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A new hope for Vancouver’s visual-effects sector by Marsha Lederman

Mar 17, 2014

Source: Globe and Mail

You won’t be able to pick out the Canadian content in the upcoming Star Wars films, but it will be there, a new hope for Vancouver’s visual effects sector. George Lucas’s storied Industrial Light & Magic, established more than 30 years ago to help bring a galaxy far, far away to life, is setting up shop permanently in Vancouver, after operating a satellite office here for 18 months.

The initial move to British Columbia was meant to assist during a busy production time, but the studio’s success (projects included The Lone Ranger, nominated for a visual effects Oscar, and the BAFTA visual effects-nominated Pacific Rim) and a ton of work coming down the pipe led to the decision to establish a permanent Vancouver presence. An official ribbon cutting-type opening takes place on Monday.

Expect a sense of déjà vu. Four years ago, dignitaries and media were trotted through the same facility in Vancouver’s trendy Gastown to toast the opening of Pixar’s Vancouver studio. Also touted as permanent, it shut down this past fall – a blow to the local animation industry.

But apparently when Buzz Lightyear closes a door, Luke Skywalker opens a window. ILM (now owned by Disney, which also owns Pixar) is taking over the 30,000-square-foot studio, and plans to more than triple its artist work force here. Currently staffed with about 60 artists and 20 production and facilities staff, the B.C. operation will grow to 130 artists in its current round of shows, and up to 200 artists by the summer. Current projects include Transformers: Age of Extinction, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Tomorrowland (also shot in Vancouver). Coming up: Jurassic World, Warcraft, and, beginning this summer, the studio’s first Star Wars project – Star Wars: Episode VII, which goes into production this spring.

“We are busier right now than we have ever been in our entire history,” says Lynwen Brennan, ILM president and general manager. “We have a really full pipeline of work. And added to that we have a lot of Star Wars work, [so that’s] as close to a crystal ball as you can get in the visual effects business. We can actually plot out our work for the next 10 years.”

In spite of the Pixar setback, Vancouver’s animation and visual effects industry is booming, boosted by B.C.’s 17.5 per cent Digital Animation or Visual Effects (DAVE) tax credit – as well as Vancouver’s growing infrastructure and trained work force (which can also be attributed, in part, to the tax credit). There are now close to 50 digital effects and animation studios here – among them Sony Pictures Imageworks, which announced recently that it will shift some staff from Los Angeles to Vancouver, and which will be the primary animation house for the Angry Birds movie.

“We have seen growth over the past few years and we have become one of the recognized international centres for visual effects production,” says Richard Brownsey, president and chief executive officer of the provincial agency Creative BC, which encompasses the former B.C. Film Commission.

“I’ve never seen it this busy. It’s insane,” says Greg Sullivan, a Vancouver animation veteran and one of the partners in Slap Happy Cartoons Inc., which opened a studio in a former clothing warehouse just over a year ago.

The dark side? The view from L.A., where a vocal visual effects advocacy movement is concerned about foreign DAVE-type subsidies that have resulted in an exodus of jobs, à la Sony Imageworks, to Hollywoods north, east and west. They recently protested outside the Academy Awards.

At ILM, Brennan says there is plenty of work to go around. “Touch wood we are in a healthy place as a studio and, when you’re in a healthy place as a studio and you make the right decisions globally, it’s a good thing for all of your studios.”

© Globe and Mail