The huge success of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity at this year’s Oscars is a genuine cause for celebration for much of the UK film industry – not least for the many visual effects artists involved in its creation.
Tim Webber, Director of VFX at Soho’s Framestore, proudly took the stage to receive his team’s Academy Award, but the film’s closing titles reveal just how much of a collective effort it is to create a photorealistic movie set in the Earth’s orbit.
More than 450 people, many based in the UK, were credited for their VFX work on Gravity and hundreds more took on post-production duties without credit. The VFX industry has grown so dramatically in the UK over the past few years that an army of skilled people were on hand to create visual material even when the cameras stopped rolling on this spectacular film.
A jaded movie-goer might be tempted to forget the critical acclaim that Gravity received in order to bemoan the rise of tentpole blockbuster films. These are mega-budget productions that are used to make big bucks for studios through ticket sales and merchandise and are seen by many as a business opportunity rather than real movie making.
Examples in this genre tend to use fantastic computer graphics to shore up the A-list cast, but are often accused of lacking narrative nuance. Special effects are damned by association and are sometimes seen by critics and commentators as a less worthy part of the film-making process. This is a simplistic and short-sighted view though.
VFX techniques are used because they can make visual stories more viable as a subject matter for a film. The industry has grown because it has gradually become more practical to use computer graphics in film than to opt for special effects shots using scale models, animatronic creatures, optical in-camera effects or other physical methods. Whilst these techniques still have an important role to play in film-making, it is now cheaper, safer and often visually slicker to go digital.
This basic economic principle holds true for almost any film project, not just those with science-fiction, superhero or fantasy content. Rewind a couple of Oscar ceremonies and another big winner can be used as proof. The King’s Speech – a noble Brit-flick with not a single spaceship, orc, or dragon in sight – is an excellent example of the unsung categories of “invisible” effects techniques. Set extensions, background replacements, matte paintings and crowd duplication all played their respective parts.
Contemporary visual effects give all filmmakers a wider toolset to choose from, and consequently more artistic scope. If a production budget won’t accommodate a thousand extras for two days of shooting, then how about filming a few hundred people, moving them to different positions on screen, reshooting and compositing various shots into one?
The cost-effectiveness of computer graphics has even led to the development of pre-visualisation or previs as a sub-industry. Whole sequences, and even entire films can be created using basic 3D graphics before filming even starts. They can be developed, fine-tuned and used as templates to plan and orchestrate the principle photography phase. This can save time and money in the production of a film and often means you can avoid unnecessary spending on sets and shots that don’t actually make it into the final cut of a film.
In parallel with the development of graphics technologies, a share of the UK’s VFX success story is of course thanks to a certain young wizard. The Harry Potter franchise provided an opportunity for visual effects to thrive, providing Hogwarts-like apprenticeships for a new generation of artists and technicians.
Some of the largest Soho film post-production facilities – Framestore, Cinesite, Double Negative and MPC – were all in place before the first wave of a juvenile wand but the volume of work that developed across the Harry Potter series ensured that junior VFX staff were inducted, trained and in some cases moved onwards and upwards to supervise their own new apprentices.
Post-Potter, VFX is as politically and artistically complicated as any other corner of the creative industries, as two consecutive years’ of VFX protests outside the Oscars have highlighted. One country’s growth in market share is potentially another’s loss to outsourcing; but the same market forces apply across the globe, meaning that potential work can be lost to other emerging territories, just as it can be secured. The UK is of course as susceptible to this phenomenon as anywhere else.
For now though, with the forthcoming opening of an Industrial Light and Magic outpost in London, in time for the next episode of the Star Wars saga, the immediate future of the UK VFX industry looks as bright as the sight of the sun rising over the horizon on a spacewalk. Or perhaps as noble as a monarch addressing a crowd of loyal subjects, depending on your cinematic tastes.