Let’s face it: Massachusetts is not well-known for its post-production facilities. While there are a few impressive Boston-based companies — including Soundtrack Group for ADR/sound, EditBar for editing, Color Refinery for color and Brickyard VFX for effects — their efforts are mainly focused on commercials projects. Most features and series that film in the state head elsewhere for post.
But that’s starting to change, thanks in large part to state tax incentives becoming permanent last year, and companies including Zero VFX emerging as leaders in New England.
“When we started in 2010, people would look at you very strangely if you said, ‘We’re doing our effects in Boston,’ because there wasn’t a ton of talent here,” says Zero VFX co-founder Brian Drewes. “The incentive has really started allowing us to develop a base of great artists.” And to create groundbreaking work: he says Zero FX is now designing “synthetic photorealistic humans” for what he calls “the largest execution of this technique ever done in features.”
There’s no standalone tax incentive for VFX companies, “but we are able to leverage a piece of it for visual effects,” Drewes says. “For productions shooting somewhere like Atlanta or Canada, if Zero gets a piece of the visual effects work or the whole movie, we get a 25% rebate on any of the salary costs that we incur within Massachusetts. We extend that to our clients as a 25% discount for expected salary costs, so it functions as if it’s a VFX-only credit.”
Drewes cites the launch of “The Equalizer” franchise in 2014 as a turning point in attracting VFX talent from Vancouver and L.A., with more “coming from the colleges, technological research and high-tech industries here.” (A third “Equalizer” film starring Denzel Washington is set for release in September 2023). Zero, which has some 85 employees, is now supervising VFX on two high-profile features made in the state: the Zendaya-led tennis drama “Challengers” and the Whitney Houston biopic “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.”
Massachusetts has one longtime model for start-to-finish services: WGBH Production Group, which produces PBS shows such as “Frontline” and provides post-production facilities for independent filmmakers, documentarians and producers.
But the earliest wizard leading technical geniuses there was VFX pioneer Douglas Trumbull (“2001,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Blade Runner”), who passed away in February at age 79. When he moved from Hollywood in the ’80s to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, he helped attract talents including Diane Pearlman, exec producer and general manager of the now-shuttered VFX studio Mass.Illusion (“The Matrix”).
Pearlman now heads the Berkshire Film and Media Collaborative, a nonprofit promoting and facilitating production in the area, and is exec producer of DisruptAR, a commercial virtual production and augmented reality studio founded by longtime Trumbull collaborator Paul Lacombe. The VFX outfit Cadence Effects moved from Pittsfield, Mass., to New Lebanon, N.Y., for New York tax credits years ago, but they now do work in both states. And Pearlman says local film professionals are in talks to revive Trumbull Studios, a 45-acre Berkshires complex that includes post-production offices and a virtual film production stage.
They hope to advance Douglas Trumbull innovations including Magi cinema, a way of shooting and projecting films in 4K 3-D at 120 frames per second without the motion blur seen in other high-frame-rate technology. “We’re talking with his wife, Julia, about what to do with the studio,” Pearlman says.
“She doesn’t want to be in the film business anymore, but many of us want to carry on his legacy and see it continue as a studio that does cutting-edge work in the industry.”