Spotlight on Special Effects

In 2016, and for the first time, UK expertise dominated the Academy Award nominations for visual effects. Cinesite (The Revenant) and Moving Picture Company (MPC) with Framestore (The Martian) – assisted by The Senate with additional effects by Atomic Arts and Milk – were both nominated, as was Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which was supervised by UK artists stationed at ILM London and included the practical-effects prowess of Chris Corbould [see sidebar]. The incredible effects of winning picture Ex Machina – which included transforming Alicia Vikander into an android with visible moving parts – were handled by Double Negative (Dneg) and Milk.

This is far from a fluke, with home-grown vendors having won six Academy Awards (from 10 nominations) in the last 11 years. The Oscar trail blazed by Framestore on The Golden Compass (2008) continued with lead VFX responsibility by Dneg for Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2011), Life of Pi (2013, Moving Picture Company), Gravity (2014, Framestore) and Interstellar (2015, Dneg), culminating – at the time of writing – in the 2016 win for Dneg’s Ex Machina.

“One of the benefits of the UK is that we are collectively very integrated,” says William Sargent, Framestore CEO and co-founder. “Foreign directors rely on British crews, from carpenters to VFX artists, because UK craft teams exhibit lateral thinking and collaborate as a very cohesive unit. Quite simply, studio executives, directors and DoPs like working here.”

It was London’s status as a European centre for commercial production in the early 1990s that incubated the first visual-effects businesses, which then became involved in film VFX as optical techniques were replaced by digital technologies.

“The approach to the work remained the same as these companies moved from VFX for commercials into VFX for features,” says Cinesite MD Antony Hunt. “Focusing on innovation and creative excellence, on very high-end technical accomplishment and, importantly, on businesses that were well managed and financially responsible.”

The Mill’s VFX Oscar win in 2001 for Gladiator signalled the UK’s arrival on the international scene, but the moment that truly reshaped the landscape was the decision by Warner Bros. to produce the Harry Potter franchise on UK shores, so underpinning the industry and showcasing the fantastic abilities of UK artists to Hollywood and beyond.

“The local VFX industry went from being peripheral to really becoming a global centre,” says Alex Hope, who founded Double Negative with several MPC colleagues in 1998.

Will Cohen, Milk CEO, agrees. “What was a cottage industry at the start of Harry Potter was fully grown up a decade later,” he says.

The impetus snowballed with the introduction of tax breaks in 2007, which further incentivise overseas producers to place more of their production budget in the UK. In 2015, some $2bn (£1.4bn) was spent on feature films here – a staggering 83% of which was inward investment – helping to propel the value of the UK’s creative industries to $119bn (£84bn). The recent extension of film tax relief to 25% of UK spend, alongside a reduction in the minimum UK spend required to earn rebates for high-end TV, has cemented the country’s financial commitment to attracting the biggest productions.

“There is a tendency to panic about where the next tax break is coming from but, even if places like Canada emerge as a centre of excellence, you can’t replicate the organic growth of the UK overnight,” says Cohen. “The UK is very strong in creative and digital industries.”

Team ethic

Part of the success of the UK’s effects industry is also a question of geography, in particular the unique tight-knit film community of London’s Soho.

“The proximity of rivals within walking distance has helped to keep expertise and innovation at a high level and means ideas and skills evolve fast,” says Hope. “All of us compete fiercely for work but, once awarded, we all ensure the project comes first. That’s a hallmark of British VFX culture and fundamental to its growth.”

It has also led to a population swell of VFX artists who have taken pleasure in setting down roots in a place where work is plentiful. In turn, studios can be secure in the knowledge that freelance talent is not dissipating after a major production, but staying put to work on the next project. This is increasingly valuable as the complexity and scale of productions has rocketed. Where Gladiator contained fewer than 100 VFX shots, for example, Star Wars: The Force Awakens featured 2,100; a volume that is fast becoming routine for tentpole titles.

“VFX tends to refer to the very visually obvious use of effects on screen but quite a bit of what we do is invisible, such as digital extras, set extensions and environments,” explains Sargent, who dubs this work “digital production”. “With large productions regularly carrying 2,000 shots, facilities need scale [of artists and infrastructure] even to win partial awards.”

As a result of their tremendous success, UK effects houses are taking on an increasingly international presence. Framestore, for example, spans the Atlantic with 1,000 people in London, New York, Los Angeles and Montreal. Double Negative is even larger, with around 4,500 employees and offices in Mumbai, Singapore and Vancouver to keep productions going around the clock, and support the work of the parent companies in the UK.

And UK effects are not just being showcased in big-screen productions – recent demand for TV visual effects has risen with the renaissance in episodic drama. “Drama producers value VFX because it suggests production values of ambition and scale,” says Cohen, who led the team at The Mill and then Milk to deliver movie-style VFX for the BBC’s Doctor Who. “Where TV VFX were once considered cheap or shoddy, the dividing line between feature film and TV is now very fine and Doctor Who can claim to have embedded that in UK TV production culture.”

While facilities such as Milk started out specialising in TV before branching into features, giants such as Dneg have set up dedicated TV divisions. It is working with Andy Serkis’s west London-based performance-capture studio Imaginarium to bring high-production-value photoreal animated characters – such as Star Wars’ Supreme Leader Snoke, on which Imaginarium worked – to the small screen.

“The aim is to fuse compelling performance capture with post-production to create intriguing new stories and formats on a TV budget,” says Imaginarium CEO Tony Orsten. “This is a set of skills that the UK as a country will be able to offer this year.”

A vibrant clutch of mid-size outfits are also picking up big business while the largest shops scoop their share of summer blockbusters (Dneg worked on Captain America: Civil War, Star Trek Beyond and Jason Bourne; Cinesite has Independence Day: Resurgence; MPC has X-Men: Apocalypse; Framestore has Jungle Book: Origins, Geostorm and Doctor Strange and all are creating Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them).

“The larger facilities were only doing the big, punchy blockbusters but the smaller films deserved as much care, and we felt we could do that without the big overheads,” says BlueBolt founder Lucy Ainsworth-Taylor, who spied a gap in the market for indie films and high-end TV.

Landing VFX for the first season of Game of Thrones instantly put BlueBolt on the map, and it has since completed BBC flagship drama War & Peace and has also booked in Brad Pitt produced Netflix satire War Machine, Fox sci-fi Morgan and Scott Free’s eight-part drama Taboo.

Similarly, Adam Gascoyne and Tim Caplan have enjoyed a steady stream of work since launching Union VFX in 2008. “Most of the big houses concentrate on their relationships with the studios, but we felt that forming stronger bonds with directors would give us a slightly different angle and a chance of winning work,” says Gascoyne.

The approach has paid off, with jobs for directors the calibre of Danny Boyle, James Marsh and Kevin Macdonald. Now staffing 50, the outfit recently recreated 1940s New York including the interior of Carnegie Hall for Stephen Frears’ Florence Foster Jenkins and is also working on Bridget Jones’s Baby.

If ever there was a question over the UK’s ability to sustain the same level of VFX work in the aftermath of Harry Potter, this has been roundly answered by the increasing number of productions and studios utilising the territory’s effects talent. This includes Disney, which has pledged to produce six Star Wars movies in the UK over the next 10 years; a franchise that will hot-house yet more innovation.

“What British VFX companies have done is to constantly push the envelope creatively and invest heavily in R&D in the confidence there is work out there,” says Hope. “In making that considerable investment and building the knowhow and infrastructure, we are giving artists the tools to continually do groundbreaking work.”

Visual Pioneers, words by Adrian Pennington, was originally published in UK in Focus 2016 in association with Screen International.

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