Paul Wyatt uncovers magic and spreadsheets in the heart of London’s Soho with a trip to special effects house Framestore
Take a stroll through London's Soho district and you might glimpse wild things at play, hear a dinosaur roar or trip over a young wizard. No, it's not the city's latest fashionable themed bar - it's just a typical day for pixel miracle-maker Framestore.
As the largest visual effects and computer animation studio in Europe, it's worked its magic on Harry Potter, Avatar, Where the Wild Things Are and a host of other films, TV shows and commercials. You'll find its work available on just about any screen or device.
Founded in 1986, the chief goal was to make films with computers - an ambition tempered by the technology of the day. "We were making commercials at television resolution," explains CEO William Sargent. "We knew very quickly that we wanted to do visual effects for films, but in those days the storage needed for that was either physically impossible or simply not economically viable."
The technology caught up with the vision and by 1994 Framestore was able to achieve its goal and work with film. Since then, it's racked up an impressive list of credits and awards. "If you can think it, then it's possible," says Sargent.
Realising the impossible takes ingenuity, a spreadsheet and some good old-fashioned storytelling know-how. It's the love of image-making and the desire to spin a good yarn that makes Framestore uniquely positioned to understand a director's vision and capture it on screen. The company's 'people profile' extends far beyond tech-heads in headphones with a silo mentality. To work here you need a Renaissance man's flair and the ability to converse and engage, not to mention an understanding of storytelling and traditional visualisation techniques.
"We came into this from all sorts of angles," explains creative director Mike McGee. "One partner did archaeology at university, one did an applied maths and physics degree, and I went to art school. Regardless of all that, we had an interest in media and making images, but not with training from set courses."
This philosophy seems to have stayed with the company. "We always think that we can train people technically to use equipment, but it's much harder to give them those storytelling and traditional skills," says McGee. "It's essential people have a feel for those."
It's this spark that really sets Framestore apart. The team loves film and eschews people with a purely technical approach to effects work. "If you haven't got that fundamental interest and affection for the art form, then no matter how good a technical person you are, you will not succeed," states Sargent.
Kevin Spruce, head of animation, has worked on films including Disney's 2D animated Hercules and Warner Bros' Space Jam. "I didn't know anything about computers until 2000, when I came here and learned 3D. My first project was Dinotopia, which was one of Framestore's first big 3D projects for television, and set us off on our big production journey."
For Spruce, 2D and 3D projects both share the same storytelling core. "2D animation has more of a nostalgic feel. Despite all the advances in technology, the way the projects are driven artistically is the same. If you don't get that bit right, you can end up with a bad production, even if it's 3D with all the bells and whistles."
The present churn of animation graduates might possess the knowledge of what every button and roll-down in a 3D authoring package can do, but according to Spruce they lack some of the more traditional skills. "A 2D animator with a traditional training might have the edge over a 3D one because they understand composition, silhouette and have a more creative eye," he reasons.
"There are animation schools in France, such as Gobelins, from which we take a number of interns each year because they are trained traditionally and then taught the computer," explains McGee. "For projects in the past, we've taken traditional 2D animators and trained them up on the kit. Some of our top people have come through that route, whereas today you have some people who leave college, and because they can make a cube go from A to B in a spin they call themselves animators."
Head of 3D commercials Diarmid Harrison-Murray appreciates seeing showreels and CVs that display a broader sensitivity to the visual arts. "Showreels don't usually tease you enough," he says. "If you put one project on your reel that was exemplary then I'm intrigued, and I'm more inclined to say, 'Let's get this person in.'"
"One of the pleasures of working with the people I work with is that they want to be here making films," concludes Sargent. "They go and see films once or twice a week, anything from an obscure Russian movie to a blockbuster. They're not just interested in the visual effects but also in plot and camera work."
Passion is an overly used word in the film and television industry but at Framestore you really feel it - something not even the biggest effects house in Europe could fake.