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Already a Hollywood shooting hotspot, Vancouver has quietly become a VFX powerhouse

Film

Welcome to Mount Pixel

Vancouver, already a hub for Hollywood shoots, has quietly become a global powerhouse for the one thing every blockbuster now requires: visual effects. Ian Bailey reports on the VFX boom that shows no signs of extinguishing

Winston Helgason, president of the Embassy studio, says the VFX industry is ‘a bit of a shark tank’ owing to tough competition.

It is an art form practised in deep, need-to-know secrecy but eventually seen by millions of people around the world – more than will view the most acclaimed canvasses. The work is quietly created on computers in dozens of visual-effects studios across the Vancouver region. There are, for example, so many studios in Vancouver's Mount Pleasant neighbourhood that some call it Mount Pixel.

Vancouver, already well known as a centre for Hollywood-financed feature-film and TV production, has become a global powerhouse for the production of visual effects (VFX) in some of the most high-profile films out these days. The credits tell the story: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Dr. Strange, Jurassic World, Logan and TV's Game of Thrones, among others.

Some of the studios are small, with 20 or so employees. Others are massive. Sony Imageworks, for example, has 700 employees at a complex in the city core above a Nordstrom department store. The size of the Vancouver industry varies depending on who's counting. The BC Tech Association estimates there are at least 57 VFX companies and studios employing more than 3,700 people. The provincial Creative BC organization tallies 73.

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While it's not clear exactly how many firms there are, the industry is definitely thriving. FilmL.A. Inc., the official film office of the Greater Los Angeles region, noted in a recent report that Britain and Canada "have both usurped" California and the United States as global centres for VFX work.

During a visit to the Embassy studio earlier this month, artists were working at terminals in low light, meticulously crafting imagery for upcoming projects. The company made its mark back in 2008 by creating the Mark 1 Iron Man suit in the feature film of the same name. The Embassy was considered for the job because of a television ad they produced that features a car turning into a robot.

The Embassy visual-effects studio in Vancouver, whose staff have to sign non-disclosure agreements, is working on an update to the 1960s TV series Lost In Space for Netflix.

Winston Helgason, president of The Embassy visual effects studio. Darryl Dyck/The Globe and Mai

The Iron Man assignment involved the Embassy team going to the California sets and locations of the movie to get a sense of the environment they had to work in, and then using computers to bring the suit to life on screen. This, in turn, brought work on further Marvel movies and in The Hunger Games series.

"It's almost like you enter a club at that point when you can do that kind of work," says Winston Helgason, the company president.

Still, Helgason says, it's a tough business. "It's a bit of a shark tank because a lot of people are competing for stuff," he said.

Vancouver-based filmmaker Neill Blomkamp, whose first feature film District 9 was nominated for a best-picture Oscar, got his start as a 3-D animator in the sector. He says there's a "sausage-factory element" to the way VFX staff are treated. "The profit margins are really slim and [VFX teams] get ground the hardest in terms of people looking for the best deals."

Here's how the VFX pipeline works. Filmmakers break down their needs based on their scripts and then seek bids on doing the work. VFX studios compete to get the work, often citing their experience in particular types of VFX.

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"You have a company that has 300 shots they need to produce. They're going to ramp up. They're going to set up their team in order to make it happen in a timely manner," says Vanessa Jacobsen, faculty head for 3-D animation and VFX at the Vancouver Film School.

"Even within a project, you're always problem-solving, trying to figure out the issues and move things ahead. They will take a basic shot and ask, 'What's the director's vision? What's the art director's vision?' They're going to create that feeling in that shot. They do it all in the computer. It's texturing, lighting, shading, camera angles, timing."

Shawn Walsh at Image Engine, which has worked on projects such as Game of Thrones, Deadpool and Jurassic World, says his team is sometimes approached very early on. "A lot of people will come to us with a script and they literally say, 'Can you guys give us an impression of what you think it's going to take to do this both creatively and technologically and financially?'"

Zach (Nick Robinson) and Gray (Ty Simpkins) roam among the dinosaurs in a scene from Jurassic World.

Secrecy is key throughout. Staff sign non-disclosure agreements. During a phone interview for this story, one VFX executive asked a publicist on the line if he could disclose a film, now in theatres, that the company's Vancouver team had worked on. Helgason said he could disclose that the Embassy is working on a Netflix update of the 1960s TV series Lost in Space. "I would never be able to talk about the content," he said. Studios are intent on protecting their intellectual property, he explained, so it's new and fresh when it's ready to be seen on screens.

VFX studios have had a role for years in the Vancouver film story. Blomkamp, a graduate of the Vancouver Film School, credits Hollywood's affection for Vancouver given its proximity to California and generous tax credits for luring work to Canada. In B.C., tax credits can cut between 44 per cent and 51 per cent off labour costs, subject to whether or not an operation meets Canadian content regulations. One such credit is the 16-per-cent B.C. Digital Animation or Visual Effects Tax Credit Program.

"When you mix all of those ingredients together, you end up with the perfect storm of, well, the effects haven essentially," says Blomkamp, who has had key visual effects for all of his films – District 9, Elysium and Chappie – done in Vancouver. "There are few cities around the world that are going to have this concentration of VFX facilities."

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He says it is sustainable as long as the tax credits remain. Blomkamp says he has been on the studio side of how decisions get made about where a project will be produced. "The second somewhere else is more cost-effective and the filmmakers feel like the [production] quality may be the same, there's no way to stay in Vancouver. The good news about Vancouver is it really is in a handful of cities around the world that can do this level of work."

As a result, a number of studios have popped up in recent years. Ed Ulbrich, president and general manager of virtual reality and visual effects at Deluxe, the parent company to Method Studios and Encore Studios, dismisses the suggestion that Vancouver is reaping the rewards of a kind of VFX gold rush. "To me a gold rush is like a flash in the pan. You're in and you're out. I would say what we have seen, in my experience in Vancouver, is a longevity. It is not an in and out," said Ulbrich, whose company's 500 Vancouver-based employees have worked on projects such as the part of Dr. Strange in which the Ancient One sorcerer expels Dr. Strange's consciousness from his body for an astral tour.

Trends in popular cinema are also working in the favour of Vancouver's VFX sector. FilmL.A.'s report also noted visual-effects staff now account for up to half the production staff in the top 25 live-action films with budgets of $75-million (U.S.) or more. "More people were employed in VFX jobs on the 2016 film Captain America: Civil War than on the entirety of La La Land, across all departments," the report said.

Blomkamp, who has launched his own "miniature, ninja attack team" VFX operation in Richmond, B.C., called Oats Studios, says the stakes are huge. It's not easy work, he says. Failure means a shoddy effect that can pull the audience out of the experience onscreen. "People think there is some sort of binary button that you hit that makes the VFX look real. It's a bunch of artists, like hundreds of artists, teaming together to make something attempt to look real. The more complex that thing is, whatever it may be, it becomes exponentially more difficult."

Even when his films have not been hailed, he has been pleased with the work of Vancouver effects houses, citing his film Chappie about a renegade robot in South Africa. "The film got trashed on several different levels, but it's actually astonishing how good the visual effects in that film are," he said "It's virtually impossible to distinguish the digital-computer-generated robot that is Chappie from the environments that are area, that he is existing inside of."

A still from Chappie.

Blomkamp says profit margins are "really slim" and "there's kind of a sausage-factory element about the way that VFX is treated that I really do not like," adding he feels for the artists sometimes. "I am pretty capitalistic and I understand that model. It's almost like the biggest element of the budget in most of these big Hollywood features is VFX and it's the one that gets treated the worst."

Walsh, of Image Engine, was inspired by the TV series Reboot and films such as Toy Story, Jurassic Park and The Nightmare Before Christmas, came into the business after concluding VFX was a means of making his fine-arts degree applicable to a collaborative job. "That, for someone in their mid-20s, was incredibly captivating."

Now the studio, like others, relies on a work force comprised of a mix of local graduates from VFS and other postsecondary institutions, as well as experienced talent from in the region and elsewhere in the world. VFS student Katie Annand, who is this summer finishing her studies in VFX, can't wait to get into the mix, vying for work with a 45-to-50-second demo reel reflecting her skills. The 24-year-old B.C. native came home from studies at Queen's University in Ontario to look for open doors in the industry. "I definitely see staying in Vancouver. The opportunities are really good here," Annand says.

Feature films and TV series that have had VFX work done in Vancouver

Since making its mark in 2008 by creating the Mark 1 Iron Man suit in the feature film of the same name, the Embassy got more work on more Marvel movies and in The Hunger Games series.

Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events – Encore Vancouver

Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 – Method Studios

Dr. Strange (includes: the beginning of the "Magical Mystery Tour" sequence and computer-generated environments for the mystic Himalayan training facility, Kumar-Taj) – Method Studios

Jurassic World (raptor sequences) – Image Engine

Game of Thrones – Image Engine

The Man in the High Castle – Image Engine

Logan – Image Engine

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Sony Imageworks

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 and 2 – The Embassy

Upcoming

Kingsman: The Golden Circle – Sony Imageworks

Lost in Space – Image Engine, The Embassy

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets – Industrial Light and Magic, Vancouver

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