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Feature films buoy London's post production scene

Blog
02 December 2015

Like a bespoke studio lot, Soho is home to an array of post production, vfx and sound facilities. A swathe of features have coursed through London this year, from tentpole features like Spectre and The Martian as well as British films such as Dad’s Army, The Program, The Lady in the Van and Youth.

And most companies say they continue to be busy with feature film work. “It’s buoyant,” says Steve Milne, executive chairman of Molinare, which has provided full post and vfx on Dad’s Army, completed DI on Paul McGuigan’s Victor Frankenstein and has just started work on Absolutely Fabulous – The Movie and is about to begin on James Marsh’s Deep Water starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz. He predicts a vintage year in film for the post house in 2016.

Visual effects
Framestore head of film Fiona Walkinshaw also says the London post and vfx scene is very busy, pointing to the large numbers of films that are shooting in the UK – and the difficulty that many are having in finding studio space.

Framestore, which has 750 staff working in London, has recently provided vfx on films like Working Title’s Everest and StudioCanal’s Paddington, as well as big US tent pole The Martian directed by Ridley Scott which also shared its vfx work with MPC and The Senate.

Framestore has just started working on Andy Serkis’ take on Rudyard Kipling’s classic Jungle Book for Warner Bros, which Walkinshaw says will “probably be the biggest film that we have ever done – all the main characters are computer generated.” She reckons up to 250 people will work on Jungle Book: Origins at Framestore at its peak. 

London’s status as magnet for international talent and its reputation for quality, as well as the UK’s generous film tax credits, mean that the capital can more than hold its own in the increasingly global battle to win business from US studios.

Marvel, for example, has become a constant presence in London, carrying out vfx here on superhero films such as Guardians of the Galaxy and about to start on Doctor Strange.

Warners has also invested heavily in the UK since embarking on the Harry Potter films. It has developed Leavesden and acquired Soho facility De Lane Lea, while producing big budget features such as Pan, In the Heart of the Sea and The Man from Uncle.

The latest James Bond film, meanwhile, spread its work among a host of London post houses. Spectre's vfx work was shared between Cinesite, MPC, Double Negative, ILM, Peerless and Bluebolt, while Framestore worked on the iconic title sequence (pictured above).  Rushes supplied Spectre's impressive UI screen graphics, while Company 3's Greg Fisher was responsible for the grade.

Competition remains fierce, though, against countries such as Canada, the US, India and New Zealand. A number of UK vfx companies are reportedly downsizing in London at the moment, amid fears of a ‘race to the bottom’ between facilities looking to undercut each other on price to attract footloose US features.

However, Walkinshaw believes London will continue to hold its own, citing in particular the talent on offer in areas such as R&D and supervising shows. “London is incredibly innovative – it never ceases to amaze me how good senior London talent is,” she says, adding: “Our prices are competitive and the quality of the work is good and the talent base here is so strong.” It means US studios can feel confident in assigning work to London companies.

Digital advances
And there is ever more vfx work to do. Vfx houses are now completing more and more work on features as advances in computer technology allow effects to become ever more integral to the film-making process.

For example, some 65 of the 90 minutes of Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity were fully digital. “Being able to do something like that really wasn’t possible five years ago – you couldn’t have contemplated making that film and rendering it at photo-real quality.”

It means the shot counts handled by the likes of Framestore are rising dramatically. “We could end up doing 1000 shots on The Jungle Book, whereas seven or eight years ago 100 shots would have been a big award on a film,” says Walkinshaw.

A Marvel film might now contain 3000 shots or more, meaning that the work will be shared around multiple vfx houses in London.

This could rise further still. The leading vfx houses see great potential in creating ‘digital humans’ who can double up as actors in certain scenes. For the moment, it’s difficult to do as faces are so intricate and viewers are quick to spot a digital version that isn’t quite natural enough. But, says Walkinshaw, “We are getting very near to a place where we could create a digital human that would be believable in a shot.”

Full service post
By contrast, smaller budgeted British and European independent films work with many medium sized Soho facilities. Lipsync, for example, has recently worked on projects such as Trespass Against Us, Alone in Berlin, The Falling, A Royal Night Out and Mr Turner. The market, acknowledges Lipsync owner Peter Hampden, is very competitive “driven by challenging budgets.”

Lipsync offers all aspects of post, including sound, grade, flame and vfx, arguing that it can “maximise production resources and pass on economies of scale” to producers.

Hampden says its primary business is offering post services to TV and film producers. To help attract this business in a competitive market, Lipsync can also provide finance too, and began investing in features in 2007. This year it struck its 100th post investment deal with The Nice Guys, Joel Silver’s forthcoming film starring Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe and directed by Shane Black.

Competitor Molinare has also been stepping up its presence in the film post market. With a long TV heritage, it only entered the film picture post market in 2005 and the film audio market in 2013 after a complete rebuild of its studios.

But it believes there are lots of opportunities for UK facilities in film. Milne reckons that the success of projects like Pride have helped Molinare’s audio reputation. “There used to be a clear gap between TV drama and independent film markets but now with talent moving seamlessly between the two, Molinare is well positioned to benefit.”

Tellingly the facility is working on Ken Loach’s next film – and also won picture post on Netflix’s £100m series The Crown, directed by Stephen Daldry – neatly demonstrating the wide range of projects that UK facilities are now working on.

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