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ILM’s Hal Hickel sees tough times ahead for VFX sector

Industrial Light & Magic animation director Hal Hickel has said the San Francisco-based VFX powerhouse faces interesting but tough times ahead.

Hickel, whose credits include Rango,  Pirates of the Caribbean and most recently Pacific Rim, was speaking at a presentation of the company at the Annecy International Film Festival.

“There’s a bunch of stuff that’s making life difficult for visual effects companies everywhere: shrinking budgets, shorter schedules, expanded delivery formats like higher frame rates etcetera and digital distribution, which changes how and when we deliver films, tax incentives,” said Hickel.

“There’s also been a lowering of the entry barrier. It’s much easier to set up a shop now than it once was and in much cheaper locations around the world.

“That’s good for people who want to do that but it’s a challenge to the existing shops.

“As a visual effects artist I never thought I would have to worry about currency values but that has an impact on where the work goes.”

Vancouver’s tax benefits

Aside from it flagship headquarters in the Letterman Digital Arts Centre in Presidio of San Francisco, ILM also runs a permanent division in Singapore and a temporary facility in Vancouver Canada, set up to take advantage of tax incentives in the territory.

“It’s a sort of pop-up studio. It’s not a facility we intend to keep forever – only as long as it’s useful to have,” said Hickel of the Vancouver subsidiary.

“We’ve very honest with the artists we employ that it’s not a permanent situation. We’re there for the tax rebate… we like everyone else are swimming in the same waters and trying to figure out how to make it work.”

Star Wars

In spite of the toughening situation, ILM remains busy. Current productions it is attached to include Darren Aronofsky’s NoahTeenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the upcoming Star Wars sequels.

Asked about the implications of Disney’s acquisition of ILM’s parent company Lucasfilm from George Lucas by Disney, Hickel said it was too early to tell but that for the time being it was business as usual.

“It’s good thing for Lucasfilm and Star Wars… particularly now that they’ve hired J.J. Abrams for the first few pictures. I think that is a great thing and I am really excited about it,” said Hickel.

“What does it mean for ILM, I don’t know. For now it doesn’t mean anything… we’ve been advised to carry on our relationships with the all the other studios and keep going as we always have which is encouraging.”

Pacific Rim

Hickel also talked the audience - comprised mainly of animation students and recent graduates - through the company’s work on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, Iron Man and Guillermo del Toro’s upcoming action film Pacific Rim, pitting giant Kaiju monsters against huge manmade robots, known as Jaegers.  

“We’ve been spending a lot of time with Guillermo at ILM and we just love him,” added Hickel. 

“Guillermo loves his monsters, he’s a monster guy and his passion was infectious.

“He was very insistent that all the Jaegers and Kaiju have distinctive looks and personalities. He didn’t want to fight to look like another fighter.” 

Slides of detailed artwork and pictures of maquettes of the robots and monsters drew hoots and applause from the audience. 

Hickel’s presentation was part of an extensive conference programme organised by Annecy’s animation market Mifa, which ran June 11-14 within the confines of the festival. 

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