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Launched three decades ago as filmmaking was taking transformative steps away from celluloid and toward digital processes, Cinesite remains on course in creating digital visual effects and, more recently, feature animation.
A lot has changed since Eastman Kodak founded Cinesite in Los Angeles in 1991 as a VFX, digital restoration and mastering subsidiary based around its Cineon technology. Early Cinesite milestones included a pioneering digital restoration in 1992 of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and digital color timing of O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), lensed by revered cinematographer Roger Deakins — among the first full features to involve what’s now known as the digital intermediate process.
Antony Hunt joined in 2003 as managing director and in 2012 led a management buyout of Cinesite, by then headquartered in London, from Kodak, making it the independently owned business it is today. Cinesite, with facilities in London, Montreal and Vancouver, grew with the acquisitions of the VFX firms Trixter, which put it in Munich and Berlin, and Image Engine, based in Vancouver. In all, the Cinesite companies now employ 1,500, all while maintaining what Cinesite CEO Hunt describes as a “family culture.”
“Most people know most people,” notes VFX supervisor Simon Stanley-Clamp, an 18-year veteran and director of the company. Now serving as overall VFX supervisor for the Netflix/Working Title feature Matilda, he adds: “I’m not the only one who’s been there 18 years. There are some people that have been there more than 20, 25 years. So that speaks volumes.”
Today, Cinesite focuses on VFX and feature animation, a business that it entered in 2014, with work including The Addams Family and Addams Family 2 for MGM and the upcoming Riverdance: The Animated Adventure, Blazing Samurai (inspired by Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles) and Hitpig (with a voice cast led by Peter Dinklage, Lilly Singh, Rainn Wilson and RuPaul) as part of a nine-picture production deal with U.K.-based content creator Aniventure.
The company also worked on the animated Mila for director Cinzia Angelini, the helmer behind Hitpig. “It is such a beautiful, important short film about the sort of impact war has on children,” Cinesite chief creative officer Dave Rosenbaum says of Mila, which recently won several festival awards. “And, sadly, it’s something that is as relevant today as it was in World War II, when the story is set.”
In a notable step, Cinesite was recently awarded work for the animated series Iwájú, produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios in collaboration with African entertainment company Kugali and scheduled to premiere in 2023 on Disney+. “We’re definitely very excited and honored to be one of the first studios to work on a Disney [animation] project outside of Disney,” says Rosenbaum.
Cinesite’s VFX business grew alongside London’s VFX community, with Stanley-Clamp pointing to Lost in Space (1998) as “the catalyst to really sort of getting things going. [Lost in Space] used 12 facilities in and around London at that time — small, medium, large, everybody was on it.” The community came together again to combine forces on the massive Harry Potter franchise. “Not all facilities worked on the early Potters,” Stanley-Clamp adds, “but it definitely grew [to more than a dozen].”
Cinesite would work on all the Potter movies. For many years, it also has been among the vendors contributing to the 007 franchise, most recently No Time to Die. A notable part of Cinesite’s efforts was the CG Komodo dragon seen in 2012’s Skyfall that was billed as the first digital creature to appear in a Bond film.
“Since they first started using digital technology for their visual effects work, Cinesite’s been involved on every single Bond movie,” says Hunt. “From the early days … Cinesite did all the scanning and recording, taking the film images and converting that to digital files and then continuing on to create some amazing stunning visual effects work over the years as well.”
It also contributes to tentpoles in Disney/Marvel’s MCU — including Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings — and has served as the lead VFX house on projects such as Matilda and the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect.
Real-time technology — which eliminates rendering and speeds up the VFX and animation process — is the latest area gaining attention, and Hunt notes that Cinesite is already using Epic Games’ real-time Unreal game engine for the test phase on animated projects. “I think [real time] will be a natural progression for us as a progressive company, to use more of that in our storytelling development of scripts, particularly storyboards in an early stage, working with directors and the editors and designers.”
During the pandemic, the company embraced remote systems that enabled artists to work from home, which Hunt believes “will most likely continue for quite some time.”
Cinesite also is growing its physical space. Hunt says it maxed out at its longtime London location at Medius House in Soho and is moving to a studio in Noho. “We’re going to be in a self-contained building of our own, six floors, new theaters,” he explains. He expects to open the new 12,500-square-foot building in early 2022.
At the end of the day, Hunt sees the industry as a relationship business built on trust. “Collectively we’re filmmakers,” he says, “establishing good practices, good working environments. And I think Cinesite has consistently done that.”
Cinesite Through The Years
Cinesite is formed in Hollywood as part of Kodak’s Entertainment Imaging Unit.
Work on the digital restoration of Disney’s 1937 classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs begins.
Cinesite opens a branch in London, which will become the group’s head office.
Cinesite’s team completes work on Goldeneye, the first Bond film to use digital effects. Cinesite will contribute to every subsequent 007 feature.
Cinesite’s London and L.A. teams work together to deliver some 1,200 visual effects shots for Space Jam.
Cinesite completes the first full-feature digital restoration on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959) from a 65mm negative.
Its team delivers 50 visual effects for Muppet Treasure Island.
Cinesite helps give Disney’s Fantasia (1940) a digital face-lift, restoring four sequences from the 35mm negative, including the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “Night on Bald Mountain” segments.
Cinesite Hollywood collaborates with DP Roger Deakins to do the digital intermediate (aka digital color grading) for the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?, one of the first major studio releases to use the process.
Cinesite’s work on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone marks the beginning of a partnership with the franchise, and it will deliver effects for all seven subsequent releases.
VFX for HBO’s World War II series Band of Brothers is recognized with a Royal Television Society Award, with Cinesite’s contributions including CG parachutes and men landing outside the Dutch town of Eindhoven.
After 10 years on Carlisle Street, Cinesite moves to Medius House at 2 Sheraton St., home to a 36-seat theater.
Antony Hunt joins Cinesite to head the London division; he will ultimately become group CEO.
Cinesite builds a 1:24 scale model of Hogwarts, now on display at Warner Bros. Studio Tour in Leavesden, for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
For Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Cinesite constructs a 1:24 scale model of the factory and the surrounding Wonkaville townscape, with 1,500 individual houses and thousands of fiber-optic lights.
The HBO series Rome, on which Cinesite worked, receives an Emmy for special visual effects, the first with which Cinesite is associated.
Cinesite contributions to The Golden Compass, from daemon creatures to a sky ferry gliding over a fantasy version of London, help secure a VFX Oscar and a BAFTA award.
The HBO miniseries Generation Kill receives an Emmy for outstanding visual effects for a miniseries, movie or special, while the Winston Churchill biopic Into the Storm is also nominated in the category — both beneficiaries of Cinesite efforts.
Cinesite’s deadly Komodo dragon fight in Skyfall makes the film the first in the 007 series to feature full CG creatures.
In May, Cinesite is purchased from Kodak with a management buyout combined with private investment.
Animation director Eamonn Butler joins the London head office, and plans are made to extend Cinesite’s talents into feature animation.
Cinesite makes a first-look production output deal with Comic Animations (later called Aniventure) to create family-oriented films.
A multipicture deal with 3QU Media is struck, resulting in a slate of four animated features, including Gnome Alone.
Cinesite opens a 54,000-square-foot studio space in Montreal at 250 St.-Antoine West with the support of Investissement Québec.
Cinesite announces its acquisition of Vancouver-based visual effects studio Image Engine.
Dave Rosenbaum, former vp talent at Illumination, joins Cinesite as chief creative officer at its Montreal studio.
Cinesite contributes to The Revenant, which wins a Visual Effects Society award.
Cinesite acquires Vancouver animation studio Nitrogen (Sausage Party, Trollhunters).
Cinesite acquires German visual effects and animation studio Trixter, which has headquarters in Munich and Berlin.
Cinesite’s Vancouver feature animation division relocates to a 25,000-square-foot studio at 565 Great Northern Way.
May sees the U.K. and Ireland release of Riverdance: The Animated Adventure, the first feature from Cinesite’s production partner Aniventure and River Prods.
With the help of Cinesite’s creative team, Universal Studios Florida attraction The Bourne Stuntacular receives a Visual Effects Society prize on top of a Themed Entertainment Award. — Steve Chagollan
This story first appeared in the Oct. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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