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Visual effects: why the UK must build a legacy for the future

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Paul Franklin

Film Producer

It has produced mind-blowing visual effects for Hollywood blockbusters such as Iron Man 2 and Inception and won a clutch of awards including BAFTAs and an Oscar. But visual effects firm Double Negative is not American or Japanese – it’s British. Co-founder and VFX supervisor Paul Franklin, one of the Oscar-winning team that worked on Inception, discusses the little known success of the UK visual effects industry and the challenges it faces.

Every once in a while I am asked: “So when are you going to move to Hollywood?” It’s a good question. Britain has a tremendous history in filmmaking; many of the early breakthroughs in cinema technology were made here at the beginning of the 20th century and some of the greatest films of all time were produced within these shores.
But for a long time, America has been seen as the big brother in this business and very much the goal to aspire to. There are some good examples of filmmakers from America and elsewhere who relocated to the UK, making it their production base – Stanley Kubrick springs to mind – but for the most part the narrative is one of migration to the US with a long list of promising British filmmakers cutting their teeth here in the native industry before heading off to Los Angeles in the hope of winning bigger and better projects.
Iron Man 2 which featured visual effects created by Double NegativeWhen I first started trying to make my mark in the late 1980s, this flow of talent out of the UK was certainly a feature of my own small part of the movie business. A community of digital visual effects companies had established itself in London based around the television advertising business and some were beginning to work on feature films. However, if an aspiring visual effects artist wanted to make it big in the movies then California seemed to be the only option; every year glittering new examples of cutting-edge visual effects would hit the cinemas and they all had “made in America” stamped on them.
In the early ‘90s I was working as an animator for a Liverpool-based videogames company and I remember sitting in a local cinema, astounded by the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, and thinking to myself that I had to work with those guys – at that moment if you’d asked me “when are you going to move to Hollywood?” then my answer would have been “as soon as possible”.
A year later I moved to London to join the Moving Picture Company (MPC), a major landmark on the UK post-production scene, to work in television commercials. One of the really exciting things that was happening at MPC was they had just set up a small film visual effects group which I thought might serve as the perfect stepping stone to my Hollywood dream. It was with this group that I properly encountered British filmmaking, having only been involved in student shorts up to that point. I became familiar with the local studios – Pinewood, Shepperton, Elstree and more – and I began to see how dynamic the UK film community actually was, especially around its Soho hub in London’s West End – an amazing melting pot for all sorts of ideas and businesses that combined to make it the heart of Britain’s creative visual industry.
We started work on the low-budget film Hackers and began to experiment with new ways of creating images with computers. In the scorching summer of 1994, working with a small band of digital pioneers, it seemed to me that Soho was the most exciting place on earth.
The SIGGRAPH conferenceI still carried a torch for California though and it was with great anticipation that I made my first visit to Los Angeles in 1995 to attend the annual SIGGRAPH conference on computer graphics and animation – an extraordinary combination of cutting edge computer science and movie world pizzaz. SIGGRAPH was the place where you could meet visual effects legends from Star Wars alongside NASA rocket scientists. Anyone who had the words “Industrial Light and Magic” on their name badge received instant respect regardless of whether it was George Lucas himself or the new guy who made the photocopies.
Computer scientists from MIT and Stanford strolled through the corridors of the LA Convention Centre and the exhibition hall resembled a fantasy videogames arcade crossed with a sci-fi movie set: supercomputers at every turn. The 1995 conference was where the first five minutes of Pixar’s ground-breaking Toy Story were revealed to an ecstatic audience of über geeks. This was clearly where “it” was at.
But one thing puzzled me: LA, and California by extension, clearly had the money and skills base to establish its pre-eminent position within the visual effects business but I felt something was missing. As I toured around the city, visiting various VFX houses to which friends from the UK had relocated over the years, I was unable to find any discernible centre. Everything was spread out and, to a certain extent, segregated with no place for artists and filmmakers of all kinds to meet, form alliances and exchange ideas. In short, it was no equivalent of the glorious fizzing world of Soho.
I returned to the UK with the realisation that the very nature of the UK’s creative community was essential to the way that I wanted to work and that with the emergence of ever cheaper and more accessible digital tools, it might be possible to build something here at home that would be the equal of any of our peers in the international visual effects business. Fortunately I found myself with a group of like-minded individuals and in 1998 we set up Double Negative Visual Effects with an initial team of ten people.
Thirteen years later and Double Negative has close to a thousand people working in London, making visual effects for films ranging from British comedies such as Attack the Block to huge summer blockbusters like Iron Man 2 and Inception, for which we won our first Oscar.
Our company is an example of the success of the UK visual effects industry as a whole which grew at an explosive 16.8 per cent between 2006 and 2008. The UK has become a visual effects powerhouse, bringing substantial inward investment from overseas and creating thousands of highly-paid, highly-skilled jobs. The UK’s reputation for creating the very best visual effects attracts the world’s top filmmakers: three of the five films nominated for the best visual effects Oscar in 2011 had their effects made partly, or completely in the UK. If you’ve been to see a big blockbuster movie in the last few years, then the chances are that you’ve been watching our work.
At the moment there is a lot of concern about how the current economic climate is affecting the British film industry and the shortage of funding has certainly had an impact on independently-financed films. However, the biggest threat to the UK visual effects industry is not lack of work but lack of home-grown skilled staff.
In the NESTA-commissioned Next Gen skills review, Ian Livingstone, Life President of UK-based Eidos (one of the world’s leading producers of videogames) and Alex Hope, Managing Director of Double Negative Ltd, explain how a general lack of awareness among the UK public of the visual effects and videogames sectors has combined with inadequacies in our education system to produce a chronic lack of skilled graduates for these key creative industries. This shortage is so acute that nearly half of our staff are recruited from overseas. And before anyone asks, we’re certainly not doing this because it’s a cheaper option – quite the opposite.

The lack of understanding about our industry is an equal concern. As the report points out, most members of the public think that the visual effects for Inception were created in either the US, Japan or even China. We did shoot a small part of Inception in Japan, but I’m pretty sure that we made the effects just north of Oxford Street in Fitzrovia.
More worryingly, Ian and Alex show how increasing numbers of schoolchildren are turning away from maths and science and thus failing to gain the knowledge and skills necessary for employment in our industries. My own background is in Fine Art which I studied at university, but I also gained a good grounding in maths and science through my sixth form. I often wish I could have continued some aspect of my science education while I was an undergraduate as art and science are equally useful to me in my job.
The amazing creative country that I live in enabled my colleagues and I to work with Hollywood on our own terms. I believe it’s essential that we, as a nation, build upon that and develop the skills of tomorrow’s workforce so that we leave a lasting legacy for the future and help to maintain the UK’s leading position in creativity.

Photo ©SIGGRAPH 2010.

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