×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.

More Artisans

  • Home Again Trinidad and Tobago

    Trinidad and Tobago Attracts Producers by Adding Hefty Cash Incentive to Visual Lures

    A dual-island Caribbean nation that fits fulfills the all visual requirements of a tropical paradise, Trinidad and Tobago offers a striking variety of shooting locales ranging from azure waters, white sands, thick jungle, sprawling savannahs and – on the urban side – bustling cities. Though the islands have predominantly housed local films, they are now [...]

  • Netflix Our Planet Sophie Darlington

    Netflix's 'Our Planet' Roars to Life With Work by Top Wildlife Cinematographers

    In terms of scope, production time and — very likely — budget, Netflix’s “Our Planet” is one of the most ambitious projects from the streaming service to date. Narrated by David Attenborough and made available worldwide on April 5, the goal of the eight-part series is to capture diverse habitats across the globe and highlight [...]

  • Les Miserables BBC

    BBC's 'Les Miserables' Recreates the Dark World of Victor Hugo's Novel

    Director Tom Shankland didn’t want his “Les Miserables” to be anything like the stage-musical version of Victor Hugo’s sweeping historical novel, nor like the 2012 Tom Hooper feature-film musical.  For the BBC limited series — a drama starring Olivia Colman, Lily Collins, David Oyelowo and Dominic West, which aired the first of its six episodes in [...]

  • Marsai Martin Little Movie

    How the 'Little' Production Team Created Look of Marsai Martin-Regina Hall Comedy

    What if you could return to a time in your childhood and relive your life from that point knowing what you know now? That’s the fantasy at the core of Universal’s “Little,” released April 12, in which Regina Hall’s Jordan Sanders, a character overwhelmed by the pressures of adulthood, gets the chance to relive the [...]

  • Game of Thrones Season 8 BTS

    How 'Game of Thrones'' Locations Have Expanded With the Series

    When the eighth and final season of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” debuts on April 14, the show’s millions of followers will once again be transported to the exotic lands and sweeping landscapes where the saga is set. From King’s Landing to The Wall, stunning locations have been woven into the fabric of “Thrones” since its [...]

  • In The Dark CW

    How 'In the Dark' Trained a Regular Dog to Act as a Guide Dog

    There used to be an adage in show business about never working with animals or children, but for Violetta Hessing, there’s nothing more fulfilling than finding a dog that wants to be on set and training it to deliver just as much emotion as its human scene partners. Hessing owns and is the head trainer [...]

  • Ryan Higa Youtube Star

    YouTube Star Ryan Higa Shows the Way to Maintain Independence With DIY Studio

    Hollywood creatives have always dreamed of having total control of their work. For most of them, it has been just that: a dream.  But that doesn’t hold true for a new breed of content creators: YouTube influencers. These individuals, with no corporate boss to answer to, and whose work is growing in scope and impact, [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content