The impact of last year’s strikes, the upcoming tax credits and the rise of AI were among the topics discussed on the VFX panel at the Media Production & Technology Show 2024

REBECCA NEWTON (account director, Grammatik Agency) It’s been a tough time for the UK VFX industry, hit by last year’s strikes. During the pandemic, the industry laid off 23% of its talent. Now we’re at the point of predicting layoffs to be at 40% of the pre-strike workforce. That’s a substantial number. Have you had to face the possibility of downsizing?

JOCELIN CAPPER (general manager, Cinesite) Cinesite is probably running at 60% of what we were at our full capacity. But we’ve managed to hold on to our core crew and we’re doing everything we can to keep them. We’ve looked at people taking holiday, reducing the days a week they’re working. But mainly what we’ve been looking at is diversifying into different projects.

DAVID SEWELL (VFX supervisor, Ingenuity Studios) Yes, unfortunately. We’ve had to let some people go and we haven’t renewed some contracts that have come to an end. I think we have been fortunate as our parent company in the US does commercials, music videos and things like that. So we’ve managed to keep busy.

SARAH WALSH (group commercial director, Coffee & TV) It’s quiet, and it’s not nice to hear people say, ‘If you can survive 2024, you will thrive in 2025’. The visual effects industry needs to work together as a group to be able to move forward through 2024. That includes everyone on this panel. You could call it competition, or you could call it friendship and kinship in the industry.

Having conversations like this, where we can understand everyone’s pressure points, I hope means we can get to the point where we’re not undercutting people in the short term for a long-term failure.

JOCELIN CAPPER There’s no doubt that the forthcoming tax credits will help us. They have to, or much of what we’ve been doing could move overseas. The UK does already work together, through various bodies. UK screen has been instrumental in that. And I can’t think of another country where all these companies come together to talk about business and what we need. So I’m incredibly proud that we’ve managed to achieve that tax credit after so many years, which is really, really important.

The other thing is, I know it’s really challenging, but it’s just a moment in time. If you’ve been in this industry for a while, it has been boom or bust, and we’ve been very good at adapting, diversifying, retraining and pushing forward. Despite things quite often going against us, we’ve led the world in terms of R&D and the content we’re producing.

DAVID SEWELL The pandemic hit us all hard. Then we started having that rush after the pandemic, and then there were the strikes, and now we’re all in a lull again. There’s a lot of holding back and waiting, which is frustrating. But it will pick up. Right now, we’re pushing more on the pre-production stage, helping clients with concept art and getting funding. We’re trying to generate work.

SIMON WILKINSON (head of VFX, 1185 Films) 1185 is quite a small boutique company and we don’t just specialise in VFX – we’re a production and post-production company. We have cutting rooms, a grade service, sound service and things like that. So we’ve not had to cut back as such. We filled the gap with commercials work and live music events – it has been challenging, but these other areas have filled the gap a little bit. 

The next generation

SIMON WILKINSON We have paid interns, and because we are small, we can train them one-on-one as they’re going along. I think the education system is great for VFX, and with YouTube, if you get stuck on one little thing, you can always learn how to solve the problem.

SARAH WALSH We’ve just launched a new initiative called Pixel Pathway, which is largely for under-represented communities. It’s an eight-week course, and there are only six people in the cohort. We’ve had hundreds of applicants. It’s for visual effects, colour and post-production producing. It’s starting small, but we have some great sponsors and we’re hoping we’ll be able to scale it up.

The impact of AI

JOCELIN CAPPER We’re all aware that there’s a seismic change coming. In terms of AI, I think some of the simpler work will go away, but I believe that in visual effects, that has already happened anyway.

I know everyone at the moment is going, ‘Oh my God, it’s going to finish everything’. But anyone who works in visual effects spends most of their time trying to optimise workflows, making them as efficient, fast and cost-effective as possible. Anything that looks at how we optimise every part of our workflow should be a positive move forward for us all.

SIMON WILKINSON What we’re looking for is tools to enhance what we do as artists, and the likes of Adobe are developing those. Look at something like Premiere – if you’ve got a clip that’s not long enough, there’s an AI tool that will make it longer. Stuff like that is great – it’s not taking away from the fact that the cameraman shot it in the first place.

The post-Covid world

DAVID SEWELL We’ve found feature work has been impacted the most, and then HETV. We’re going for more £2m-£5m budget shows, as there are more of them, rather than the bigger £10m-£20m projects, as they are just not that common any more.

JOCELIN CAPPER One of the things that’s been a big change for us since Covid is not everyone is London-based. We have permanent homeworking and hybrid working with people coming into the office. We’re now employing people from all over the UK.

SIMON WILKINSON We encourage people to come in and work together. We’re in a creative industry and it’s so much better when artists are working together. If you have a senior sat next to a junior, they can easily pass on their knowledge, whereas it’s so much harder for a junior to arrange a team or zoom call with a senior.

  • The Media Production & Technology Show 2024 was held at Olympia, London, on 15-16 May