Visual Effects and Computer Animation in Film
An Industry with a Future

Computer | Photo (detail): Natalia Silych © iStockphoto

Elation, not only in Hollywood, but also in the company’s faraway Frankfurt headquarters. At the end of February 2012, German film effect company Pixomondo received an Academy Award (Oscar).

On 26 February, proud Pixomondo employees Ben Grossmann and Alex Henning received the coveted award at the Hollywood & Highland Center in Los Angeles for their involvement in Martin Scorsese’s latest feature film Hugo Cabret. Hugo Cabret is a playful, whimsical tribute to the early days of modern cinema. Director Scorsese made this adaption of an illustrated book for young people into a spectacular animated adventure film in digital 3D using real actors. Of the 126 minutes of the film, the Frankfurt team created a total of 62 minutes on their computer, which according to Spiegel Online, is 98 per cent of all the special effects in this film.

Locations on three continents

This Frankfurt placemark is not quite correct, though. Founded by Thilo Kuther in 2001, Pixomondo has built up a global network of branches in addition to the Hessian metropolis – in Berlin, Munich, Stuttgart, Los Angeles, London, Shanghai, Beijing and, just recently, Toronto. With these locations on three continents, the company has the advantage of being able to offer its services practically around the clock and is not dependent on receiving orders just from within Germany.

Before Hugo Cabret, Pixomondo had done the visual effects (VFX) for Hollywood action film productions, such as Fast & Furious Five (2011), Percy Jackson & the Olympian: The Lightning Thief (2010) and Sucker Punch (2011). As well as the post-production creating and editing of VFX (for example things like including smoke in a scene, colour correction, light/dark effects) and computer-generated imagery (CGI for short – refers to computer-generated people, animals or landscape elements), Pixomondo also does contemporary 3D animations for cinema feature films, television productions and advertising clips.

Starting small in the provinces

These experienced VFX experts started small, studying at the Georg Simon Ohm University of Applied Sciences in Nuremberg, an interesting marginal note that emerged a few weeks after the Oscar presentation. Tobias Wiesner and Duc Minh Tran, former students at the University of Applied Sciences, also worked on Hugo Cabret for Pixomondo after graduating, were also thrilled about the Oscar. OHM also pointed out that the feature film Rango had been awarded an Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony for Best Animated Feature Film. Rango is regarded as the first animation film by the famous US special effects company Industrial Light & Magic (Star Wars), and another Nuremberg graduate, Florian Witzel, was involved in making it.

Professor Jürgen Schopper is Dean of the Design Faculty at the OHM, which is responsible for VFX. He works for clients including the traditional Munich company Arnold & Richter (ARRI) as Creative Director VFX. The ARRI Group not only manufactures camera and lighting systems. Its Film & TV Services department also offers the creation of VFX. ARRI’s experts worked at locations in Munich, Berlin and Cologne on films such as Marcus H. Rosenmüller’s film before last Summer in Orange (2011), the multicultural comedy Almanya – Welcome to Germany (2011) and the European coproduction The Countess, directed by and starring Julie Delpy (2009). One of the company’s latest commissions has been the German television film München 72 (Munich 72), in which the ARRI made some 100 VFX shots. The challenges facing ARRI’s designers included projectiles shooting into walls and floors, gun muzzle flare, body shots with blood splashes, reflections in windows and the scale reconstruction of a Boeing 727 as a 3D computer model.

Travelling freelancers

Another company that also has a firm international base is the specialist German company Scanline VFX, which has workshops in Munich, Düsseldorf, Los Angeles and Vancouver. Scanline’s experts are much in demand, particularly for their digital production of water and fire effects. Excerpts from blockbuster movies such as 300 (2007) and Poseidon (2006) as well as German television film such as Dresden (2006), Die Sturmflut (Storm Flood) (2005) and Hai-Alarm auf Mallorca (Shark Alarm of the Mediterranean) (2003) are impressive even in the corporate website’s tiny show reel windows. Scanline’s latest cooperation has been on the feature films produced in Germany Girl on a Bicycle (starts in the German cinemas on 7 March 2013) and The Perfect Man (starting on 28 March 2013) and on the international coproduction Cloud Atlas (starting on 15 November 2011) starring Tom Hanks, Halle Berry and Hugh Grant.

Pixomondo, ARRI and Scanline are the big names of the German VFX industry, of course. However, most companies working in this industry are small, such as Weltenbauer (Wiesbaden), Meilenstein Digital (Augsburg) and Yager (Berlin), which either work in the consultancy services/training sector or focus on the video/computer games segment of the market. Most people working in VFX are freelancers and travel to work on a particular project. As a result of ever smaller production budgets and an increase in the availability of affordable software, the use of computer-generated effects for film and television will see steady growth. At the same time, there is ongoing interest in this graphic, technical vocation: Anyone who saw how many young people scrambled to get one of the 20 places at the Animation Meeting during the Munich Film Festival need not worry about the industry’s future. If anything, one might have concerns about how much creative potential can be provided with work.