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How London became the VFX capital of the world

Forget Hollywood – we delve into the movie special effects magic happening around our city

By Helen O’Hara
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If you’re a Hollywood filmmaker who wants to persuade a lion cub to act or send the Avengers into space, your first stop these days is central London. Almost all the action blockbusters of recent years have been at least partly created in unassuming London offices, after our capital’s visual effects companies swiped some of the biggest, most spectacular films from under Tinseltown’s nose. When it comes to VFX, you don’t need pretty Californian sunshine – just enough computing power to make Nasa blush and a few hundred mega-talented artists.

There has been visual effects work in London since filmmaking began. It contributed miniatures to the classic Bond films and many innovative advertising campaigns in the 1980s, but it was a small, cottage industry, tucked away in odd corners of Soho. That is, until some of the current leading VFX houses – with names like Framestore, MPC and DNEG – realised in the mid-1990s that there was potential for more. Digital effects were taking off, and they set out to challenge industry giants like George Lucas’s Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). These companies built computer worlds for crime mystery ‘Hackers’ and created ancient Rome for ‘Gladiator’, growing alongside each other. ‘Our companies were all within a block of each other,’ says Philip Greenlow, VFX executive producer at MPC. ‘Artists would hang out in the same pub and everyone would spend time in different companies, so there was a general sharing of knowledge.’

But it was Harry Potter that drove this revolution. Over the ten years and eight films about the boy wizard, the London houses went from handling a small amount of shots to dominating effects work, using each off-season period to prepare and develop for the next film. By the time Potter defeated Voldemort, London was a major VFX hub, and ILM opened an office here just to share in the boom.

Adrian Dennis/Getty

The key to these companies’ success has been to mix all that artistry and creativity with a near-fanatical obsession with realism. This search for authenticity leads London’s VFX gurus to some very strange places. When Framestore started work on the space drama ‘Gravity’ with filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón – the director virtually moved into their office for several years – they considered shooting parts of the film in real zero-G. That meant going up in a so-called ‘vomit comet’. ‘They drop a plane into freefall and you get about 30 seconds of floating,’ explains Framestore’s Fiona Walkinshaw. ‘Our visual effects supervisor, Tim Webber, did 36 of those as research. Luckily, he loved it.’ Star Sandra Bullock wasn’t so fond of flying, so the floating had to be simulated – but Webber’s experiences and the footage he shot helped the studio to animate outer space around Bullock’s astronaut character.

More recently, MPC had to figure out how to get animals to act, and that meant putting people’s heads in the lion’s mouth – almost literally. In the zoo at Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park in Florida they took 3D photos of lions, to try to capture the tens of millions of hairs, and filmed inside yawning beasts’ mouths to see the texture of their tongues. ‘There were limitations on that, because you can’t get too close and personal and tell them to stay still while we take multiple photos per second,’ says Greenlow wryly. The team then racked up thousands of miles criss-crossing Kenya, taking a quarter of a million reference photos and 8,000 videos until they could construct miles of beautiful savannah landscape on their computers as the background to Simba and his pride.

Similarly, DNEG sent a team to Svalbard to film its snowy wastes for the end of ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’, and needed an armed escort to guard against polar bear attacks. VFX, it turns out, is not for the faint of heart. But there are gentler days – on ‘Pitch Black’ the VFX artists bribed small flightless birds with biscuits during the film’s Australian shoot, so they could use them as reference for the film’s flying, flesh-eating monsters.

VFX is whatever it takes to make us suspend our disbelief and believe our eyes – and if the experts tell you that something isn’t literally possible, you can always bend the rules, at least a little. ‘We were trying to explain how we wanted to collapse the Millennium Bridge for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” to one of the engineers who built it,’ says Paul Franklin of DNEG. ‘He said, in a very “engineering” way, “That is not a valid failure mode for the structure.” We replied, “Ah, but did you consider dark wizard aerial attacks?”’

That’s where the magic comes in. If London’s VFX giants were precisely recreating real worlds, they’d have it locked down by now, stored in millions of terabytes of reference photos and videos. But the trick is to rebuild the world afresh each time, showing us things we could never have imagined. Perhaps it’s no accident that Potter was such a milestone for London’s VFX. This industry also basically started in a cupboard under the stairs. With the world going through tough times, it’s good to know that someone in London is out there creating magic.

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