Double Negative’s imposing new office on Great Portland Street is a physical testament to the work of the visual effects company.
The specially designed interior houses up to 900 staff over five floors – and on each level they are working on a different film.
On the fifth floor, a team of artists are creating the vfx for the new Superman film. On the floor below is Thor 2. Below that is Fast & Furious 6, then Edgar Wright’s World’s End and The Hunger Games sequel.
Double Negative moved into the new building (the former HQ of Virgin Media) at the turn of the year, consolidating its workforce from three Soho sites.
Set up 15 years ago with just 30 staff, Double Negative’s rise into one of Hollywood’s most trusted suppliers has been swift. The company was formed in the summer of 1998 by a team of MPC vfx specialists: Alex Hope, Matt Holben, Paul Franklin, Peter Chiang, Charlie Noble and Paul Riddle. They were initially backed by UK film studio Polygram, buying themselves out within a few years. Double Negative has remained a privately owned company ever since.
Back then, recalls md Alex Hope, the UK film vfx sector was “almost a cottage industry.” But, between the late 90s and 2005, things changed dramatically. The four biggest companies – Framestore, MPC, Cinesite and Double Negative – grew by up to 500% in terms of employment, according to a UK Screen survey. “The British vfx industry went from being peripheral to really becoming a global centre.”
Hope cites three contributing factors. First, Warners’ decision to make the Harry Potter franchise in the UK, which underpinned the industry and showcased the abilities of British artists to Hollywood. Second, the UK’s “simple, well understood tax credit”. And third, the fact that vfx companies could build on the legacy of “a great UK film industry” and a talented pool of commercials vfx artists.
Double Negative has grown from a company with a turnover of £3m in 1999 to £75m in 2012. Hope believes a fundamental part of this growth comes from “our commitment to R&D to try to push the technology we have as far as possible.” He won’t put a figure on it, but says the company invests “many, many millions of pounds” on new kit each year. This, he believes, also helps attract the best artists and films to the firm. “We have tried to go after the most challenging, interesting work out there. We are only as good as the artists and the developers we have working here. And the very best artists and programmers in the world want to be working on the best films.”
Good management is also crucial. Hollywood films are so big and complex that companies must be able to deploy hundreds of artists at any one time in a scaleable way. “It’s vital our clients feel confident that we can not only do the work they have committed to us, but also that we can handle more work on particular sequences if the film changes and evolves.”
Double Negative has also expanded geographically, opening an office in Singapore which employs 200. Hope says it allows Double Negative to offer ‘end to end’ coverage to Hollywood clients at the beginning and end of the LA day. The company is also mulling an office in Canada, lured by the country’s film tax credits.
Of course, the global market represents both an opportunity – and a threat – for an outfit like Double Negative. As the financial difficulties of Californian outfit Rhythm & Hues (Life of Pi) and Australia’s Fuel VFX (Prometheus) prove, it can be a brutal business even for those working on high profile films. Other global centres of vfx could step up to challenge London’s pre-eminence. “What creates these centres are tax incentives and talent,” says Hope, arguing that China and India will “definitely see growth.”
Meanwhile, Double Negative has also just launched its own film production arm, partnering with Pinewood Shepperton and Steve Norris’ Apollo Productions to back British films. The move, says Hope, is about “ensuring that we are fully engaged with the independent sector in this country.” British films, after all, have formed an important part of Double Negative’s business, with credits including Billy Elliot, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, In Bruges and Attack the Block.
The move makes sense for Double Negative, helping it to establish relationships with rising British directors. “We’re lucky to have worked on all of Edgar Wright’s films – and that has come about because we worked with him on Shaun of the Dead, a low budget indie film.”
So what next for Double Negative? Could a sale be on the cards? Hope says it is not a priority. “I don’t want to speculate. I can’t see myself ever doing anything apart from vfx, or working anywhere apart from Double Negative. He says the company’s focus is now on “what we want to achieve in this building and fulfilling the opportunities we have here.”
Alex Hope began his career at The Moving Picture Company, rising to board director (1996-1998) in charge of the FX and Animation departments.
1998 – left MPC to work as a vfx producer and founded Double Negative with five other colleagues.
2008 – became a board director of the UK Screen Association, and has been involved in efforts to improve the quality of education to those coming into the vfx industry.
2010 – the DCMS asked him to co-author a review of the skills needs of the vfx and video games Industries.
2011 – awarded an OBE for services to the vfx Industry.
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