In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione enter a hidden place in Hogwarts castle called the Room of Requirement, where they are chased by fire-breathing monsters. While this nail-biting scene in the film took place in the famous magical school, it was brought to 3-D life by Gener8 Digital Media Corp. in Vancouver. A newcomer on the city's expanding digital-effects block, the company landed the reputation-building contract in early 2011. "It was a very hard, complicated scene. But we were like 'okay, we can do it'—and we did it," says Rory Armes, Gener8's CEO. "We just like to go in and say 'we'll figure it out.' And it seems to work. They think we're kind of cuckoo, I think."
"They" is Hollywood, and Armes, a 50-year-old veteran of the video game industry, has managed to penetrate that glittery closed-shop from north of the border. Recognizing a market opportunity, Gener8 developed a proprietary technology it calls G83D: a method of converting films to 3-D that was previously thought too difficult and labour-intensive. "We didn't know that you couldn't do it," says Armes, who was formerly senior vice-president and group studio general manager at the Canadian division of video-game developer Electronic Arts. "So not knowing that we weren't supposed to be able to do it, we just did it. And then learned on the fly."
In 3-D conversion, the special effects are added in post-production instead of being created during the shooting. Although the process got off to a shaky start, it is gaining industry acceptance not only for the quality of the content but because it is more practical to produce (shooting in 3-D is highly complex) and the costs are more predictable. The production industry in Vancouver may be up against a high Canadian dollar and superior tax credits in Ontario and Quebec, but the visual-effects and animation industry in the province is booming nonetheless. A growing list of companies (Pixar and Industrial Light & Magic, among others) have built a $3-billion industry in B.C. It's a sizable pie, but moving into the space can be an expensive undertaking. In 2011 and again this year, Gener8 raised a total of more than $5-million in private equity financing to sink primarily into R&D and business development.
For his firm's success in selling its emerging brand to major Hollywood studios, Armes credits the connections he made in the many years he worked at Electronic Arts, as well as the solid industry contacts of Gener8's chief creative officer, Nilo Rodis. A veteran whose long list of credits includes Toy Story and films in the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises, Rodis made some introductions in Hollywood and then word of mouth took over. Before the company became Gener8–it was previously called Conversion Works–it landed two films: Priest 3D and The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
Narnia, the firm's first project, hit screens in December, 2010. It was received well and opened doors–in particular, the door to the Room of Requirement. Gener8 received a call that month from the Harry Potter team. Subsequently, the firm added The Amazing Spider-Man and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance to its list of film credits. For Ghost Rider, the company converted nearly the entire movie. Being able to do the 3-D format before the visual effects was "critical" to the quality of the film, says Ghost Rider's visual-effects producer Jenny Fulle.
Armes thinks 3-D conversion is here to stay, but he is eager to create other revenue streams for his growing company. This fall, Gener8 will launch a new service, Cumul8, which is designed to help film producers with effects-heavy projects keep track of the enormous amounts of data that are transferred between vendors. Even before the official launch of Cumul8, two films are using it for big releases. (Armes wouldn't disclose the names of the films.)
Armes has big ambitions for his small enterprise, among them corporate expansion. The privately held firm has revenue "well into the seven digits," and anticipates eight digits next year. And while Gener8 currently has a staff of about 75 employees, by the new year, it expects to at least double that number. "In a sense, the 3-D helped us along our journey," Armes says. "With 3-D, okay, we've proved ourselves. But because we're technologists more than we're even service providers, there's more we can do to help."