By IAN FAILES
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By IAN FAILES
Not too many studios can boast two decades of existence in the sometimes volatile visual effects industry. But Double Negative, founded in 1998, reaches that milestone this year, having grown from a 30-person startup to a global studio with thousands of employees.
Ultimately, DNEG has emerged as one of the powerhouse visual effects studios in feature filmmaking. It is known for anchoring major releases, as well as continuing to work on a range of lower budget films, and has now branched out into television and animated features. In the process, the studio’s work has been honored by three Academy Awards (for Inception, Interstellar and Ex Machina).
For its 20th anniversary, VFX Voice spoke to some of DNEG’s key staff for a look back at the rise of the visual effects studio.
While it is now a massive visual effects studio, DNEG started small. It was formed largely by a group of artists who had been working together at The Moving Picture Company in London for several years. Polygram backed the group to start their own outfit, with the first project the Vin Diesel sci-fi film Pitch Black.
Pitch Black would prove to be a significant challenge for the newly formed DNEG team (who did not even have a name when they started on the film – they actually referred to themselves as ‘Newco’, as in ‘new company’, for the first few months). The studio was without a permanent base in London and was yet to purchase much-needed workstations. Also, Pitch Black was filming in Queensland, Australia, the other side of the world.
“Of course,” relates DNEG Co-founder and Visual Effects Supervisor Paul Franklin, “once we got there we had all sorts of technical problems getting our first SGI workstations set up, made all the worse by the fact that our tech team was 10,000 miles away. The Internet wasn’t up to much back then – remember ISDN lines running at a blistering 28Kbps? – so communication with the home base was pretty difficult.”
Franklin suggests that “much of the ‘core DNA’ of Double Negative was laid down on Pitch Black, which was VFX supervised by Co-founder Peter Chiang, and still remains to this day. Very quickly, in fact, the studio began forming key relationships with filmmakers, producers and film studios. DNEG was also well-placed to benefit from a dramatic rise in film and VFX production occurring in the UK, especially with the advent of the Harry Potter films.
As film production in the UK ramped up, so too did competition among visual effects studios, many of which happened to be located in the Soho area of London. DNEG Co-founder Alex Hope says the focus in those earlier years was to not only help grow DNEG as a business and as a creative enterprise, but also the local industry as a whole.
“One of our primary aims was to get the visual effects industry in the UK on the map,” recalls Hope. “Through that period, the Harry Potter films started being made, and we first became involved on Prisoner of Azkaban, released in 2004. Those films, and the commitment of Warner Bros., David Heyman [producer of Harry Potter films] and everyone associated with those films to want them to be done in the UK gave confidence to British visual effects companies, and gave confidence to Double Negative – that we could invest in training and R&D and capital expenditure and build our business.”
Another cornerstone relationship that DNEG cultivated was with Christopher Nolan, first working with the director on Batman Begins and then several others (see sidebar). DNEG also quickly became one of the major contributors to other large franchises such as The Hunger Games series, Bond films, the DC Extended Universe and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For that to happen, DNEG had to grow – quickly and creatively – not only in London but around the world.
The studio now has locations in London, Vancouver, Mumbai, Los Angeles, Chennai and Montréal (DNEG had an office in Singapore but closed it in 2016). Another event also had the effect of expanding the studio: its merger with Prime Focus World in 2014. This global expansion certainly reflects the state of the industry – many other studios have set up in multiple countries, attracted by lower costs of production, tax credits, incentives and the availability of a near 24-hour production schedule.
For a studio in operation for 20 years, a surprising number of crew who were there at the beginning or in the earliest days of production are still at the studio, and have risen to become experienced supervisors, producers and part of management. Visual Effects Supervisor Pete Bebb, for example, was DNEG’s first runner, and later won an Oscar for Inception. Many other experienced supervisors started their careers at the studio. Co-founder Matt Holben says DNEG is firm on the importance of investing in staff: “Anybody can get investment and go and buy infrastructure and machinery and whatever, but what makes a company magic is the group of people that you have working with you – your team, who you surround yourself with.”
That’s a view echoed by Peter Chiang, who has been at DNEG from the very beginning and marvels at the level of talent fostered at the studio and coming in from around the world. “We encourage individuals to pursue their goals and take on new challenges, all with a guiding hand from a team of very experienced individuals. We understand new talent may want to flex their wings and move on and try other companies, but while they are at DNEG we want to them to enjoy their experience and get the most out of working on the projects.”
“Supervising is just as enjoyable for me today as it was back then. The projects are bigger and so we have grown the company, and the result is that we can do more creative things because we have fantastic, talented crew that work hard and know what they are doing. The company has invested in a more flexible pipeline that links the whole company to maximize this creative process allowing everyone to contribute in creating great shots.”
—Peter Chiang, Co-Founder, Double Negative
DNEG is still primarily known for feature film visual effects. Its major recent projects include Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049, Wonder Woman, Baby Driver, Pacific Rim Uprising and Annihilation. Plus, there’s a slew of films to come, including Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Deadpool 2, First Man, M:I 6 – Mission Impossible, Bohemian Rhapsody, Godzilla: King of Monsters, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, The Kid Who Would Be King and Venom.
Like many other VFX companies, DNEG has also branched out into new areas. These include animated features – via a partnership with Locksmith Animation –and television. DNEG TV, in particular, has been one of the busiest new parts of the studio after launching only in 2013. The outfit boasts credits on shows such as Altered Carbon, Inhumans, The Young Pope, Agent Carter and Black Mirror, and others.
DNEG might have grown in size and the scale of work it outputs, but the common theme among its crew is the level of creativity afforded to them every day, even in the sometimes cutthroat world of visual effects.
“Supervising is just as enjoyable for me today as it was back then,” says Chiang, who most recently oversaw Pacific Rim Uprising. “The projects are bigger and so we have grown the company, and the result is that we can do more creative things because we have fantastic, talented crew that work hard and know what they are doing. The company has invested in a more flexible pipeline that links the whole company to maximize this creative process allowing everyone to contribute in creating great shots.”
A look at some of DNEG’s key creative moments over the years.
Pitch Black (2000): The project that kicked it all off and showcased DNEG’s early plans to work on high quality VFX.
Enemy At the Gates (2001): A major compositing project that pushed for a photorealistic depiction of the epic battle for Stalingrad in the Second World War.
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004): The studio’s first entry into the Harry Potter franchise. One of the most elaborate sequences in the film was the Night Bus journey, a DNEG creation.
Batman Begins (2005): DNEG’s first collaboration with Christopher Nolan, and one in which it established a new color-management pipeline to meet the director’s expectations.
Children of Men (2006): Long takes with seamless visual effects are characteristic of this Alfonso Cuarón outing, especially DNEG’s work in helping to orchestrate the famous ‘oner’ inside the car.
Bourne films, United 93, Captain Phillips, Green Zone: These films, representing DNEG’s collaboration with director Paul Greengrass, often feature scenes with seamless visual effects that go unnoticed by audiences.
The Dark Knight (2008) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012): Solidifying DNEG’s strong association with Nolan, these two films saw the studio come on board more as a creative partner.
Inception (2010): The VFX Oscar-winning film featured a diverse set of challenges for DNEG, from flipping Paris buildings, major wire removals for floating actors, and crumbling building façades for the limbo world.
John Carter (2012): A major leap forward in DNEG’s animation pipeline, involving on-set performance capture and delivering believable animated performances.
Interstellar (2014): DNEG collaborated with Professor Kip Thorne of Caltech on research and development into the visualization of blackholes for Interstellar, taking the idea of physically plausible visual effects to new levels, and earning a VFX Oscar.
Ex Machina (2015): Another Oscar winner for visual effects, Ex Machina was a much lower budgeted film, but still benefited greatly from DNEG’s approach to storytelling.
Blade Runner 2049 (2017): The studio delivered grand views of a future Los Angeles, as well as intricately orchestrated scenes of the holographic assistant Joi in one of the most hotly anticipated VFX films of last year.
Perhaps one of DNEG’s most successful collaborations has been with director Christopher Nolan. Starting with Batman Begins and then continuing with the Dark Knight films, Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk, DNEG has been the director’s go-to VFX house, even though he is often known for eschewing digital effects. The reality is that DNEG’s team members form just part of the many effects contributors, from special effects to practical effects and miniatures, on Nolan’s films.
“Chris has the sharpest eye of any filmmaker I have ever met,” says DNEG Visual Effects Supervisor Paul Franklin, a frequent Nolan collaborator. “The level of scrutiny he brings to bear on the work is absolutely punishing, and he makes it his business to learn as much as he can about your job, so you have to bring your A-game all the time. Chris is famous for putting as much reality on film as he possibly can. If he can get it in camera then he will, but this also means that when he looks to the VFX team to create images for the movie he expects them to be held to the same standard; it has to look real, no matter what it is.”
Franklin even teamed with Batman Begins overall VFX Supervisor Janek Sirrs to show Nolan digital versions of buildings and locations side-by-side with the real thing – on film – to help convince the director of the merits of VFX. “I think this helped to reassure Chris that we understood what he was looking for in the original photography and we went from there.”
Adds Franklin: “Perhaps the most important thing I learned from my work on Chris’s films is that you should never do something for its own sake, regardless of what it is: just because you have a Steadicam on the truck doesn’t mean you have to use it if the shot works just as well on regular sticks. The same goes for VFX – just because you can do something spectacular in the computer doesn’t automatically earn it a place in the movie.”