One of the biggest names in VFX talks Oscars, diplomacy, and the future effects of Doctor Who.

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If you’ve been wowed by visual effects in everything from pop promos, commercial spots, and movies over the past decade, chances are The Mill has been involved. From scooping an Oscar for its work on Gladiator, to creating stunning work for the likes of Levis, Playstation, Nike, Guinness, and lately as the effects provider for the up-coming BBC series Doctor Who, The Mill has been there, done that.
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And the facility has Bono from U2 to partly thank for its creation, says The Mill’s managing director and co-founder Pat Joseph.
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“We set-up The Mill in 1990 to take advantage of the digital technology that had just become available. At the same time, James Morris (co-founder) was looking for a greenfield site for his post-production company called Windmill Lane,” says Joseph.
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“James had good connections with U2, and the band partly financed us as a favour to James – which was handy, as their rock ‘n’ roll kudos rubbed off on us a little.”<BR>
From this incredible start, the rise of The Mill has been meteoric – and has been successful in attracting top industry talent, Joseph says.
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“We have a broad range of talent working for us,” he says. “Our success has been built on the back of great telecine and 2D work. Our strength is in creating really strong compositing – we make impossible things look utterly real, and in recent years we’ve built a very creative and strong 3D department.”
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And, a very strong reputation. Clients sound like a who’s-who of campaign excellence, taking in BBH, TBWA, AMV, and brands such as Levi’s, Nike, Honda, Mercedes, and Sony, as well as film work.
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The facility also has the enviable trick of nabbing advertising’s most prestigious awards. As well as the only Oscar ever awarded to a facility in Europe, The Mill counts awards from Campaign’s Book of Lists, The Gunn Report, the Cannes Grand Prix, The Grand Clio, and D&AD pencils in its bulging trophy cabinet.
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“Awards really do drive a creative company like ours,” admits Joseph. “Awards mean you get talked about, which means you get the best staff, which means you get the best projects… it’s a virtuous circle. Clients like to be associated with award-winners because they feel a little magic will rub off onto their project. It’s no accident you see our Oscar as soon as you walk through the door.”
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Yet award-winning projects require a lot of trust by the client, says senior Flame operator Barnsley.
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“All the seminal jobs I’ve worked on over the years – like Playstation Mental Wealth, Levi’s Twist, Guinness Snails, and Playstation Mountain – have one thing in common: the ad agency and the director have been relaxed and confident,” he says.
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“They’ve trusted us to get on and do our jobs properly,” Barnsley adds. “We’ve been treated as part of the creative team rather than as slaves. Big effects jobs need to be managed well by producers. We need to be protected from clients: if they get nervous, the end results become sterile.”
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And the industry for effects artists is rapidly changing, says Barnsley.
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<b>Art and diplomacy</b>
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“These days, Flame ops have to be more than artists – they have to learn how to manage clients; to be diplomatic,” he says. “This is the kind of thing that comes with age and experience – you learn how to achieve the script’s full potential. Budgets and schedules always become tighter as expectations always become higher – fortunately, improving technology helps us resolve this paradox.”
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But how does the team get its inspiration? “At the risk of sounding an arse-lick, the best source of inspiration is a brilliant director – a director who is enthusiastic and prepared to take a risk, someone who’s not always bowing to nervous clients,” says Barnsley. “What drives you is that every now and then you’re going to get something good, something that will register with the general public and stay in their minds – water-cooler subject matter.”
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It’s little wonder The Mill is a magnet for talented staff, and Barnsley reckons the creative atmosphere plays its part.
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“I like the atmosphere here. Although everyone works incredibly hard, it’s a surprisingly relaxed environment,” says Barnsley. “You get lots of opportunities – I started as a runner and worked my way up. The management leaves us alone, giving us free reign to get on with the work rather than dragging us down in politics. It also means we can act up a bit – there are a lot of off-the-wall characters that work here.”
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And it means that the staff is very loyal to the whole Mill ethos, says Pat Joseph. 
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“Every member of staff has a strong work ethic and immense dedication. They have to be utterly loyal and completely believe in what The Mill stands for.”
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The future for The Mill is more than rosy. It has just scooped the BBC Doctor Who gig – and the facility is gearing up for that in a big way, says Dave Throssell, head of MillTv.
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“The Doctor Who project is the biggest and most prestigious project that MillTv has undertaken,” he says. “We hope our experience in creating high-quality visual effects will live up to the expectations of die-hard Doctor Who fans, some of whom are working on the team. It’s a tight schedule so we are going to be under the kosh, but with this one we don’t mind. Sorry, but I can’t give anything away regarding monsters at this stage, as it’s all top secret.”
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<b>3D future</b>
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Unsurprisingly, given its work on Doctor Who, it is CG effects that The Mill has in its sights for the future, according to Pat Joseph.
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“Our 3D department is becoming as crucial as our 2D department,” he says. “It’s rare these days that a project only requires Flame work. We’re really developing this side of the business – it’s now a strong part of The Mill. Between London and [our] New York [facility] we now have over 30 full-time animators.
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“And, they’re such clever, creative people,” he adds. “They’re no longer a breed of geeky programmers, they’re artists. It’s a similar situation to the early days of telecine.”
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The future is also global, Joseph reckons, and The Mill is well-placed with both a New York facility and its BEAM.TV system for sending work around the world.
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“The international outlook is key to our future strategy,” says Joseph. 
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<h2>Perfect Day (1997)</h2>
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