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Fade out for visual effects

Some local companies have closed as filmmakers cut costs by going abroad

February 01, 2011|Richard Verrier

For 11 years, Nathan McGuinness ran a successful visual effects house in California. His Santa Monica company, Asylum Visual Effects, created the World War II submarine battle scene in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," the flying dragon straddled by Nicolas Cage in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and the bionic anatomy of Sam Worthington's character in "Terminator Salvation."

But the impressive credits, along with an Academy Award nomination, couldn't keep his business afloat. Unable to cover even the rent, McGuinness closed shop late last year, laying off nearly 100 workers.

"We were a good company, we were efficient, we did our jobs well, but we just couldn't compete with the overseas markets," the Australian native said.

California's visual effects industry, which pioneered the use of computers to create and manipulate images in live-action films, is under siege.

Half a dozen visual effects houses have shut their doors in the last three years, including three in Los Angeles County, pushing hundreds of visual effects artists out of high-tech and skilled jobs that pay $75,000 to $150,000 a year. Los Angeles County, where the visual effects industry has been concentrated, has seen more than 1,000 jobs in the visual effects and post-production sector vanish over the last decade, according to state employment data.

Visual effects in filmmaking used to be created by using physical props, animatronics and models -- think of the spaceship gliding overhead in the opening credits of "Star Wars" -- but today they frequently are produced on computers. The technology represents the cutting edge of filmmaking, involving teams of digital artists trained in 3-D modeling, computer animation and computer graphics.

Even though demand for visual effects in movies is greater than ever thanks to spectacles such as "Avatar" and "Tron: Legacy," several California visual effects companies are clawing for survival. The reason is a familiar one to American industry: mounting competition from foreign rivals that can do the work cheaper.

By taking advantage of tax credits in Vancouver, Canada, and London -- where visual effects work for "Iron Man 2" and "Inception" was done -- or employing low-cost labor in China, Singapore and India, filmmakers are able to shave tens of millions of dollars off a movie's production budget.

Not long ago the visual effects industry was dominated by a few California companies with their own proprietary techniques and tools, along with the artists trained to use them. Now, thanks to advances in technology, the adoption of standardized techniques and readily available digital workforces, the industry has fanned out around the globe.

For filmmakers under orders to hold movie budgets in check, availing themselves of tax credits and low-cost labor is simply smart business. Visual effects eat up as much as 30% to 40% of a movie's budget, and more than $50 million on major studio films.

"With those kinds of numbers, these film tax rebates, while always of value, are now impossible to ignore," said Chris deFaria, executive vice president of digital production, animation and visual effects for Warner Bros., which plans to shoot several movies in Britain including "Jack the Giant Killer" and "Dark Shadows."

Leading California visual effects companies such as Digital Domain, Rhythm & Hues and George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic have adapted by opening studios in Vancouver, Singapore, Mumbai and other foreign locales, creating digital pipelines in which data files can be readily transferred around the world.

Technicolor's international visual effects house, MPC, has offices in London and Vancouver, as well as Santa Monica.

At the same time, Indian corporations Tata, Reliance and Prime Focus have planted roots in Los Angeles, recruiting visual effects artists to compete for business.

The march toward globalization, however, has had devastating effects upon small to mid-size California companies that don't have the resources to build a global network.

"It's really a blow to the state to lose these jobs," said Jeff Barnes, co-owner of CafeFX, the Santa Maria, Calif.-based visual effects shop that closed in December after 17 years in business. The company, which had an office in Santa Monica, employed as many as 175 people a year ago.

"Something has got to be done or it's going to be like what happened to the aerospace industry in California," Barnes said.

The state's film tax credit program has brought little relief to California's beleaguered visual effects industry because it excludes big-budget features, the principal employer of visual effects. And the state is seeing worked siphoned off to Vancouver, where a film tax credit program targets visual effects houses.

"We're very aware of the problems facing California visual effects companies, but currently the program is limited due to available funding," said Amy Lemisch, director of the California Film Commission.

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