Great ‘Hollywood bake-off’ ahead of Oscars is the icing on cake for visual effects

When the Oscar nominations for cinematic artists are revealed next month, Britain will be to the fore

As the awards season looms, the biggest visual effects houses in the world are gearing up for what is known in the trade as the “bake-off”.

Early next month, they will pitch the work they did on films including Gravity, Thor: The Dark World and World War Z to their peers to make the five-strong shortlist for the best visual effects Oscar at the Academy Awards. The nominees will be announced on 16 January.

As effects-laden movies jostle for position, British firms are well placed, with seven of the long-listed 10 films featuring significant UK involvement from companies including Framestore, MPC, Double Negative and Cinesite.

The cinema-going public has little idea that the UK is one of the world’s visual effects powerhouses, with several of the largest seven global companies based within walking distance of each other in London’s Soho.

“It is surprising how large a percentage of the visual effects work the audiences are looking at is from the UK in Hollywood blockbusters,” one senior member of the industry said. “The country punches well above its weight in terms of its representation there. It’s not just the volume but the quality. The artists working in the UK are the best.”

One of the favourites to not only make it through the  bake-off but potentially walk away with the golden statuette in Los Angeles on 2 March  is Gravity. 

Despite starring Hollywood actors Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, the ground-breaking effects spinning them through space were largely created in the UK  by Framestore and a team of 450 people. Tim Webber, the visual effects supervisor on the film, said: “A few key names aren’t British so people may not have realised, but the bulk of the work on Gravity was done in this country.”

The visual effects (VFX), which have been praised by everyone from Avatar director James Cameron to astronaut Buzz Aldrin, involved the VFX team creating a “light box” with thousands of LEDs, inventing a new rig to suspend Bullock, employing puppeteers from the company that worked on War Horse and using graphics to draw in the actors’ bodies and even the visors in front of their faces.


Webber said: “I always love coming up with new techniques and on every movie you do something slightly new as the visual effects move on. With Gravity we did so many different things which were substantially new. Every bit of the process was different.”

He has been working on developing new techniques since coming to the industry in 1985 after studying physics but also wanting to use his love of art. At that stage Framestore was doing corporate work and making pop videos, including A-ha’s iconic Take on Me.

“Everyone arrived to the industry in those days in different ways,” he said. The first machine Webber worked on could store 90 second of standard-definition video, and was the size of a fridge.

Another at the forefront of pushing the boundaries of visual effects is Double Negative’s Paul Franklin, whose route into the trade was after working as a sculptor; he was drawn to visualising his pieces in 3D on a computer.

Franklin, who is currently working with Christopher Nolan as visual effects supervisor on Interstellar, a science-fiction film due for release in late 2014, was at MPC for four years before co-founding Double Negative (or Dneg) in 1998. The company was immediately commissioned to create the visual world for Pitch Black, a low-budget but effects-laden movie starring Vin Diesel.

He met Nolan on the set of Batman Begins, and then worked on the rest of the trilogy, picking up an Oscar for Inception in 2011. The work will be part of an exhibition of digital art at the Barbican in London next year. 

Richard Stammers, working on X-Men: Days of Futures Past (due for release in 2014) for MPC, said: “There’s a broad spectrum of disciplines in the work we do. There are tasks that are incredibly creative and tasks that are very technical. You can learn the software but the underlying creative eye is often very important.”

What cemented London’s reputation as one of the three world centres of VFX  – alongside the West Coast of America and New Zealand powerhouse Weta – was the Harry Potter franchise. Simon Stanley-Clamp of Cinesite said: “Everyone wanted to get in on Potter. It was a game-changer for London.” London built a strong reputation for talented artists and visual-effects supervisors, partly driven by the healthy competition of companies in close proximity to each other in Soho. “There have always been a lot of talented film craftspeople and all the VFX companies are very close to each other. That makes a big difference. Everyone meets down the pub,” Framestore’s Webber said.

There are now an estimated 6,000 VFX professionals in London, up six-fold from about a decade ago. They are also benefiting from the string of Hollywood productions attracted to the UK by tax breaks for film-makers.

Mr Webber said: “London is booming at the moment. There’s a lot of really good work coming out of here. For a long time London didn’t get the budgets other places got, so the companies had to be more innovative without just throwing money at things.”

Yet there are problems. The business is hugely competitive and consequently margins are tight and turnaround times for projects are getting even tighter. Canada, whose government has aggressively pushed tax breaks in the film industry, has also been attracting talent and film projects. The UK Government acted in the recent Autumn Statement, with specific tax breaks for the VFX industry. Cinesite’s Stanley-Clamp said: “It is still a cottage industry but one that operates on a global scale. It should be something we shout about. This is a roaring trade with very talented people.”

The eyes have it: the main players


VFX supervisor: Tim Webber

Credits include: ‘Gravity’, ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ Currently working on:  ‘Paddington’


VFX supervisor: Richard Stammers Credits include: ‘Prometheus’, ‘Robin Hood’

Currently working on: ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’

Double Negative

VFX supervisor: Paul Franklin

Credits include: ‘Inception’, ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ Currently working on: ‘Interstellar’


VFX supervisor: Simon Stanley-Clamp Credits  include: ‘World War Z’,  ‘Iron Man 3’ Currently working on: ‘Edge of Tomorrow’

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury


Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas


Arts and Entertainment


Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7


Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary


Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
    Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

    Confessions of a former PR man

    The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

    Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

    Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
    London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

    The mother of all goodbyes

    Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
    Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

    Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

    The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
    Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions