Sir William Sargent: Meet the mane man of film special effects

He may be self-effacing about his Oscar, but this industry leader has plans to get even with Hollywood

Sir William Sargent, who is used to rubbing shoulders with Hollywood's elite as well as British prime ministers, tends to play down the trappings that have come with his dual career in private enterprise and public service. He only uses the title on business cards in America, and if he could convince the managing directors of his VFX (visual effects) company otherwise, the Oscar would be removed from display in the waiting room.

Framestore, Sir William's company, is one of the UK's largest special effects houses, along with Double Negative and Moving Picture Company – a triumvirate that can genuinely be described as world class. His firm is responsible for bringing Dobby, Harry Potter's house elf, to life. Recent projects include War Horse, directed by Steven Spielberg and due for release at Christmas. "Working with Spielberg was amazing. We were the outsiders and his team just hovered us in. He's very straightforward and clear; incredibly time-efficient. He knows the film he's making," Sir William says. As someone who has worked with Stanley Kubrick, he admits this is not always the case with directors.

Framestore provides visual effects for all mediums, but film and advertising work is the core of its work. The London-based company has grown to 650 staff and expanded to New York and Iceland. Its principal office is a stone's throw from Soho, the spiritual home of the UK's visual effects industry, where the firm has the infrastructure for motion capture and rendering images. "Companies like ours have among the most powerful computing systems, more so than banks quite often, because we have to render heavy-duty data," says Sir William.

Framestore was set up in 1986 after five friends hammered out the idea over dinner a year earlier. Sir William says: "Some were fed up because they hadn't been looked after properly, others had creative aspirations. There was a mix of skills, which has been one of its strengths from day one."

It was a gamble, but one that Sir William, then in his late 20s, thought well worth making. "We bought the equipment for a load of money, with debt we could never have repaid. If it had gone down the tubes, we would have been up the creek," Sir William says. "There was a lot on the line."

The group began by applying basic computer programmes to music videos and commercials. The machine they started using, bought from UK company Quantel, was called the Framestore, hence the group's name. Early clients included Radio Rentals and shoe shop Clarks, while its visual effects were also used in videos for Dire Straits and A-ha.

Framestore moved into film in 1994 when the technology became strong enough, shortly before it landed a major contract to provide the special effects for a big money adaptation of Gulliver's Travels for the Hallmark Channel in the US. "It won us our first Emmy, and we were the first non-American company to do so. We won the next eight in a row," Sir William says.

Surprisingly, a defining film for the company, and the UK industry in general, was Matt LeBlanc vehicle Lost in Space because it was the first time a Hollywood film's special effects had been created exclusively in London. Sir William says: "It was a milestone for us. The next one, five years later, was Harry Potter." As well as creating Dobby for the series, Framestore also worked on the lion Aslan, hero of the Narnia chronicles. "We often joke that we should have done a L'Oréal commercial with him. You are grooming Aslan as you're creating him; that hairdressing bill way exceeds the normal hairdressing bill on a film."

The company is paid a fee for its services, but does not receive a percentage of the take. "We're a for-hire business; we don't take a share of the upside, but we don't have a risk on the downside either," Sir William says. It's an expensive industry due to the cost of highly skilled engineers and the hardware. "We've probably bought $30m of computers at least since then. We will spend $3m a year easily on new equipment; we are evolving the whole time."

The group has worked on films including Where the Wild Things Are, Sherlock Holmes and Quantum of Solace, but the one that stands out is The Golden Compass, which won the company its Oscar. Sir William did not attend, saying the only award ceremony he enjoys is the Baftas.

Yet an Oscar does not mean a VFX company can relax, Sir William says. "It doesn't necessarily get you your next job. We are part of the dozen companies in the champions' league of effects. So the Oscar is affirmation you are part of that club, but you're only a part; that club is incredibly competitive."

This year, rival firm Double Negative, won the visual effects Oscar for its work on Inception. Of the five films nominated, UK companies worked on three. "It is now not uncommon for virtually all of the craft categories in most years to have British nominees in the list, and sometimes they are the majority," Sir William says.

Sir William is an Irishman, born in Dublin but raised in Brazil, where he was taught by American nuns. His family left Brazil after his father was offered work building ships. Sir William returned to Ireland to study at Trinity College Dublin. It was there he had his first taste of the entertainment industry, with a part-time job at a music operation that rented out kit for parties and touring bands, including Thin Lizzy and Van Morrison. He left for England after graduating. "Very few graduates could get a job in Ireland then," he says. "The Celtic tiger didn't rear its head until later."

Sir William has always been active in the industry's trade associations, and this led to his appointment as a civil servant in the UK. He was initially called in by the EU to work on a high-definition TV study group, before being invited to help form public policy closer to home. First, he chaired the Small Business Council, which led to a role at the Better Regulation Executive and his appointment as a non-executive director at the Treasury. Sir William says: "I've only been a civil servant for a short period – less than five years – but I've only ever done it as a permanent secretary. I started at the top, which is an unusual experience. Like the Spielberg experience, the service was incredibly inclusive."

Sir William's reporting lines were to the Cabinet Secretary and the Prime Minister, so he saw at close quarters how Tony Blair and Gordon Brown worked. "Regulatory reform was one of the things that Blair and Brown were completely aligned on," he says. "There was no difference between them, or between the three parties at the last election. So the agenda has carried on." Sir William was awarded a knighthood for his services in 2008 and left public service shortly after last October's spending review.

Now, for the first time in his career, Sir William can concentrate on Framestore without distractions, and he says he has "loved getting stuck in". The company's current projects include a film called Gravity for director Alfonso Cuarón, which Sir William says "is more ambitious even than Avatar in its scale, as we are now discovering". Visual effects often account for between 40 and 60 per cent of Hollywood blockbusters' budgets and can mean the difference between success and failure.

Sir William says visual effects houses are often seen as the bottom of the food chain: "My vision for the future of Framestore is to become partners with the studios and filmmakers. I mean emotional rather than financial partners. If they think we're just a commodity you can buy on the high street, I'm not interested. I'm trying to get Hollywood to buy into a different business model."

Sir William Sargent's CV

* Born in Dublin, educated by American nuns in Rio de Janeiro.

* Studied in Trinity College Dublin, taking a job at Band Centre.

* Moved to England, taking a job at HH Electronics in Cambridge.

* Founded Framestore in 1986.

* Chaired the Small Business Council from 2000, and the Better Regulation Executive between 2005 and 2010.

Interests

Sir William is a diehard Tottenham Hotspur fan. "I sit in the cheap seats behind one of the goals. I love the passion and commitment. The lady who sits next to me is in her 64th season."

He enjoys reading biographies and Scandinavian thrillers, and has just finish watching Danish TV show The Killing.

Music is a passion. "Van Morrison is a big hero. I have listened to a track of his every day of my life since I was a teenager."

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