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Vine FX’s visual effects skills have zoomed towards new creative highs

Across the world, the creative industries are frantically trying to reinvigorate revenues in the era of social distancing.

Vine FX’s ‘War of the Worlds’ robot drags the body away
Vine FX’s ‘War of the Worlds’ robot drags the body away

Along with sport, the arts depend on audiences for income, and the Creative Industries Federation recently warned of a looming “cultural catastrophe”.

Until the pandemic, the UK’s creative sector was growing five times faster than the wider economy, employing more than two million people and contributing £111.7billion to the economy – more than the automotive, aerospace, life sciences and oil and gas industries combined.

And now, what?

As Darwin noted, adaptation is the key to survival and in that respect Vine FX has already made the leap to the next wave of cultural entertainment – not that it has had to change too much, as supervisor and owner Michael Illingworth notes, because its flexible approach to workflows had been in place before relocating from London to Cambridge in 2016.

It hasn’t been easy though.

“We’re involved in a project with Microsoft at the moment which is good because no one is filming anything in the film industry, so it’s welcome to have the project,” Michael says. “People are starting to talk about filming, for instance in EastEnders, where social distancing can be built into the storyline.”

The CGI – computer-generated imagery – which Vine FX is so good at is usually added after the characters have all filmed their parts, so the schedule has been relatively unaffected so far.

“There’s been no furloughs,” says Michael. “We have delivery deadlines in July, August and September so we’ve been keeping busy. Post-production and visual effects are not immediately affected.”

The film industry’s PCoIP standard – PC-over-IP technology – compresses, encrypts and transmits only pixels and turns laptops into cloud-based virtual machines, meaning Vine FX creatives can work from anywhere.

“It sends all the data from the computer down the ethernet cable, it’s like a big long monitor cable,” says Michael. “The entire team is working from home.”

‘Home’ for the crew is Bulgaria, Greece, France and Portugal and, more locally, Guildford, London, Ely and Letchworth.

“Everyone is super-diligent,” Michael says of the team. “They’re professional artists, everyone is just as conscientious. Communication is fantastic, we have a morning meeting for everyone – before it had fragmented into a two-tier office because some came in and some worked remotely.

“We’ve always embraced our European friends but we need a certain amount of people working in the office – but since we’re now more open to working from home, that could be part-time.”

Progress has been good since moving to the city.

“Traditionally the industry lives in Soho but I’ve lived in Cambridge for 20 years and thankfully have managed to find a group of people living nearby who think like I do, and the business is growing.

“We should be up to 30 or even 40 by the end of the year. There’s no funding needed. We crew up for each individual project.”

The industry’s projects are planned way ahead of shooting.

“The turnaround is generally that 12 months after the initial meeting they’ll start filming. We’ll help early on, possibly including with the script. I think it’ll always move at that pace. Netflix commissions programmes in the same way – they probably have a five-year plan, which is good news.”

There are three legacy TV programmes Vine FX is currently working on.

Soulmates is set 15 years in the future,” says Michael. “That’s for AMC in the US. You take a DNA test to determine who your perfect soulmate is.”

The show, which was announced this year, is due to screen this summer, with writer and producer Will Bridges (Black Mirror, Stranger Things) at the helm.

“Will Bridges is the creator,” says Michael. “So there’s six different Soulmates episodes, an anthology drama series set 15 years in the future when science makes a discovery that changes the lives of everyone on the planet – a way to find your soulmate.

“That’ll be screened in Europe and in the US – it was all filmed in Madrid before Christmas.

“We’re also working on The One, also about a DNA test, for Netflix.

“Thirdly, there’s The Serpent, about Charles Sobhraj, who carried out the hippy trail murders in the 1970s.”

Two other projects are on hold.

Viewpoint, an ITV thriller series set in Manchester, is on hold, then War of the Worlds is also on hold.”

Vine FX Zoom session, 2020
Vine FX Zoom session, 2020

War of the Worlds is a Fox cable channel series starring Gabriel Byrne and Elizabeth McGovern: the second series is pending but Vine FX has already contributed its CGI content. Michael shows me a series of pictures, all from War of the Worlds. The first is a robot sequence.

“These creatures are trying to wipe out as many humans as possible,” he says. “They have prosthetic legs with organic matter inside, and some sort of brain.”

Another before-and-after is a night-time photo with added starships.

“The pods are sent to Earth, so with the finished result you can see them going through the atmosphere and land on Earth.”

The last is “a crash site for a spaceship that crash lands – it’s the size of two jumbo jets”.

Michael says: “We built the spaceship and at the end of the series we broke it apart and digitally scattered parts along the ground, and textured the pieces to make them look charred and burned.

“It took 11 months, with 500 shots delivered by a team of 18 artists. That was filmed in central London, France and in the Alps, but the main studio was in Newport, in Wales.”

Visual effects have been part of the film industry since Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in 1927, and went mainstream with King Kong in 1933.

The modern era began with a two-minute sequence shot through the eyes of Gunslinger, a destructive robot, in Westworld (1973), leading up to the first multiple morphing effects in Terminator 2.

Vine FX founder and visual effects supervisor Michael Illingworth with some of the team on Station Road. Picture: Richard Marsham/RMG Photography
Vine FX founder and visual effects supervisor Michael Illingworth with some of the team on Station Road. Picture: Richard Marsham/RMG Photography

Since then Titanic, Gladiator, Avatar, Gravity, Young Sherlock Holmes and hundreds of other films have taken CGI into new realms. But there are concerns about where computer graphics will go – for instance with ‘deep fakes’, where anyone can be made to say anything. Deep fakes raise the question of how blurred the line between fiction and reality can be.

“Deep fake technology can be used to age an actor,” says Michael.

“We’ve just started looking at that, it involves machine learning to work out someone might look when they’re younger or older – how their face moves, the lighting. You could potentially grab some pictures of Donald Trump and apply that to a moving actor.

“The only issue I would have is if the work came via an unknown source. All of our work comes via reputable production companies, all based in the UK.

“I’m not sure digital doubles will happen, but we do use similar techniques when we want to, say, form an army: the software teaches it how to react when it comes across an obstacle – how it walks, acts or runs.

“What we’re trying to create is a believable animation.”

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