Harry Potter turns 20.. I reflect on my experiences on the movies..

There isn’t much to tell, to be honest.

I started working for The Moving Picture Company shortly after the first Harry Potter movie had finished.  The proceeds from that went into expanding the company’s offices through the appropriately named “Shower” entrance (since beforehand it really was a shower – the wall had just been knocked down to allow entry into the office beyond, and it would be used pretty extensively for all subsequent Harry Potter movies, until the great department reshuffle sometime around the 5 or 6th movie when rather than whole projects working together, the company was split up into departments based on disciplines).

It was all quite exciting of course, but WB was constantly throwing challenges my way as a production systems administrator, not least a VPN which initially was a PITA to get going again (our endpoint broke – the kit supplied was now obsolete and we didn’t have a decent VPN endpoint until I converted the Checkpoint Firewall to a Netscreen appliance).  Things improved immeasurably when Sohonet completely kitted out Leavesden Studios with a decent IT infrastructure (Harry Potter and The Philosopher’s Stone had to make do with an ADSL line and motorcycle couriers for data transfer).

I did get to visit Leavesden Studios a few time to set-up new workstations and to firewall off our kit from other vendors.  It was lovely having a VFX editor there who knew the VLAN layout of the local switches, which made my knees and not-so-slim frame very happy.  Whilst out at Leavesden having finished work, my colleague and I got to enjoy a mushroom burger overlooking the Dursley’s home (and street) at one point.

Day to day stuff was the same old thing – nothing to report there.  You did get to see bits and bobs that were being worked on.  It was quite a thrill to see us working on the opening for one of the films – incorporating the famous WB shield – as well as an entire Quidditch match (that I believe we won from Sony Pictures Imageworks – quite a coup!).  Then there was the artwork – absolutely beautiful conceptual art that if you visit the Harry Potter Studios Tour, you’ll be able to see some of it.  The best things, however, were the life scale maquettes of the creatures – Professor Lupin as a werewolf and Scabbers the rat.  The werewolf’s head was detachable and was occasionally spotted being used as a hat in the production office.

I seem to recall that Voldemort’s rebirth was a difficult scene that caused quite a few arguments at one point.  It’s one of the highlights of the movies, in my opinion, but apparently getting there wasn’t so easy.  Computer imaging, in the eyes of the public, seems easy.  But it’s absolutely not.  It requires a HUGE amount of human labour to get what you see up on the screen.  People with mathematics degrees and physic degrees.  Artists.  Systems administrators.  Vendors.  It’s very labour intensive and costly.  So having to re-do stuff isn’t cheap (yet you’ll find in the VFX business that changes are expected within the bidding price, which ultimately knocks down the profit margin of the VFX company every time a client wants to make a change).

After leaving the VFX/film biz, I’ve been to the Harry Potter Studio Tour.  It’s remarkable how much they’ve tidied the place up.  But it’s a definite recommendation of mine if you’ve loved the movies.  And I got to see the big castle “bigature” that I spotted whilst working on another movie – Wimbledon (starring Paul Bettany and Jon “Jungle Book/Iron Man” Favreau).  I was working at Shepperton Studios and spotted a sound stage with one of the doors open, and this massive big castle which looks suspiciously like Hogwarts.  Given I drove past two trailers for David Thewlis (Lupin, but can now be seen in the new Wonder Woman movie and the superb third season of Fargo) and the late Alan Rickman (Professor Snape), it had to be Hogwarts.  So being able to see Hogwarts castle up close at the Harry Potter Studio Tour was the highlight for me.

I’ve also been to Alnwick Castle back in April this year, which is where they shot the first broomstick flying lessons for the first Harry Potter movie (it also turns out, having seen the trailer, that it’s also where the new Transformers film was partly shot too).  And I’ve been inside the Elephant House where J. K. Rowling started writing the novels.  I also bumped into the Hogwarts Express at the Railway Museum at York Station (before they moved it down to Leavesden).

I’ve only ever been involved with Harry Potter in the tiniest way imaginable, but I am proud to have been part of it.  It helped pay my salary for a good few years (along with the other film productions, of course), so I’m grateful to J. K. Rowling for writing it, and for David Heyman for producing.

And I absolutely loved Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  I sincerely look forward to seeing the next films in the series.

The curse of the digital tiger!

When Life of Pi won the best visual effects Oscar back in 2013, it was a bittersweet victory.  Shortly after the win, the industry saw the collapse of the VFX studio, Rhythm and Hues.  Lots of people lost their jobs.

The following 30 minute documentary explains what happened, and why.

I was checking Twitter yesterday and came across the following tweets:

followed by:

.. which is incredibly disturbing if true. The tweets come from the VFX chapter of BECTU (which is the media & entertainment union here in the UK). I have no reason to disbelieve them as a result.  More information can be found here.

MPC have been fighting unionisation over the past couple of years, but it is nevertheless one of the few companies where employees are members of a union (via BECTU). The VFX sector is one area of the film industry where unionisation has been extremely difficult. Given the costs of VFX which is a highly labour intensive industry, many VFX companies operate to extremely small profit margins. Unionisation is highly unattractive to these companies, and to their clients.

I’ve been talking to a few VFX companies over the past couple of years and my view is that the picture remains bleak, with limited technical resources and staffing costs being a big concern. The smaller boutique companies have had to combine resources to be able to survive (Cinesite & Image Engine springs to mind). For those going alone, you’ll find one member of staff doing one or more jobs. Even the bigger companies have merged (Double Negative with India’s Prime Focus), or bought out (Framestore with China’s Cultural Investment Holdings Co.). And VFX continues to produce significant losses – whether through expansion/R&D (Digital Domain (now owned by a Hong Kong firm) losses double at $64 million) or other means.

Meanwhile, the big corporations that run the film studios continue to get free taxpayer money through the use of film credits for filming or utilising resources in a particular country. Both Britain and Canada are currently the winners in the tax credits game – the US, not so much. It seems the US is not able or willing to financially support its own industry for whatever reason. Just bizarre.

I love film & TV, but bloody hell, the whole industry is a mess. Heavily reliant on state handouts, if this continues we’ll likely to see massive redundancies across the creative industries as film companies go bust. What cost to the UK taxpayer to keep our film industry alive and well?

I am very disappointed with my former employers if the redundancies/replacing with less experienced workers issue is true. It’s bad for the client, bad for the taxpayer, and more so – super bad for those who are being replaced – who took the company an Oscar and BAFTA victory.

It seems to me that any VFX company that provides a CG tiger (Life of Pi & The Jungle Book) and wins a major award is likely to let people go afterwards – for whatever reason. The Walking Dead recently featured a CG tiger – let’s hope it doesn’t win award. If it does, pray for the VFX people on that show. Perhaps the bad luck has to be balanced out by creating two CG magpies? Or better yet – sort out the tax credits issues which is leading the industry to this sorry state, and start making these companies profitable again.

All this has lead to another documentary being made, “Hollywood’s Greatest Trick” in which artists tell of their experience within the VFX industry.

Buster the Boxer

The new John Lewis Christmas TV ad is here!  Huzzah!

Love the advert.  VFX (including CG animals), VR and post-production by my former employers, MPC.  Well done to all.  MPC’s creature department is one of the best in the business – evidenced by recent productions such as the Jungle Book.

Fun fact: my parents met while they were both working at John Lewis, so I think I can say that I owe John Lewis my existence.

The Making of The Jungle Book

While I’ve yet to see the film, I am still nonetheless incredibly proud of my former employers MPC who, along with New Zealand’s Weta Digital, are responsible for the wholly virtual environment and talking creatures in the live action adaptation of The Jungle Book.

Here’s a little look behind the scenes.  Sometimes I think it’d have been easier to film in a real jungle with real talking animals, but there you go (although I hear that talking bears’ agents are unbearably difficult to work with).

Speaking of MPC, apparently there are still grumblings about unionisation and working conditions.  I’d say to MPC that they should embrace it with open arms rather than trying to fight it.

As for the Sky Bar – my favourite story concerns a certain very, very famous lady singer of a certain age being completed and totally ignored by all when she visited the Sky Bar. Whether that was through fear, or being told not to address her at all, I don’t know.  But it makes me chuckle.  Otherwise the Sky Bar was never off limits.  You could get a cup of a tea, and when you were working the late shift, that’s where you collected your food.

Game of Tax Credits

I think that if we’re discussing making US corporations pay all their taxes, we (and Canada and Australia) need to rethink how we support our respective film and TV industries. The following has been taken from the end credits of Game of Thrones season six.

IMG_0016

IMG_0017
This article from Empire Magazine probably best explains WHY tax credits exist.  But I don’t believe it’s sustainable.  The film & TV industries – especially in the States – have become far too reliant on these schemes – it’s like a crutch: they’re being propped up by taxpayer money to offset risk.  When you’re a government trying to reduce a substantial deficit in the annual budget – this sort of thing just ain’t going to help anybody but corporate fatcats and NOT up and coming independent filmmakers.  When another country comes up with better terms (think of a pound shop, then think of another one offering all items for 99p), all those jobs are now suddenly at risk unless that offer can be matched or improved.  Wonderful!

Plus we can’t be seen to say to one industry, “oh – you owe us more corporation tax: pay up”, then give away something like $240 million in tax revenue to a US multinational in another (industry).  I don’t think that’s fair.  And what’s even more unfair is when Hollywood constantly moans at us Brits about not giving them enough tax credits.  We can’t let them them threaten our economy and our industries.  Which is why this article that quotes BECTU wanting previous, looser UK tax credit terms to stay in full force rather surprised me.

The deplacement factor in tax credits is yet another concern.  If I were still working in the film industry today, I could quite easily move to Canada to work (and come back to the UK if things don’t ultimately work out).  This is a lot harder if I were still married, and even more difficult if I had kids.  And what happens if the finance minister of the relevant Canadian province decided that they can no longer afford to absorb Hollywood’s tax bill (which is roughly some $500 million a year) and everybody shuts up shop – what happens then?

We definitely need to encourage new and upcoming filmmakers, and tax credits seem, initially, to be a good way of doing this.  But then again, the UK government shouldn’t be taking all the risk for US (or even UK) corporations.. As Matthew Vaughn, the highly successful film producer and director (who has financed many of his films himself) has suggested, how about providing the money as a bond/loan that’s ultimately repayable?

As for HBO, one hopes they enjoy the free money from the UK taxpayer – many of those taxpayers that probably don’t subscribe to Sky Atlantic.  Perhaps HBO could offer the taxpayer some White Walker toenail clippings by way of thanks?