THE BLOG

And the Oscar Goes to ... London. Visual Effects, High Tech and the Future of Cinema

20/04/2015 11:26 BST | Updated 17/06/2015 10:59 BST

Napoleon famously said Britain is a nation of shopkeepers. If he were to visit any cinema today, he'd probably come to a different conclusion: the UK, and London in particular, has become the go-to centre for computer-generated special effects.

Only 10 years ago there were maybe 1,000 people working in the visual effects (VFX) industry in the UK. Today, that figure has grown about sixfold.

In March, visual effects studio Double Negative won the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects for its work on the science-fiction epic Interstellar. This marks the fourth time in the past eight years that a London-based studio has taken home the award.

Gravity, Inception, Benjamin Button, Batman and the Harry Potter films were all buffed and polished to perfection in London. VFX houses like Double Negative, Framestore, Cinesite, The Mill and MPC are becoming household names.

Generous tax breaks make the UK a cost-effective option for filmmakers. But it's the unarguable talent - and their embrace of technology - that has made London a sure-fire guarantee of quality.

The Tech Behind the Visual Magic

The graphics cards at the heart of this tech were originally developed to drive bleeding-edge 3D graphics in video games but, over the last decade, they've been fine-tuned to power the incredible number of pixels and particles that make up the spectacular effects in cinema's biggest blockbusters.

Behind the glamour of Hollywood awards, it's innovation in less-than-sexy areas like IT infrastructure that are quietly revolutionizing the VFX business. Case in point: IBM announced this February that Sohonet has chosen data centre services from its Softlayer cloud services subsidiary.

This may not mean much to the average cinema-goer, but the Sohonet Media Network is used by the media and entertainment industry to connect studios, production and post-production facilities across the globe via high-speed cloud networks.

The VFX industry is also embracing virtualisation technology and cloud computing because they allow studios to quickly scale up during busy periods, without overinvesting in physical workstations. And they add another layer of security by keeping confidential work in the data centre.

The bottom line of this attention to the latest technology is a stronger UK VFX industry, and even more popcorn-spilling thrills for movie fans.

VR: The Next Frontier in Filmmaking

The UK VFX industry's track record of success not only entertains, but influences and inspires. The new London office of Lucasfilm's Industrial Light & Magic is currently working on the highly anticipated sequels Avengers: Age of Ultron and Star Wars: Episode VII.

London's blend of artistic excellence and technical know-how may further prove its value as Hollywood places its bet on the next game-changing technology: virtual reality, or VR.

3-D, the last major innovation in filmmaking, failed to have the desired impact at box offices, despite the notable success of films such as Avatar and Framestore's Gravity. Box office takings dropped 2.9 per cent, or around £34million, from 2013 to 2014 in the UK and Ireland.

Now there's hope that VR will be able to do what 3-D couldn't: reignite people's excitement about going to the cinema.

Oculus - the biggest name in VR technology - is making waves in the entertainment industry with Story Studio, the company's new in-house film and game developer collective. Story Studio is exploring and sharing tools and techniques designed to help people craft entertainment experiences within VR. And it marks a shift in focus by Oculus away from purely gaming, at least in the short term.

Lost, Story Studio's first attempt at a VR short film, was released in January and became the subject of considerable buzz from the media who were lucky enough to see it first-hand. With plans to release four more VR cinema experiences this year, the studio clearly has exciting plans for the future.

I, for one, can't wait to see their work hit the local Odeon ... but only after they've first passed through the safe hands of one of the UK's top VFX studios.