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Practical Magic: The State of the VFX Industry in 2015, Part 1

Hopefully Steve’s crushed dreams from 1999 can be healed with a great new ‘Star Wars’ movie.

When trying to decide what to feature in this blog, I wanted to talk about the state of the VFX / animation industry. Unfortunately, this brought about great sadness and the only thing that could cheer me up was to think about the exciting movies coming out this year. So this blog posting will be a combination of the two, a literary Sour Patch Kid if you will; a little sour and a little sweet.

There is a cruel irony of President Obama visiting DreamWorks at the end of 2013 to promote industry growth, then PDI closing its doors a few months ago. Yet this year’s most anticipated movies are by and large created by digital artists sweating in small cubicles. So what’s the deal? Surely movie studios would want to protect such valuable resources?

To kick off my two-part exploration of the industry, I will look at what is coming out in 2015. There aren’t any standout VFX spectacles on the list (such as Gravity was, for example) and most movies nowadays look great by default. In fact, it seems like a year where shooting things practically is the trend. The majority of the tent-pole movies are sequels and / or well-known franchises, I’ll look at those first and then look at a few outsiders as well.

Movie executives love remakes and sequels; they are a shareholders dream. It’s much easier to release a well-known brand. There is a nostalgic element for audiences and they are simple to market. The Marvel comic book adaptations are a dream for Disney. Now you have multiple groups of people wanting to see the movies, not just the original comic book readers. It does require skill to get things right. It’s a balance between pleasing fans and enticing newcomers. People complain that remakes and sequels are a new phenomenon, yet this isn’t the case. Universal had plenty of monster movies based on known material (Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy) and The Wizard of Oz was based on a popular book! So what is the best remake of all time? For me it’s between three films; The Thing, The Fly and Scarface. All of the blockbusters this year are known franchises, but will they succeed or be left hanging around with Arthur (2011)?

'The Avengers: Age of Ultron'

It’s tough to ignore the big names: The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Jurassic World, Spectre, Terminator: Genisys, Mad Max: Fury Road and some franchise called Star Wars. I’m actually refusing to get excited about Star Wars, I did enough of that in 1999 for The Phantom Menace. I even went to see it twice, convinced I had missed something and that it was actually secretly sensational. This time I’ll let it sneak up on me and if its good then I will be pleasantly surprised. All indicators do point to it being much better than the prequels, a welcome return to practical effects and JJ Abrams thoroughly impressed me with his Star Trek (2009) reimagining. I’m unsure about the new Avengers movie. I did enjoy the first one, mainly because I am a big Robert Downey Jr. fan (and who doesn’t like Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk?). Looking at the latest trailer, there seems to be a lot to like, but for me it will depend on how much CG “pinball” there is. It gets to a point where I can only see so many CG characters flinging each other around the screen before I get bored. Does that make me high maintenance? Probably, but you’ll know what I mean if you saw the last Hobbit movie…

'Jurassic World'

I could take or leave Jurassic World. I will probably see it, but looking at the trailer, the original Jurassic Park still has shots that are more convincing! I smell a Hollywood-esq nostalgia cash-in movie here, along the same lines as the original, but overblown. It could be the Jaws 3-D of our time, except without the awesome slow floaty shark!

Not much is known about Spectre. I wasn’t even aware it was being released in 2015, but I am super excited about a return to the villains of old given the title of the film. I still think the most successful movie from the Daniel Craig era is Casino Royale (2006). The reason? They followed the book as closely as possible, keeping the dark character and storyline. Hopefully the film will deliver and won’t be like Quantum of Solace.


The new Terminator film seems like a strange hybrid of Time Cop and Last Action Hero with a grey-haired Terminator seen diving headfirst into a helicopter in the trailer. I have no desire to see this film, in fact I think it will probably have a pretty disappointing box office. If Christian Bale can’t save your franchise, then no-one can.

Out of all of these blockbusters, I’ve also snuck Mad Max: Fury Road in there, because it looks stunning. There is a lot to be excited about here; director George Miller waited long enough for Mel Gibson to be too old (!), he storyboarded everything meticulously and shot everything he could practically. If you watch the trailer, the first thing you notice is that it feels real. I loved Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior (1981) and they are right on point with everything that I liked there.

'Mad Max: Fury Road '

Some other “not quite blockbuster” movies worth keeping an eye on this year would include; Chappie, Mr. Holmes, Tomorrowland, Hateful Eight, Bridge of Spies, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. / Mission Impossible 5, Martian, Pitch Perfect 2,  Inside Out, Ted 2 and (maybe) In the Heart of the Sea. Of all of these I am most excited about Tomorrowland, mainly because it’s Brad Bird but also because it’s some original sci-fi, a seemingly rare treat these days. I’ll always watch what Tarantino does, regardless of the script leak. He still writes some of the best dialogue around. Plus I can’t wait to see how it looks in 70mm. Bridge of Spies reunites Spielberg with Tom Hanks and brings the Coen brothers on script writing duty as well as John Williams scoring. It feels like it is in the vein of Munich (2005), a historical drama set in Cold War Berlin, but promises to be an exciting collaboration nonetheless. I’m unsure about Pixar’s Inside Out. They haven’t had much that has interested me since Wall-E (2008). I am apparently the only person who isn’t a fan of Up (2009) and since then only Toy Story 3 (2010) has done it for me. They always animate everything beautifully and I am sure they will impress this time around too. Finally, can Ridley Scott win back the sci-fi fans he lost with Prometheus (2012) with The Martian? The plot sounds a little like Survivorman, but on Mars. I wonder if Matt Damon will go mad a la Interstellar this time round?

'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

All in all it is a pretty exciting year, mainly because it is the return of the big franchises. Hopefully my crushed dreams from 1999 can be healed with a great new Star Wars movie. Seeing as a fair few movies this year are using practical effects and more traditional film techniques, it seems fitting that the next blog will look at how the VFX industry is changing.

Stay tuned for Part 2 in two weeks