You hardly need me to tell you there’s a new Star Wars film in production. As I write these words, principal photography for Episode VII is currently underway on soundstages at Pinewood Studios. In case you didn’t know, that’s in the UK.
What’s more, Industrial Light & Magic – the VFX company set to deliver what will undoubtedly be a plethora of eye-popping visuals to that galaxy far, far away – is in the process of setting up a brand-new branch in London’s Soho district, due to be fully operational by late summer. UK again.
As if that wasn’t enough, the UK’s three main studio facilities have all recently announced major expansion plans. So what’s going on? Why are productions turning to the UK? And what’s so special about British special effects?
Before these thorny issues can be addressed, there’s another question to be answered, namely: “Has Great Britain always been so great?” To find out, we need to wind the clock back to the Golden Age of Hollywood.
Let’s begin with an extract from Cinematographic Working Conditions In London Studios, an article written by US cinematographer Harry Zech and published in American Cinematographer in June 1936:
“England is making remarkable progress in this business of motion picture production. The boom is on. Millions of pounds sterling are being poured into the industry. More millions are waiting impatiently. When I left London a few weeks ago, twenty-two new stages were under construction and still more were on drafting room tables. There is no question but what Britain is determined to have its place in the cinema sun.”
Given what I’ve been reading in the UK press over the past few weeks, the above might have been written only yesterday. So maybe times haven’t changed after all.
Except, of course, they have. In 1936, the UK film industry was only just crawling out of the swamp. Compared to their Californian counterparts, the Brits were novices behind the camera. Harry Zech didn’t mince his words when he said:
“To a cinematographer who has grown up with the industry and who takes as standard the high-pressure efficiency of Hollywood studios, English mechanical and technical equipment, and general studio procedure, seem sadly inadequate.”
There were even some high-profile Brits who doubted the UK’s ability ever to excel at the craft. The celebrated author H.G. Wells made the following remark to interviewer Pearl Katzman in the July 1935 edition of Screenland:
“Do I think English films will ever surpass American films? Well – no-o-o. But we’ll run you a pretty pace. But I do not believe English films will ever surpass those produced in California. Hollywood is beautiful, colourful. Hollywood has sunshine. Hollywood has hundreds of your vivid, charming American girls. If you permit English films to surpass your own, it will be no one’s fault but your own.”
Among other things, Wells was discussing the adaptation of his science fiction novel Things to Come, then in production … you guessed it, in the UK. According to the March 4, 1936 edition of Motion Picture Daily:
“’Things To Come’ is a product of British enterprise and will violently open the eyes of any Hollywoodians who may still be sceptical of the reality of the British challenge. The impression of colossal scale [in the future city Everytown] is overwhelming, with human beings no bigger than flies walking in balcony-like streets which wind from the depths thousands of feet up, or tending machinery of nightmarish size and complexity. Nowhere, it is safe to say, is the line between model work, camera trickery and stagecraft definitely recognisable even to the expert.”
Even Zech concedes that, before long, the UK will be a force to reckon with:
“All factors considered, London is entitled to the fullest measure of praise for the progress made and being made in its picture production. We [in Hollywood] have been making pictures on a big scale for twenty-five years. They have been at it in intensive fashion for only three or four years. But they are learning and progressing fast.”
The Things That Came To London
Forty years after William Cameron Menzies shot Things To Come on English soil, George Lucas crossed the pond to make the original Star Wars, although he kept his “trick photography” department – the newly-created ILM – on home ground in the USA. In J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars, producer Gary Kurtz gives both practical and financial reasons for the decision: not only was it relatively cheap to stage the production in the UK, but it was also nearer to North Africa, where the scenes on Tatooine would be shot. Kurtz also adds:
“We wanted an English cameraman, with a certain level of technological sophistication.”
During this and the subsequent Star Wars productions (not to mention countless other films) British set builders and decorators developed a reputation for the quality of their craftsmanship and attention to detail. Less appreciated – by some visiting directors at least – was their insistence on interminable tea breaks.
Now another forty years have passed, more or less, and Star Wars is back in England again, this time with its trick photographers in tow. Greg Grusby, Senior PR & Communications Manager at Industrial Light & Magic, told me this about ILM’s decision to open a branch in London:
“First and foremost, the city has top-tier talent. Other primary factors include the fact that the UK government continues to make a concerted effort to invest in the industry and the atmosphere is business friendly. Due in large part to those three factors, clients are attracted to the region.”
Despite ILM’s long history in California, its London division will be the new kid on the block compared to the other Soho-based VFX facilities, notably Double Negative, Framestore and MPC. Collectively, these three companies can claim over 70 years in business, in a dense urban melting pot described in a recent research report (by UK-based BOP Consulting) as “the world’s creative hub”. According to the report:
“There is strong evidence of Soho’s creative strengths, both as the site of much of the UK’s successful creative industries, either as the hub of the UK VFX industry, for its eight theatres, or for its historic importance as the site of the invention of the television, or of the legendary Colony Rooms. Creative industries directly employ over 46,000 in the West End/Soho (96,000 in Westminster). The entire [film] production chain is available in an area of about one square mile.”
What The Locals Think
“Here at Framestore we were using computers to make filmed entertainment before anybody on the West Coast. From the mid-80s to the mid-90’s, a lot of British talent went west, only to return to the UK during the last decade.
“As for the factors attracting the filmmakers – they are the same as what attracted them here fifty years ago. In the UK we have talented individuals who are flexible and innovative in their work. We have ample capacity in terms of both people and studios – even more now than ever! With many of the top box office films now being made in the UK, we have credibility in terms of credentials and experience, as well as our ability to adapt to changing trends. The tax credit helps, but there are better and less restricted ones in Canada and Australia, so it’s not just about that.”
I put the same question to Steve Norris of Apollo Productions, a UK production services company run jointly by Norris, Pinewood Shepperton and Double Negative Films. Here’s what he had to say:
“What makes the UK so popular globally for film makers is a combination of factors – the size and quality of the talent pool, the UK’s strong support for the creative industries, the competitive cost of production and the film friendly tax incentives for UK qualifying productions. All of those factors, and more, work in combination to make us the production destination we are”
The Circus Is In Town
Nor is it only about visual effects. UK studio space is in such demand that Warner Brothers has approved the construction of three new sound stages at their Leavesdon Studios, home of the Harry Potter films. Meanwhile, Pinewood Studios (whose stages are even now filled with top secret sets for Star Wars: Episode VII) is set to double in size.
Even the venerable Elstree Studios, where all three films in the Star Wars original trilogy were shot, and which once closed its doors altogether, is now busier than ever and planning its own expansion. When I asked Roger Morris, Managing Director of Elstree Studios, what was behind the UK’s appeal, he gave this answer:
The current tax credits both for film and television, the crews that we provide and the facilities on offer – though not enough of them. Other benefits include good work environments, the dollar-pound ratio and the use of the English language.
Now, there’s a big difference between hiring out studio facilities and crews to the travelling circus that is the average film production, and maintaining the more permanent facilities required to create modern visual effects. The former – by its nature – is a transitory thing. The latter – ideally – is not.
Perhaps that’s why the latest developments in Soho reflect the steady globalisation of the VFX industry. ILM has branches not only in San Francisco and London, but also Singapore and Vancouver. Double Negative is setting up shop in Vancouver too, and the recent announcement of a merger with Prime Focus World significantly extends both their interests around the world.
Many will cite tax credits as the true driving force behind the UK boom, nor can their influence over decision-makers be underestimated. Yet the great work delivered by the above-mentioned facilities and others stands on merit. Wherever you may be in the world, talent is a currency too. No subsidy ever created a great visual effect.
So will this UK boom lead ultimately to a future UK bust? I’d need H.G. Wells’s time machine to answer that one. It’s certainly possible; one look at California’s troubled VFX industry proves that nowhere is safe – not even Hollywood. But are such slumps inevitable? I hope not. Perhaps evolving business models may yet find a way to sidestep the endless up-and-down cycle – in all regions – and herald a more sustainable age in which change is perceived as a force for good, not evil.
One thing’s for sure: as long as the circus is in town, the UK film and VFX industry will continue to bang its drum and shout at the top of its voice that traditional cry of all fairground barkers: “Roll up! Roll up! See the Greatest Show on Earth!”
Which is more or less what one J.J. Abrams will be shouting when Star Wars Episode VII hits our cinema screens at the end of next year.
Motion Picture Daily page image from Media History Digital Library. Star Wars photograph copyright © 1977 Lucasfilm Ltd.