoot and post.

“The main benefit now is that a DoP and director can view virtual assets in real time as part of principal photography, allowing them to make decisions there and then rather than having to wait weeks for shots in post,” says Hugh Macdonald, VFX supervisor at Nvizible, which provided the virtual production workflow for The Nutcracker. “Over time, the quality of the virtual worlds on set will improve to the point where it will be indistinguishable from the final result.”

The high-water marks for the technique are Avatar, Gravity and The Jungle Book, the latter earning Moving Picture Company (MPC) the 2017 Academy Award for best visual effects.

“The scale, complexity and profile of work was unprecedented for us,” says MPC CEO Mark Benson. “It will become a reference point for photoreal characters, sets and virtual production workflow for the industry. Virtual production is a global initiative, but the UK is playing a prominent part in developing the merger of virtual elements with action in real time.”

Project Dreamspace, a pan-European effort led by UK VFX tools developers The Foundry and Ncam, aims to take the technology a stage further. “We are interested in how camera technology is going to change in the future,” says Jon Wadelton, chief technology officer of The Foundry. “What happens when we are able to record the depth of every pixel on set and have that made available to an artist in post-production?”

“Once we understand the xyz co-ordinates of each pixel in a scene, we can get the real and virtual to interact even more,” says Nic Hatch, CEO of Ncam. “We can map the shadow an actor would cast on a virtual object or have them interact fluently with, and move around, virtual objects. The implications of fully realised interaction between digital and real on storytelling have barely been explored.”

Flexible funding

The UK boasts world-class studios as well as stunning and diverse locations but, to ensure flexibility for filmmakers, there is no obligation within tax relief rules to carry out all production activity in the UK. It is possible to qualify for the credit by carrying out elements of the production process in the UK, including VFX and post, as long as the 10% minimum spend is achieved and projects qualify as British.

Recent productions taking advantage of this include Disney’s The Jungle Book, which was shot on a Los Angeles soundstage with its Oscar winning visual effects handled by Moving Picture Company (MPC) in the UK.

Warner Bros’ disaster movie Geostorm based much of its considerable VFX work at Double Negative and Framestore in London, despite the script requiring Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern shooting locations.

Fox’s Alien: Covenant, which was shot on soundstages in Sydney, also used the UK VFX/post-only model to qualify; the film’s 1,400-plus VFX shots were managed largely by Framestore and MPC. “It’s always been to our advantage to post in the UK, especially on such a large VFX project as this,” says producer Mark Huffam. “You have to spend at least 10% of the film’s budget on UK post to qualify for credits and then pass the cultural test which in the case of Alien: Covenant [led by UK director Ridley Scott] we did very efficiently. The UK has some of the best VFX talent in the world and everything worked really well.”

It is not only features that can take advantage of this flexibility within the UK’s tax relief regime — major TV dramas that have used the structure include Carnival’s The Last Kingdom (Blue Bolt) and Skydance’s Altered Carbon (Double Negative TV).

In addition to VFX/post costs qualifying for the UK film and highend TV tax reliefs, the prorated ‘neutral’ costs qualifying costs that are spread throughout the production process, including producers, writers, director, insurances, etc will also qualify so long as activity is based in the UK. For example, if VFX/post costs amount to 20% of the total core expenditure, 20% of ‘neutral’ costs will also qualify when activity is based in the UK.

The Human Effect, words by Adrian Pennington, was originally published in UK in Focus 2017 in association with Screen International.

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