The Mill: Europe's First Fully Digital VFX House

From cutting-edge TV commercials to blockbuster movies and back again, The Mill has become one of the top five VFX studios in the world.

Nike's Good versus Evil spots from The Mill was epic in scope and production. Image courtesy of Nike and The Mill.

Although small compared to such VFX titans as Industrial Light & Magic and Digital Domain, the Mill is recognized as one of the top five VFX studios in the world. Thus, the London-based company has evolved over the years to suit the changing needs of a volatile industry.

A Baby Is Born

When Robin Shenfield and Pat Joseph set up the Mill in January 1990, it was the first fully digital VFX company in Europe. It didnt take long for the new kids on the block to bag their first commercial with British Gas Water Babies. Directed by Mike Portelly for ad agency BMP DDB, this simple, memorable spot gave The Mill a steady push on the bumpy road to digital visual effects stardom.

By the following year, artists at The Mill was working on commercials for agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi, COI, and Bartle Bogle Hegarty with directors like Ridley Scott, Graham Rose and Tarsem. Unforgettable TV ads like Halifaxs House, Levis Swimmer, and Guinness Art established The Mill as a creative force. Within the first year, this fledgling company was in the process of forming long term relationships with many top agencies and directors.

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In 13 years, co-founders Robin Shenfield (left) and Pat Joseph have managed to make The Mill one of the most respected names in visual effects. Courtesy of The Mill.

Football, Fast Cars, Jeans and John Smiths

It didnt take long for The Mill to make its mark on the advertising world, and by 1997 the company had completed work on around 50 commercials, each one leaving a lasting impression on the TV advertising industry, and indeed the public. No less than five Levis commercials were undertaken by Mill artists, including the famous Taxi, Drug Store, and Night and Day, directed by Tarsem.

Tarsems Levis commercials were becoming something of a legend, and he was turning to The Mill more and more to realize his visions. Nikes Good versus Evil was an epic spot in which an all-star football team featuring Eric Cantona and Ronaldo, among others, come up against an evil team set on destroying the game. This very cinematic-looking commercial seemed to be the way The Mill was going, and its reputation for this was growing

The Mill whipped up a storm with Tony Kayes Twister, an impressive ad for Volvo commissioned by Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO. This was undoubtedly a company coming into its own, able to create a feature film look and feel for the TV market. And things showed no sign of slowing down. The Mill was soon working on Sony Playstation spots Double Life and Mental Wealth, and more memorable Levis ads, including the hugely popular Twist, in which a group of people twist their hands, arms and legs in various inexplicable ways (because theyre wearing Levis, of course!).

Although commercials form the bulk of The Mills work, they have dabbled in other areas, completing work on Madonnas Frozen, and the Prodigys Breathe. The BBCs Perfect Day was The Mills biggest accomplishment of 1997, on which artists spent literally months placing clever background behind the various singers.

Other memorable Mill moments include Guinness Bet on Black, Frank Budgens brilliant spot in which a CG snail race takes place. The Mills credits read like a whos who of British popular culture. Alcohol, fast cars, fashion, mobile phones.

The Mill Conquers Hollywood

1997 saw The Mill step into the feature film VFX industry, when it set up Mill Film. With an already established talent base and production pipeline, The Mill expanded its operations and was soon catching the eye of the Hollywood studios. Mill Film existed with a core of around 35 artists, but this number was often increased to more than 150 via a huge freelance talent base.

It didnt take long for Mill Film to catch the eye of the Hollywood studios, and before long visual effects for films like Cats and Dogs, Enemy of the State, and Babe: Pig in the City were being completed in London. By 2001 Mill Film was responsible for work on more than 10 high-profile feature films, including Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, both of the Harry Potter films, and Black Hawk Down.

But Mill Film will go down in history for its work on Scotts Gladiator, for which it won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects. London-based artists worked on hundreds of shots for the highly acclaimed movie, ranging from simple composites to complex sequences utilizing hundreds of CG characters. For such a complex project to be completed by a British VFX house is a monumental achievement not often seen, and thus Mill Film is the only British studio to be honored with an Oscar for visual effects.

New York, New York

The Mill had dabbled with a few commercials for the U.S. market, but founders Shenfield and Joseph knew that to really get their foot in the door they needed a stronger U.S. presence. In 2001 The Mill New York was launched, and to date the company has completed an impressive number of projects. Amongst Levis and Land Rover spots, The Mill New York was responsible for the Pepsi Twist ad featuring Mike Myers (as Austin Powers) and Britney Spears. Recent projects include a brilliant Nike spot for Wieden & Kennedy in which flame artists digitally enhanced shots of Michael Jordans finest moments to allow the viewer to see them in more detail. The Mill New York is now an essential part of The Mill group and more investment is planned.

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Controversial director Tony Kaye and The Mill came up with feature production values for this Twister campaign for Volvo. Courtesy of Volvo and The Mill.

The Big Change

In November 2002, much to the shock of the VFX community, The Mill announced that it was closing the doors to Mill Film in an effort to once again focus on its core commercial work. Shenfield, Mill co-founder and ceo, admits that although Mill Film was, a creative and commercial successfilm is a volatile business that requires both scale and continuous investment. It is hugely dependent on U.S. studios bringing work to the U.K. to take advantage of tax breaks. The opportunities in advertising are too good to pass up, and need 100% focus and commitment.

Getting Back to its Roots

Today at The Mill work is going steady, and has been since the beginning of the year. Artists have recently completed work on a number of impressive commercials, including German building Society Badenia's Baby, in which The Mills 3D department created a CG baby inside its mothers womb. The 3D department also created a group of CG skeletons for Murpheys Dying For a Drink commercial, and The Mills flame team have completed work on, among other things, one of Vodafones Go Live campaigns featuring David Beckham.

This refocus has also allowed the company to delve more into TV work, and Mill artists recently completed work on the BBCs period drama, Daniel Deronda, in which they digitally reconstructed old London. Mill TV has also created CG strands of DNA for Channel 4s new five-part documentary, DNA. For director Andrea Vecchiatos new feature film Luminal, Mill TV worked on a number of blue screen composites and unusual 3D elements for the project. This was The Mills first hi-def feature film project.

Yet throughout this change The Mill has managed to keep a loyal client base of some of the best ad agencies and directors in the world. People keep coming back to London for The Mills unique style, attitude and commitment.

Paul Younghusband has been writing about all things visual effects and animation related for around five years, having served as editor of Visual Magic Magazine. He recently dyed his hair bright red for Comic Relief and now believes this could be an excellent plot for his animated short film...which has been in development for around 36 months...

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