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The Magic Of The Movies – VFX Is The Element In Films
That Lifts The Filmmaking Process To New Extraordinary
Heights – Why Did The VFX Company Which Won An
Oscar For The Amazing Production Life of Pi Go Bankrupt?

Tim Caplan, Adam Gascoyne and Simon Hughes
VFX is now a standard in the filmmaking process, lifting the possibilities of what can be accomplished on the screen to extraordinary new heights. How could it have happened then that the company behind the effects of Life of Pi fell into bankruptcy, even after winning an Oscar for its work on the film in 2013? London-based Union is a boutique VFX company responsible for the effects in the newly released Suffragette, amongst other productions. The Business of Film is in conversation with Tim Caplan, Co-founder, Visual-effects Producer and Executive Producer, on what is happening in this field of the filmmaking process that brings magic to the movies.

The Business of Film
: Since the first days of VFX, the film and television industry has come an incredibly long way with regard to the importance of VFX and the audience appetite for these elements in the filmmaking process. Since you founded your independent studio in 2008, what changes and advances have occurred in the technology?

Tim Caplan: Regardless of improvements in technology, the fundamentals of VFX are the same as they always have been. You have to start with well-shot source material and a good, open collaboration with the client. It's true that software is constantly being written to help speed up the process and computers are now faster. However, the knock-on effect is that we are expected to be more flexible in terms of allowing the client to try new things and work right up to the wire. So in effect, the faster the process becomes and the greater the client's involvement, the more polished our work needs to be. This is great for decisive and experienced directors who know what they want, but you have to be careful that it's not self-defeating. I'd compare it to the days when there were only four TV channels to choose from — you inevitably ended up watching more quality TV. Now, we've got so many options that you have to work hard to focus and stay with the good stuff. It's easy to get distracted by too much choice.

TBOF: In 2013, Mumbai-based Rhythm & Hues Studios orchestrated the VFX and won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects for Life of Pi, yet not long after filed for bankruptcy. If we accept that VFX is a crucial element of films today, surely it's a thriving business sector of the industry?

TC: Yes — this was a rotten reward for such great work. It's a shame when a team of very talented individuals that have put blood, sweat and tears into a project are buried by the process and fail to benefit from the success of their efforts. After all, Life of Pi could not have been made without them. I'd say the economic workings of the industry need to catch up with the reality of how films are made these days. VFX are used everywhere and no film, big or small, can now be finished without them. What's more, as creative ambitions and audience expectations rise — often faster than budgets — visual effects are increasingly solving locational and logistical problems, while enriching the creative vision by allowing sequences to be filmed that would otherwise be too difficult, dangerous or expensive.

TBOF: It seems that VFX is increasingly pushing the envelope in terms of what is possible, as the audience craves ever more sensational effects. As an independent house, what are the challenges faced — and what are the solutions?

TC: I might be wrong — I have been before! But I disagree that people crave more sensational VFX. I think what people actually crave is more really good storytelling and that VFX are becoming more sophisticated in order to help tell those stories more believably. I'd say that the less you are taken out of the story by thinking about the VFX, the more successful the VFX are. This is something that we at Union are heavily focused on, especially with the type of films we work on.

TBOF: From a viewpoint of the budget of a film, are producers factoring in the real cost of VFX?

TC: I think this is improving all the time. There are obvious VFX moments in any film that need thinking about and budgeting for, and they are. Then, during the pre-production process, the director's ambition often expands beyond the project's initial spec in terms of, for example, location, scheduling and set-dressing. VFX are the obvious solution and this work is mostly discussed and budgeted for. But then there are the ifs and the maybes — the issues get pushed into the background, with the vague idea that they'll be solved in the editing. However, it isn't also possible to fix things in post, which means they invariably get passed back to the VFX team. In these cases, the costs often edge into unbudgeted territory, which can be problematic.

TBOF: It seems that at times directors and producers are relying perhaps a little too much on what can be fixed in the post-production process. What other trends are affecting the budgeting items in relation to escalating costs?

TC: Yes that is correct, another trend we're witnessing is the polishing of films in post-production, perhaps to fix continuity, or hair and make-up, or image glitches. These requests from directors are increasing all the time and are impossible to budget for. And not only is this unbudgeted work, but the scale of it only comes to light at the very end of the project, when there's no more money in the line producer's pocket. But over the past six years, we've gained a great deal of experience in all aspects of our craft, not least reading a script and working out how much, realistically, the VFX component will cost. As a result, we can tell producers that they should allow at least x amount to get their film up to standard. The good news is that more and more producers are now listening to this advice — which certainly wasn't the case a few years back.

TBOF: I see from your portfolio that your company worked on the London 2012 Olympics. Has this expanded the kind of projects you now work on?

TC: As part of the Opening Ceremony creative team, we were very heavily involved in making the short films that ran throughout the ceremony, which meant collaborating closely with the marine and helicopter unit. That experience has come in very useful when pitching for and advising on other jobs. It also helps that we know central London inside out — including the inside of Buckingham Palace, thanks to Adam's day shooting royal corgis (with a camera!).

TBOF: As an independent boutique studio, has the culture of how VFX work is sourced changed? And do you see a future for quality boutique operations such as yourselves?

TC: Filmmaking is a hugely collaborative process. Our role as a VFX studio is increasing all the time and now ranges from planning shoots and problem-solving through working responsibly with budgets to providing a dedicated team of our artists in the post-production phase. The way Union is structured allows us to offer this creative end-to-end service efficiently — we've worked hard to establish a niche for ourselves as a creatively driven VFX studio with a reputation for imaginative solutions and quick turnarounds. It's also important to us that we to grow our business responsibility while creating a stable environment for our producers and artists.

Looking forward, the global VFX market will remain a challenge. The bigger VFX facilities have studios all over the world to take advantage of territories that offer generous production tax credits. In many instances moving work to different time zones can hinder the creative needs of a production. But counterbalancing that, it's clear that flexibility and collaboration are increasingly in demand. This works in favour of the smaller VFX companies, which tend to be more agile, accessible and reactive than the bigger set-ups. And let's not forget that the UK also has generous tax incentives too.

We boutique studios also have a role to play on the bigger tent-pole films, where we can offer our services on key sequences, as we did recently with great success on Everest. So at Union, we'll avoid the factory mentality and stick to what we do best: work closely and collaboratively with our clients to produce work that we can all be proud of.


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