District 9's aliens breed in Vancouver

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      Think District 9’s insectlike alien refugees came from another planet? Actually, they came from Vancouver.

      The “prawns” (as they’re derisively called in the sci-fi thriller) are the handiwork of Image Engine, a Vancouver studio that contributed to the film’s visual effects, along with local companies the Embassy Visual Effects Inc., Zoic Studios, and Goldtooth Creative Agency Inc. What’s more, the film’s director, South African–born Neill Blomkamp, and Terri Tatchell, one of its cowriters, are Vancouver Film School alumni. So is Shawn Walsh, the production’s visual-effects executive producer, along with 24 members of District 9’s visual effects and animation crew.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, Walsh explains that the Vancouver-based Blomkamp approached his company, Image Engine, to develop aliens created by New Zealand’s Weta Workshop (of The Lord of the Rings fame).

      Walsh—a UBC fine arts and VFS visual-effects and 3-D–animation graduate who has worked in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and London—has noticed a marked increase in the work obtained by local grads. While he thinks B.C.’s visual-effects tax credit program, established history of animation and visual-effects work, and film-production growth are contributing elements, he also notes a reversal of the brain drain: “The most important factor is that folks like myself left Vancouver to search for opportunity that didn’t exist here and are now starting to return after having more than a decade of experience in the industry, really having gained know-how elsewhere, and are now able to reach further than they ever have before, both creatively and technically.” With companies like CIS Vancouver, Frantic Films, and Moving Picture Company all setting up shop here, Vancouver is making its mark on the visual-effects map.

      In an interview at the school’s West Hastings Street office, VFS head of animation Alastair Macleod notes that in the past, grads often migrated stateside to work on big-budget productions. “We have grads that have worked on a number of films, but most of them have to go down to L.A. to work on something of that [District 9’s] calibre.”¦It’s really great to see a project of that magnitude being done in Vancouver and for the grads to be involved with it.”

      Watch the trailer for District 9.

      Credit VFS with helping to develop the local talent pool. Macleod says that while VFS’s intensive 12-month program in 3-D animation, visual effects, and modelling isn’t a technical one—“We focus more on the core skills, especially artistic skills, and using the technology in a creative way”—grads are prepped for work force practicalities. He explains that the program minimizes the culture shock of school-to-industry transitions by integrating everything from trade language to hierarchical structures into the curriculum.

      “A big part of the [VFS] experience is the industry-simulated environment that we have,” he says. “So we have dailies [raw-footage screenings] now, we have presentations, we invite people from industry such as Shawn Walsh to give feedback and critique on work.” Students also benefit from the experience and connections of faculty members, who continue to work in their fields—Macleod recounts how he took students with him while working on the local set of Hollywood blockbuster 2012.

      As demonstrated by District 9, the connections made within the school extend beyond the classroom. In fact, Walsh says that Image Engine’s next project is a film directed by David Slade (30 Days of Night, Eclipse), who knew Blomkamp from their days directing commercials.

      Macleod points out that even a single significant project like District 9 can be pivotal for a region. “If you have a look at the history of Wellington [New Zealand] before and after Lord of the Rings, that movie transformed that town.”

      Walsh says that Blomkamp’s decision to have District 9’s visual effects work done here will have “intangible” benefits locally. “Neill really embraced Vancouver as where he wanted to get this work done and had a tremendous leap of faith in this city that I think a lot of other directors will now say, ”˜Well, if this 30-year-old kid can take this project and get it done in Vancouver, certainly I should be able to.’ ”