The U.K. Industry 2003: Year in Review

Mark Ramshaw spoke with the visual effects wizards behind the newest live action Peter Pan feature about how they accomplished the startling and massive visual effects.

Harry Potter isnt only a publishing phenomenon in the U.K. © 2001 - Warner Bros. - All rights reserved

Harry Potter isnt only a publishing phenomenon in the U.K. © 2001 - Warner Bros. - All rights reserved

While the U.K. visual effects industry has evolved at an astonishing rate over the last five years, few expected 2003 to be such a successful year. Though many had seen 2002s merger between Framestore and CFC as a healthy consolidation, none took any comfort from the closure of The Mills film division. If a facility with credits for such blockbusters as Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone, Tomb Raider and Gladiator couldnt make the numbers add up, what chance for the other studios? In fact, the last 12 months has seen the U.K. in ruder health than ever. In both the domestic and international markets, particularly in film, the industry is thriving.

As director of Techimage, the company that supplies high-end software such as RenderMan, 3D Equalizer and Houdini to U.K. studios and was responsible for the successful Pipeline 2003 event, Seamus Morley is ideally placed to view the state of play. It really does feel like these are the good times, he concurs. Both Moving Picture Co. and Framestore CFC have clearly won the confidence of big time producers with the work theyve done so far. And though I think maybe The Mill took its eye off the ball in the commercial arena when it was still doing movies, its certainly come back with a vengeance.

Having laid the groundwork over the last couple of years, Cinesites London division also enjoyed a successful 2003. As well as providing effects for Ella Enchanted, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (LXG) and the upcoming King Arthur and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the facility also expanded by some 40% in a restructuring that saw the addition of a models team and several ex-Mill Film creatives.

This is a very buoyant time for the U.K. film industry, and the large slate of films, U.K. co-produced and U.S. funded, shooting and post producing in the U.K. is indicative of the key position that U.K. visual effects suppliers have earned globally, reckons Colin Brown, chairman of Cinesite Europe.

Visual and special effects were combined to bring the Tomb Raider sequel to life. Photo by Alex Bailey - © 2003 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

Visual and special effects were combined to bring the Tomb Raider sequel to life. Photo by Alex Bailey - © 2003 by Paramount Pictures. All rights reserved.

The aforementioned Moving Picture Co. also stepped up a gear in 2003. Projects completed there in the last few months include Big Fish, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life and Ella Enchanted. And having proven its worth, steadily taking on larger chunks of Harry Potter effects work, 2003 saw MPC further strengthen its position with the latest chapter. Work is due to continue into 2004, as is Troy, Wimbledon and Around the World in 80 Days.

Framestore CFC is another studio thats been hard at work on both Troy and Potter (in fact, Industrial Light & Magic is the only non-U.K. studio involved in this project), while also contributing to Cold Mountain, and scoring with some typically accomplished CG creature work for surprise hit Underworld. 2003 also saw Double Negative continue its inexorable rise. In addition, contributions to Cold Mountain, Ella Enchanted and LXG, it has also re-teamed with David Twohy and Peter Chiang, taking on the principal effects work for the hotly tipped Chronicles of Riddick.

So what went right? The general consensus is that the U.K.s time has come. Having courted the U.S. movie industry for the last few years, carefully invested in talent, high-end software solutions (witness the ubiquity of RenderMan) and infrastructure, and taken on ever more demanding projects, the studios are now being awarded major film and broadcast contracts based largely on merit. No longer chosen simply for cost and associated tax breaks, the majors are winning bids that would once have been the preserve of ILM, Digital Domain, Rhythm & Hues, et al.

Two years ago the quality still wasnt there, but 2003 has seen the U.K. producing what can be defined as world class CG, says Morley. And early indications are that, with work on projects like the new Harry Potter and Troy, the U.K. studios are continuing to rise to the challenge.

With U.K. firms working on summer tentpoles like Troy, the U.K. vfx industry is proving it can hang with the state-side effects wizards.

With U.K. firms working on summer tentpoles like Troy, the U.K. vfx industry is proving it can hang with the state-side effects wizards.

Jon Collins, who recently left Framestore CFCs London offices to assume the MD role at its new New York facility, agrees. During the mid-90s Hollywood was looking to London and asking whether it could actually handle larger scale work. Since then the companies that have prospered have worked bloody hard. Now London has established itself as a center of excellence.

A halt has even arguably been called to the longstanding talent drain. The very best and brightest can now achieve their career and artistic ambitions in the U.K., adds Morley. Its no longer necessary to go the west coast, and, in fact, the whole European sensibility of working on something creative is somehow appealing, whereas in more business orientated organizations in L.A., its perhaps felt to be lacking.

Paul Franklin, head of CG at Double Negative, has a more cautious view: The U.S. still has a serious edge in terms of size, R&D, consistency and overall level of finish. Whilst the U.K. industry has grown dramatically, it is still the case that you can count the major home grown facilities on the fingers of one hand, whereas over in L.A. you can hardly move for competing outfits, constantly pushing the envelope of technique and keeping prices real.

Nevertheless, Franklin does believe that London is currently the most exciting and dynamic place to be a visual effects artist. The market here is still wide open and the U.K. continues to pull in some of the most interesting and stimulating work available.

Over in broadcast, experiences havent been quite so uniformly positive, though, again, the market has performed better than expected in the wake of a recovery by the commercials market, where budgets had shrunk considerably the previous couple of years.

Theres also more TV graphics work, points out Jim Radford, creative head of 3D at Moving Picture Co., citing the introduction of dozens of new digitally transmitted channels as a major contributing factor in the increased demand for programming, commercials and idents.

MPCs notable broadcast achievements include the Levis Car spot, BBCs documentary Colosseum - Romes Arena of Death and extensive CG work for the TV series Wild Weather. The latter two are indicative of current programming trends.

Framestore artists work on Walking with Dinosaurs woke the world up to what was being done in the U.K. © Framestore CFC.

Framestore artists work on Walking with Dinosaurs woke the world up to what was being done in the U.K. © Framestore CFC.

Walking with Dinosaurs was a landmark in the industry worldwide, and now producers are looking to capture audiences with nature programs, historical sequences and recreations reliant on CG, agrees Morley.

Weve definitely had a wave of programs where CG is relied upon to recreate locations, events or other things you just cant get in cameras, says Radford, who believes broadcast CG is maturing in the same way movie CG did. Broadcast graphics are there to help the story now, rather than stand out.

Framestore CFC was, of course, a pioneer of CG for long format. And despite its success with feature effects, it clearly remains as committed to broadcast as ever. During 2003, it delivered more animalist thrills, with further series of Dinotopia and new Walking with Dinosaurs spin-offs. It also delivered a number of acclaimed ads, including the Audi Fish and Bull spots. Having recently followed in the footsteps of The Mill, opening a New York office to widen its client base, we can surely expect to see more on this front in 2004.

As for The Mill, the move away from feature work has indeed appeared to give it a new lease on life. During the last year, it has turned out a breathtaking number of high-quality music videos and ads, not least the Massive-assisted promo for Radioheads Go to Sleep, the Mercedes Movement spot and a controversial Levis ad created in collaboration with the legendary H.R. Giger.

Cult puppet series Captain Scarlet will return to TV with a 3D overhaul. © MMI Carlton International Media Limited.

Cult puppet series Captain Scarlet will return to TV with a 3D overhaul. © MMI Carlton International Media Limited.

Double Negative has also been gearing up to make a splash in broadcast, palling up with music video veteran Passion Pictures for a CG-animated series of Captain Scarlet. The show, created by a team of 65 animators, is due to air in 2004. Smaller studios, such as the newly revitalized Rushes, The Hive, Glassworks, Clear and Shynola also enjoyed much success in the broadcast sector. The latter two picked up an award and welcome exposure courtesy of MTV, for their Queens Of The Stone Age Go with the Flow promo. 2004 will see the Shynola team turning their talents to film work for the first time, producing guidebook animations for the long-awaited Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy feature.

It wasnt all good news. A worrying lack of support led to the cancellation of the Digital Arts World exhibition and London Effects and Animation Festival (LEAF). But, if anything, its absence had a galvanizing effect, reminding many industry figures just how valuable a fixture it had been, and thus renewing enthusiasm for its return in 2004. And any lingering doubts about the health of the industry were likely cancelled out by the positivity generated by Vanguard. As well as heralding the U.K.s entry into the world of animated features and instantly adding a major facility to the map, its hoped the arrival of Vanguard Animation will usher in a new era, inspiring other facilities to make the leap into full feature production.

Disneys deal with Vanguard Animation for the Valiant feature could signal even bigger things for the U.K. Courtesy of Vanguard Animation.

Disneys deal with Vanguard Animation for the Valiant feature could signal even bigger things for the U.K. Courtesy of Vanguard Animation.

If Vanguard is successful, then it will doubtless inspire confidence in the U.K. with producers, says Seamus Morley. Id say it has the potential to break the mold for film work over here in the same way Walking with Dinosaurs did with broadcast.

And, he says, further changes are on the way. Although the major studios now have the robust pipelines necessary to tackle large-scale work, a winning business model has yet to be defined. I think in the longer term well see a trend of companies focusing on their own IP.

For now, though, its difficult to remain unimpressed by what was achieved in 2003. The U.K. industry has an importance that belies its modest size, and theres every sign that domestic broadcast work is set to thrive on the back of the digital revolution, while that vital Hollywood-Soho connection will only get stronger. There are more than enough serious projects out there to keep up the momentum, concludes Morley. Now its going to be about more shots, more quickly and with even more quality.

Mark Ramshaw is a freelance writer. He has worked as a computer game programmer and producer and a magazine editor, but now avoids grown-up office work by writing about the visual effects, video game and music industries. He is also contributing editor for 3D World.

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