Vancouver’s visual effects industry blossoms

Most of the eye-popping imagery in this year’s biggest Hollywood movies was created inside local computers

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      It’s not a well-known fact, but Times Square was built in Vancouver. Same goes for St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. Ditto Ellis Park Stadium in Johannesburg. In fact, some 60,000 South African rugby fans were also manufactured in Vancouver, about six years ago, in a facility just off Main Street.

      Invictus,” Jason Dowdeswell says, simply, in an interview with the Georgia Straight. Dowdes­well, vice-president of Vancouver production operations at Sony Pictures Imageworks, is referring to the 2009 Clint Eastwood–directed feature film.

      “The crowd was one of the characters in that story, because the crowd was the nation. The crowd—the digital crowd—had a role to play.” With a hint of awe, he adds: “These were not just people out of focus. They were full detail, full hair, full clothing simulation, smiles, cheers, performances—it was through the roof.”

      A company called CIS Vancouver was responsible for turning millions of lines of code into 60,000 bobbing, waving, cheering Springboks supporters. When the same studio was known as Rainmaker Visual Effects, it sent Tom Hanks hurtling through a digitally rendered St. Peter’s Basilica for the 2009 Ron Howard flick Angels & Demons. “We sent the creative team to Rome as tourists,” Dowdeswell recalls with a snicker. “They went in with digital cameras and they had to systematically take photos of every part of the interior.”

      Just last year, Dowdeswell marshalled some 150 local artists to do the animation, special-effects simulation, lighting, and compositing on The Amazing Spider-Man 2. A key battle between the web slinger and the villain Electro appears to happen in the heart of New York City. In reality, because it’s not all that easy to cordon off a section of 42nd Street and then proceed to destroy it, pretty much everything other than the principal actors was rendered by a bunch of brainiacs in a three-storey office just off Davie and Homer streets.

      Dowdeswell likens the work to taking a piss in a dark suit. “No one notices,” he says with a shrug. “But you get a good feeling inside.”

      A Vancouver native and an industry vet, Dowdeswell is an excited man these days. About the same time that CIS was populating Ellis Park Stadium with computer-generated humans, his hometown was beginning its dramatic transformation into a hub for digital visual-effects work. More than a hub—in Dowdeswell’s words, these days Vancouver is a “mecca”.

      “Go back to 2002: there were 25 people working here in the field. Today: 2,500,” he says. “That’s fantastic.”

      “It’s phenomenal,” echoes Warren Franklin, an independent producer and chair of the Vancouver section of the Visual Effects Society, in a separate call to the Straight. Franklin—who put in 15 years with Industrial Light & Magic in San Francisco after getting his first major effects credit on The Empire Strikes Back in 1980—was actually banking on Vancouver’s future in the visual-effects field way back in the year 2000, thanks in part to the computer-generated work already being pioneered here for television and animation. “I thought it would actually happen the way it happened,” he states. “I’m not surprised. A lot of people that I told that to originally didn’t believe it.”

      Either man is prone to hold forth on the why of Vancouver’s path to dominance, and they’ll make your heart race while they do it. Dowdes­well pinpoints the release of Jurassic Park in 1993 as the distant start. “The major Hollywood studios realized that computer graphics could be a real major player at the box office, and that was the beginning of a whole new era,” he says.

      By ’94, Dowdeswell had skipped Vancouver for Los Angeles, where he became “employee number 30” at the newly opened Sony Pictures Imageworks. Gradually, London became the next hot spot, thanks largely to the Harry Potter franchise, with New Zealand’s Weta Digital establishing another beachhead with the Lord of the Rings trilogy—at least until Neill Blomkamp happened.

      “God bless that guy,” Dowdeswell remarks. Blomkamp, originally from South Africa, was a Vancouver Film School graduate under Peter Jackson’s mentorship when he put together the screenplay (with Terri Tatchell) for District 9. “I remember looking at that script and that budget and going, ‘Wow, you have half the money you need for this,’ ” Dowdeswell recalls. “And he kept going, and he found a small Vancouver-based company called Image Engine…”

      And the rest, as they say, is history. By cutting out some of the script’s more costly measures—like alien fur and cloth simulation—Image Engine played an essential part in one of the surprise critical and box-office hits of 2009.

      “They followed the blueprint they put forth to a T,” Dowdeswell continues, “and the film comes out, and you have someone like Steven Spielberg going, ‘Okay, you guys are charging me $80 million for robots and I see this little no-name company out of Vancouver, Canada, producing phenomenal work—I don’t get it.’

      “And that was a moment in time when people suddenly said: ‘What’s going on in Vancouver? What are they drinking? What is the special sauce? They have rebooted the industry.’ And it was amazing.”

      In 2004, there were only a few companies in Vancouver—like Rainmaker and Toybox—that were “dabbling” (Dowdeswell’s word) in computer-generated effects for Hollywood features. Today there are more than 50, including such players as London-based MPC, Method Studios Vancouver, and the legendary Industrial Light & Magic. “Basically, every major company in the world is set up here,” Franklin says.

      “For a while, studios would give Vancouver the easier work,” he says. “They might shoot the film up here, like X-Men, but they wouldn’t do the visual effects here. That changed over a three- or four-year period when the work that was coming out of Vancouver, like The Da Vinci Code and District 9, showed that our artists here were just as capable as anyone else in the world in doing that work. That was kind of a turning point, I think.”

      Dowdeswell theorizes that the “three Ts” clinched Vancouver’s emergence in the VFX sector: talent, tax credit, and time zone. “If it’s 5 o’clock in L.A., it’s 5 o’clock in Vancouver,” he says. “Being able to jump on a plane to get to Vancouver and home for dinner in Los Angeles? Oh, my God! Or just being able to pick up the phone? It’s huge.”

      “One of the big pieces you just can’t legislate is time zone and proximity to the decision makers in Los Angeles,” adds Creative BC vice-president Robert Wong when asked in a phone interview about the risk posed by other territories. Quebec and Ontario are both targeting the visual-effects and animation industry with better incentives than B.C.’s 17.5-percent Digital Animation or Visual Effects Tax Credit Program (aka DAVE). According to Creative BC’s own figures, this has attracted more than $10 billion in production since DAVE was established in 2003, with 2013 being one of its strongest years. “But you have to have the talent and the infrastructure to really make it happen,” Wong says.

      Vancouver has the talent and infrastructure in spades, although Dowdeswell identifies Vancouver’s cost of living as another danger facing the continued growth of the industry. Franklin, meanwhile, brings the wisdom of his 35 years as an effects man to bear on the question.

      “The main risk is to become complacent,” Franklin says. “It got here with a lot of effort from the local industry, the universities, and government. We need to continue to grow a strong talent base here in Vancouver. That is key.”

      Franklin goes on to predict “tremendous growth and diversity” in the next five years, all being well. Pretty encouraging from a man with his apparent clairvoyance in these matters. He recalls hiring a lot of Canucks during his days at Lucasfilm. “A lot of the core talent came out of the animation and software industries,” he says. “There wasn’t feature films going on, and the kids want to work on feature films. But that brain drain is going the other way now. You can come up here and work on Star Wars or X-Men; any of the major films are all being done up here now in visual effects and animation.”

      Star Wars? Among the other titles with the Vancouver connection—in the coming months we’ll see Edge of Tomorrow, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The Maze Runner, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, and Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie, along with a host of animated features, including Angry Birds—there sits the much anticipated J. J. Abrams/Disney reboot of the series that started it all.

      It’s not a well-known fact, but Mos Eisley spaceport will be rebuilt in Vancouver.

      Follow Adrian Mack on Twitter at @adrianmacked.



      3D retiree

      May 28, 2014 at 11:32am

      Too bad they don't mention the health toll when it comes to this industry, the crazy hours and nights rushing out projects, the crazy high tuition fees from local private schools, the people snatching up jobs from across seas, list goes on and on...after grad, you'll be competing with workers from all over the globe that wants to stay in Vancouver for a 12 hour / day job, good luck!

      The Movie still Sux

      May 28, 2014 at 12:51pm

      Now if only they hired Canadians.

      Captain Baloney

      May 28, 2014 at 4:01pm

      Considering how much government gravy these industries are snorting out of the trough through being heavily subsidized, how could anyone be surprised? A few years (maybe months from now) the industry will be bewailing the massive subsidies south-east asian countries are granting and the old 'stealing jobs' discussion will continue apace. We sacrifice tax revenue to "keep" these jobs, then another country will do the same and down, down, down it all goes. Chasing the dragon. Addicted to 'jobs'.
      As long as you're working in a digital industry, whatever you do can be done somewhere else.


      May 29, 2014 at 11:25am

      Well if they are filming here, and with it's proximity to Hollywood, it's a no brainer that VFX is thriving here, plus Vancouver has the top schools and talent to keep churning out individuals.

      As well Vancouver is cancelling a lot of foreign investment such as the Immigrant Investor Program, which was keeping the real estate prices high, after the cancellation of that in February the real estate prices in stand alone housing has dropped 11%! That's massive, more things like that and the cost of living should come down gradually, thereby making this place even more friendly for VFX companies.

      VFX Gal

      May 29, 2014 at 11:44am

      Hey Georgia Straight - the correct terminology is visual effects. The fact that you incorrectly titled your article and also mentioned the incorrect terminology in the first paragraph of your article prevented me from reading. Please fact check in the future.


      May 29, 2014 at 12:13pm

      As one of those foreign artists in Vancouver, I find some of the above comments as narrow minded. I ask you to please be more graceful when discussing the political sensitive matter of immigration. Remember there were always people who benefited from this land before your family arrived.

      Knowing the LA, Antipodean and London film communities, you are employed for your contribution of skill and experience that is locally unavailable. I make a positive contribution to Canada, it's film-industry, and the individuals that I unreservedly share my craft with. I generously hope that one day very soon, Vancouver will have enough home-grown top talent to fill all it's studios, its going to have too, if it's going to compete with emerging global markets.

      To turn the tables round.... what contribution does Vancouver make too the global Film Industry. Personally I hope that it will be the example of fair pay structures. Thanks in advance Canada. (And.. boo to the mentioned production company above who doesn't pay fair with non full-time staff- we know who you are.)


      May 29, 2014 at 3:09pm

      Great Article.. VFX has always been an international industry. never surprises me how much vfx people complain.. seems to be the default even the ones on top rates. I think its great the straight did this article. lets face it its not written fx people. come on people lets all stop being so entitled.