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Posted: Mon., Jan. 10, 2005, 10:02pm PT
Boom in Blighty
U.K. grabs largest slice of growth in overseas f/x houses

LONDON -- As runaway production has led the f/x biz to take work to such far-flung and money-saving locations as Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, the Brits have grabbed the biggest slice of the action.

Although Industrial Light & Magic played the leading role in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," many of its most memorable f/x shots were created in London. Double Negative was behind the wheel of the triple-decker bus; Framestore CFC gave birth to Buckbeak, the hippogriff; Cinesite laid out the Marauder's Map; and the Moving Picture Co. inflated the dinner guest, transformed Lupin into a werewolf, unleashed the Grim, let loose Scabbers the rat and cultivated the Whomping Willow.

Warner was a Blighty pioneer and still places much of its effects work with London shops. In addition to "Potter," the past year saw "Alexander" and "Troy" entrusted to Blighty's f/x wizards. Current Warner projects in the U.K. include "Batman Begins" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory."

"Warner has allowed the whole of the London market to mature," says Double Negative CEO Matt Holben. "The four main companies here have been able to push the boundaries. We now have a strong R&D team producing some cutting-edge work."

Where Warner led, others followed: Disney with "King Arthur" and "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"; Universal with "The Chronicles of Riddick," "Thunderbirds" and "Doom"; Fox with "Alien vs. Predator" and "Kingdom of Heaven."

Most of London's post houses are crowded into Soho. The mood of the local scene is upbeat, with rapidly filling orders for projects that demand ever-rising levels of creativity and sophistication.

"It has been our most successful and busiest year," confirms Cinesite chairman Colin Brown. "We have captured more work on more movies than ever before. We are getting more complex effects to do, in greater number, in a shorter time, and for less money. And that is not a bad thing because it puts us on our mettle."

But there is a cloud on the horizon. U.K. finance ministry the Treasury has announced that it will review Section 42, a tax incentive largely responsible for bringing the blockbusters to London.

The heads of the f/x facilities, although apprehensive, concede that a review is necessary. Moving Picture Co. managing director David Jeffers says: "It is entirely appropriate. Nobody in this industry is going to support tax abuse, if that's what has been going on."

All agree that the government has been a good friend to the f/x industry. "I am worried that (the review) might drive business away, but I've got a huge amount of confidence that the government believes that this is a business worth supporting as it is a great cultural ambassador and keeps a lot of people in work."

Cinesite's Brown, a member of the U.K. Film Council, says big hitters from across the industry are lobbying the Treasury. "The government gets the message that an 8% deal (the percentage saved on a film's budget) on Section 42 is not going to make us competitive. There is a point at which subsidizing the film industry is going to make a difference and it is not 8%, it is more than that."

As long as the tax benefits are protected, the post houses should be playing host to Hollywood's finest for some time to come. "You'd be very hard pushed to find the width of talent and depth of talent that you find in the U.K.," says Framestore CEO William Sargent. "We have collectively moved forward each year with our skill sets and our experience, and every year the work we do consolidates our reputation."

Last year, the f/x houses set up their own trade association, U.K. Post, and its CEO, Gaynor Davenport, has put the development of skills at the head of her to-do list.

The org's other priority is to build on the relationships it has established with studio personnel in Hollywood -- which is seen as almost as crucial as the tax incentives.

"We have got a good handle on what the f/x supervisors want," says Brown. "We understand how efficiently or inefficiently they work. We can take care of all of those inefficiencies and we can still make some money on it, give them what they want and do a really good job."

"It's a tough business making a movie," says Sargent. "The last thing you need is to be with untried or untested partners who don't understand how you work."

As far as the London shops are concerned, the city is already the world's second-most-important filmmaking center after California. An effects Oscar for "Harry Potter" would simply burnish a reputation they believe they have already earned.


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