It's 4am on 29 February and a drunken team of visual effects artists are staggering around Soho's Ham Yard Hotel practically in tears. They've just found out that their work on the film Ex Machina has garnered an Oscar.
The wasted techies are from Double Negative, a Soho-based VFX house which had achieved something special: back to back Academy Awards.
This year's win however was quite different to the one they picked up in 2015 for the mind-bending space epic Interstellar (or the one they got in 2010 for Inception). The team that worked on Alex Garland's low-ish budget Ex Machina were just a small B unit (and were buddying up with personnel from a team from Milk too). Yet despite this, their work bringing to life the android character Ava was enough to beat a field of big budget behemoths including Star Wars and Mad Max.
The reason they won was simple: Ava is a sinuously realistic creation with see-through limbs and a chrome-domed cranium that makes you completely believe in the artificial intelligence at the heart of the story. Double Negative had practically passed a Turing test.
Are we on the cusp of a digital High Renaissance?
The firm is just one of a throng in London, with many based in Soho's square mile, who are together elevating computer-aided VFX from a nifty craft to something more like a high art form. With Oscars over the last three years — for Gravity, Interstellar and Ex Machina — the capital has plenty to be proud of. And it's the particular mix of competition and collaboration between companies here that's making the future so brightly pixelated.
A case in point is the two rival Jungle Book movies which will come out over the next year. First up is Disney's 3D version in which every single photorealistic leaf and raindrop has been made by machine. Think Avatar level immersion, with much of the lead work done by locals at the Moving Picture Company (MPC) on Wardour Street.
Then a bit further down the line, there's another retelling of Kipling's tale, this time with Andy Serkis making his directorial debut via his Imaginarium studio in Ealing. With actors like Christian Bale and Benedict Cumberbatch, he's using the motion capture technology he pioneered as a performer with Gollum and King Kong (and for which he should have by now won an Oscar). So we’ll soon be able to compare and contrast two completely different high-tech visions of a story that was written way back in 1894.
And there's the exciting element at the centre of all this. Okay, so we're still in an era of CGI thrill rides and superhero movies (with a mooted three Avatar sequels, 10 Star Wars movies and 30 superhero flicks already on the slate). But the potential is there for more small and spritely philosophical fare like Ex Machina, as well as great visions based on mad, imaginative works of British literature like The Jungle Book or The Lord Of The Rings and hopefully more grown up books too (a photorealistic Paradise Lost has been mooted but not managed to get off the ground — yet).
So why is the capital such a hotspot? "Hollywood likes London because you can wander through Soho for a meeting then go three streets to the next place," explains Dominic Davenport, founder of Escape Studios. "In somewhere like San Francisco, you'd have to drive for three hours. As a result there are more creative jobs in Soho that in the rest of the UK."
And it's not just film that’s making the most of the recent advancements in VFX. The BBC is halfway through its biggest ever animated commission with a new four-part CGI-powered Watership Down. And theatre is learning to use the tricks too with the recent wonder.land at the National Theatre a particularly eye-catching example; while the RSC is set to unleash a giant mo-cap Prospero in their latest retelling of The Tempest.
The origins of London’s VFX industry
This storytelling revolution has its roots here with several landmark projects connected to the capital. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick made 2001: A Space Odyssey at Shepperton, while George Lucas created the first Star Wars in 1977 using studios around Kensal Rise, Elstree and ultimately Shepperton again. Both relied on old-fashioned models, camera tricks and video projections rather than computers but they pushed that technology to its limits and paved the way for the next generation of design.
Perhaps more surprisingly, it is Leytonstone's Alfred Hitchcock who is often credited as the first filmmaker to employ computer animation in a major motion picture — with the hypnotic, twirling geometry of Vertigo’s opening titles, back in 1958. A much later milestone also worth a mention is the music video for Dire Straits' song Money For Nothing in 1985, which featured the first computer-animated characters and was made by the firm Rushes on Old Compton Street.
The latest surge in VFX however can be dated to one slightly less memorable movie: 1997's Lost In Space (with Matt LeBlanc and Gary Oldman). This one was significant because it saw a number of Soho’s small visual effects companies, which had grown up to deal with adverts and pop promos, banding together to work on different scenes. Perhaps this was why the final film felt bitty and unconvincing, but it demonstrated that a new and more collaborative way of working was the way forward on these mega projects with immovable deadlines.
Then it was the Harry Potter series which provided 10 solid years of continuity and guaranteed work so the industry could develop and then thrive. "When I started there wasn’t very much of a VFX industry in London," recalls Stuart Penn who is now a CG Supervisor with Framestore and has worked on some of the biggest blockbusters of recent years. "I began on TV miniseries and then Harry Potter came along and opened doors. Through working on that we developed skillsets and tools and with a bit of British ingenuity we basically got things going."
The long-running Harry Potter sequence meant filmmakers with increasingly ambitious VFX needs would turn to London first, with the capital's finest hour to date arguably being 2013's Gravity. Here Penn, speaking to us at the recent VFX Festival, explains why it was such a hard but also a rewarding project:
Wardour Street has long been the historic centre of the British film industry with the cinemas of Leicester Square, BAFTA and the BFI all close by. But according to Thom Trigger, PR and marketing manager at Rushes, it’s really all about the beer: "There’s a reason why Soho has so many busy pubs. You can go into any one of them on a Thursday or Friday night and you're going to meet CGI artists, frame artists and technicians alongside directors, editors and producers. It’s a real community."
Rushes' Head of Motion Graphics, Barry Corcoran agrees, saying that his work looking after VFX elements on Spectre was predicated on the way Soho works as a hub with talent available on tap:
But ever-rising London rents are pushing overheads up and as these local firms expand, most are setting up secondary offices overseas in places like Canada, India or Singapore. The more skilled concept design work is usually done in the London headquarters, but keeping the focus here may well be an issue in future. Everyone agrees that continued government support, such as the tax breaks of recent years, is going to be vital in the years ahead.
Another problem is overwork as more and more filmmakers demand longer CGI sequences but expect tighter deadlines to be met (this being the main reason for all the movies with visual effects that suck). There tends to be a bottleneck with the last people to work on the VFX (usually compositors who blend all the other computer-created elements together) often under the cosh and forced to work nights and weekends. The stress can be intense and there have been vocal suggestions of unionising so they can consider strike action. Simply working on prestige projects isn't enough to keep them happy as it was a few years ago so something clearly needs to be done to even out the workflow and protect people at the sharp end as the industry grows.
Others say that a smart future strategy would also see London firms developing projects rather than simply acting as talented craftsmen who can realise an endless chain of CGI-heavy superhero films coming in from the States. "I think the industry needs to take control of its own destiny," argues Dominic Davenport. "The way for service providers to evolve is to move up the food chain and get involved in the development phase. Firms like ILM [the American VFX house behind Star Wars] can exist the way they do because they have input higher up."
That means we can not only put a local stamp on the big blockbusters we are already making in London, but also tell more rich and complex stories like Ex Machina which better match up with the possibilities presented by this glittering digital frontier.
The inaugural UK Visual Effects Society Awards is held on 17 March, while you can register interest for Escape Studio's VFX Festival 2017 here. Disney's new film version of The Jungle Book is released on 15 April.