Framestore looks at bigger picture

Vfx house topper Sargent eyes producer role

In an era when companies are diversifying and seeking alternative ways to tap into different sectors of the film and television biz, London’s Soho-based vfx house Framestore is no exception.

Framestore, which has provided some of the majors’ most visually stunning onscreen characters — think house-elf Dobby from the “Harry Potter” films and Aslan the Lion from “The Chronicles of Narnia” franchise — is now looking to expand beyond services and tap into the production arena.

In its first full venture into production, Framestore has partnered with “Stardust” novelist Neil Gaiman to bring his tome “The Graveyard Book” to the bigscreen. The $60 million project, simply titled “Graveyard,” will be penned by helmer Neil Jordan and is in the final stages of putting financing together. CAA is helping to package the pic, which is casting and skedded to lense in Blighty in spring 2011.

And while the forthcoming venture marks the first time the shingle is producing a pic from origination, Framestore is no stranger to producing alongside others — having been a partner on “Heartless,” “Me and Orson Welles,” “Triangle,” “The Tale of Despereaux” and “Harry Brown.”

But on all these films, other outfits sourced the script and Framestore was just a financial partner, contributing anywhere from £150,000 ($236,000) to $1.6 million per pic.

So is the vfx/post house ready to undertake the mechanics of physically producing a movie? Founder and CEO William Sargent says it is, and that the move marks a natural progression for Framestore’s business.

Sargent notes that these days studios are churning out fewer but bigger-budgeted pics, heavily reliant on vfx, requiring post houses to become involved in projects earlier and earlier, even at the development stage. Plus, it’s not uncommon these days for the vfx budget to rep 50% of a film’s total spending.

The trend, Sargent says, makes it inevitable that he has to think like a producer. “I have to sit there and think, ‘what are they facing?,’ ” he says, “even though the particular problems I’m analyzing at that point may have nothing to do with vfx.

“I have to worry about how the other 50% is beingsspent and how I can integrate and previsualize it,” he says. “For example, maybe a film has four cars in a scene and I might say they only need three and can CG the other, so therefore I’m getting involved in helping on the physical side.

“Thinking as a producer about the whole filming process and not just the vfx process is fundamentally a new mindset and encouraged,” he says.

Framestore’s vfx record speaks for itself: the house, which is privately owned, employs approximately 450 full-time staff, and posted a 2010 revenue of $74 million. It has lent its skills to major Hollywood productions throughout the years, including “Avatar,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Salt.” It has worked on all of the “Harry Potter” pics except for the first. Warner Bros.’ “Sherlock Holmes” sequel and Alfonso’s Cuaron’s “Gravity” are on its forthcoming slate.

And Framestore has worked closely with Steven Spielberg on “War Horse,” marking the first time his shingle Amblin Entertainment has commissioned work outside the U.S.

“Filmmaking is a partnership,” says Sargent “You can only have one vision, which is the director’s. But so many people come together to make a movie that you can get 50 or 60 people involved in the decision-making process.”

Sargent aims to produce one to two pics per year. He insists Framestore is not tapping into production to generate vfx biz for itself because “the proportion of our revenue that it will represent is minute.

“We do it because it’s part of the process we enjoy. I don’t aspire to do three or four movies a year, but the ones that press the right buttons.”

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