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

Framestore

VFX supervisor: Tim Webber

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

MPC

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’

Cinesite

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

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