Magazine article Variety

Made-in-California Stamp Still Fits VFX

Magazine article Variety

Made-in-California Stamp Still Fits VFX

Article excerpt

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 m^jor 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).

4- 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. …

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