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'Star Wars' Leads ILM to Launch New London Effects Facility (Exclusive)

With plans to support additional productions including "The Avengers 2" in London, and to double its head count in Vancouver, the VFX division of Lucasfilm is poised for a major expansion.

Star Wars Episode IV - H 2013
Courtesy Everett Collection

With Star Wars: Episode VII casting underway and production expected to begin in the spring in the U.K., Industrial Light & Magic -- the VFX division of Lucasfilm, a wholly owned subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company -- is getting ready to launch a new feature visual effects facility in central London.

ILM is set to sign a lease for space just outside of Soho -- a neighborhood already populated with numerous VFX houses -- and north of Tottenham Court Road, ILM president and general manager Lynwen Brennan told The Hollywood Reporter. An extensive remodel of the space is planned, and the target to move-in is late March or early April. “It will be a full service studio,” she said. “We’ll have an art department, previsualization, and an entire end-to-end visual effects and computer graphics pipeline.”

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She also revealed that since production of J.J. AbramsStar Wars is planned at London’s Pinewood Studios, “we’ll certainly have some art department and previs there, but we’re not currently planning on having a large ILM presence at Pinewood. We did consider splitting the facility in two, but we are now focusing on our London facility and having an as-needed facility at Pinewood to be near the production.”

ILM’s Roger Guyett (who earned his third Oscar nomination this year for Star Trek Into Darkness) will be the VFX supervisor on Star Wars Episode VII. The plan is for the ILM facilities to handle all of the work for the film, not just in the U.K., but also in ILM’s San Francisco headquarters, and Singapore and Vancouver locations, as well as at its strategic partner, Base FX in Beijing. The London facility will have a pipeline allowing it to share work with the other ILM offices.

The U.K. base is part of an overall global expansion plan -- and it is not opening just to accomodate Star Wars. “ILM will be working on not only Lucasfilm projects, Disney projects and Marvel projects but [productions] for other studios as well,“ Brennan said. “London has such a richness of filmmakers. The team that we are building there has those relationships, so we are looking forward to the London studio really developing their local work.”  

Marvel's   Avengers: Age of Ultron will be ILM London’s first project. (Work on this project has also been commissioned to London- headquartered VFX house Double Negative and possibly others).

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ILM London has already hired roughly a dozen people, including creative director Ben Morris, who comes from London VFX house Framestore and recently worked on Gravity; animation director Michael Eames, who was most recently at Prime Focus; VFX producer Nina Fallon, most recently at Double Negative; and director of operations Sue Lyster, who arrived from Framestore. They are working out of temporary space in Soho, where they are preparing to launch the company, including recruiting.

The target is to bring the London operation to about 200 employees initially. “We are mostly planning to hire U.K.-based talent; there’s a fantastic talent pool there,” said Brennan. “There is also certainly some interest here [in San Francisco], including from some expats who want to go back to London, so I’d imagine you’ll have some that will move.”

The proximity to the Star Wars production is an obvious reason why ILM is opening a U.K. operation at this time, but Brennan noted that London is attractive for numerous reasons. “We needed to expand, and London is a key place to find great [VFX] talent. We also want to work with U.K.-based directors; there’s a lot of filmmaking going on in the U.K.. And, the government has invested in the industry there. That, combined with the fact that shooting in the U.K. requires a certain amount to be spent in the U.K.”

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Like other regions such as British Columbia, the U.K. has been working to attract VFX business, having announced new incentives last December that come into effect in April. The measures ensure that tax credits are available at 25 percent on the first £20 million of qualifying production spend. The proportion of a film's budget that must be invested in the U.K. for a production to qualify for tax benefits is being reduced, from 25 percent to 10 percent.

Brennan said she expects the opening of ILM London to have a “very positive effect” on the U.K. VFX industry. “When you bring a new studio into a location, there is going to be a period of angst and honestly a little disruption in the ecosystem there for a little bit,” she admitted. “But I think the fact that we have the history and this work coming in, for the community it will bring an extra level of stability and we really look forward to being good members of the London VFX community.”

Star Wars: Episode VII is scheduled for a Dec. 18, 2015 release, while the upcoming Avenger film is slated to open May 1, 2015. Additionally, ILM’s global slate includes Jurassic World, Transformers: Age of Extinction, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Tomorrowland, Warcraft, Luc Besson’s Lucy and Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken. The company is also wrapping up work on Noah and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

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With this "backbone” of work, ILM is also applying for grants for training and also research & development, a key component to its growth strategy. “We are doing a lot of investment in tools that I think can revolutionize the industry over the next 10 years,” Brennan said. “Things such as real-time rendering technology are really going to change our industry.”

To that end, Brennan plans to further develop ILM’s relationship with Disney Research bases in Zurich and Scotland. “We work with them currently using their facial animation software, Medusa,” she said. “You can definitely expect some further close collaboration with Disney Research. We are specifically looking to expand that  in the U.K.."

There are currently no plans in place to bring Lucasfilm’s Skywalker Sound to the U.K., though Brennan isn’t ruling that out.

On ILM’s global business, she said, “We're in a very healthy place.” In addition to its expansion into the U.K., its Vancouver unit led by supervising producer Randal Shore is beginning to operate out of a new, larger facility in the city’s Gastown section, which Brennan said would allow that team to double from 100 to 200 employees.

Additionally, Lucasfilm recently opened ILM Singapore’s new facility -- led by its general manager, former head of the U.K. Film Commission Colin Brown -- which is part of the 22,500-square-meter "Sandcrawler" building, named after the Jawas' vehicle in Star Wars Episode IV. Said Brennan: “We have built the talent base there, and now not only are they doing work for San Francisco, they are now seeking out work in the region. That is very important to us.”

Work created at ILM this past year has received Academy Award nominations, for Star Trek Into Darkness and The Lone Ranger; and BAFTA nominations, for Pacific Rim and Star Trek Into Darkness. Additionally, this weekend two of the company's technologies will receive Technical Academy Awards.

Adrian Pennington contributed to this report.

E-mail: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com
Twitter: @CGinLA