Diamond in the Rough?

South Africa makes unique vfx mark on world stage.

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People are generally surprised to hear that South Africa has a thriving and vibrant animation industry. Veteran vfx house, Wicked Pixels (which created S.E.T.H., left), and newcomer The Refinery (with a Mountain Dew ad, right) show the depth of talent available. All Wicked Pixels images © Wicked Pixels (Pty) and all The Refinery images © 2004 The Refinery Post Production Facilities.

Craig Wessels creative director of Wicked Pixels (Pty) Ltd., South Africas leading independent vfx-animation-design studio believes his home turf of Cape Town will become the next Sydney, Australia. With a $60 million-plus film studio being built to handle the growing demand for feature film work in his native land, he cant resist reciting a popular line from Field of Dreams: If you build it, they will come.

Cape Town indeed has developed into a melting pot of creative people with fresh ideas and an eye toward preserving traditional, tribal ideals and crafts. Were all pretty laid-back and arty types who gather in the Cape, adds Leigh van der Byl, a freelance vfx and texturing artist who recently finished writing a book about texturing for LightWave (LightWave 3D 8 Texturing) that was put out by U.S.-based Wordware Publishing.

Whenever people find out I am from this country, they seem surprised that we even have vfx industry here, he explains. And yet we have such a vibrant film and vfx industry with a lot of fine talent.

Jason Cullen, a partner in Johannesburg-based Luma Animation, believes the small circle of professionals doing international vfx work in South Africa will grow considerably. Seven years ago, he says, almost no one here had done any serious international vfx work at all, but that has changed a lot and more people are getting cool film work. VideoLab, for instance, has worked on 23 films since 1997, while Atomic Visual Effects and Wicked Pixels are gunning for more international work.

Commercial Overload

Only trouble is that most of the assignments tend to be on the commercial and branding side of the business. And though South Africa has built several world-class facilities that emphasize quality over quantity, it lacks an ability to handle volume at film resolution in terms of both equipment and manpower.

Still, the time may be right for further investment in equipment and artists. Wessels points out that the film industry is growing rapidly in Cape Town largely as a result of stunningly beautiful shooting locations, highly skilled crews and a favorable exchange rate. Its a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city that would give any first-world city a run for its money, he says. I believe that what we are seeing happening here is only the tip of the iceberg. With the right planning and preparation, I see no reason why the increasing number of international movies being shot here will not begin to post here as well.

Bearing in mind an exchange rate that makes South Africas rand an attractive currency in the world market, van der Byl calls the nation a formidable contender on the world stage given that more schools are now offering vfx studies a development that has gone a long way toward improving the quality and skills of artists starting out in the field during the past three years.

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Hilton Treves of The Refinery (left) hopes the weak rand makes South Africa more attractive to European competitors. Jason Cullen of Luma has seen the local industry explode in the last seven years. Lumas ad for Chai Jaba is on the right. All Luma images: Luma Animation CC. All rights reserved.

One such popular institute of higher learning is the Universal Computer Arts Academy (UCAA), a Cape Town-based animation school co-founded in 2000 by Peter den Hartogh and Nuno Martins. The objective was to offer students the opportunity to take this exciting field of animation to new heights, according to Martins. The student body at UCAA has swelled to 110 students from just 30 the year it opened.

We have seen studios increase staff numbers annually, especially in post production and animation, he reports, and a new project initiated by the government to construct Hollywood-style studios is already in its second phase.

Brain Drain

But theres a chance this utopian vision may turn into a dream deferred. A potential fly in the ointment: a brain drain involving droves of vfx artists bolting South Africa to chase fame and fortune abroad.

Just ask Dave Wilson, a CG artist from Cape Town, who now works in a supervisory capacity for Blur Studios in Venice, Calif. There are many artists out here from South Africa working at some of the finest houses on some very high-profile projects, he says.

His sense is that as more interesting and exciting projects arrive in South Africa and the industry matures, there could be a migration back to his native country fueling the impressive knowledge base thats already taking hold.

I know many artists who left the U.S. to go to New Zealand to work on Lord of the Rings, he explains, so if South Africa can grab a few movies like that and keep some of the post work local, you will probably find a lot a of guys traveling back home to work on them a trend thats already beginning with a big Tom Cruise[-produced] movie shooting there at the moment [Robert Townes Ask the Dust] and a big film studio opening in 2006.

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Presently, the majority of the vfx work in South Africa is for branding and commercials. Local companies yearn to expand the film industry. Wicked Pixels work (left) and Lumas ad for Mini Coopers (right).

Cultural Creativity

Hilton Treves, vfx supervisor for The Refinery, a high-end post-production shop with facilities in Johannesburg and Cape Town, hopes the weak rand gives us a small advantage over our European counterparts, though our talented artists ultimately secure the productions.

To facilitate the client approval process, his company has installed a number of high-speed online systems, including those from Telestream. This has greatly helped our ability to do the required post-production without having to have the director remain in South Africa for the duration, Treves reports.

South Africas relative isolation helps the nation pursue a creative approach thats less concerned with European or American trends. We tend to do things our own way, which for our commercials industry has made South Africa one of the best in the world, according to Wessels, who believes the same will happen once the nation gains traction in the feature market.

As the nation harnesses its own cultural and artistic influences while also seeking to cement an international presence, Cullen believes South Africa one day will realize its full potential. Although we envy the Americans for their success, he says, we dont want to imitate their style, yet we cant help being influenced and learning a lot from them. The Europeans are more innovative when it comes to doing things differently, particularly visual style.

But Wilson doesnt believe geography has much of an influence on creativity. I grew up on the same sci-fi films that the guys out here [in Southern California] grew up on, he quips. Were all from France, Spain, Belgium, Korea, Germany, Finland and South Africa working on the same cool projects. The fact that we have all traveled here is also because America really is at the forefront of animation and visual effects.

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The brain drain of South African talent is a concern. The local industry is hoping for a Lord of the Rings/Weta phenomenon that will keep native artists at home. Above left is a sample of The Refinerys work, while Luma created the mushrooms for Sesame Workshop. Courtesy of Sesame Workshop.

Enemy of Mediocrity

Treves takes issue with an observation Atomic Visual Effects co-founder Simon Hansen recently shared with VFXWorld implying that firms such as The Refinery and Video Lab only exist because theyve played it safe with tried-and-tested software tools while generally resisting change. In that same article, Hansen described Atomic as a slightly smaller version of ILM, Digital Domain and other mammoth effects houses in the global vfx market.

Its worth noting that Refinery talent through the years has moved into senior roles at the very places to which Hansen likes to compare his firm, Treves counters, adding that VideoLab was one of the nations first post houses and a major factor in growing the industry to which Atomic belongs.

No company is still going to be in existence for 15 years if it was only playing it safe, he suggests. They exist because they continually re-invent themselves. Shareholders would not continually allow them to re-invest if they were not successful. As we all know in this industry, mediocrity does not cut it.

Bruce Shutan, a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, has written for several entertainment publications and Websites, including Daily Variety, Weekly Variety, emmy, the 55th Annual Emmy Awards program, Below the Line News, Film Score Monthly, DRUM! and OnlineRock.com. Shutan also specializes in writing for the human resources and employee benefits trade press.

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