[ 5 October 2018 ]

Visual effects
Britain is a world leader in film post-production and special effects

Where the magic happens

Few Hollywood blockbusters do not rely on British visual and sound effects artisans. In our latest Briefing, we look at the back-room Britons conquering show biz.

Gladiator - how it all began

When a British studio, the Mill, digitally resurrected a British actor, Oliver Reed, who died during the filming of British director Ridley Scott’s best-picture winner Gladiator, it earned them an Oscar for Best Visual Effects, and set the stage for ever-more creepy reincarnations of deceased actors to feed Hollywood’s appetite for sequels.


Harry Potter: ramping up

When Warner Brothers made the first Harry Potter movie in 2000, less than 15% of the VFX was done in the UK. By the final production in 2010, more than 85% was shot in Britain. According to Josh Berger, president of Warner Brothers, this huge expansion of talent and experience laid the ground for British successes throughout this decade.

Oscar regulars

Ever since then, Britons have dominated Hollywood special FX. Roger Deakins CBE, a British cinematographer, has been Oscar-nominated no less than 14 times, finally winning this year for Blade Runner 2045. Check out this video from MPC on replicating a replicant.

More big wins

Britons have hoovered up the visual effects Oscars in recent years, with movies such as Gravity (both for Editing and Sound Mixing) and Dunkirk (Sound Editing). Even when the gong is picked up by Americans, often much of the creative work has been done in the UK. When accepting one of many Visual FX awards for the Jungle Book, Adam Valdez thanked Bafta for recognising the ‘over 800 artists at MPC Film in London who worked on every blade of grass and tuft of hair you see.’

The Soho VFX cluster

Twentieth Century House in Soho Square has been home to the British Board of Film Classification since the 1950s. Soho’s main fibre communication network Sohonet connects the post-production film industry clustered in the district to the major studios at Pinewood, Shepperton, and world-wide.

Other British clusters include, Manchester, Bristol (home to Aardman of Wallace & Gromit fame), and Cardiff, where film companies enjoy subsidies from the Welsh government).


Three industry giants

MPC: best known for the Jungle Book, the Martian, Terminator Genisys, Ghost in the Shell, Godzilla.

Double Negative: the first VFX agency in the world to convert a full Hollywood film from 2D to 3D. It has four Academy Awards, five Baftas and is currently working on Wonder Woman 1984 and this scary looking stuff from Venom.

Framestore: Oscar winners on Dunkirk and Ex Machina; also the opening sequence of Avengers: Infinity War, plus Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Black Mirror and Paddington 2.


Star Wars

The original Star Wars movies were filmed at Pinewood Studios and the latest batch were shot at Elstree studios in north London. Since 2016, the franchise has brought in about $1bn to the country, through films such as Rogue One and Solo. Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic opened a London studio in 2014.


Hollywood's eyes

OK, so it’s not a post-production business but the only company which has had an Oscar created especially for it, is based in humble digs in Nottingham and staffed with men and women in lab coats. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Cooke Optics with an Oscar for helping ‘define the look of motion pictures over the last century. Iconic films from James Bond, the Sound of Music, Superman, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Game of Thrones and The Crown, were all filmed through a Cooke lens. Naturally, they bring some glitz to our World Class Britain List too.

Mobility effects

Keeping track of British contribution in film is particularly tricky because the first thing successful British agencies do is open in California. As such, several leading Hollywood agencies, including ESP, the Mill and MPC began as UK businesses, before becoming world leaders via the US.

Creating a creative industry

Everyone wants a domestic film industry, so governments do what they can by meddling with tax systems. Britain has been quite effective recently through its creative industries relief. The ONS reports a ‘resurgence in UK film’, which contributed around £8bn to the UK economy in 2016. Meanwhile the BFI reports that expenditure on film production in the UK hit a record £1.9bn in 2017. Tax can be a game-changer – it is why so many US dramas are filmed in Montreal and why New Zealand was home to the Shire, and why Winterfell is in Northern Ireland.


The HBO hit Game of Thrones has brought in an estimated £150m to the Northern Irish economy over its six seasons, helping to build infrastructure and expertise in the region, as well as making it a tourist attraction among its global fan base. While the island’s stunning landscape was clearly a pull, the government’s tax breaks and subsidies on high-end TV drama were an inevitable draw.

[Game of Thrones was the] “single cultural juggernaut of its time – it entirely redefined the making of high-end TV."

Richard Williams, head of NI Screen


Brexit FX

The official line: “I don’t want to be complacent, but I don’t think Brexit will have a significant effect on the film industry,” government minister Margot James told Variety. “It won’t affect the studio space; it won’t affect the tax reliefs.”

The fear: Like every industry dependent on mobile talent, the industry is concerned about workers rights post-Brexit.

The rumour: According to industry sources, Netflix has been spooked by the prolonged lack of clarity in the Brexit negotiations and may be launching a new European HQ in Holland. They would certainly otherwise have gone to London, says our source.

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