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Core California FX Companies Find Success Despite Exodus of Many Rivals

It’s hard to think of visual effects without thinking of California. The rise of the modern VFX industry owes a huge debt to the talents of Golden State artists -— and California’s vast entertainment factory gave VFX its customer base and cash.

Yet over the years, as the cost of creating effects rose and the margins of large California VFX companies dwindled or disappeared (think Colossal Pictures, Rhythm & Hues, Digital Domain), thousands of artist jobs left the state for Canada and other places offering tax rebates and production incentives.

Yet California remains the hub of motion picture production, and some smaller shops have survived the exodus with an agile mix of staffing strategies, client diversification, and efficient technology.

One of them, Bay Area-based CG boutique Whiskeytree, has felt “a noticeable [negative] impact from incentives offered elsewhere,” says Jonathan Harb, an ILM alum who launched Whiskeytree in 2007. But he adds that being a VFX artist remains an inherently attractive profession. “You never have trouble finding people who want to work on movies,” he says.

Similar optimism prompted effects veteran Greg Liegey to co-found Hollywood-based Mammal Studios in 2013. “It was a contrarian idea. People thought we were nuts,” he says. “But we’re banking on our experience and connections, hoping to stay in L.A. We have families here.” Liegey believes Mammal’s proximity to major studios is an advantage that helped the company win jobs on “Joy” and “Concussion.”

Up north, Whiskytree benefits from its ILM associations. As Harb notes, “ILM drives a lot of work to us. But it comes and goes, depending on the assignments they get.” That’s brought Whiskytree opportunities like “Tomorrowland” and “The Big Short.”

Today, Harb estimates that 50%-70% of available work is not from film. “It’s from episodic television, commercials, game cinematics, and augmented reality projects,” he says. “Each of those businesses has its own cycle, so diversification is necessary to keep your staff going during down cycles.” (Whiskytree’s staff typically ranges from 20 to 50). →

← Ramping up personnel as needed is a familiar strategy among effects shops. As Liegey explains, “Mammal has a core of 12 senior people who can do hands-on work. They get a project going, and then we hire people to finish shots. Junior artists today are proficient using software, but they need artistic guidance. It’s a win-win.”

Technology plays a key role in keeping small shops competitive. When VFX supervisor Jamie Dixon co-founded L.A.-based Hammerhead Prods. in 1995, the 15-person studio built a reputation by applying custom software to projects like the franchise “The Fast and the Furious.” The need to keep pushing tech forward continues today, even in this era of off-the-shelf tools.

Dixon, who’s developing more efficient methods for animation and motion capture, sees faster hardware as a route to increased productivity. “Two years ago, for the film ‘Aloha,’ we developed techniques to render images around 50 times faster by using Nvidia game technology,” he says. “There’s a film production future for this. It’s not just for games.”

Whiskytree is also pursuing technical efficiency. “If we couldn’t accelerate our processes in hardware and software, we’d be out of business,” notes Harb. He thinks his shop’s robust pipeline, with its 10GB network, confers a competitive advantage. “People can sit down at our computers and be working in a day.”

When it comes to adapting to California’s changing VFX climate, few studios have a track record like L.A.-based Blur Studio. Co-founded in 1995 by Tim Miller, Blur has always served a diverse client base, working on everything from features and game cinematics to animated TV spots and titles. That’s led to credits ranging from “Avatar” to “Sonic the Hedgehog” to “Bates Motel.” “This may sound cheesy, but it helps that some of those areas of diversity are somewhat exempt from tax breaks,” Miller says.

From Miller’s perspective, VFX assignments are, by nature, unpredictable. “We can be as efficient as possible, but it can still be problematic if a project is misbudgeted or the director can’t make decisions. Visual effects companies are always at the end of the food chain.”

Yet Miller can see the issue from both sides. Along with spearheading a team that averages 100 people, he recently made his feature-directing debut with “Deadpool.” Blur was one of many VFX vendors on the project, and it’s a measure of how challenging the industry is today that Miller’s own shop had to compete for the privilege. “We still had to beat other companies that had tax incentives,” he says.

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