In the face of financial challenges, the industry's tapping new technologies to create ever-more exciting motion projects

Despite 2012 being a bumper year for tentpole visual effects movies, the animation and VFX industry faces some big challenges in 2013. VFX houses suffer (and in some cases have died) due to outsourcing, TV graphics budgets seem to have remained static, while advertising budgets from small and medium clients have dropped considerably. Furthermore, as Once Were Farmers co-founder Will Adams observes, the effect of competition during the recession has been to devalue a lot of work.  

It’s ironic then that technology is simultaneously offering greater opportunities.

“The access to more affordable kit and more sophisticated software allows companies working with smaller budgets to take on the kind of effects more usually associated with high-end feature films,” explains Tim Zaccheo, Head of 3D at London-based Lola. “Large body fluid simulations for example, effects involving tens of millions of particles and complicated city-scape set extensions. The availability of cutting-edge renderers such as Arnold and V-Ray means that very realistic results can be achieved much more easily and quickly than before.”

Meanwhile, Harry Jarman, creative director of Golden Square reveals that the post-production company is exploring the use of The Foundry’s Hiero as a cost-effective way of managing VFX workflows and avoiding finishing in flame or smoke until the final stages.

US-based Brickyard VFX is taking a DIY approach, planning a small in-house greenscreen studio to easily augment VFX shots.


Lola’s work for the History Channel’s Mankind: The Story of All of Us, included adding VFX (bottom) to greenscreen shots (top)

“If we’re shooting our own VFX elements, then we know we’re getting exactly what we need,” says co-founder Dave Waller. “We also have a Red Epic, so we don’t have to deal with rentals and timing issues.”

Brickyard now also uses HDRI to create lighting for CG work – a real time saver according to Waller. “Motion capture is also always something that we’re looking at, especially for facial stuff, which was always challenging before,” he adds. 

There’s also increasing crossover between 2D and 3D workflows and pipelines, which offers a host of opportunities to make stand out work.


Disqo director Bernie Roux's Turkish Airlines ad

“It’s now possible, for example, to interact directly with 3D environments – to be able to completely retexture and relight if necessary – in 2D packages such as Nuke,” says Tim. “This allows for huge flexibility in the way in which projects can be approached, and in the distribution of work across multiple departments.”

Will is also a fan of this blurring of boundaries. “At the moment, we’re experimenting more with lighting and texturing in post,” he explains. “Trying to keep render times down and keep as much flexibility as we can up to the final stages of production, and wondering how we can subvert these possibilities to create new visual techniques.”


Seeking Samurai was designed by Ticktockrobot director Graham Carter

New avenues

“The traditional format of the TV advert is being challenged by media such as mobile, internet and video on demand,” says Harry, adding it follows that creatives no longer need to show a story in linear form, or exclusively in a video format. “The audience can control how a message is presented and what parts of the content they view,” he says. “In turn, the advertiser has control over the structure of this engagement.”

Another area of interest is 3D printing, especially as prices for the technology are falling. Indeed, Ben Leyland, creative director at Disqo, suggests that increasingly cheaper 3D printing will be a boon for stop?frame animation this year – think of widespread 3D printing of props and different facial expressions for characters.

Ticktockrobot is also intending to focus on 3D printing technologies, as well as on user engagement through the mobile app market. “Having a studio totally reliant on commissioned work is getting more difficult,” argues director and designer Simon Armstrong. 


This shot of the German battleship Bismarck (bottom) was produced by Glowfrog for Seconds from Disaster, an American documentary series shown on the National Geographic channel. Above is the original render of the ship

“We want to connect with the user more directly through use of our characters, stories and concepts on various interactive platforms such as gaming “[Using 3D printing] we would love to investigate creating models of our characters to merchandise, as well as options to customise and ‘print your own’ as the market expands into the home.”

“Building asset libraries is a good practice,” suggests Tim. “These assets can then be used and further developed in later projects. In this way, it’s possible to build up sophisticated assets that wouldn’t be achievable on a first time budget.”


Glowfrog created this CG New York, adding a giant redwood forest growing across its streets. Bottom is an untextured test render of the same frame

Glowfrog is also an adherent of this approach. “2013 will see Glowfrog assemble the largest WW1 3D asset library on the planet,” claims managing director Nigel Hunt. “We are now investing in bespoke tools to rebuild military firepower from the Great War.”

Leviathan is looking to improve VFX production by making use of 3D scanning technology. “Recently, we produced a spot for The North Face where we had to create a virtual store,” explains creative director Bradon Webb. “Traditionally, you might take photos of clothing racks and try to composite flat images in 2.5D. Instead, we were able to make use of Autodesk’s 123D Catch to capture 3D scans of clothing racks and other organic items that would be time-consuming to model by hand.


Golden Square’s Sharon’s Back promo for BBC’s Eastenders scooped a Gold Promax Award

This allowed Leviathan to create a virtual store environment in which it could reposition elements in 3D wherever it needed them. “The technology doesn’t allow for high-res scans yet, but it’s something that we look forward to in the next year,” argues Bradon.

Advancements in on-set scanning technology (such as LIDAR) have seen this technique becoming more prevalent in film production.

Yippee-ki-yay mother LIDAR 

“This data provides an excellent guide for the lighting and compositing of shots, says Sean Faden, Pixomondo’s VFX supervisor on A Good Day to Die Hard. “On-set visualisation also has a lot of potential, though generally the technology requires a tremendous amount of setup and planning time. Post-viz is also becoming more widely used in production – editors can make their cuts quickly and it helps set the guidelines for the VFX work.” 

Leviathan produced the virtual store for clothing brand The North Face’s TV ad.

Furthermore, Sean suggests that artists looking to gain more production experience could learn a tremendous amount from working for companies in these areas. He also suggests approaching industry veterans – another great resource for learning new techniques. “Networking with a mentor is crucial,” agrees Bradon.

Collaboration on projects is a route being explored by many of those we spoke to. “It’s not new, but we’re seeing more VFX companies combining forces on larger shows or partnering with specialist facilities,” says Glowfrog’s Nigel Hunt. “There’s also the promise of the creative industries tax breaks opening exciting potential, with more productions being shot and developed over here in the UK.