By TREVOR HOGG
The award-winning definitive authority on all things visual effects in the world of film, TV, gaming, virtual reality, commercials, theme parks, and other new media.
Winner of three prestigious Folio Awards for excellence in publishing.
By TREVOR HOGG
What do Houdini, Maya and Softimage have in common? They originated from Canada courtesy of SideFX, Alias Systems Corporation and Softimage. “All of a sudden there was this growth in computer graphics in the mid-1990s, everyone went public except for us, and then both Alias and Softimage were purchased by Autodesk,” notes SideFX President and CEO Kim Davidson, who believes that the key to survival for an independent company such as SideFX is servicing a niche market. “The general problem in Canada is the lack of mid-market funding. But this wasn’t an issue for us as we grew organically with great support from Canadian schools, both on the technical and artistic sides, as well as from governments with R&D tax credits.”
Continuing the tradition of technological innovation is Vancouver-located Ziva Dynamics, who released a character-creation Maya plug-in that produces realistic muscle growth and deformations called Ziva VFX. “I realized that as the projects I worked on grew in complexity, the commercial rigging solutions were no longer yielding the required level of realism,” remarks James Jacobs, Co-founder and Co-CEO at Ziva Dynamics. “Scanline VFX played a pivotal role in the feature decisions we made for our MVP release back in 2015, and now can be found using Ziva VFX to create fully-simulated creatures for major productions, like the megalodon in the 2018 summer blockbuster The Meg.”
One of the early pioneers was Toronto-based Omnibus Computer Graphics, best known for producing the procedural graphics application PRISMS (the forerunner for Houdini) and digital effects for Explorers (1985) and Flight of the Navigator (1986) before going bankrupt in 1987. Seven years later, John Mariella, Bob Munroe, Kyle Menzies and William Shatner founded C.O.R.E. Digital Pictures, which was involved with a variety of movie and television projects such as Fly Away Home (1996), Wonderfalls (2004) and The Wild (2006).
“Back then, Canadian talent had to move out of the country to find work as effects artists on feature films,” notes SideFX Senior Production Consultant John Mariella. “There weren’t any companies servicing the long-form or feature-film markets in Canada. That was the key motivation for us to set up in Toronto. Ultimately, delays in production green-lighting, the strength of the Canadian dollar, and costs associated with gap financing tax credits, led to our closure in 2010.”
Visual effects and animation have evolved into a billion-dollar industry in British Columbia and are responsible for 12,000 jobs. “All our tax incentives are labor-based, so if you hire a permanent B.C. resident, you will receive back a portion of their salary,” remarks Nancy Basi, Executive Director, Media and Entertainment Center at the Vancouver Economic Commission. “This both encourages and sustains the growth of the talent pool and career development of the professionals working in this sector.”
A significant vote of confidence occurred when Sony Pictures Imageworks, responsible for The Polar Express (2004) and Watchmen (2009), decided to relocate its headquarters from Culver City, California to Vancouver in 2014.
“In order to be more competitive, we needed to be aggressive ramping up our footprint in tax-incentive locations, so we decided to go big in Vancouver and not just grow our office but make a commitment in terms of a physical headquarters and building up our management team,” remarks Sony Pictures Imageworks President Randy Lake. “It has worked out great. We have a beautiful 73,000 square-foot floor for our needs, and ended up needing incidental space as well – as our production has ebbed and flowed over the past four years – and we have around 1,100 artists.”
“Image Engine was founded by three people in 1995 and has since grown into a 300-person, high-end visual effects studio,” states Shawn Walsh, Visual Effects Executive Producer & General Manager at Image Engine. “This growth is emblematic of the overall trend in visual effects in both Vancouver and Canada in the past 20 years. The studio cut its teeth contributing to the growing need for video post-production services in Vancouver during the late 1990s and early 2000s, and had its coming of age moment with the Academy Award-nominated sophisticated creature work for Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 in 2009. In the decade since, Image Engine has focused on delivering an ever-expanding portfolio of work to mainly feature film [Skyscraper] and high-end television clientele [Lost in Space].”
“Artifex started in Vancouver as a place for me to work!” laughs Artifex Studios President Adam Stern whose independent visual effects studio has contributed to Showcase’s Continuum and Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. “We’ve now been in operation for over 20 years and generally employ between 30 and 40 staff. It’s important to me to recognize that people have lives outside of work so that generally means a 40-hour work week, paid OT, paid time off, and respect for the individual artists and the teams they’re part of. We also do our absolute best to bring in projects that we think fit the studio and artists would want to work on.” Stern is exploring being more than a service provider. “To date, Artifex has produced two short films, and they’ve both done quite well [and are both being developed further]. It has helped inform how we approach working on other film and television projects, and has given Artifex a window into the unique challenges other creatives face within this industry.”
The total economic impact of the computer animation and visual effects sector for Ontario was $449.5 million in 2014 with 7,000 people being employed. “Ontario Creates manages a variety of programs and financial incentives to support the production sector, including the Ontario Computer Animation and Special Effects Tax Credit (OCASE),” explains Justin Cutler, Film Commissioner of Ontario at Ontario Creates. “This tax credit returns 18% of Ontario-based expenditures related to animation and special effects to the production to help offset costs and encourage investment in future productions. It is available in addition to other provincial and federal tax credits and grants that support film and television production.”
“Canada as a whole has the best talent pool and tax incentives whether you’re in British Columbia, Ontario or Quebec,” believes Soho VFX CEO and Co-founder Allan Magled. “All of the talent is either in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. You could do the same thing in another province, but you would be hard-pressed to get the talent over there.” Established in 2002, Soho VFX experienced an international breakthrough completing 200 shots for the Marvel Studios blockbuster The Incredible Hulk (2008). “You’re always chasing projects, but over the years you also manage to develop relationships and keep those, provided that your work gets better or you’re doing good work and the service is good.” Magled does not have plans to expand beyond Toronto. “When MPCs of the world take on a show, it’s an enormous chunk, like a 1,000 shots. We could take on 400 shots, and are happy with our size and ability.”
Spin VFX has been part of the Toronto visual effects scene for 30 years and has been responsible for Suicide Squad (2016) and Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House. “SIRT [Screen Industries Research and Training Center] has provided an important bridge between academics and industry in the Toronto visual effects community,” notes Neishaw Ali, President and Executive Producer at Spin VFX. “Their focus on research and new technology keeps them relevant and engaged with current and upcoming challenges. It provides students with a chance to gain valuable experience while filling a real need for companies.” Ali adds, “Toronto and Canada must continue to invest in human and physical infrastructure. Additional studio space needs to be built to ensure more shows have the flexibility to shoot in Toronto. Equally important is the need to continue to develop our creative and technical talent locally.”
The visual effects industry has an economic worth of $262 million in Quebec and is responsible for 3,000 jobs, with a rebate program managed by SODEC (Society of Developing Cultural Enterprises) that gives 20% cash-back for all expenses and 16% bonus on all CGI and greenscreen shots. “The last five years have been quite remarkable,” remarks Eric Kucharsky, Director, Business Development, ICT Europe – Foreign Investments at Montreal International. “The industry up until then was local and niche with few shots on larger projects, like Hybride on 300 (2006).” Foreign visual effects studios, such as Framestore, Cinesite, MPC, Digital Domain, and most recently Method Studios, Scanline VFX and Pixomondo, have been drawn to Montreal. “Not only because of the tax credit, but more importantly the large talent pool that we have, especially, in the gaming sector,” notes Christian Bernard, Chief Economist and Vice President Marketing Communication at Montreal International.
Tax credits and studio space are critical to Rodeo FX, which has a presence in Montreal, Quebec City, Los Angeles and Munich, as well as having worked on Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and HBO’s Game of Thrones. “We have grown exponentially each year and added a new building in Montreal that can house up to 120 artists and connects two of our existing studios,” states Sébastien Moreau, President and VFX Supervisor at Rodeo FX. “We moved our practical shooting stage to what has become our Rodeo FX Campus in Old Montreal. We are also taking over a new floor at our main building that will add an additional 110 artists. As for tax credits, they allow us to be competitive and attract top clients; however, it’s important to note that our clients receive them, not us.”
“Post production and VFX companies need to stay proactive and dynamic, and if they’re not, the VFX market will force them to be, because our market is in constant evolution,” notes Pierre Raymond, President, Co-founder and Head of Operations at Hybride. “I’d say that in 27 years of existence, we have probably reinvented Hybride five times.” High-profile projects include Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) and Kong: Skull Island (2017). “One of the things that Montreal’s academic institutions did well over the years was opening programs to train extremely talented people in different fields. It’s mainly because of the quality of the resources we could find from Montreal’s diversity that Hybride became the first company on the North American east coast to really stand out and the first company in Quebec to work on blockbusters.”
In 2011, digital matte painter, concept artist and visual effects art director Mathieu Raynault established Raynault VFX, which specializes in environmental work that has appeared in Starz’s Black Sails, Arrival (2016), and Murder on the Orient Express (2017). “Montreal is an attractive city being close to Europe and New York,” remarks Charlene Eberle, Executive Producer at Raynault VFX. “like Vancouver is attractive being close to California. The growth has been great. We have benefited greatly because of it. Clients now have a larger market to choose from and a larger pool of talent to utilize.”
Contributing to the success of the boutique studio is a high staff retention rate and recruiting employees who are proactive, autonomous and good team players. “Like any business you need to stay on top of the industry in order to stay competitive. You also need to keep a keen eye on technological advances and always focus on the ever-changing demands of the industry.”
In 2018, Deluxe Entertainment Group purchased Atomic Fiction, which has worked on The Walk and Welcome to Marwen, to become part of Method Studios. “We started Atomic Fiction out of my home office in San Francisco and over the course of three years wanted to grow more,” remarks Atomic Fiction Co-founder Kevin Baillie, now Creative Director, Senior VFX Supervisor at Method Studios. “Montreal felt like uncharted territory. There weren’t any other American visual effects companies. MPC and Framestore had gotten started there, and Rodeo FX was the only established medium-size visual effects company. Fast forward four years later and every company is either in Montreal or going to be there. The talent pool has grown immensely, both in terms of what schools are doing as well as people coming from all around the world.” Ed Ulbrich, President and General Manager, Visual Effects at Deluxe Entertainment adds, “Most clients call and ask for Montreal first because they want that rebate. I was nearly ready to put pen to paper to sign a lease in Montreal to build our own facility, and through a mutual acquaintance I got to meet Kevin. It was clear that the vision for the future of visual effects at scale and the challenges of Montreal, that there was a mutual fit.”
Sheridan College established a computer animation program in 1981. “We’ve developed our curriculum in Visual Effects with training a generalist in mind,” states Sheridan College Program Coordinator/Professor of Computer Animation, Visual Effects & Digital Creature Animation, Noel Hooper. “We are also trying to stay ahead of industry needs by developing new programs like our Digital Creature TD program.” Lost Boys Studio, founded by Mark Bénard, has shifted toward specialized programs. “We were producing excellent generalists, capable of adapting to different production roles, but noticed that once a discipline was selected it was rare that our alumni ever shifted departments [usually staying in Lighting, FX or Compositing].” Technicolor is actively involved with training initiatives in Canada. “Our courses are aligned to the skills framework and pipelines of the studios that we support: MPC Film, Mr. X and Mill Film,” states Jonathan Fletcher, Global Head of Learning and Development, Technicolor Academy. “It includes offering training on proprietary tools and VFX workflows. This in turn gives the artists more confidence about beginning their careers at one of the visual effects studios and helps with the transition onto the show floor.”
“The visual effects landscape is constantly evolving, and every region needs to utilize as many tools as possible to stay competitive, based on their unique strengths,” remarks Sony Pictures Imageworks Vice President, New Business Production, Shauna Bryan. “Vancouver has a labor-based rebate, so the industry has to focus on not only attracting, but retaining international talent, as well as focus on local education, training and internship programs.” The first of the big companies to come to Montreal was Framestore in 2013. “It made a lot of sense to open another studio in Canada,” notes Chloë Grysole, Managing Director at Framestore Montreal. “One of the factors was the lifestyle in Montreal. Knowing that you’re going to have to relocate people from all over the world, you want to make it a place where they are going to want to live. We have 600 people from 49 different nationalities on our staff.”
Canadian visual effects companies have attracted foreign ownership interest with Ubisoft buying Hybride in 2008, Cinesite merging with Image Engine in 2015, and Mr. X being acquired by Technicolor in 2014. “If you are not strategically aligned or able to invest the capital needed in today’s global landscape, it’s going to be difficult for a mid-size studio,” notes Mr. X CCO Dennis Berardi, who supervised the visual effects for The Shape of Water (2017) and is currently producing Monster Hunter (2020). “It’s probably easier for a boutique studio that has a niche offering, like motion graphics or high-end matte paintings; they stay small and contain their costs. In my case, I wasn’t looking at being acquired or exiting the business. I was looking for growth and investment. I’ve been able to maintain creative control of the business. I’ve effectively switched from a Canadian charter bank to the bank of Technicolor. It has been a positive result. We have maintained our support of the Canadian Film Center, Bell TIFF Lightbox and independent films. I’m proud of that.”
Major visual effects companies from around the world have a presence in Canada, including BUF, Cinesite, Digital Domain, DNEG, Framestore, ILM, Method Studios, MPC, Pixomondo, and Scanline VFX. But there is no shortage of homegrown vendors that have had a significant impact on the industry. Here is a brief guide to some of the most active companies in Canada (not meant to be comprehensive list).
Animatrik. Founded by Brett Ineson and headquartered in Vancouver with a second facility in Los Angeles, Animatrik focuses on motion capture, pre-visualization and virtual cinematography services. Projects: Deadpool 2, Avengers: Infinity War, Ready Player One.
Artifex Studios. An independently-owned studio situated in Vancouver started by Adam Stern that produces visual effects for both television and film as well as producing its own content. Projects: Wayward Pines, The Company You Keep, Zoo.
Hybride. Quebec’s first visual effects studio based in Piedmont and Montreal that has over a quarter of a century of experience contributing to advertising campaigns and high-end digital augmentation for film and television. Projects: Tomorrowland, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Avatar.
Image Engine. The Vancouver studio received an Academy Award nomination for District 9 and specializes in character/creature design and animation, digital environments, VFX supervision and concept art. Projects: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, The X-Files, The Meg.
Mr. X. Located in Toronto, Montreal and Bangalore, the company established by Dennis Berardi has received Primetime Emmy and BAFTA Award nominations for Vikings and The Shape of Water and is currently entering in the realm of producing with Monster Hunter. Projects: Creed II, Vice, Tomb Raider.
Raynault VFX. Founded by Mathieu Raynault, a Canadian digital matte painter, concept artist and VFX art director, the Montreal studio specializes in CG environments, digital compositing and concept art. Projects: A Quiet Place, Assassin’s Creed, Murder on the Orient Express.
Rodeo FX. Headquartered in Montreal, the privately-held company established by Sébastien Moreau also has studios in Quebec City, Munich and Los Angeles, along with receiving six VES Awards. Projects: Aquaman, Downsizing, Mowgli.
SideFX. After purchasing the coding rights of PRISMS, former Omnibus employees Kim Davidson and Greg Hermanovic laid the foundation for the Toronto-based SideFX and the procedural graphic program Houdini, which has been lauded with four Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences Awards.
Soho VFX. Initially a boutique studio in Toronto, Soho VFX experienced a great deal of growth working on blockbuster fantasy, comics and horror productions. Projects: San Andreas, The Conjuring 2, Logan.
Sony Pictures Imageworks. Transplanted from Culver City, California to Vancouver, SPI has been a major player not only in Canada but internationally for visual effects and computer animation, with Oscars for Spider-Man 2 and The ChubbChubbs!. Projects: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Smallfoot, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.
Spin VFX. Established in 1987, the Toronto-based visual effects studio focuses on providing on-set and in-studio supervision, 3D animation, on-set production services, concept and visualization, and CG effects for film and television productions. Projects: Spotlight, John Wick, Marco Polo.
Ziva Dynamics. Described as a ‘software company with the vision to transform human interaction in virtual spaces,’ the enterprise founded by James Jacobs in Vancouver has gained international acclaim for its character creation tool Ziva VFX.