“The survival of Los Angeles has always depended upon the daring use of massive resources to create new opportunities in a difficult environment.” Robert M Fogelson, The Fragmented Metropolis, University of California Press, 1993.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the area where Los Angeles now sits was a semi-arid plain dotted with pueblos and prone to catastrophic flooding. Although it was close to the sea, it had no natural harbour, and transport links with the rest of the US were rudimentary. It’s hard to imagine a less likely spot for a major urban centre to rise up.
Yet rise it did, a sprawling metropolis conjured into reality by sheer force of will, a city pulling itself up by its own bootstraps. Little wonder Los Angeles is know as the City of Dreams: the place literally dreamed itself into reality.
It’s fitting that cinema – an industry built on dreams – should have played such an important part in the growth of the region. Culver City in particular has lain at the heart of filmmaking ever since 1915, when city developer Harry Culver encouraged film pioneer Thomas Ince to move his centre of operations to the growing urban centre. The historic tract of land on which Ince’s Triangle Studios was built is now part of the Sony Pictures Studios lot.
It’s ironic, therefore, that Sony Pictures Imageworks – the visual effects and animation unit of Sony Pictures Digital Productions – should be the latest filmmaking enterprise to move its centre of operations not only away from the Los Angeles region, but all the way across the US border and into British Columbia.
As announced in a press release of May 30, 2014, the company is moving into a state-of-the-art facility, leaving only a small presence in Culver City to interact with local filmmakers. With accommodation for up to 700 employees, the new headquarters will have the largest footprint of any visual effects company in Vancouver. The move follows the opening in 2010 of SPI’s Vancouver production office with a staff of 80 artists, and the subsequent growth of the workforce in 2013, during the production of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, to over 350 staff.
According to Randy Lake, Executive Vice President and General Manager, Digital Production Services, Sony Pictures Digital Productions:
“Vancouver has developed into a world-class center for visual effects and animation production. It offers an attractive lifestyle for artists in a robust business climate. Expanding our headquarters in Vancouver will allow us to deliver visual effects of the highest caliber and value to our clients.”
Sony Pictures Imageworks recently delivered the visual effects for Edge of Tomorrow, and current and future projects include Guardians of the Galaxy, Pixels, Angry Birds, Hotel Transylvania 2 and the next as-yet-untitled Smurfs movie. It’s a line-up that will keep the Vancouver team busy for the foreseeable future, and further cement British Columbia as one of the world’s go-to places for visual effects.
The good news is that Sony Pictures Imageworks appears to be thriving, and that its artists continue to create jaw-dropping, award-winning work. It’s encouraging to see continued investment in, and commitment to, the visual effects industry. In Vancouver, VFX is on the up, just as it is in London and other centres around the world.
But there’s a cost, not only to the workers watching their jobs march across the horizon, but also to the regions that find themselves unable to attract industries in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. Plenty of commentators are warning of the potentially fragile state of the VFX industry, particularly when a company’s decisions about where to set up shop may be significantly influenced by government subsidies.
Scott Leberecht, director of Life After Pi, a film documenting the demise in 2013 of Rhythm & Hues Studios, had this to say about SPI’s move to Vancouver:
“While making Life After Pi, we quickly realized that only movie studios and the corporations that own them benefit from the temporary nature of subsidized regions. When the handouts in New Mexico stopped affecting the bottom line, Sony pulled out. They will do this again when things change in Vancouver. Decision makers at the top don’t care about the consequences, because it doesn’t affect them in a negative way at all. They don’t have to move their lives to a different country or state every time a new deal is negotiated. As long as it is legal, they will continue to milk governments all over the world, regardless of how damaging it is to the lives of their workers and the future of the visual effects industry.”
So where does all this leave the visual effects industry in Los Angeles? Will VFX prove to be just another gold rush that brought brief prosperity to the American West, only to collapse, leaving behind abandoned facilities and ghost towns? Has the time come for the City of Dreams finally to wake up?
The romantic in me hopes the home of cinema has a few surprises left up its sleeve. Given the history of LA, I want to believe the dream isn’t over yet. After all, was the city not founded on the belief that anything is possible? If Robert Fogelson is to be believed, all it needs is for someone to come along who is daring enough to use “massive resources to create new opportunities in a difficult environment”.
“The Amazing Spider-Man 2” image copyright © 2014 Sony Pictures Digital Productions Inc. “Motography” page image from Media History Digital Library.