VFX UK – The Shape Of Things To Come?

by Graham Edwards

"Star Wars: Episode VII" table read at the UK's Pinewood Studios

“Star Wars: Episode VII” table read at the UK’s Pinewood Studios

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.

London 1936

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.

The original entrance to the UK's Pinewood Studios

The original entrance to the UK’s Pinewood Studios

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.”

"Things To Come" press ad

This “Things To Come” press ad appeared in “Motion Picture Daily” May 1 1936

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.

ILM crew with the Millennium Falcon at ILM

Although “Star Wars” principal photography took place in England, the visual effects were created by ILM in California

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

Framestore LogoI asked William Sargent, CEO of Framestore, what factors he believed were attracting filmmakers to the UK. This is what he had to say:

“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.

Elstree Studios

The original “Star Wars” trilogy was shot at Elstree Studios

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.

"Thing To Come" - Everytown telescope

Even the citizens of Everytown cannot foresee the future of visual effects

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.

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Motion Picture Daily page image from Media History Digital Library. Star Wars photograph copyright © 1977 Lucasfilm Ltd.

2 thoughts on “VFX UK – The Shape Of Things To Come?

  1. I’m not sure how William Sargent can claim that Framestore was “using computers to make filmed entertainment before anybody on the West Coast” – Perhaps he was unaware that ILM has been doing just that since the company’s inception in 1975.

  2. I am from California (Los Angeles) and have been working at both high end and small visual effects facilities since I graduated from USC film school back in 1993. When I started, there were no facilities (to speak of) anywhere outside of California. All foreign talent had to come here to LA or SF because this was where the studios where and the work was. I have watched the birth of every single major VFX hub outsdie of California and either worked there or know, litterally, hundreds of people who do. I have likewise watched the utter collapse of California (save for ILM’s SF office which is a contrarian move by Disney who has deep pockets). The reason for all of these other markets is the tax credits/subsidies. Honestly, when WETA started they had to fly hundreds of artists to New Zealand to help them develop a pipeline because there was no one there who knew how to do it – it was New Zealand for god’s sake. Sure there was talent there, but what did they know about Visual Effects. Their generous tax credits got New Line and Warner Brothers to agree to do the work their and, over time, the talent moved there. When I was brought over to Cinesite London in 2002 they were a cobbled together mish-mosh of talen from what limited markets there were in Germany (Das Werk), France (Buf and Dubois) and some commercial post houses around Soho. Kodak paid a premium to send artists there from LA, put them up in housing in Mayfair because, “They don’t know what they’re doing yet….”. But the tax-credits were driving the work there and, whether they were ready or not for it, free-money is free-money – the studios put the onus on the vfx companies to make it work (and this is why many of them went out of business trying to do so). 11 years later when I was pulled in for some 911 work at DNeg, London had changed…. Flush with a decade straight of doing the best work (again, because their government was paying for the work to be done there), the talent pool was awesome. What continental talents there were in Europe had been forced to move there because London’s tax credits had dwarfed their own and I was surrounded by Australians and Americans as well.

    Vancouver was the same. Their production credits had been around since the late 90’s which started by pulling in television production (much to the cry of the productions then that would despise the lack of local talent and equipment which would need to be shipped up – but it was still cheaper to shoot there because of the transferable tax credits. 10 years later, Candaians being as smart and talented as anyone else, had built completely viable crews and no one was complaining. Then they set their focus on VFX and, because of having the single-largest tax credit in the world, in a mannner of half a decade, managed to make it essential that every single visual effects company large and small of any pressence needed to have an office in Vancouver for the credit. The studios insisted on it.

    Now all of the talent in LA has left for all of these other markets. There are 4 major studios within 3 miles of me as I write this…. and yet none of the work will come here because Californian tax payers don’t think they should be paying studios (who are ubsurdly profitable) any more money than they are already making.

    I was at Rhythm & Hues when John Hughes said the following, “Vancouver would seize to exist if they stopped offereing up their transferable tax credit.” I was at Digital Domain years later during one of their many bankruptsy meetings when Ed Ulbrich said the same thing to DD’s Vancouver office.

    I think that the talent in London is great and the work that has been done there exceptional…. but, as I told my supervisor in Londong (who was a PA when I was working on Contact and Starship Troopers), don’t fool yourself, Hollywood wants your money. If Mexico City offered up a collective 70% transferable tax-credit, within a couple of years the majority of visual effects companies would being opening up offices there and forcing their worker to relocate (and hey, Mexico is beautiful with a strong filmmakign talent and some of the best directors in the world are from there and would prefer to work there if they could – do you really think that Alfonso Cuaron wants to spend his time in the UK?). And if London toned down or removed their tax credits, they would look a lot like LA does right now….

    So, you can pat yourselves on the back if you like. You’ve done great work, but let’s be honest why it is there in the first place.

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