Sin City a Dame to Kill

Vancouver, Canada — It’s a tale as old as Hollywood: A new kid hits town with big dreams, makes some mistakes, stumbles, gets back up and claws a path to the top.

Usually that’s a cautionary fable about singers or actors, but in recent years it’s played out with visual effects company Prime Focus World. And now, like Eve Harrington making her Broadway debut, PFW steps out with “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” on which it’s both the main vfx studio and an equity partner.

PFW gambled on “A Dame to Kill For” in the hopes of elevating itself to a first-rank vfx provider, a goal it’s pursued for years. But, by the company’s own description, it’s been a bumpy ride. It’s not clear whether that gamble will pay off, either financially or creatively — or whether that even matters anymore to PFW’s future.

PFW, founded in India by Namit Malhotra, entered the Hollywood vfx biz roughly when the Great Recession hit, a moment that coincided with a general downturn in the vfx industry. As if those two strikes weren’t enough, PFW made a few mistakes after opening its doors in the U.S. CEO Malhotra, a third-generation Bollywood pro, admits he blundered when PFW came to the U.S.

“We came to Hollywood, the only place in the world where Prime Focus has made an investment in real estate, making sure that we planted our flag for the long term,” Malhotra tells Variety. “And we realized within 18 months of having stepped into Hollywood that this is not where we were supposed to be.”

PFW thought that since its prospective clients were in Hollywood, it should have its facilities there. “What we heard from our clients was we only do business if you want to get us the rebate in Canada and the rebate in London,” he says.

So, having scaled up in Los Angeles and built infrastructure there, “we had to quickly transition that and go to Canada and London and build brand new facilities and try and just be relevant in the business,” Malhotra says. He admits that antagonized vfx artists, who felt PFW wanted to move all jobs to India, or didn’t know what it was doing.

“There’s a huge instability in the (visual effects) industry and we’re all under the crossfire of that,” he says. “The talent is generally nervous, and with the volatility companies like us have experienced, it doesn’t help their life, or their ability to predict what’s going to happen 24, 36, 48 months from now. You can be good at your job and not have a job.”

While Malhotra says he wants to create a more stable environment for his staff, PFW does not have a glowing reputation among vfx artists. (The PFW employees Variety contacted had only positive things to say about the company itself, though they decry the larger problems of their industry.)

It didn’t help PFW’s reputation, either, when it accepted Warner’s assignment for a crash 3D conversion of “Clash of the Titans.” PFW ended up taking a huge hit to its reputation due to the combination of hasty 3D and post-production and mastering flaws PFW did not create. Arguably, PFW took the fall for its client, but it took the fall nonetheless.

PFW’s ambitions were not dimmed, though. Since it wasn’t getting to the top fast, it tried to buy its way there. It was a bidder for both Digital Domain and Rhythm & Hues Studios when those companies went through bankruptcy, but was outbid each time. Still, Malhotra wanted his company to be a first-tier provider. “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For” seemed to open the door to that.

Rodriguez finished principal photography of  “A Dame to Kill For” in late 2012. As with the first “Sin City,” he shot the whole film against greenscreen, now using even fewer physical sets and props than last time, and would rely on vfx to create the most of the sets and to evoke the artwork of the source, Frank Miller’s graphic novel.

After shooting was done, though, the footage languished for almost a year. “Because it was independently financed this time, the challenge was finding a company that could come in as a financial partner,” Rodriguez explains. “In other words, give us f/x work as equity. Not many companies will do that. “

As it happened, Malhotra was a fan of the 2005 “Sin City,” which was the first film he saw when he came to the U.S. from India.

“It completely blew me away in terms of that whole style of that comicbook approach,” Malhotra tells Variety. “It was something new and different I’d never seen as a Bollywood guy.”

When he heard the sequel was looking for a vfx company to come in as an equity partner, he was intrigued. Every shot in the film would be a vfx shot, and the film would be in 3D — PFW’s two areas of specialization.

PFW turned out to be the only vfx company willing to make the trade of services for equity, so the deal was made. But that meant putting the project’s vfx entirely in PFW’s hands — a situation that made Rodriguez uncomfortable. “You should always have at least two effects houses,” he explains. “Otherwise, there’s no one to set the bar.” If a more established vfx studio had set the look, PFW would have had something to match. It would be up to PFW to set the look itself.

PFW had its own concerns. It couldn’t let the show eat up all its internal resources, and it had to keep working on other projects in the meantime. In other words, it was willing to gamble on “A Dame to Kill For,” but not to bet the house.

PFW started work on the film in September with only an eight-month post schedule and almost 2,300 shots to complete. “It started off in a bumpy ride,” PFW co-founder and chief creative director Merzin Tavaria told the audience at a presentation on the film at the Siggraph computer graphics conference in Vancouver, adding that the eight months really turned into five. Most of the principals involved are being discreet about what happened in those first three months, but there are clues: After production had started, PFW hired better artists to work on the film and tapped veteran vfx supervisor Stefen Fangmeier to oversee the project.

Tavaria says Rodriguez wanted not “Sin City 1.1,” but “Sin City 2.0,” a new look that would still be true to Miller’s bold, high-contrast black-and-white graphic novel. So Fangmeier worked with Rodriguez to strike a balance between photo-realism and Miller’s spare, stylized look.

Rodriguez says he prefers to let each vfx company find its own solutions that work for them, so he gave Fangmeier a great deal of creative freedom.

“For me that was really a lot of fun,“ Fangmeier says. “Normally it’s much more laid out. Usually you define (the film’s look) with previs, you shoot it with the art director and production design and everything is very well defined, so when you go into post you know what it’s supposed to look like. In this case it was wide open.”

To get the work done, PFW split work between its locations worldwide. Vancouver handled concept art and look development. Mumbai ended up doing almost 1,800 of the 2,282 shots in the film.

Rodriguez is happy with the final result, and appreciates what PFW did on the film. “They took this on so they could show they could do this kind of work. It was a lot for a single company to take on. They were the underdog, trying to compete with these big f/x houses, and at the end of the day, they delivered.”

For its part, PFW felt strongly enough about the film to make a rare pre-release presentation at Siggraph, though it could only show scenes that were included in the trailers and the greenscreen elements for those scenes, instead of the more expansive highlights and detailed progressions common at Siggraph.

But it’s not clear whether Prime Focus’s bet on “A Dame to Kill For” will pay off, regardless of the quality of its work.

First, the f/x-for-equity swap hasn’t been a success for vfx studios. The two vfx companies best known for swapping services for equity, Digital Domain and Rhythm & Hues, both went bankrupt. DD’s stake in “Ender’s Game” was thought to be one of its major assets coming out of bankruptcy, but the film flopped. If “A Dame to Kill For” dies in theaters, PFW could suffer a significant loss.

Secondly, the stylized look of “Sin City” doesn’t prove it is ready to lead a superhero tentpole or a big monster movie, where photo-realism is the rule. PFW could end up ruler of a tiny niche.

Finally, while it was working on “A Dame to Kill For,” PFW finally got that high-end vfx studio it’s wanted, announcing in June that it would merge with London-based Double Negative (now at work on Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”), which does exactly the kind of high-end work PFW aspires to. That, more than “A Dame to Kill For,” will raise the status of PFW. Malhotra says Double Negative will be focus of PFW’s visual effects efforts going forward.

Malhotra says he’s unsure whether PFW would take on another such equity swap. “We wanted, frankly, ‘Sin City’ to play out to see the outcome of that because it’s been a massive show and a massive commitment from our standpoint. I don’t think any company in the world has done 2300 shots in visual effects and an equal number in stereo conversion on a 13-week post schedule. So we want to take a deep breath.”

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