By OLIVER WEBB
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 OLIVER WEBB
The U.K. visual effects industry has a rich talent pool and is one of the world’s leading visual effects hubs. It is home to world-leading companies, including Framestore, DNEG, One of Us, BlueBolt, Union, MPC, Milk VFX and many more. There has also been an increase in new, emerging VFX companies as demands have surged in recent years. VFX companies in the U.K. have also won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects on several occasions with notable wins for Gravity, The Jungle Book and Inception. The Harry Potter films were a contributing factor in putting U.K. VFX on the map. In 2014, Industrial Light & Magic created 200 jobs in a new studio in London, and there has been continued growth within the British industry ever since. Despite setbacks with COVID and implications of Brexit, there is more demand than ever, and the U.K. visual effects industry is thriving.
“While [the end of the writers and actors strikes] will be a great relief after several months of uncertainty, it will also throw up some of the challenges facing our industry. Will we see the same shortage of skills and talent, which stymied the marketplace post-COVID?
There are lessons learned from that period which we can all apply to avoid the same level of saturation and burn-out the industry saw.”
—Philip Greenlow, Managing Director of VFX, Jellyfish Pictures
The U.K. government supports the VFX sector and has been very successful in attracting inward investment filming with a combination of tax relief, excellent crews, superb facilities and iconic locations. In September, there was a parliamentary review to examine the current challenges faced by the British film and television industry. Martin Perkins, New Business and Bidding Manager at Cinesite London (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, A Haunting in Venice, The Witcher Season 3), argues that the structure of the tax reliefs inadvertently disadvantages the U.K.’s VFX companies, which has led to a stagnation of investment in this high-tech, high-productivity sector.
“When our tax reliefs were designed in 2007, the U.K. was bound by the EU Cinema Communication, which stipulated that tax relief should have a territorial cap,” Perkins notes. “This was written into our Corporation Tax Act such that productions receive 25% relief on their U.K. production expenditure, but once that exceeds 80% of their global production budget, there is no further relief in the U.K. VFX and post-production usually sit within that final 20% of that expenditure, meaning that productions that shoot in the U.K. typically will “cap out” on their tax relief by the time they’re ready for VFX; therefore, they need to place this work in other territories in order to claim a rebate on the work.”
“This means that, unfortunately, a lot of U.K. VFX houses are not able to capitalize on the large number of films and high-end TV series that shoot in the U.K., as they end up taking their VFX work to locations [such as Canada, Australia and France] where the tax credit isn’t capped, and they can also offer more than the U.K.’s 25% rebate on their spend,” Perkins continues. “The most regular thing I hear from production-side VFX producers when discussing a new project that’s shooting here is, ‘We’d love for you to do the work, but we are chasing the highest rebates we can get.’” London VES Chairman Nicolas Casanova, Stereo Supervisor at MPC London, argues that the cost of living in the U.K. has also contributed significantly to this problem. “Other countries have tax incentives that are equal or better than the ones offered in the U.K., which drives the studios to have offices in multiple countries. That is a complication that we are facing, combined with Brexit. We had a lot of junior artists who were really good, but they didn’t have the chance to stay in the U.K. as they hadn’t been here for five years or longer. They had to relocate to countries where getting a work visa was easier. It’s really uncertain at the moment.”
In 2017, U.K. Screen Alliance reported that 60% of the U.K. VFX workforce are U.K. workers and a staggering one in three of the workforce are made up of European workers. Of course, Brexit will have a significant impact on these statistics, and this number is in steep decline. U.K. Screen Alliance also found in their 2017 report that only 27% of the workforce are women, so this also remains an important area. Encouragement is needed to break down these gender barriers. “I think one of the issues we had during lockdown was there was so much demand from streaming services to start producing. There weren’t enough students graduating for the amount of people we had to hire. In the U.K. a lot of young people have never considered visual effects or animation as a career path, and so I think we need to reach out to them so that they understand that this is an option,” Casanova says.
Despite this, several U.K. universities and film schools offer visual effects as a course. The University of South Wales is one of the most renowned, with all staff having industry experience. “The core staff have experience working in film, TV series and commercials, with credits in releases such as the Fantastic Beasts series, Doctor Who and His Dark Materials, to name a few,” says Course Leader Geraint Thomas. “The course prides itself on allowing students to find their own path within the moving arts, from creating 3D motion design for high-end commercials, title sequence design for television series, to digital matte painting environments within the latest blockbusters. Essentially, if it’s digital and moving, we’re interested. While we cover the technicalities of heavy VFX in the course – 3D compositing, modeling and lighting, environment building, etc. – we predominantly specialize in the contextuality of what the students are using these skills for. In this aspect, the course not only gives them the technical abilities to create industry-level VFX and motion design pieces, but also to think critically when problem-solving, and to look at the bigger picture of the field that they’re stepping into.”
Graduates have gone on to work for leading companies, including ILM, DNEG, Moving Picture Company (MPC), Framestore and Goodbye Kansas. They’ve worked on productions such as Dune, Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Spider-Man, No Time To Die and Andor. “Come to think of it, I struggle to think of a blockbuster film and/or high-end TV series that a student from our course hasn’t worked on in recent years. Regarding motion design, we’ve got students working for the likes of Buck, The Mill, Carbon, ManvsMachine and more. We often invite students back for guest talks and to speak with the students on a one-to-one basis, as we very much have a sense of belonging here on the course,” says Thomas.
One of the U.K.’s most notable VFX companies is Framestore, an Oscar, VES and BAFTA award-winning visual effects and animation studio, home to over 3,000 artists, producers and technologists. It spans eight locations and four continents working on films, TV shows, ads, theme park rides and immersive experiences. “We are perhaps best known for our creatures and characters like Rocket, Groot, Dobby, Paddington and Iorek Byrnison, who share screens with the best acting talent, delivering performances that audiences believe wholeheartedly. But we also produce equally seamless environment and effects work across shows such as Top Gun: Maverick, Barbie, The Little Mermaid, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Martian and Blade Runner 2049, for which we won an Academy Award,” says Fiona Walkinshaw, CEO of Film & Episodic at Framestore.
One of Framestore’s most recent collaborations is Barbie. “To have collaborated on Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is really special, and we played our part in creating a seamless Barbie Land,” Walkinshaw add. “The Little Mermaid has been one of the most creatively challenging and technically complex pieces of work we’ve ever done. I am also incredibly proud of the characters that we have created and that audiences have emotionally engaged with to such an extent that they have been integral to the success of the films they have featured in. Paddington Bear is a huge achievement for Framestore. He is truly part of Framestore lore. And seeing the character arc of Rocket Raccoon evolve over the three Guardians films – working to create a character for James Gunn that would be as important to Marvel as any of their live-action superheroes – has been really satisfying. The Guardians of the Galaxy trilogy has been the highlight of many careers at Framestore, and his vociferous support of our work, alongside VFX Supervisor Stephane Ceretti, has been truly appreciated and is something we’ll all continue to reflect on with great pride. Following Army of the Dead, Rebel Moon sees us working with Zack Snyder again. He is an amazing collaborator, and our teams get great personal and professional pleasure out of working with him and his team. On the episodic side, with His Dark Materials trilogy and Foundation Season 2, we are bringing the same level of quality as we would do to any feature project. I’m so proud of the BAFTA’s we won for His Dark Materials.”
Myfanwy Harris is Executive Director at Cardiff-based studio Zodiak VFX, known for their work on Doctor Who. “There’s a lot of work we’re very proud of; however, as some of it is sometimes created whilst in our outsource role for larger studios. We choose not to shine a light on it to respect our relationships with them,” Harris says. Zodiak decided to remain at boutique size to be an asset to productions and larger studios alike, working respectfully and collaboratively to provide a reliable resource to the industry without compromising on quality. After the last four years, their industry presence has grown. “We saw the benefits of remaining dynamic as a company by keeping our overhead low and scaling up and down outside of our core team for productions from our trusted pool of senior freelancers and similar-sized studios, which we have built a network with to tackle larger projects,” Harris details. “This not only enables us to offer competitive prices to our clients, but it also protected us during the pandemic as when the lull in workload eventually hit. We could financially maneuver around it relatively easily. Also having already established ourselves as an outsourcing house for our supportive work with larger studios, we already had a lot of the remote working setups in place, so we didn’t have to restructure things too much when our artists shifted to work from home during that period.”
Founded in 2001, Jellyfish Pictures is a global BAFTA and Emmy award-winning animation and VFX studio. In 2023, Jellyfish Pictures reached their biggest headcount as a VFX division to date with over 220 artists worldwide. “We’re anticipating that at some point in the coming months the strikes will end, and we will probably see a steep incline in demand for VFX services into 2024. While this will be a great relief after several months of uncertainty, it will also throw up some of the challenges facing our industry. Will we see the same shortage of skills and talent, which stymied the marketplace post-COVID? There are lessons learned from that period which we can all apply to avoid the same level of saturation and burn-out the industry saw. Our priority for the coming year remains focused on the quality of our work and the diverse, talented community of artists in our extended remote network and across our studios in the U.K. and India, supporting the delivery of high-end output and building on the growth and development we’ve been able to sustain this year,” says Jellyfish Pictures’ Managing Director of VFX, Philip Greenlow.
VFX Supervisor and Compositor Gianluca Dentici (Avengers: Infinity War) notes that from the visual effects artists perspective it has been a very complex time in relation to what happened both during the pandemic and the recent writers and actors strike. “I compare the latter to a second pandemic due to the almost total production immobility in the States, which being the most important market it heavily affects the British territory alike since it is one of the major VFX hubs in the world,” Dentici explains. “In this sense, I wish 2024 to be a game-changer and to bring a real awareness of the difficulties of our industry in the hope we can finally sit together with other guilds’ members to try and resolve the problems that are making our work every day more difficult. We need more dialogue, more interaction with other industry professionals. 2023 was undoubtedly the year of the outbreak of the artificial intelligence, whose success has been accompanied by many conflicting opinions on its licit use, although I personally believe an excessive alarmism and outsized demonization has been set off.”
Walkinshaw also acknowledges the impact of new technologies. “Of course, technologies such as real-time and AI will undoubtedly bring benefits to the tools our artists use to the art of filmmaking. The shifts we are seeing in Hollywood today will undoubtedly shape the next five years, potentially driving adoption of these technologies and putting greater emphasis on preparedness and readiness before the hard costs of filming. Visual effects used at their best enable filmmakers to tell a story that otherwise might not be told, create worlds that we believe to be real, and engage with characters that we as an audience feel something for. I think that the U.K. VFX industry and the wider global industry will continue to develop talent and technology that support creative storytelling and will be integral to that process,” Walkinshaw observes.
Zodiak remains optimistic about the rise in virtual production. “We’re sure there’s going to be a shift to incorporate it more and more. As we see some larger VFX studios fall, there’s a security we feel remaining at dynamic boutique size for survival reasons, so we can see perhaps more studios like us forming as a result; however, there will always be a need for the big London houses, and we very much see them retaining the monopoly of the industry, as there’s such an ever increasing demand for work that needs the manpower of the hundreds of artists to get it done,” Harris explains
The VFX industry is the fastest-growing part of the U.K. film industry. The latest figure from the U.K. Screen Alliance puts the U.K. VFX workforce at 10,680 people employed in VFX. It is also reported that in 2019 the sector contributed £1.68 billion in GVA to the U.K. economy. This number has undoubtedly been impacted by numerous factors, including COVID, Brexit and the recent strikes. Perkins stresses the importance of being ready for the sudden shift into production after the strikes. “The proposals to the U.K. tax credit will take time to push through the government, so action is needed now so the industry is best placed to continue contributing billions of pounds to the economy and hundreds of thousands of jobs across the U.K.’s nations and regions,” he argues.
Vicon’s VFX Product Manager, David ‘Ed’ Edwards, offers a positive outlook for the coming years. “We have a great deal to be excited about. While the global financial issues will have an effect, I do think that the increasing demand for products will bring with it an increased demand for talent. Studios want competent people they can trust to join their departments and deliver what’s required to get these products market-ready at speed and scale. The U.K. has done some fantastic work in this respect to ensure its education system is producing the next era of VFX specialists. I also anticipate a rise in indie productions. The cost of entry-level equipment for many aspects of VFX continues to come down, and there are so many options for people to ‘get started’ on a game or film project in their own back room. There’s a tremendous amount of talent and resources in the U.K., and we have a cultural history of DIY, so it wouldn’t surprise me if the next group of successful indie creators were to start here.”