"You don't get very long," says Tim Webber, VFX (visual effects) supervisor on the blockbuster space thriller Gravity. "Five minutes to talk about it, a 10-minute showreel, and then three minutes of question and answer. When you've spent three years on a project, that's not an awful lot of time to get it across."
Webber is talking about arguably the most stressful moment of a VFX artist's year: the Oscar "bake-off", a live, on-stage presentation where the teams behind each of the longlisted films pitch their work to the academy voters. Last month, Webber, unassuming and softly spoken, was the leader of the Gravity delegation, and his efforts were greeted with success: Gravity will fight it out on Oscar night with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger and Star Trek Into Darkness.
Before that, on Sunday night, Webber has the chance of more silverware at the Baftas, where Gravity is tipped to lift the trophy for best special visual effects. A win would be particularly appropriate as Webber, along with the rest of the Gravity VFX team, works for the UK company Framestore; and Gravity, despite studio backing from Warner Bros, qualifies as a homegrown film via its British producer, Harry Potter's David Heyman.
Its pre-eminence also confirms one of the British film industry's quietest success stories: how its visual effects artists are leading the world and increasingly finding recognition among their peers. Though Webber and his team are the lone British company jostling for an Oscar, four out of the 10 teams in the bake-off were British – a remarkable share in an industry originally dominated by American outfits such as George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) and James Cameron's Digital Domain.
These days, however, the picture is different. ILM has just announced it is setting up a UK office, New Zealand's Weta is a significant player too, and in London, as Webber points out, "there are three world-class VFX companies within five minutes' walk of each other". Framestore, his own company, is one; the others are MPC (Lone Ranger, Harry Potter) and Double Negative (Inception, Man of Steel). "For me," he says, "that's the most important reason. We compete, of course, but we share staff and work closely together."
The initial impetus for the British VFX industry, he says, came from the Harry Potter series, which began filming in 2000 at Leavesden studios in Hertfordshire, and supplied "a good steady stream of work that could build upon itself – similar work each time – and that gave a backbone around which to build an industry". Supported by the tax breaks that have benefited British film-making as a whole, VFX has grown into a key sector of Britain's film industry and is specifically cited as a motivation in the recent increase in state support for British film – raising tax relief rates and lowering spend thresholds to make it easier for VFX companies to win work from overseas productions.
According to the trade body UK Screen, the VFX industry in Britain earned approximately £196m in 2012/13.
However, the globalisation of the VFX industry has not been greeted with universal joy: protests erupted at last year's Oscars over the difficulties faced by US-based outfits unable to compete because of state support in other parts of the world. More are planned this year.
Webber says he has great sympathy, of course, but points out that in the early days UK companies had to undercut Americans to get any work at all. "We learned to do it significantly cheaper, and used our innovation to be leaner and more flexible operations. In the end, our people are younger and hungrier than they are in the US."
VFX artists currently enjoy an unprecedented status within the film industry; perhaps it's inevitable after two decades of blockbuster superhero and comic book movies that rely heavily on VFX for their impact. Nevertheless, it could only have been dreamed of back in the early days; Webber says when he joined Framestore as a runner in the late 1980s, the company comprised just a dozen or so people working on music promos; now it has around 800 employees and offices in New York, LA and Montreal. That's not to say the average VFX artist is now living a life of luxury. "It's tough for them," says Webber. "There aren't guilds or unions or established working practices like more traditional areas of the industry, so they have a tough time. As do the visual effects companies themselves; quite a few are struggling."
But there's no getting away from the fact VFX is becoming an ubiquitous aspect of film-making. It's easy to see and admire it in fantasy spectacles like Iron Man 3 and The Hobbit, or space yarns like Star Trek Into Darkness and Gravity. But even apparently sober and historically realistic dramas like Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, the biopic starring Idris Elba and another strong Bafta contender, have benefited from the attention of VFXers.
BlueBolt is a small outfit, based a couple of streets away from Framestore in London's Fitzrovia. According to Angela Barson, one of its directors and VFX supervisor on Mandela, it specialises in "environments" – films and TV shows where "you watch it and you have no idea that we've touched it".
A showreel on its website demonstrates some of the burnishing Mandela received, from tweaking forehead wrinkles to filling a stadium with adoring supporters, to amplifying on-screen explosions, to pasting in an aeroplane flypast. It may be a shock, but VFX is now embedded in the fabric of bread-and-butter film-making; the Photoshop of the film world.
Gravity, of course, is in an entirely different league. Webber talks about some of the challenges they faced. A film set in space is difficult enough in itself – "you can't just go and film there" – and approximating zero gravity is particularly tricky – "you can't use wires or anything like that; the muscular strain would be immediately apparent."
Cuaron's signature style of film-making, based around the Mexican version of the extended master shot, known as "plano secuencia", only compounded things: "Alfonso uses these long roaming shots, often developing from a close-up to a wide shot in the same take. Not only is it hard to shoot and choreograph in itself, but the CG has to be immaculate, because people are just staring at it for minutes at a time, without any cutting to distract them". So complex were the preparations, filming and editing process that Webber says "in essence you make the film three times: once in pre-production, then you shoot it it changes, then in post-production you make it again. Each time, it's a different movie."
It's clear Webber considers it a privilege to have worked on Gravity.
Gravity, of course, is something special; Webber considers himself privileged to have worked on it. With a film so reliant on VFX in virtually every frame, he says he found himself getting involved in every department, and working especially closely with renowned cinematographer Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki (himself up for an Oscar). "I felt like a film-maker working with VFX rather than someone putting VFX into someone else's film. You don't get many projects like that."
Additional research by Jennifer Rankin