When we started to research the potential of VFX in low budget features in 2010, Pippa shared the following blog post on developments that year and how the Cross Channel Film Lab might be able to meet a growing need.

Our Cross Channel Film Lab is currently researching the potential of visual effects in low to mid budget feature films (we’re looking at budgets of up to €5 milion). How can the latest technological developments be opened up to film-makers at every level – great VFX no longer solely the preserve of Avatar or even District 9?

The infamous VFX short “Panic Attack” by Uruguayan Fede Alvarez that led to a Hollywood deal, Neill Blomkamp’s pre-District 9 short – these successes demonstrate the potential of low budget ‘bedroom VFX’ (as in VFX made in someone’s bedroom, not VFX set in the bedroom, and probably not literally made in the bedroom, though you never know…) and of individuals using existing software to produce unexpectedly stunning visuals.

Other curious innovations at the very low budget end include international creatives collaborating on projects like Iron Sky at Wreckamovie, offering up an intriguing crowd-sourced VFX paradigm. While Blender continues to be a fascinating model for free ‘3D content creation’ technology that develops with its users.

Will the next tier of low budget VFX be led by innovations in technology – or by innovations in the use of existing technology? Do the most exciting opportunities lie in creating new tools or in bringing the most creative people together to do clever things with standard software? What other opportunities for innovation exist where the development doesn’t cost a fortune?

THE VFX LAB

Our emerging proposal is the creation of a UK/French VFX lab that can match VFX experts and trainees with advanced film projects (and of course their creative teams) to stretch the possibilities of their visions and budgets – ultimately developing short taster tapes for each project as a route to finance. We want to explore whether such a model could inspire lower budget film-makers to realise greater ambitions, and more sensational visual effects…

Our research process is just beginning, and it’s very much a new world to me – so of course, it’s very exciting – and a bit scary. We’re starting to talk to a range of inspiring people about if and how a VFX lab could work. Should it also support professional development and graduate training for creatives and VFX specialists? Does it meet a current need – or are we barking up the wrong computer-generated tree?

WHAT DOES THE INDUSTRY THINK SO FAR?

So far the response has been very positive – there seems to be an appetite amongst VFX professionals for a space where visual effects could be pushed to their limits, where creatives could learn more about the possibilities and costs of VFX, and industry entrants get practical experience of workflows, pipelines and real life projects.

Talking to those on the development side, there also seems to be a growing desire from emerging writers and directors to make films with a distinctive visual sensibility – using visual effects or ‘stereo 3D’ technology at a lower budget level in order to make something really striking, with potential to attract a broad audience.

The UK Film Council mention an increase in material coming in from creative teams with a more ‘comic book’ sensibility or stronger visual aspirations.  Gareth Edwards’ up and coming sci-fi film “Monsters” is currently highlighted as a more recent example of great bedroom VFX. While in the world of 3D, “Street Dance 3D” was made for just £5 million (but has already apparently taken £12 million at the UK box office alone) and offers proof that populist 3D films can be made at a lower budget.

The short format also seems to serve a viable purpose when playing with VFX or 3D material – both as an R&D opportunity and a financing tool. The shorts mentioned above have reached a broad audience and led to greater opportunities for new writer/directors. While established producers are also exploring the role of shorts to ease entry into these brave new worlds. Producer Julie Baines recently developed a powerful trailer (not a scene from the proposed film, but a self contained story) for a 3D movie with which to explore the film-makers’ vision, learn about the technology and raise finance for the future film.

I’ve also heard positive examples of VFX companies getting involved in TV projects at a very early stage of development – helping producers to budget effectively, and run their shoot so that they can get the best possible results from a lower VFX budget. Here again, it seems to be more about a creative use of what exists than the development of a completely new process – but we’re keen to explore this further.

THE POLITICAL CONTEXT

It’s also interesting political timing for innovations in VFX. The government has recently announced an independent review into the UK’s VFX and gaming industries – to be delivered by Nesta and Skillset; and the VFX industry is currently on a Home Office Skills Shortage list.

The UK Companies I’ve spoken to so far are busy, particularly with US projects. Recently, visual effects in Inception, Pirates of the Caribbean, and of course Harry Potter’s wizardry have been generated by UK companies. ‘Mid size’ companies like Rushes have doubled in size in the past two years. Yet the VFX industry is still talking about how hard it can be to find graduates with the right skills. There’s clearly a need for some further innovation, and training.

It is of course a very challenging time in the UK for accessing funding for projects that attempt to innovate in film-making. The future for the UK Film Council and regional development agencies looks bleak, and we don’t yet know how the regional screen agencies will fare. Budgets are being cut across the board.

On the positive, this sets a strong context for innovations at the lower budget level. But even if our VFX lab develops into a project with clear value, and we can prove a strong economic benefit for the UK film industry, one of our biggest challenges yet may lie in finding secure sources of funding.

WHAT NEXT?

Our research is ongoing – so everything I’ve mulled over here may change. But at the moment, it’s really exciting to see that a lab with the best talent from the UK and France could serve a clear purpose and generate real progress. And perhaps more importantly, it’s exciting to see genuine potential for low-mid budget film-makers to use VFX in ever more compelling ways.

(And I haven’t even started to talk about the potential benefits of getting VFX practitioners and screenwriters to inspire each other at an early stage – that’s for another post…)

If you have any thoughts about how VFX can best be developed for lower budget films, do please get in touch. We’d love to hear from you.

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