Editorial: Digital Effects Australian Style - Publication: Australian Creative Magazine 10/07 (LA correspondent) Back to Editorials

Digital Effects Australian Style

Like many aspects of the global  film industry, Australian effects houses are holding their own. Defying big budget operators and offering boutique expertise and innovation Australian companies have an increasingly influential role in the production of many US spawned commercial films.

Many industry insiders believe the days of “generalists,” are gone, and there is now an accent on specialized skills over budget packages. According to Mike Hollands CEO of Act3animation, one of the country’s leading effects houses “There's more discrimination now, I think, than there once was, when everything was price driven.  Too many people have been burned by cheap studios. What clients look for now is "what's your main value add"?

Shops who claim to do everything well are not cutting the mustard anymore. In our case it CG character animation. Others specialize in particular effects areas, water, explosions, or in putting things together, compositing, integration. There's more distinction these days,”

Established in 1973,  now with a staff of 75 Australian effects house Iloura has worked on a range of high profile features,  many  the brainchild of major US movie houses,  including early nineties classics such as Mission Impossible, Moby Dick and Noah’s Ark

Pamela Hammond, spokesperson for Iloura believes Australia has an edge over US competitors  in terms of both cost and skill set Hammonds says that Australian companies are more aligned to  a smaller “cottage,” industry environment.

This  sees   smaller groups of highly skilled specialist working on jobs, rather than bigger teams, which ultimately spells cost savings. “ We offer a more personalized approach than bigger US companies, though expertise is not necessarily cheaper in Australia ,” Hammond says

More recently the company  has done CGI effects on the likes of Seven Swords, Flying daggers , US cable Tv show Nightmare Dreamscapes, b and the forthcoming classic Where The Wild Things Are,  overseen by renowned director Spike Jonze.

Asked how can US companies compete against  the emergence of offshore counter[parts in say China , India , Australia and Canada, Mike Hollands of Act3animation believes the price issue is becoming less significant. “Marginal is right. At the moment price advantage come more from government subsidies and the lower wage scales here in the land of Oz. The real price competition is coming from China , India . You might see something in the former Soviet Union, who knows. The skill set is smaller there, but none of us can beat the prices.”

In our case, the first contracts we got because of price and availability. That's how we got a toe in the door. But the only way we stay in the market now is though high quality. We're better than the lower quality houses, not cheaper. We get jobs now because they want us to do the job. Who do the best character animators in the US work for? They work for Pixar. Who do the best character animators in Australia work for? They work for Act3'.

How can US houses compete? “Well first by being on the spot. Convenience is of real value. Lots of big directors would rather do the post at home. Second by pursuing quality. If the best is next door, that's where you go, if you can afford it. If you can't afford the best? Well then you can't.”

In terms of future changes to the industry, Hollands says, “Globalisation, in a word. Five  years ago we looked to the local market to provide our main income. Now we don't. If I could have successfully predicted the last ten years I'd be a lot richer than I am. And I'm not at all rich. But..more globalisation. More spreading of high production costs over cheaper skilled labor markets.

The new production subsidies in Australia will, we all hope, regenerate the Australian film industry. The strings that tie those subsidies to the use of local suppliers are important though. The Australian industry will try to go cheaper if they can, just like anyone else.

Asked about emerging trends and changes in the effects industry, Didier Elzinga CEO of Australia ’s Rising Sun Pictures  says  visual Effects are  being used in more films, and more of the budget is being spent on films.

” There are now major competitors that weren't there 5 years ago: The rise of London as a competitor to LA in both quality and quantity of films. London has gone from a small provider, to a large provider. The rise of Weta on the back of Lord of the Rings trilogy.

In future years Elzinga says there will be continual pressure of visual effects to differentiate films at the high end. “The techniques that are used in film visual effects will make their way to HD episodic production (such as those by HBO) There will be a continued focus on animated films as a medium in its own right. Visual Effects will make its way further in to the mainstream and independent films as costs come down.”
”Visual Effects is affected in the same way as normal film production by the moving of productions to whichever location has the best tax regime at the time. The hardware required to complete visual effects is getting cheaper, and faster.”

The trends that see new players attacking the margins of existing players is the same as in every industry. VFX is, in a sense, a knowledge business, so the knowledge you have today is worth less tomorrow. The only way to compete is to continually develop new knowledge that is not yet available to those that are competing on price alone. It's a curve that happens in every industry, and visual effects is no different.”

On the US front, Joshua Saeta Lead Compositing TD Rhythm & Hues Marina Del Rey, CA says outsourcing to “offshore,” entities can present problems. “ Communication if by far the key to great FX. When you want to create incredible work nothing is more critical than having constant communication. Whether it’s from Animation, Technical animation, Paint, roto, or lighting to comp, everyone has to be on the same page all the time.”

 “The effects business is a unique industry in that a major client will use several different companies simultaneously, it really is governed by expertise, I don’t think it’s a matter of who is cheaper. Regardless of country all about expertise now price differences are nominal and there’s really no penny pinching when it comes to a feature film.”

Tim Enstice,  spokesperson for US based effects specialist  Digital Domain believes the industry isn’t driven by location. “Its about pioneering new technology. While there is a plethora of proprietary software out there in the marketplace, this area is about  constantly emerging tools and solutions often driven by creativity and innovation more than anything else, and that process can start anywhere in the world.

Enstice added that IT companies should watch the computer-generated special-effects industry, because it is pushing hardware and software as far as they can go.

"The process is becoming creative," Enstice said. "I'm really starting to see creative people crafting products--and they don't need to know programming to do so. What they care about is, `Can I make Bob laugh' or `Can I make Bob cry.'"



Written by Craig Stephens

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