Eye on the VFX Industry: Vancouver

I frequently receive calls from artists and students wondering about the stability of the visual effects industry during global economic change. A quick internet search for “vfx layoffs” turns up documents from 1997, 2001, 2003 and so on, indicating a predictable flow of company-specific downsizing and regrowth that is natural for this industry, considering the scale and ambition of most visual effects projects and the shift in the last 10 years to contract positions.

People can’t get enough of movies and television, especially in a recession. In North America during the Great Depression, film production was strong, not only due to advances in technology such as “the talkies” and color film along with widespread distribution, but also due to the underlying urge during tough times for people to escape through entertainment.

"The content of the motion picture was designed for escape, the majority reflecting the tastes of tired or jaded adults seeking a never-never land of luxury and melodrama, sex and sentiment." (1)

In 2008, in the top 20 domestic (US) box office statistics, the clear winners were VFX-driven movies Iron Man and The Dark Knight, and animated features Wall-E and Kung Fu Panda. (2) The tired and jaded have spoken.

Ticket sales went up last year; Variety reports that the "Box Office Resists Recession" with domestic ticket sales rising to $9.63 billion US between Jan. 2, 2008 and Jan. 2, 2009, just edging out the previous year’s total of $9.62 billion. (3)

The Vancouver Sun reports that “North Americans will drink, dance and distract themselves through the worst of it.“ Any way people can escape, they will,” says Gerald Celente CEO of The Trends Research Institute.” (4)

In Vancouver in the last few years, we’ve seen international companies Deluxe and Technicolor invest in Rainmaker and Command Post; Frantic Films of Winnipeg partnering with Prime Focus and opening offices in Vancouver and LA. We’ve also seen an influx of companies from the US, London or Toronto opening a branch in Vancouver, such as MPC, Stargate Digital, Zoic Studios, Entity VFX, Spin VFX and Gray Matter VFX.

Ivan Hayden, VFX Supervisor for Supernatural Season IV and President of the Visual Effects Association of BC, comments, "With over 30 local VFX Houses offering up the full amenities for Visual Effects between them, and a healthy freelance talent pool that can augment any production’s needs, BC is stepping onto the global VFX stage. We are seeing more and more big budget projects looking North to take advantage of our cooperative community, skilled talent pool and tax incentives. Our VFX community is as healthy as ever, in this regard."

Vancouver VFX shops are now becoming first-string or lead VFX houses on films, a new trend that validates the talent and positive economic results of producing VFX in Vancouver. Image Engine worked on The Hulk last year, and along with Orphan and New in Town has a major Peter Jackson produced film in production (District 9); CIS Vancouver has recent credits on Changeling and Twilight and just received the "Outstanding Supporting Visual Effects in a Motion Picture" award for Changeling from the Visual Effects Society.

Says CIS Digital Effects Supervisor Geoffrey Hancock, "We’re working on an exciting project that pushes our past crowd work to new heights. For this we are expanding into another building nearby to meet the demands of artist workspace and render farm expansion. CIS has a couple of other projects in house like Angels & Demons, Tooth Fairy, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. It’s bound to be a busy year."

The Embassy added feature VFX to their strong commercial practice by providing VFX shots for Iron Man; Frantic Films completed Stereo VFX on Journey to the Centre of the Earth and worked on The X Files: I Want to Believe and The Forbidden Kingdom, Artifex is busy with Defendor and Spin VFX is working on Psych and gearing up for another feature this spring.

VFX Supervisor & Director John Gajdecki comments, "We’re working on The Hole, a psychological suspense feature that is shooting in Stereo in Vancouver and LA. The VFX are being completed both in Vancouver and in LA; I’m heading up the Vancouver half and Robert Skotak (Titanic and Aliens) heading up the LA half. We are moving away from our long-standing relationship with Digital Fusion and moving to NUKE for 2D and sticking with Maya for 3D. Also, we are the first to use the REVIEW features of Frame Cycler in Stereo Mode and are Alpha testing a new stereo projection system that is very slick indeed. The economic recession is not felt as heavily in Canada as in other countries due in large part to sound government policies, and as always we are as busy as we need to be."

The next few years will prove to be very interesting in all aspects of the economy and filmmaking. Ground-breaking new technologies continue to develop, creative boundaries continue to get pushed. No matter what the economy, a talented, committed artist can find a way to contribute. Keep going to the movies!



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