The Vancouver Effect
A deep talent pool and a specially designed tax credit have transformed the British Columbia city into an effects hub.
It's getting awfully crowded around Yaletown. Already home to many of Vancouver's trendiest restaurants, nightspots and shopping boutiques, the former industrial district has become a hotbed for U.S.-based animation and visual effects houses.
A number of factors are driving this northern migration. First and foremost is a collection of generous production incentives that can save producers up to 58 percent on eligible labor.
Savings like this have clearly turned heads in Hollywood, which once looked to London and India for cheap VFX work. According to the British Columbia Film Office, CAN$260 million in tax credits were certified for the year ending March 31, 2011, triggering roughly CAN$1.7 billion worth of production activity -- a combination of live-action production, animation and visual effects --in the province.
"The studios were looking for an alternative that provided both incentives and a strong talent pool," says Warren Franklin, CEO of Vancouver-based Rainmaker Entertainment. "Tax incentives are a big part of this because they help companies to be competitive and build their infrastructure."
Indeed, the talent already on hand in Vancouver, combined with the incentives, has helped the city sell itself as a one-stop shop for all things VFX. Thanks to '90s-era TV shows that shot in Vancouver -- think the Stargate franchise and James Cameron's Dark Angel -- the city was able to steadily build its FX cred with Hollywood producers obsessed with saving both money and time, especially since Vancouver is less than three hours away by plane.
When the push to provide incentives began in 1998 -- followed by a 2003 tax credit specifically designed to target the animation and VFX sectors -- Hollywood came calling, and it never stopped.
To the delight of the local government, some estimates suggest that the industry in the area represents more than 2,200 jobs, and Franklin thinks that Western Canada's most populous city might add 400 to 600 new jobs in visual effects and animation during the next few years thanks to the influx of such major effects shingles as California-headquartered Digital Domain, now working on Bryan Singer's reimagined fairy tale Jack the Giant Killer. Other majors lured to Vancouver include Sony Pictures Imageworks -- which is servicing The Amazing Spider-Man and Men in Black III -- Pixar Animation Studios and, most recently, L.A.-headquartered Rhythm & Hues. Lucasfilm's San Francisco-based Industrial Light + Magic is looking to open a B.C. operation in the spring.
"They are in expansion mode," Robert Wong, vp tax credits and development at the British Columbia Film Office, says of many of the California companies that set up shop in Vancouver. "They are looking at doubling and tripling their workflow."
What's more, incentives for production have also contributed to increased location work, and an entrenched VFX sector offers more bang for the buck. "When the filmmakers want to stay in Vancouver and continue postproduction work, accessibility to VFX teams during that time frame is certainly helpful," says Digital Domain's head of production Jody Madden.
Add the fact that freelancers in Vancouver benefit from a national health care system while their counterparts in L.A don't, and one has to wonder if the sector will ever recover in Hollywood.
Says Eric Roth, executive director of the Visual Effects Society: "Studios are looking to get decent work at the best price. If the answer is not in California -- and that is the way it is -- there will continue to be an exodus from California."
NOW SHOOTING IN CANADA
Colin Farrell is spending a lot of time in Toronto these days. The actor was in the Ontario city filming David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis, but he quit that project last year to join Columbia's remake of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger action movie, also shooting in Toronto. Len Wiseman directs a cast that includes Jessica Biel, Bryan Cranston and Bill Nighy. Meanwhile, Robert Pattinson has filled Farrell's shoes on Cosmopolis.
Neill Blomkamp, who graduated from Vancouver Film School's 3D animation and visual effects program, is shooting this $40 million sci-fi feature in Vancouver through September. Starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, the project is the director's first since he returned to his native South Africa in 2009 to shoot District 9. Although British Columbia has not followed Ontario and Quebec in introducing an all-spend film tax credit, the province continues to attract the bulk of foreign-location shooting in Canada because of its proximity to Los Angeles.
Describing his monsters-vs.-machines epic, director Guillermo del Toro told a Comic-Con crowd that he would create the "finest f--ing monsters" and "greatest f--ing robots ever." Pacific Rim will tap into Ontario's traditional film and digital-effects tax credits and shoot on the giant soundstages at Pinewood Toronto Studios.