Janet Hetherington talks to Canadian vfx professionals about why their companies are being tasked with providing effects for A-list productions such as 300, Superman, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, Babylon 5: The Lost Tales and more.
The Canadian vfx scene is on the rise. Companies have been earning their street creds -- and the studios are hiring them to benefit from the tax creds. The combination of talent, high quality work and tasty rebate incentives make using Canadian vfx firms very appealing.
"I would agree that there has recently been a burst of interest in vfx work in Canada," says Chris Bond, president, Frantic Films. "From my perspective, over the past decade we've proved the talent, skills and R&D capabilities of our facilities on projects ranging from Swordfish to Superman Returns for clients at Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount and, most recently, Walden Media."
"There has been a groundswell," admits Warren Franklin, ceo, Rainmaker. "It's built up over the last couple of years. Since I've been at Rainmaker, I've seen the staff double in size. Studios are coming to us in Vancouver to handle vfx, but there has been a change -- it's not just providing vfx for television series that are shooting in Vancouver."
"Here in Vancouver, we have had a very busy last few years," agrees Jeremy Hoey, vfx producer and owner (with Andrew Karr and Tom Archer), Atmosphere Visual Effects. "At Atmosphere, we have frequently found ourselves having to turn work down. But it appears that over the last three years or so, the type of visual effects work is starting to shift. We're seeing more feature film visual effects work coming to town, but at the same time there seems to be a gradual falling-off of television vfx work, especially in the middle- to low-end of the budget range, due to competition from lower-cost vfx houses in Eastern Europe and Asia."
The same vitality is being felt on the east coast. "Here in Quebec, we attract more and more principal photography and are renowned for the quality of our technicians and crew," notes Robert Moodie, technical director, Buzz Image Group. "As a direct result, more and more post-production and visual effects are awarded to local companies. Montreal has a huge history as a center of excellence for 3D, and this is directly reflected in the talent available."
"Because of the productions we've worked on, we've generated a lot of buzz," says Pierre Raymond, president, Hybride, which is also located in Montreal. Hybride has provided vfx for such major productions as 300, Sin City, Snakes on a Plane, Spy Kids and a France 2 television production of Marie Antoinette.
"Montreal is a key city for vfx," Raymond adds. "Softimage and [Autodesk] are here... if we're smart enough to design them, we're smart enough to use them. Now we are getting the chance to demonstrate what we can do."
Montreal, however, is not the only Canadian city with a vfx pedigree. Margaux Mackay, exec producer, Gray Matter FX, says that her Los Angeles-based firm opened a Vancouver office because it saw the industry giving work to such countries as Australia, England and Canada to take advantage of their tax rebates.
"We opened in January 2007 and we have already completed two projects," Mackay says. Those projects are Ridley Scott's American Gangster and Married Life. Gray Matter FX specializes in "invisible" effects for movies, and its L.A. office has provided vfx for such films as Dreamgirls and Secret Window.
While Mackay cites tax incentives as being "attractive to studios," she says that the way rebates work is not always understood. "They think they have to shoot here to get the rebate, but they don't," Mackay explains. "They just have to have the vfx done here to get a rebate." Mackay notes that the British Columbia Film Commission has been holding information sessions to explain just what is eligible for rebates.
"I believe the Canadian film tax credit system is very effective at helping Canadian projects get off the ground," says Frantic Films' Bond. "We have a department creating Canadian shows for Canadian audiences, and that side of the company is doing incredibly well.
"In terms of post-production vfx, the credit is different in each province, and how that inter-relates with bids and projects is very complex," Bond continues. "Some clients want to handle the tax credit themselves and we do not have access due to the way the credit was designed. Some do not have the infrastructure or the size to handle the tax credit and it becomes a part of our project. And others handle it in entirely different ways. Some credits are for specific training or tasks that aren't designed for film productions to take advantage of, and so forth."
"I don't think the British Columbia visual effects industry as we know it would even exist without the kinds of aggressive tax credits created by the BC government," admits Atmosphere's Hoey. "In addition to the basic tax credit, there is also the so-called DAVE (Digital Animation and Visual Effects) tax credit, which greatly increases our ability to compete.
"Because every province has different tax credits, I almost don't think of there being a 'Canadian' vfx market so much as there being 'Vancouver,' 'Toronto' and 'Montreal' markets," observes Hoey.
"It's a combination of the tax credit and insurance of quality that is drawing the work," adds Hybride's Raymond. "We can be judged on the work we've done."
Raymond notes that another incentive of the past -- a favorable exchange rate -- has been ebbing due to the stronger Canadian dollar. "It was a huge attraction," he says, "but where the dollar was once 68 cents [vs. the U.S. dollar], it is now 97 cents, to quote a job. That's where the tax credit may give us a break now. But the real attraction is the quality of work we provide. We're very lucky that we're being asked to participate and be in competition with the shops in L.A."
Benoit Drouin, evp, Buzz Image Group, agrees, saying, "With or without an unfavorable dollar exchange, our rate card is typically lower than those of Hollywood or Europe. Our experience has showed us that the deciding factor is based on quality, not price."
Whether national or regional, the incentive system means that, for the most part, Canadian talent is being hired to do the work. "All of the talent we hire is Canadian," Gray Matter's Mackay says. "We have to, to get the rebate." Mackay says that it can be a challenge for her firm to find the talent it needs, because Gray Matter prefers to hire only seasoned professionals.
"Recruiting is always the toughest part of running a vfx company," suggests Atmosphere's Hoey. "There is a lot of competition for good people right now, so it can sometimes be difficult to find the right person, and expensive when we do. But the talent pool in British Columbia is amazing, and growing all the time. As British Columbia continues to make strides in the feature film market, I anticipate that the combination of cool projects and quality of life will entice an increasing number of talented artists away from other markets such as L.A. and London."
The same, of course, applies to Montreal. "We're no different than anywhere else," says Buzz Image's Moodie. "Certain positions within 3D are always easier to fill than others. Where we benefit is a much more accessible immigration process, allowing us to employ much more easily talent from other countries when or where needed."
"We are really training more than we are recruiting," comments Hybride's Raymond. "There's a huge difference between the Canadian and the U.S. market, and by that I mean Hollywood. In the U.S., hundreds of freelancers can be hired to finish a movie, and then they are released. In Canada, we are forced to build and maintain a team, which we support even during a low cycle."
Raymond says that the upside to this arrangement is that there is continuity, and that the team is used to working with each other. And, when Hybride does hire freelancers, they tend to come from Europe as well as the U.S. "Many do not necessarily speak English, and that works for us," Raymond adds. "When the project is over, we do try to convince them to stay. The level of the work is very demanding, and the talent that comes to us has four-plus years of experience."
Frantic Film's Bond does note that there is a huge talent pool of artists in Canada. "We have been extremely lucky to employ some of the most talented people in our industry," he says. "As well, I was recently at a college meeting with graduates out of California in 3D and 2D and they were all keen to work out of Canada. I don't believe recruiting is currently an issue -- indeed, with our L.A. office, we can gear up or down as required very easily."
In addition, a new generation of Canadian vfx pros is being trained in British Columbia. Rainmaker's Franklin says that there is a brand-new masters of digital media program being offered to university graduates this year. The full-time program offers students team-based experiences focused on project learning in close collaboration with British Columbia's games and digital media industry. The masters of digital media program is a 20-month course of study, including a summer internship, and the degree will be jointly awarded by Vancouver's four major post secondary institutions: the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design and the British Columbia Institute of Technology. The first class begins in September.
Franklin says that the program is being supported with a $40.5 million government grant. The degree program also received a $1 million grant from Electronic Arts Inc. (for the Great Northern Way Campus in Vancouver) in May.
"Education is a huge part of building a successful infrastructure," says Franklin. "It doesn't just relate to the service work. It will have an impact on developing intellectual property and developing animation projects in the full CG area."
Meanwhile, the types of effects that Canadian companies are being asked to achieve are both complex and innovative. "We produce a lot of varied work, from our new creature department in Vancouver to our growing R&D department in Winnipeg," says Frantic Films' Bond. "In fact, the R&D department allows us to create a lot of custom tools to handle complex problems and develop 'new' tricks -- effects and looks not before seen."
"For example," Bond continues, "developed entirely in-house, Flood is the base of our fluid toolset which comprises a number of applications which allowed us to do entirely synthetic shots of water environments and dynamics both above and beneath the surface of the water for Superman Returns, as well as the exploding red sun of Krypton for the opening credits. We have a number of current projects including a stereoscopic film, which uses some of these custom tools to create totally synthetic creatures and environments. We're very excited about the results!"
Atmosphere's Hoey says, "We recently finished work on the July 31 DVD release Babylon 5: The Lost Tales (Warner Home Video) In a compressed six-week schedule, we completed over 150 shots of space battles, virtual sets, matte paintings, shots involving complex fluid dynamics -- you name it. While we had done that kind of stuff before on other shows, we had to come up with some clever techniques to complete it for such an intense deadline. We were pretty happy with how it turned out."
Pierre Raymond of Hybride returned mid-June from an Autodesk User Conference in Japan, where he was asked to present a keynote address about work his firm completed on the TV series Marie Antoinette. The actors were all shot against greenscreen, and the backgrounds of Versailles and Paris were all composited. There were five days of shooting in Versailles and Paris, and 15 days of greenscreen work in Montreal. The results, which conformed to the tight TV schedule and budget, were of remarkable quality, he believes.
"We were asked, 'Is that possible?'" Raymond says. "In answer, we just showed them the 926 shots."
Hybride also worked on Frank Miller's 300, which Raymond cites as his company's most "spectacular" work on a movie. In fact, several Canadian companies had a role to play in making 300.
"We've been asked to provide anything from set extensions, character animation, head and face replacement to fx and simulations," says Buzz Image's Moodie. "Recent examples include The Covenant and The Flood. We have experienced the current trend of complete fully CG virtual environments with the movie 300."
"The movie 300 had a lot of effects, and the director had a particular vision of making a comic book come to life," says Chris Watts, who served as the film's vfx supervisor. "The Montreal studios were worked to capacity. Hybride and Buzz Image may not be the biggest, but they are hardworking and skilled. It was a Herculean effort to make 300."
Ottawa company XYZ RGB was also involved in 300, providing 3D scanning on set. "We went to Montreal, and scanned for three days," says coo Troy Robinson. The firm provided scans of 300 actors, props and shields.
On the west coast, in Vancouver, XYZ RGB was again on set with three high-end cameras to capture multiple views of the characters for the new Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer movie: The Thing, Mr. Fantastic, Human Torch, Invisible Woman and Doctor Doom. "The outcome will be 'digital doubles,'" Robinson says. The company also scanned model dinosaurs for King Kong and worked on Blades of Glory. "We have a bit of a niche in this area," comments Robinson.
Rainmaker was heavily involved in effects for Blades of Glory, providing some 300 vfx for the film. "They were all seamless vfx," says Rainmaker's Franklin, adding, "I guess eventually people will figure out about the vfx because those guys don't skate." Franklin notes that vfx are appearing everywhere, even in movies that are not considered "vfx films."
Raising the Bar
"The bar is being raised," Franklin adds. "Studios expect full face replacement on a budget." At the same time, he says that in most films, the effects should not be what is being noticed on screen. "We don't want to take you out of the movie," Franklin offers.
"The expectations are quite big," agrees Gray Matter's Mackay. "It can be challenging, so we have to be sure that we don't oversell and that we can meet the commitment."
Mackay says that Gray Matter FX now upgrades its equipment every year to stay fresh and competitive. "It used to be every two to three years," she says. In addition Gray Matter is developing and testing an internal system for sending files back and forth from Vancouver to L.A., because the company has found T3 and even T10 lines too slow.
"The industry is maturing much as it always has: innovative effects seen in high-end, big dollar visual effects extravaganzas become, within a short few years or even months, the staple of low-budget shows," Atmosphere's Hoey says. "But while the expectations of our clients can seem crazy at times, for the most part we do manage to live up to them. Maybe our clients aren't so crazy after all!
"Where things have shifted over the last five years or so," Hoey continues, "is that hardware is no longer the kind of limiting factor that it once was. Hardware is cheap now: all our CG and compositing is done on generic Windows PCs with, perhaps, a bit of extra RAM and a fairly decent graphics card. Editing in HD and film resolutions can be done on ordinary Macs with Final Cut Pro and relatively inexpensive external RAID. It's great!"
"Software is still a limiting factor once you start getting into higher-end visual effects," comments Hoey, "simply because off-the-shelf software, while excellent, can only get you so far. For some shots you still need to dedicate resources to creating custom software tools."
Hoey also believes that the production pipeline is the most difficult resource to get right. "More vfx houses fall down because of a poorly-organized pipeline than any other single factor," he says. "My feeling is that creating a good pipeline is less about technology per se than it is about creative thinking. As always, it comes down to having good people who can anticipate problems and think them through."
"We are always seeking better, faster methods, and software and the hardware is never fast enough," comments Buzz Image's Moodie. "We recognize the importance of pipeline on any modern production, and have recently put a lot of effort into implementing and improving our own."
"We use Autodesk's 3ds Max as our primary 3D tool," says Frantic Films' Bond. "I realize that most of the industry leans towards Maya or Softimage, but using 3ds Max has really allowed us to do things in a time frame that is unbelievable when compared to the other tools." Bond points out that two of the feature films nominated for best visual effects last year had work in them produced by Frantic, using 3ds Max: previs for Poseidon and previs and final effects for Superman Returns.
True North Trends
Bond says that he sees the key trend in Canadian vfx as "more, faster, better." He adds, "It's the same trend from five years ago, and I think it will be the same trend in five more."
"I believe the scope and concept of what we do is increasing dramatically," Bond comments. "All of us have had the experience of replacing every pixel in a shot from original photography, and it seems to me that we get continued calls to build entire shots that they weren't able to capture either because of their scale, the danger in capturing something of that nature, or the fact that it simply doesn't exist. It seems that writers and directors and studios are all coming up with ideas that were inconceivable before, simply because they were un-filmable. Now, we can design and build the un-filmable. That opens a lot of doors to worlds of imagination."
"Certainly, there has been an increasing tendency for productions to move toward high volumes of 'virtual set' greenscreen shots," says Atmosphere's Hoey. "A recent example for us was the upcoming DVD release of Babylon 5: The Lost Tales. Shooting schedules and budgetary constraints made it highly cost-effective to shoot entire scenes against gree screen. Atmosphere then created CG sets and environments for less than it would have cost to build sets practically. The economics of virtual environments have been turned upside-down in recent years; it is a technique that modestly-budgeted shows can realistically employ now."
Rainmaker's Franklin says that a key trend is more work from the U.S. coming to Canadian companies. "Another trend is that companies are expanding, and will be getting more difficult work -- prime contracts rather than secondary contacts," he notes.
Buzz Image's Moodie offers, "We imagine we will continue to see the move toward big and small shops as is happening elsewhere in the world. It seems that we are shifting toward the smaller boutiques and the bigger film production houses."
"I think the industry in Canada will continue to grow," says Gray Matter's Mackay. "I think more companies will make their own movies and develop their own intellectual properties."
"This is not an easy business to be in," Mackay says. "We have to deal with decreasing budgets and increasing time constraints. The good news is that there are more opportunities and more jobs."
"In the future, we will be seeing a move to globalization," says Hybride's Raymond. "Post-production activities are easier to split, and the Internet is working a lot to advance that. Canadian companies serve a U.S. market, and it's not an easy market to serve. We need to focus on coordination and follow-up. This is what our clients are expecting, and we need to be as organized as they are."
"There are a lot of unknown factors that are going to come into play, the biggest of which will be the emergence of highly competitive, mature, high-end visual effects companies in Asia," comments Atmosphere's Hoey. "How Canadian companies will deal with the competition, there's no telling. It'll be interesting, though!"
Janet Hetherington is a freelance writer and cartoonist based in Ottawa, Canada. She shares a studio with artist Ronn Sutton and a ginger cat, Heidi.