By CHRIS McGOWAN
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 CHRIS McGOWAN
The growth and globalization of the visual effects industry has resulted in worldwide interconnectivity and a vast workflow spanning the planet. There is more top-notch VFX in films and series than ever before, boosted by the growth in streaming content, episodic fare becoming more cinematic in terms of quality, and a continued evolution in VFX technology. Demand for VFX artists as a whole is also growing due to the surging video game industry, amusement park visual effects and the gradual ascension of VR and AR.
All of those factors have increased the work for VFX studios and the demand for skilled artists from Vancouver to London to Mumbai. Financial incentives in certain locations have helped globalize the VFX business for some time now. And the COVID-19 crisis further accelerated home entertainment demand and remote VFX work. “The pandemic has really kicked the globalization of the VFX industry into high gear, and now even more producers know what can be achieved with VFX,” says David Lebensfeld, Founding Partner and VFX Supervisor of Ingenuity Studios, which has offices in Los Angeles, New York and Vancouver.
Local productions outside North America, such as many series funded by Netflix, are spreading work across the planet in both film production and post-production. Fiona Walkinshaw, Framestore’s Global Managing Director, Film, comments, “The streamers have made no secret about their desire for regionally-focused content and how this feeds into their business strategies.
There’s a tremendous desire for stories that could only come from a certain city or country – shows like Squid Game or Money Heist, for example, which, like the Scandi noir boom, captivate viewers by dint of their freshness and unique cultural or geographical perspectives. This will inevitably mean our worlds become larger, as we work with storytellers, producers and below-the-line talent from all over the world. It’s an exciting prospect, and it will help us all grow and learn.” Walkinshaw adds, “In time I’m sure we’ll also see new VFX hotspots establishing themselves – you just have to look at the way the Harry Potter franchise helped turbocharge London’s VFX industry, or what the Lord of the Rings films did for New Zealand.” Framestore itself is quite globalized, with offices in London, Mumbai, Montreal, Vancouver, Melbourne, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Visual Effects studios have spread widely over the last two years across North America, Europe and Australia/New Zealand, and a growing number can be found also in Asia. Many facilities built initially for wire removal and rotoscoping have evolved into full-service VFX studios. BOT VFX, founded in 2008 in India, has expanded from an outsourcing facility in Chennai for rotoscoping and other detail work into a large and complete VFX business; it now has its headquarters in Atlanta and has worked on high-profile recent projects, including The Book of Boba Fett, Dune and Black Widow.
Just as Korea has grown into a movie/series global powerhouse, so too have its VFX studios expanded over the last 10 years.
“The pandemic has really kicked the globalization of the VFX industry into high gear, and now even more producers know what can be achieved with VFX.”
—David Lebensfeld, Founding Partner and VFX Supervisor, Ingenuity Studios
Gulliver Studios supplied VFX for the Netflix hit series Squid Game, while Dexter Studios contributed VFX work to Bong Joon- Ho’s Parasite. Dexter and five other VFX studios worked on Space Sweepers, arguably Korea’s first high-production science fiction film. Korea’s 4th Creative Party helped with the VFX for Joon-ha’s acclaimed Snowpiercer and Okja films (along with Method Studios). And Digital Idea worked on the hit zombie film Train to Busan.
VHQ Media, founded in 1987 in Singapore, has grown into a large film studio and claims to be Asia’s largest post-production house, working on both national and international productions. It also has studios in Beijing, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. Many international VFX firms have opened offices in Asia, including DNEG (four offices in India), The Third Floor (Beijing), Scanline VFX (Seoul), Method Studios (Pune), ILM (Singapore), Digital Domain (Taiwan, Hyderabad and four locations in China) and MPC (Bangalore).
“The global growth of the VFX industry and VFX as a tool of technology is limitless and boundless, to say the least,” says Merzin Tavaria, President, Global Production and Operations at DNEG. The London-based firm is another example of a VFX studio with offices spread across the globe. It was formed in 2014 by a merger between Prime Focus (India-based) and Double Negative (U.K.-based) and has studios in Los Angeles, Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and London along with Mumbai, Bangalore, Chandigarh, and Chennai in India.
“There are some fantastic companies doing amazing work in all corners of the globe,” says Pixomondo CEO Jonny Slow, “and at the moment, they are all working to keep up with an unprecedented level of demand. Growing demand, driven by episodic content with a higher budget and huge creative ambition, is a big factor in all the trends affecting the market [this year] and beyond.” Pixomondo has offices in Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, Los Angeles, Frankfurt, Stuttgart and London.
The streamers Netflix, Amazon, Hulu (majority owned by Disney) and Apple TV have added their VFX demand to that coming from traditional movie/TV companies and affiliated streaming services (HBO Max, Disney+, Peacock, Paramount+). Florian Gellinger, RISE Visual Effects Studios Co-Founder and Executive Producer, notes, “Right now, as the market is so saturated, the work is going to be globally distributed to whoever has availability and meets the required profile. So yes, clients will have to look increasingly globally for a good fit.” RISE has offices in Berlin, Cologne, Munich, Stuttgart and London.
Other VFX studios concur that the business has been activated. “We have too much work, which means we need more capacity, more artists and more supervisors. Right now, we’re ensuring that we continue to make our established clients happy while bringing in new clients,” says Tom Kendall, VFX Head of Business Development, Sales & Marketing for Ghost VFX, which has offices in Los Angeles, Copenhagen, London, Manchester, Toronto and Vancouver.
Executive Producer Måns Björklund of Stockholm-based Important Looking Pirates (ILP) notes, “There aren’t enough VFX companies in the world to do all the work. The demand for content has boomed, and the need for clients to seek new vendors around the world has increased.”
DNEG is one of the pioneers in the globalization of VFX workflows. Tavaria comments, “With nine facilities working seamlessly together across three continents, I believe we’ve led by example, creating an ever-expanding global network that can deliver highly creative and compelling visual storytelling while introducing new norms of efficiency and flexibility.”
He adds, “The standardization of workflows, tools and capabilities across sites allows us to move work around our network to cater to the demands of our clients and to balance the load across locations to maximize utilization. We also take full advantage of time zone differences to create efficiencies in our production scheduling.”
Framestore recently opened a studio in Mumbai, which already has 130 on-site creatives. Walkinshaw comments, “Being able to set up in Mumbai and seamlessly integrate with our new colleagues there is an incredible advantage, especially given the tremendous talent pool there. Generally speaking, increased access to amazing talent is the main consequence of this worldwide connectivity.”
Another positive effect of globalization is that “exchanging work between companies has become much easier despite everyone running their own pipeline,” says Gellinger. Slow sees the globalization of VFX as a positive trend that creates stability for those companies who are prepared to evolve continuously and adapt to constant change. “It’s not the only trend in the VFX industry, but it’s a trend in response to demand for capacity and client requirements for speed and efficiency. But there is also a quality threshold. Quality output drives stability for VFX companies, wherever their artists are located.”
Lebensfeld comments, “What certainly helps with this business becoming more globalized is access to talent that isn’t in your zip code, which backfills what already makes us competitive.” To open up to talent in another country, he says, “we already have the technology – the hardware, software and methodology – to work remotely. Anything else past that are just details. We look at it less like it is a global business and more as one that breaks down borders. One of the more exciting things is getting the chance to develop artists and give opportunities to people who would not have had them otherwise. They only need a computer, inherent artistic talent, and we work with them on training in a studio environment. I’m a big believer that a combination of local studio artists and international artists is the best way to go because the industry still relies on specific locations for some projects for a variety of reasons. The business still needs a large base of talent in certain production hubs.”
“[S]ince the workforce has become so flexible in where it settles, recruiting has become a lot harder and companies have to reach out further than they used to in order to meet their talent requirements. [Globalization] has solved a couple of these problems by having access to top talent across borders, not being limited to one’s own backyard.”
—Florian Gellinger, Co-founder and Executive Producer, RISE Visual Effects Studios
Gellinger observes that it has become easier for artists to find a job in their desired ‘adventure destination’ abroad. “And since the workforce has become so flexible in where it settles, recruiting has become a lot harder and companies have to reach out further than they used to in order to meet their talent requirements.” Yet globalization also “has solved a couple of these problems by having access to top talent across borders, not being limited to one’s own backyard.”
Walkinshaw adds, “From a production perspective it means juggling more time zones, currencies and teams, so this part of the business has become more complex, and there is a need for investment in both more people and technology solutions to make it easier for production to function. The role of a producer working for a company like Framestore on a project spread globally is far more complex and demanding than it used to be.”
Producers and supervisors now must be more patient and organized because of the time differences, and they have to schedule their work around that, according to Kendall. “The projects are shot in so many diverse locations, it’s about being able to address clients’ needs in a timely manner and be flexible in terms of how we work.”
Gellinger notes that the way that business is being distributed globally is “definitely creating stability, but only as long as companies keep investing in their talent. Flying in entire teams from abroad is not a business model. Investing in education and training is more important than ever.”
Slow comments, “We have seen a lot of these consequences [of globalization] playing out for the past few years. It has allowed the formation of larger, better funded, better organized companies that are becoming attractive investment propositions. This has been very positive for the industry – for growth to happen, investment is required.”
DARK BAY Virtual Production Studio is an example of how VFX globalization has been boosted by Netflix and by government help. Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, the creators of Netflix’s hit series Dark – a German science fiction thriller – built an LED stage in Potsdam-Babelsberg in part to shoot 1899, their next Netflix series. Odar and Friese’s production company Dark Ways holds a majority share in DARK BAY (Studio Babelsberg has a minority share). Funding from the state of Brandenburg in Germany and a long-term booking commitment from Netflix backed the venture.
Incentives continue to play a role in the globalization of VFX. Framestore’s Walkinshaw comments, “National or regional incentives have provided a huge boost for our industry and encouraged international collaboration.
They’ve been key to growth in the U.K. and Canada – to date our biggest sites for film and episodic work – and the willingness of studios to put work in these regions helps create a virtuous circle: it allows companies to invest in their talent, facilities and infrastructure, makes those places a magnet for established talent from elsewhere, and also helps schools and universities attract ambitious students. Take Montreal for example – Framestore was the first major studio to open a studio there [in 2013], and it’s now an established and hugely-respected hub for the global visual effects industry.”
“The pandemic forced studios like us to build a pipeline that works in remote environments,” says Lebensfeld. “We were able to leverage figuring out how to work remotely with talent that have previously been local to our studio locations. We have history and momentum with these artists, and we figured out processes that mirror what we have already been doing – just with remote capabilities.”
Already existing worldwide VFX interconnectivity helped DNEG to address the challenges of the pandemic, according to Tavaria. “The unprecedented speed with which our technology teams enabled global remote working was astounding, based on work that was already underway. It also, somewhat counter-intuitively, brought us closer together and enabled even more collaboration across our global teams,” he comments. “These advances have positioned us well to cater to the growth in demand for visual effects and animation work this year, driven by the increases in content production by TV and OTT companies, in addition to increased demand for our VFX and animation services from our studio clients.”
Walkinshaw comments, “The pandemic has definitely encouraged us to think outside the box, be this seeking workarounds for physical shoots, having colleagues working remotely from different countries or broadening our talent pool by making hires from different territories, because so much of the workforce has spent time outside the office. I imagine this will endure, especially as we continue to seek skills beyond the ‘traditional,’ particularly in areas such as technology and gaming.”
Slow says, “In our industry, technology and innovation are the fundamental drivers of changes like globalization. We are at a very interesting point – with technology driving once-in-a-lifetime changes in content distribution and production technique – and these trends have been accelerated by a major pandemic. The consequences are significant, and the impact will largely play out over the next five years.”
Lebensfeld concludes, “Pre-pandemic [film companies] went on location and brought on as many extras as needed. The scope of requests has expanded well beyond that. There’s a VFX solution for every aspect of a story. That’s a powerful thing.” He adds, “I think the VFX industry has transformed these past two years, with very positive changes overall. There’s no going back now. Our industry is global, and that’s here to stay.”
“We have seen a lot of these consequences [of globalization] playing out for the past few years. It has allowed the formation of larger, better funded, better organized companies that are becoming attractive investment propositions. This has been very positive for the industry – for growth to happen, investment is required.”
—Jonny Slow, CEO, Pixomondo