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UK/London/Soho Post Scene

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The London postproduction and visual effects market has been attracting more and more big-budget special effects films in recent years, putting it on a competitive footing with Los Angeles. London’s Soho district has been the base for such effects-heavy films as Batman Begins, the Harry Potter films, and the upcoming Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.“The last couple years have been very good for the UK, in particular on the visual effects and post side,” says Matt Holben CEO of Soho-based Double Negative. “There are four or five companies that have really worked together, in the looser sense of the word, to make London a strong viable option to bring your post work to.”Indeed when the larger effects films come to town, the work ends up being divvied up among various houses around Soho—a business reality that has driven London’s big visual effects houses to collaborate, time and time again.The Harry Potter films have been farmed out to as many as five visual effects houses in the area. “The Harry Potter films are just so huge, they’re spread all over the world,” says The Moving Picture Company’s executive director of film, Michael Elson. “Historically, we were all smaller companies, so if a larger show came to town, there just wasn’t the capacity at any individual company to do the entire job. So things would get split out, and that’s still the case.”If there’s one cause for concern in London these days, it’s the sagging US dollar, says Elson. “It’s probably the biggest concern in UK filmmaking. It’s a very important part of everybody’s thought process.”The geography of Soho plays a key role in the region’s success, according to Greg Caplan, MD of boutique effects house Clear. “I think the fact that we are all very close to each other means that we end up having a closer relationship. We tend to have staff moving from one to the other, which means that we naturally know the other companies very well. And I think that visual effects supervisors like the idea that they can base themselves in an office in Soho and never have to get into a car or a taxi. They can just walk around from one street to another and see all of their vendors. It means that people can pick the particular strengths of individual houses. Not every house is good at everything.”“There is an understanding that London has to work as a whole. It has to have the capability to handle not just one big job, but many large-scale features at the same time, so we’re larger than the sum of our parts,” adds Holben. “If we were all cutting each other’s throats, and not realizing the bigger picture of London having to be a viable place, I think that we wouldn’t have had so much success.”The recent Ridley Scott epic feature Kingdom of Heaven was a prime example. The Moving Picture Company was the lead visual effects house coordinating some 440 effects shots in the film.“We were originally the sole vendor on that show but it just grew and grew,” says Elson. The result was that 162 shots were farmed out to Double Negative, and some 20 shots to Clear.MPC handled the bulk of the work including huge-scale army simulations with mounted cavalry and fully-manned siege machinery as well as over 100,000 infantry soldiers charging towards Jerusalem. Other important elements include the creation of computer generated war machinery such as trebuchets and mangonels, siege towers and arrow replacements.On Kingdom of Heaven the company faced the particular challenge of creating a motion-capture library of data for horses and their riders to animate the film’s digital armies.Holben explains that Double Negative’s work on the film involved mainly matte painting work. “We also did a lot of crowd extension, bulking up armies and battle scenes—making them larger bigger and more ferocious,” he says.With a staff of over 150, Double Negative has recently delivered 300 shots for Batman Begins, 403 shots for Pride and Prejudice and 177 shots for Sahara, and Holben reports that there are usually four or five big feature films in house at any given time.The company is currently in production on 180 shots for Doom, 200 shots for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and over 450 shots for Flyboys, releasing later this year.Clear was also called on to do crowd replication for Kingdom of Heaven as well as create face replacements for a stunt actor being burned alive.The film was only the second film to go through Technicolor London’s brand new DI pipeline (after The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Technicolor’s Paul Ensby served as digital color timer.Indeed, DI suites are being built all over London, home to film imaging companies like Cintel, FilmLight and Pandora.“The demand has grown steadily over the last few years and it is now at a point where—if a production can afford it—they will almost always choose to have a DI as part of the film making process,” says Claire McGrane, head of DI, at Framestore CFC.Earlier this year, Framestore CFC, probably the biggest effects house in Europe, upgraded three of its digital grading suites to FilmLight’s Baselight 8, and added three new JVC DILA projectors to offer DI services.“What’s driving demand for DI services is that it offers directors and cinematographers a new and greater level of creative control over their work. In addition, from the studios’ point of view, it makes a lot of sense to have one-stop multi-format mastering of their product,” explains McGrane.Another big player in the London market, Midnight Transfer, recently bought a complete FilmLight system—including a Northlight scanner, Baselight Four and Eight grading and finishing systems and the Truelight colour management system. The new gear will form the basis of the company’s new “DI From Day One” service.The company, whose background is film dailies, has developed a DI system where color correction can begin with the dailies, and those initial color decisions from the cinematographer are maintained through the post process. FilmLight’s Truelight film color management system provides accurate calibration throughout.“You are completing your grade with the same colorists on the same machines, using the same files and in the same suite,” explains Greg Barrett, head of production at Midnight Transfer. “This means that by the time you come to do the final grade, the whole look of the film has been firmly established in direct collaboration with the DP, saving the production time and money while freeing up the creatives to do the work that really counts.”Clear’s Greg Caplan expects that even commercial clients will be looking at DI workflows. The company recently built a Baselight 8 grading suite, running off a new Spirit 4K scanner. Caplan reports that the company, which hails from the commercial visual effects market, hopes to capture more feature film work as it adds two additional grading suites.“Our intention is to open a second suite relatively fast on the heels of the first. With one Spirit it’s easy to feed a number of suites. Once we’ve got that second suite, then we’ll start looking at feature films,” says Caplan. “Our view is with something like the Spirit 4K, houses will end up having one telecine feeding into three or four grading suites.”The company recently hired veteran colorist Mick Vincent as director of telecine. Vincent comes to the position from VTR, where for the past 18 years he has served as head of telecine.Clear expects to open its first DI grading suite in July.

Written by Scott Lehane

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