With improvements in technology, smaller VFX companies are better able to compete with the giants, and innovative new production models are emerging. Nicola Brittain reports.

One feature of the VFX industry is that smaller companies are increasingly able to compete head on with their larger rivals. It's a shift that is being encouraged by two trends - the first of which is the current economic climate. Tighter programme budgets are driving VFX prices south, opening up opportunities for smaller companies with lower overheads.

Second, the proliferation of cost-effective software has levelled the playing field, enabling smaller, leaner companies to compete with their larger competitors more effectively.

This cost-effective software includes the now ubiquitous offline compositing packages such as The Foundry's Nuke and Eyeon's Fusion, as well as Autodesk's Maya for 3D and Adobe's After Effects - all now standard across huge VFX houses and boutiques alike. Now that powerful software can be snapped up for a few thousand pounds, it's fair to say that in terms of technology, David really can compete with Goliath.

The Foundry's chief executive, Bill Collis, argues that although offline compositing systems such as Nuke cannot compete on speed with an expensive integrated system such as Autodesk's Flame, which is used by the bigger VFX houses, it can achieve a similar look.

Big players focus on the mass market and it seems that the larger technology companies themselves are increasingly focused on a growing mass market. Last week, Autodesk revoked its developer licence from The Foundry, which produces Sparks plug-ins for Autodesk's high-end VFX tools Flame and Inferno, citing “competitive issues”. The reality is that The Foundry's procedural compositing tool Nuke competes directly with Autodesk's procedural compositor, Toxik.

One creative said: “Autodesk is trying very hard to push Toxik, but Nuke and Fusion seem to be the front runners to replace Apple's Shake.”

The Apple product was discontinued in 2006.

Autodesk launched Toxik 2009 with a host of features at computer graphics festival Siggraph in August, and last week the product was made available to Mac as well as PC operators.

Technology company Imagineer had “traditionally targeted large facilities looking for expensive products”, according to chief executive Allan Jaenicke, but over the past 12 or 18 months it has begun developing more cost-effective solutions in response to market demand.

It launched Mogul at NAB last year, an integrated product that aimed to capitalise on an opportunity for a product that offered one highly integrated system rather than a number of different packages.

The Mogul product sees Imagineer target a more widespread user base, extending to individual creatives and VFX hobbyists. Jaenicke predicts that the recession will exacerbate the current downward trend in VFX budgets, as bigger facilities lay off creatives. “They will in turn set up on their own, and with several software systems they can produce VFX that look like they were produced on a big system.”

He adds: “Although large commissions will continue to require scale, the market may not need as many big companies as there are currently.”

Alongside technology, processing power once differentiated the bigger from the smaller VFX facilities, but this is less true now. As Daniel Slight, managing director of Skaramoosh, says: “There are render farms all over the world now, a company can hire as much capacity as is required for a particular job.” Skaramoosh worked with Indian company Pixaalaya on its recent project World Leaders.

Skaramoosh used a Pixaalaya render farm in this instance but has also used farms in the US and Liverpool in the past.

New business models Skaramoosh describes its business model as that of a VFX company with just four permanent staff, which takes on specialist freelancers as required.

This gives the company a competitive edge over larger rivals by reducing overheads. Slight explains: “We won the pitch to design, direct and produce the films for the 2008 Olympics and Paralympics handover ceremonies and we were certainly the smallest company asked to pitch.”

Another way of harnessing VFX talent was recently illustrated by Simon Thomas, creative director for MPC on Hogfather, produced by The Mob Film Company.

Thomas set up his own company Mallies in December 2007 to create VFX for the second in the Terry Pratchett series The Colour of Magic, commissioning four facilities - Lola, Fluid, French VFX company Mac Guff and MPC - to work on the project.

Thomas argues that the benefits of this system were twofold. First, it was cheaper for The Mob, and second the turnaround was quicker - each post house was solely dedicated to the project and not managing their time over several jobs.

He insists that quality was maintained even though 90% of the effects used were off-the-shelf solutions. MPC's R&D department created just 15 of a total of 350 shots. Mallies is currently planning to repeat this approach on the third film in the Terry Pratchett series Going Postal.

Will the big guys stay big?

However, although many companies are taking advantage of opportunities afforded by cheap kit and new business models, Tom Horton, managing director of Men-From-Mars, argues that big companies still have the advantage of being able to offer producers package deals that include sound and grading.

He also argues that on some large jobs scale is essential. Rushes VFX supervisor Hayden Jones concurs that big facilities will continue to have the upper hand: “Although some smaller companies can create a niche speciality that allows them to compete at the highest level - such as Scanline with its fluid effects work - timescales coupled with research and development costs mean that smaller companies are ultimately limited to off-the-shelf solutions, which may not be enough for top-end jobs.”

International Case Studies - Prime Focus

Indian company Prime Focus was one of the first big VFX specialists with a London division to utilise its international links, a practice that has become increasingly widespread throughout the industry. Creative director Simon Clarke says: “It allows a more flexible model of pricing.”

The London day rate for a 2D fusion artist would be £550 a day compared with £150-£250 a day for an Indian worker. While the rate of pay in Canada is similar to that in London, there are tax breaks which come hand-in-hand with using Canadian labour.

The secret of international VFX is effective project management with lead creatives in important areas such as animation based in London.

Prime Focus recently completed Ancient Megastructures 2 for Darlow Smithson and Canadian production company Parallax Films for National Geographic. The first three projects were completed in London, where the creatives established the set-up and look, while the last three shows completed in Canada, benefiting from substantial tax breaks.

Men-From-Mars was bought by Indian firm Century last March and has now completed several projects with India including 50-part web series Gemini Division for Electric Farm.

Like Clarke, Men-From-Mars managing director Tom Horton puts the success of a project like this down to careful management. “Until now we have been focusing on getting the right senior people in place in India.

But further down the line we plan to update our infrastructure by installing a shot-tracking system for quality control and approval.”