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.
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By CHRIS McGOWAN
One of the international visual effects and digital animation studios that has come to the forefront in recent years is a Swedish firm with the Monty Python-esque name of Important Looking Pirates (ILP).
Founded by four colleagues in Stockholm in 2007, ILP initially worked mostly on commercials and then jumped into the TV and motion picture big leagues with the Norwegian film Kon-Tiki (2012) and the NBC series Crossbones (2014). Starting with the latter effort, ILP has received VES Award nominations every year and shared VES Awards for Black Sails in 2017 and 2018. ILP has also worked on VFX for Lost in Space, Westworld, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Other projects include Geostorm, Inhumans, Everest, The Magicians, Outlander, Fear the Walking Dead and Krypton. ILP has grown to around 100 people working in its office, with 85 of those being staff and 15 contractors.
The roots of ILP reach back to when two of the co-founders, VFX artists Niklas Jacobson and Yafei Wu, were working in London “when it was booming with special effects movies,” recalls Jacobson. In London, Jacobson moved into film, while Wu stayed with commercials. Then Wu moved to Los Angeles to start up a 3D department at Brickyard VFX, while Jacobson commuted between London and Stockholm.
“We started talking about creating something back home,” continues Jacobson. “There was no big visual effects industry in Sweden at the time. It was mostly commercials work.” The domestic films or series in production there had little need of major VFX, as they tended to be down-to-earth, realistic dramas rather than action, fantasy or sci-fi movies in need of heavy CGI. But in today’s global film industry, in areas like post-production, it doesn’t really matter where you live, as long as you can access the Internet.
“Yafei had been on the road for a few years and we talked about settling down in one place. We had these hopes and dreams of starting a company and doing the same kind of epic, full work we were seeing in the United States and London.”
Jacobson and Wu, along with Eric Hermelin and Carl Hermelin, founded ILP, which took its moniker from the video game world (not, as it turns out, from Monty Python).
“It is a nerd reference for sure,” says Måns Björklund, ILP’s Effects Executive Producer. “It’s from a ‘90s adventure game called Monkey Island, from LucasArts [founded by George Lucas]. In the beginning of the game you enter a bar and there’s a bunch of important looking pirates sitting in there.” Curiously, ILP would collaborate with the similar-sounding ILM (Industrial Light and Magic, also founded by Lucas) on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, “so the circle was kind of closed,” muses Jacobson, now a Visual Effects Supervisor at ILP.
With its unique name in hand, ILP gained major notice within the global VFX community with its work on Kon-Tiki. Directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, it garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. “We did sharks and water work, and could do it properly,” recalls Jacobson. “That put us on the map internationally.”
“Kon-Tiki went viral, at least in our business,” says Björklund.
“It was shared by ILM, Weta, Rhythm & Hues and others,” adds Jacobson, “and they were all like, ‘Who the hell are these Swedes that we’ve never heard of?’ ” He laughs. They gained the attention of veteran VFX Supervisor Kevin Blank (Xena, Hercules, Lost, Alias, Fringe and Star Trek: Enterprise). “He was one of the first to assign work to us. He convinced Crossbones to work with us.” The 2014 pirate series, starring John Malkovich and Claire Foy, only lasted nine episodes, but it got ILP into the U.S. effects arena.
“The ships we built for Crossbones led us to Black Sails. Also the sharks – that’s part of why we got it,” says Jacobson. “That’s the good thing with this industry – if you’ve done good work everybody has the Internet and you can display it. There might be people who are interested in working together with you.”
More attention arrived when ILP’s Jacobson and Björklund shared a VES nomination with Blank, Ron Pogue and Andy Weder for Crossbones. “That was the birth of us getting into television, and we have been working consistently since,” notes Jacobson. ILP now is involved in film and TV, as well as commercials and video games (such as EA’s Battlefield and Star Wars Battlefront).
One of ILP’s biggest recent undertakings has been Westworld, in which they had the interesting task in season one of taking 40 years off the age of Anthony Hopkins for scenes with a young Dr. Robert Ford, the park founder. They also worked on shots that reveal Dolores’s exoskeleton and a young boy’s robotic face. And they created scenes of steam trains and modern train stations, and crafted the enormous terraforming machine that excavates and reshapes landscapes.
A major current project is the Netflix series Lost in Space, a new take on the popular ‘60s TV show. Terron Pratt, who worked with ILP on Black Sails, is a Visual Effects Producer for Lost in Space. “Black Sails was the start of a great working relationship,” says Jacobson. “We had such a blast working on it for two seasons, and we really enjoyed working with both Terron and Erik Henry (Black Sails’ VFX Supervisor). So when Black Sails came to its end and we were offered work on Terron´s next show, Lost in Space, we were thrilled. I mean Toby Stephens (Captain Flint in Black Sails) in space! Space pirates!” says Jacobson.
He continues, “After the 2017 VES Awards, we flew straight from L.A. to Vancouver to meet with Terron, VFX Supervisor Jabbar [Raisani] and the rest of the Lost in Space production team. Seeing what they were doing on set really blew us away. There was some proper production value going on! The show is very ambitious, and I think CG plays a big part in modern sci-fi dramas. Colonization stories such as this one offer fantastic opportunities to show off new worlds.”
“The ships we built for Crossbones led us to Black Sails. Also the sharks – that’s part of why we got it. That’s the good thing with this industry – if you’ve done good work everybody has the Internet and you can display it. There might be people who are interested in working together with you.”
—Niklas Jacobson, Co-founder/VFX Artist, ILP
“We’re specialized in the tricky stuff. The heavy lifting, like CG heavy work. We prefer getting a good sequence of like 50 shots of really complicated work rather than hundreds of shots of greenscreen work…”
—Niklas Jacobson, Co-founder/VFX Artist, ILP
ILP prefers challenging work. “We’re specialized in the tricky stuff. The heavy lifting, like CG heavy work. We prefer getting a good sequence of like 50 shots of really complicated work rather than hundreds of shots of greenscreen work or things like that,” says Jacobson. To accomplish that heavy lifting, ILP relies on a wide range of software, including Maya, Nuke, Clarisse, Arnold, V-Ray and Renderman. “We see what’s right for any given situation and any given job. It’s messier to maintain all these different tools and software, but it says something about the culture when you have an open mind [to options]. You don’t just learn one tool and stick with that. You have to be quite flexible to stay competitive.”
He continues, “Our company has always been about quality of work, and having the climate and atmosphere to be able to do that kind of work. We wanted to create a company where we ourselves wanted to work.” Björklund adds, “We have a passion for what we do and we have a great time doing it. That’s super important because that’s when some of the best work is created.” Jacobson notes that there are advantages and disadvantages to working in Stockholm. “Salaries may not be as high as in the U.S., but there is free health care and free education. It’s a nice place, especially if you want to start a family. More security. You don’t have to worry about the day-to-day.” That plus homesickness has lured expatriate Swedes working in the U.S. or U.K. back to ILP. “There are lots of talented Swedes around the world working at big and famous places. They return sometimes to start a family or because they’re from here. We’re in a good place to have a platform for them to come home and have the same kind of work.”
Star Wars: The Last Jedi and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom have been two other high-profile projects for ILP. Working on them has been deeply fulfilling for Jacobson. “We’re so proud to be able to collaborate with companies such as ILM, which has definitely been one of the biggest inspirations forever. And movies like Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 made me want to go into this industry. To work on those kind of movies today – it’s an honor.”
“I have a hard time thinking of doing anything else,” concludes Björklund.