Well-funded operations attract Hollywood films

International competition in the visual effects industry is intensifying and ambitious German companies, exploding onto the scene with upcoming pics like Sony’s apocalyptic thriller “2012” and Warner’s “Ninja Assassin,” are looking for a bigger piece of the action.

At the recent FMX confab in Stuttgart, recruitment drives by international vfx houses like Sony Pictures Imageworks, Disney Animation Studios and London-based Double Negative made it clear that at least part of the industry is still thriving during the global downturn and such Teutonic players as Pixomondo and Trixter still see plenty of opportunity.

Pixomondo, founded in 2001 by CEO Thilo Kuther, has established a network of facilities in Frankfurt, Berlin (at Studio Babelsberg), Stuttgart, Munich, London, Shanghai and Los Angeles and offers a 24/7 production cycle.

The company has for years made effects-heavy commercials and corporate films for the likes of Porsche and Audi, but it was the 2008 WWI drama “The Red Baron,” with its aerial dog fights and extended set work, that put Pixomondo on the map.

The sequences impressed “2012” helmer Roland Emmerich and visual effects supervisor Volker Engel and Pixomondo ended up first doing 40 minutes of previsualization (roughly 700 shots) and then 100 shots for the final delivery of the film, which is due out in November.

Heiko Burkardsmeier, Pixomondo’s head of business and legal affairs, says that in addition to proven talent, German subsidy money, especially the $80 million-a-year German Federal Film Fund (DFFF) plus millions more in regional and federal grants, has Hollywood knocking.

“With the financial crisis, people are looking for possibilities to get additional money and the DFFF is very interesting for them.”

Burkardsmeier says the U.S. studios were initially reluctant to entrust German companies with their vfx work because “they just didn’t know whether the quality here was sufficient for their needs and if there were even enough companies to make visual effects here.”

Pixomondo has worked with Germany’s two other big vfx companies, both based in Munich: Trixter, which was founded in 1998, and ScanlineVFX, established in 1989.

Pixomondo and Trixter did most of the work on James McTeigue’s “Ninja Assassin,” which shot at Studio Babelsberg. ScanlineVFX, known for its fire and water effects, has worked on such major Hollywood productions as “Poseidon,” “300” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian” as well as on “2012.”

Says Trixter CEO Michael Coldewey: “The U.S. studios are realizing that we do quality work in Germany with a high standard comparable to that of London or Los Angeles. But it’s not just the quality, it’s also about trust and knowing that our artists can deliver on time, that they can communicate and give the line producer a clear view of the status of the project.”

In addition, says Coldewey, Germans are used to working with “very low overhead. The money all goes into the work.”

“Ninja Assassin” producer Joel Silver has a five-year production deal at Babelsberg and with possibly his or other new productions expected at the studio in the coming months, Trixter is set to join Pixomondo in opening a permanent office on the lot and Scanline may follow.

Studio Babelsberg prexy and CEO Charlie Woebken says it’s become essential to have a vfx team on hand at the studio and readily accessible to directors, something that wasn’t always the case.

“The director needs to know how the film is developing digitally while he’s here shooting and unable to travel.”

Effects-laden productions aren’t just coming to Babelsberg. Alex Winter is shooting the 3-D horror remake “The Gate” at the MMC studios in Cologne this summer for Andras Hamori’s H20 Motion Pictures.

The pic, co-produced by MMC Independent, just received $1.2 million from regional fund Filmstiftung NRW and will likely see more coin from the DFFF. The film, about a horde of demons that invades a suburban community, is sure to offer further opportunity for German fx wizards.

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