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NZ's burgeoning CGI industry

Computer-generated imagery is rendering a Hollywood industry right here.

Computer-generated imagery is rendering a Hollywood industry right here in New Zealand

Sangeeta Anand

Technology

We all know how to make a Hollywood movie these days. Anyone who’s ever watched the extras on a DVD—the bonus, behind-the-scenes, making-of featurettes—will understand a thing or two about the filmmaking process. We all secretly fancy we have a screenplay in us, we nod knowingly at directors’ commentaries as they explain each setup and everyone has an opinion on acting, costumes, lighting and music.

And we all know films are processed digitally after production—because the beauty of anything digital is that it can travel thousands of kilometers in seconds, and tiny, remote New Zealand is cashing in on this technological development.

But I’m not just talking the big boys like Weta Digital. Increasingly, producers in Los Angeles are digitally sending their post-production ‘ingredients’ to one of the many studios in Auckland and Wellington to be processed and returned. This helps them save costs (Kiwi post-production facilities are about 30 percent cheaper than their American equivalents) and time (the different time zones mean we can work all day while the Americans are sleeping) but it doesn’t compromise the quality.

“Initially, movies were shot here because of the stunning locations,” says Grant Baker, managing director of Auckland post-production facility Images and Sound, “but more and more Hollywood producers are realising the depth of talent and level of quality for finishing their films in New Zealand.”

New Zealand’s CGI industry is less than a decade old but in 2009 it contributed $362 million, nearly 13 percent, to our total screen industry revenue of $2.8 billion, according to Department of Statistics numbers. Two years earlier CGI generated $246 million, or about ten percent of total revenue of $2.4 billion.

New Zealand’s visual and physical effects companies have worked for an increasing number of international film productions. Walden Media, in partnership with Walt Disney Pictures, has spent at least $250 million on post-production in New Zealand over the past few years, on projects such as Enchanted and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.

The blockbuster Avatar was conceived by three-time Academy Award-winning director James Cameron but it received its crucial animation input from Wellington-based Weta, which won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a Bafta for the film’s special effects. On the back of this success, New Zealand’s post-production industry is likely to get even busier.

Hollywood production companies look at a few countries including Canada and parts of Europe while scouting for a CGI partner. “New Zealand facilities are recognised as being among the best and at the top-end, most price-competitive in the world,” says Sandra Clark, acting projects manager at Film New Zealand, “which is why we are getting work in from offshore. The productions that New Zealand has worked on are among the most high-profile in recent years.”

It also helps to hail from the same country as newly-knighted Sir Peter Jackson—you get instant brand equity. “I think the world has always had one eye on the New Zealand film and TV industry, through such projects as Xena, Hercules and more recently Spartacus,” says Stephen Douglas, general manager for Digipost, the special-effects company behind Xena. “I think we have a unique balance here in New Zealand and of course the work speaks for itself but Peter Jackson has certainly played a huge part in helping put the New Zealand industry on the map.”

Besides, it is much faster and cheaper to use post-production facilities in New Zealand. As a nation of only four million people, work processes are simple. The risk of disruption is low, as the entertainment sector workforce is not unionised in New Zealand. Additionally, there aren’t fringe taxes on employee benefits, payroll and other levies. In the US, such taxes have to be paid and this adds to the overall postproduction cost.

New Zealand also lures producers with financial incentives. The government’s Large Budget Screen Production Grant offers a 15 percent rebate on production expenditure in New Zealand. The producers of Avatar, for example, received $45 million from the grant. In return, the New Zealand economy secured more than $307 million in expenditure, according to Economic Development Minister Gerry Brownlee. Since the scheme began in 2003, overseas productions have spent reportedly $1.42 billion in New Zealand, resulting in grant payments of $189.4 million.

“It helps that our business model has always been about global diversity, creativity and cutting-edge technology [but] our business is very people-related,” says Douglas. “I spend a great deal of my time visiting the various overseas markets—about every two months—for the face-to-face contact. We have invested time and resources in offshore sales and marketing. We are now seeing a huge chunk of our TVC/film work originating out of Asia, Australia and the USA.”

So can we keep up with demand? CGI is a labour-intensive industry: Avatar reportedly involved 800 people working full-time for six months in Wellington. Luckily, New Zealand’s quality of life attracts the top talent. “We have no problem recruiting,” says Douglas. “LA is having it tough right now, so we can headhunt LA!”

While it is still not common for the post-production techies to rub shoulders with the glitterati at Hollywood parties, the profession is being taken more seriously. “In the past, post-production people were seen as being at the bottom of the ladder,” says Douglas. “But because of the current style of moviemaking and filming and the importance of technology, we are now seen as major players.”

Behind the scenes

Digital outsourcing of movie post-production to New Zealand is an attractive option. But if you are imagining this process to be similar to uploading and downloading YouTube videos, consider this: a 60-minute motion picture as you’d see in a theatre consumes thousands of times more kilobytes than a 60-minute YouTube video. It would take 13 days to download on a standard broadband connection (378KB/s). This would defeat the purpose, because it could be sent faster using a physical mode such as airfreight.

There is a better solution. Two networks—SohoNet and MediaNet—provide a secure online service that facilitates media sharing between New Zealand and the world’s major film and television production centres. More than 40 film and television studios and production, post-production and visual-effects companies around the world use MediaNet to send and receive digital media through a high-speed private network. This improves collaboration, shortens production cycles and reduces costs from traditional physical delivery methods. The same 60-minute movie can be sent over this private network within minutes.

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