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Vfx studio ramps up global operations to tackle Disney franchises

Updated 11:40 a.m. PST: 

Industrial Light & Magic, the legendary visual effects studio founded by George Lucas for the making of “Star Wars,” confirmed its plans to open a London branch and to make its Vancouver outpost permanent.

“We’re thrilled to have a good-news story in this industry. We’re in a very healthy place,” said ILM president and general manager Lynwen Brennan. Brennan told Variety that ILM is in the unusual position of having ten years of work lined up, starting with the “Star Wars” franchise.

“It’s as close to a crystal ball as you can get in visual effects,” Brennan said. That has led ILM to add jobs at its San Francisco HQ as well as to expand to London and grow in Vancouver.

Brennan said the company is also investing in technology that may not be applied until 2016 or 2018 releases, including new innovations in facial performance capture (already in use on “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and real-time rendering for vfx shots.

“I think we have the potential to change the very linear pipeline of vfx, and that would be a real game changer,” said Brennan

ILM’s San Francisco base will have 500 artists and 700 total employees once it’s fully staffed for the projects — the largest number of artists ever at that location, said Brennan. ILM’s Singapore branch, which recently moved into its new “sandcrawler” building (so named due to its resemblance to the massive vehicle in the original “Star Wars”) has 200 artists and 400 total employees. London and Vancouver will each have around 200 staff, almost entirely artists.

No jobs are relocating from other locations, said an ILM spokesman; all staff positions in London and Vancouver are new.

With the U.K. and British Columbia offering more generous tax incentives than California, the London and Vancouver give studios a way to get such incentives while also taking advantage of ILM’s talent and expertise. While Quebec offers even richer incentives, Brennan says there are no firm plans to expand there. “We have great partners in Quebec, Rodeo and Hybrid, that we work with very, very closely. So we feel we’ve satisfied our need in Quebec with those partners,” she said.

Brennan also noted that ILM works closely with its partner Base FX in China, which has been able to take more work, and more sophisticated work, over time.

Many in the visual effects industry have been concerned about the future of ILM now that Lucasfilm has been acquired by Disney. The Mouse House earned a bad reputation among vfx artists and animators due to its handling of Dream Quest Images, a venerable vfx studio that was acquired by Disney in 1996, merged with another Disney department to form The Secret Lab, then shuttered after making one film, “Dinosaur.”

ILM cited Disney’s “Star Wars” franchise and Disney/Marvel’s “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” as key projects for the London branch, which the company expect to be fully staffed in April. Sue Lyster will oversee business operations at ILM London as director of operations. Creative director Ben Morris and animation director Michael Eames will run the creative side.

Brennan said she expects that ILM London will also bring new work to the company, as it will make ILM accessible to London’s filmmaking community.

At ILM Vancouver, Randal Shore will manage operations  and will have the title supervising producer. The Gastown facility will open in March and will also work on “Star Wars,” as well as “Warcraft,” “Transformers: Age of Extinction” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.” Creative supervision of the Vancouver branch is handled out of San Francisco. 

ILM Vancouver has been hiring in anticipation of the move, including picking up staffers from Sony Imageworks, which is under pressure as Sony reviews its operations in search of cost savings.  

While “Star Wars” is providing a backbone that permits ILM to think ahead, the company can’t yet count on a continuing relationship with Marvel. “We’ll bid on projects as they come up and if our pricing and capacity are right for them, we can hope for awards,” said Brennan. ILM was lead vfx studio on “Iron Man,” “Iron Man 2″ and “The Avengers,” but did not work on “Iron Man 3.”

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