Letter from London: VFX REDUX

Photograph Source: Sean Devine – CC BY-SA 3.0

The young son of an English friend who lives in Los Angeles presently enjoys a deep interest in visual effects. He is talented. His father is a scriptwriter. Film must run in the veins. VFX, as associates like to call visual effects, are to film what jewellery is to royalty — fascinating, opulent, not always necessary. I told my English friend I knew another Brit in Los Angeles, a former colleague, responsible over the years for some pretty impressive work in this sphere, no easy feat when you consider the restrictive nature of the briefs sometimes, and that we should attempt to put the two of them together, so that my friend’s son could at least benefit from what I know would be some pretty serious and sound advice. It got me thinking. London, never mind Los Angeles, or Vancouver for that matter, has a really intense relationship with VFX. In film circles, the VFX industry stands alone. Its death in London is often rumoured but survival seems assured. What is it about this sometimes dark art that makes it so prevalent here?

It was in London one day that I first encountered this obsessively created imagery that is the world of VFX, its curious physical absence, its dizzying, often precocious, use of CGI, Compositing, Motion Capture; its 3D modelling, green screen filming, animalistic performances and capture. The expert I had mind for my friend’s son was Nicholas Lloyd. When I spoke to Nicholas on a video call last week about this he was characteristically willing. He lives in LA close to the airport (LAX). He likes California and California likes him. I knew Nicholas when he was Nick. Incredible to think he has been living and working over there for over 20 years now. I first knew him here in London when he used to ride a motorbike like a road-seeking missile, when not locked-on like one to two giant computer screens, at the same time as running code like a revolutionary might run guns. And all in the name of the boffinist of visual digitalia.

At the time it was as if hyperbole itself had been designed for some of these so-called digital artists. The only downfall was that it was largely men doing this, with few of the brilliant women we thankfully have now in this world. Producer Emma Ibbetson I remember from the start. Nicholas was telling me on the call he had surrendered his bike, replacing it for the equally padded charms of ice hockey, which he said he loved playing. He was always adventurous was Nicholas, tightly wound, quick-thinking, generously spirited. Like many of his colleagues, he was also an incredible hard worker. One Christmas I worked with Nicholas and a group of other highly talented people and could hardly drag them away from their screens. Even on Christmas Day, to have a meal round the corner from where we were working all-nighters, it was the hardest thing to get any of them to switch off. We were chasing a merciless deadline and such was our dedication, such our wrestling with the at times incomprehensible technology, that we would not on any account surrender to the lesser charms of celebration. My main job, from what I could tell, seemed to be to watch people’s backs, ensure they got on happily and uninterruptedly with the task at hand, usually by allowing people like myself to be their person absorbing the burden of production. Just as with any other walk of life, there were always mercenaries in the wings, but loyalty was aways your best shot. There were more than enough bean counters along the way waiting to take advantage of people without wanting to become one yourself. Some real sharks feature in this industry and anyone with any kind of self-respect has the scars to prove it.

It was great working with Nicholas. It had felt like we were in control. It was all so intense and concentrated that we would run relays of minicabs to places like Hitchin in Hertfordshire outside London to render all the generated code at genuinely eccentric so-called render farms. None of us really knew what we were doing, because none of us had properly done this before. It was all part of the excitement and rookie-like elation. Funny, in retrospect, how one’s idea of adventure can travel from the physical to the mental then back to the physical again. I eventually left the world of VFX for Afghanistan again. Nicholas for example was not so long ago climbing the same peaks where fellow Californian Brit Julian Sands went missing — ‘I felt lots of pairs of eyes watching me,’ he said of the wildlife there late one night.

If VFX is all about the digital manipulation of images — lies for eyes, so to speak — it is also about adding something to images, either by piggybacking some pre-existing or supervised live-action or as total replacement or re-fabrication. Even the tiniest of tweaks will often take place, but these can be obsessive not crucial. People like Nicholas work largely in the world of film, in movies as he now calls them, but countless TV dramas and commercials need this kind of thing too. I used to believe that if a viewer noticed the work, you weren’t really doing it properly. Today, arguably, we have far too much VFX. In the mid-90s, London was straining at the leash in all things visual effects, but it was never fetishistic, sat, or compulsive. Remember, this was before the sudden massive Harry Potter franchise sent the whole UK VFX scene spiralling into some kind of maddeningly golden stratosphere, making London a burning semi-automated hotspot, and making so much revenue for the country, as well as for one or two privately self-amassing individuals. Oddly, despite all that money flooding in, there was never that much left for the people doing the real work. Especially when they were not working as freelancers. As an industry today, it still has to fight for proper governmental recognition. Maybe they have the wrong interlocutors. This is despite the fact that London presently houses at least six of the world’s biggest VFX companies — a success story that goes quite against the grain of just about every other industry in the country right now. That said, it does still require constant fighting over competing contracts with the rest of Europe, the US, India, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia.

In those earlier Wild West digital days, I remember British-based company Qantel maintaining its famously closed architecture with ‘Henry’, the world’s first multilayer compositing system, while Discreet Logic made theirs — revolutionarily — open with Henry’s new rival on the block, Flame. On the surface, it was like just another of those corporate battles. My toy is better than your toy sort of thing. But in reality this was also to do with the quality or otherwise of what would end up on our Tv screens, for example. The US with its weaker NTSC resolution was no match to the PAL quality over here. This incidentally was never anything much to do with content. VFX — in the creative sense — is devoid of content. This is both its strength and its flaw. In some people’s opinions, certainly when it comes to so-called true artistry, or the ungovernable spirit of great art, you were always working within limits. Only in one or two animation directors had I seen any kind of ‘ownership’ retained. The open architecture of Flame was in the end part of the beginning of software based products helping develop a digital upper-hand. I remember attending a Qantel do once with super-talented Lyndon Gaul, one of the brightest people I had met in VFX. This was at Highclere Castle where Downton Abbey was filmed. One truly far out former research director presiding over the celebration was the wonderful Paul Kellar, who reminded me when introduced by Lyndon of Ian Fleming’s well-known James Bond character ‘Q’. Paul happened also to be obsessed with clocks, and, befitting a true horologist possessed hundreds of them, I assumed simply because he loved the way the most intricate of things were put together. I believe Paul went on to become a leading member of the Bombe Restoration Project that rebuilt, maintains and now runs the famous Enigma code-breaking machine.

Anyway, against a hazily warm and blue English sky — ‘Strawberries and cream anybody?’ — this Newbury-based company actually had a Spitfire dive-bomb its international clients and guests, including a group of bright-as-button Germans, chortling away rather sportingly I thought at the context. Pangs of nostalgia: I guess Europe was headily and attractively indivisible back then. Nicholas when we first met was more into 3D, unlike Lyndon, who was a young king compositor. Lyndon’s responsibilities often began at the stage immediately after or halfway through the 3D, though he would regularly supervise, even design, this part of the process. Lyndon was when the greater weight of the work moved into his Henry or Flame suite — he could master both. For the reader who is interested in these things, Nicholas was using Alias Wavefront, while one or two of the other 3D ‘artists’ were into Softimage.

A typical Flame suite was like the deck of a high-tech battle cruiser — The Cool, not The Cruel, Sea. A brand new world it was for all of us back then. The last time I had taken such an interest in technology was as a child staring into my grandmother’s large coke boiler, while trying to work out how it heated her building. With VFX, the Luddite in me felt out of sorts, but the adventurist loved the lack of explanation. Apart from two brief segues to cover two wars after returning from the States, I was now more than fully keen to try out new things in the UK, and to occupy a space other than reportage. I was eternally curious for some reason. Don Hawkins, a forever generous-minded friend, was working on a script with post-production house Red at the time, a den of brilliance run by the aforementioned Lyndon Gaul and by Tim Kemp with the superb support of David Carradice and tireless vim of Carl Grinter. Don was responsible for getting me inside the tent, so to speak, and on the back of further recommendations I was invited to help develop a potential 3D TV series on Greek Myths which I called ‘Spiro’s Heroes’. (The still legendary Tim Kemp became ill and ultimately the project was aborted.) This ‘Red’ incidentally was not to be confused with Nicola Schindler’s production company Red, who I would later work with on various Manchester-based dramas — Manchester being a city of many Reds, with all its Man United support. Walking through Lyndon’s different Red door, so to speak, on Warwick Street close to Regent Street, was like walking into a separate reality. It was a creative hothouse like no other I had witnessed before. It was also incredibly cool and chilled and like an ice cube in a bowl of paradise. It had a giant aquarium in the main meeting area whose exotic fish would always entertainingly attempt to do a runner every time talented Irish director Paul Donnellon arrived for a meeting. The fish never seemed to mind his excellent cinematographer brother Noel. I had known many artists in New York and had seen many people working often in genuinely creative clusters. But nothing had prepared me for this giddy melange of wilful technologists married to kind souls. Architects will understand the regrettable constraints of some seriously technical challenges. You still need the building to stay up. But I would grow to admire many of the people I began working over the years in VFX. Live-action people never quite understood VFX, I remember. They always underestimated both the hours and perfectionism. In time, I had worked with a number of leading film directors, too, and I can’t say any of them fully grasped what they were dealing with. One time I helped with a massive push by the UK TV and film industry in LA. That was an eye-opener. Back in London, I saw up close lots of dog eat dog wretchednesses from greedy powerbrokers but also thankfully witnessed moments of exquisite flair and genuine wit back at the rock-face. Tony Lawrence I particularity enjoyed working with as he possessed — and still possesses — one of the tidiest minds in the country. And few things would ever match those innocent first few days with people like Nicholas and Lyndon. Not to forget the likes of Ivor Middleton and Kevin Shepherd.

I do hope my friend’s son finds what he is looking for. The two will have been in touch by now. It is a strange world out there. We never know what Trojan horse, digitised or otherwise, is waiting for us around the next corner, even if the corner exists at all. I left the scene when I began to crave content again, though funnily enough I have begun recently to reconnect with one or two still thriving luminaries. I think it was the initial camaraderie as well as nervous technology which attracted me first. I wonder if my friend’s son knows that the real challenge for any truly creative person is control. VFX is ultimately hierarchal, even patriarchal, and a true artist should always have the final say. At least he will be in good hands talking to Nicholas.

Peter Bach lives in London.