Altered reality: Breaking down a scene from Doctor Strange to show how the fiery Space Portal was layered on to green screen footage

David McClelland takes a tour of London’s Oscar-conquering special effects studios

SUNDAY’S Oscars ceremony will see two dozen gongs given out and while Britain is well represented, it is behind the camera that the UK shines brightest. All five nominees for best visual effects category were, in part, made in London — making the capital a hotbed of digital film-making.

Join us as we walk the Soho square mile to discover the talent lighting up the cinema world. No emotional acceptance speech necessary…

Digital Death Star

To find the real force behind the Death Star and Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, look beyond the Hollywood Hills to a city far, far away. Pinewood, Shepperton, Elstree and Leavesden mark London’s cinematic periphery, but all roads lead to Soho.

Bear left from the big screens of Piccadilly Circus and you’ll reach Golden Square, home to Foundry, established in 1996 and creator of software used by studios the world over.

Made In London: The Death Star from Rogue One

Nuke, Katana, Modo and Mari could easily be characters in films Foundry’s customers create; instead they are the compositing, 3D-modelling and texture-painting tools used to craft Doctor Strange’s Cloak Of Levitation or Paddington’s fur.

‘Modern film-making is almost entirely a digital process,’ says Foundry co-founder Simon Robinson. ‘Film-makers are in a position where just about anything they can imagine they can make.’

Among Foundry’s recent successes was helping pull off one of this year’s biggest VFX coups: the Death Star in Rogue One. A total of 636 artists spent 22,000 hours animating, 55,000 hours modelling and 20,000 hours painting textures to create 1,700 sequences for the Star Wars story.

Foundry has had a digital hand in every film nominated for a best VFX Oscar in the past six years, yet Robinson is modest. ‘Nominees have used our software, but the success is always in the hands of the artists and film-makers,’ he says. ‘It’s nice movies have relied on us, though.’

Defying Gravity

Head north from Golden Square, past a dozen or more post-production studios, and you’ll find Framestore on Wells Street. Its concrete and brickwork exterior betrays little of the magic that takes place within.

‘We’ve been working in digital post-production for 30 years and are considered one of the “big five” in VFX, so we get asked to work on large studio VFX-driven movies,’ says Matt Fox, joint MD for film. These include The Martian, Avatar, the entire Harry Potter series and this year’s Oscar nominees Doctor Strange (best visual effects) and Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them (best production design).

Out of this world: For the eye-popping film Gravity, only the faces of its two co-stars were not digitally created

A typical engagement for an action movie might last ten months. Framestore’s work with Doctor Strange lasted 12. Such were the extensive effects in Fantastic Beasts it needed 18.

However, the gong for extreme effort must go to Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 sci-fi, Gravity. Nominated for ten Oscars and winner of seven, it became a three-year project for Framestore as, except for the faces of its stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, it was entirely computer-generated. For all the high-powered tech, old-fashioned manpower is still needed.

‘There are a lot of computers here but there are also hundreds of artists working at those computers,’ says Fox. ‘[For Gravity] the team grew to 300 people, in total around 400 artists touched the film.’

Virtual reality

A five-minute walk west to Regent Street brings you to the birthplace of British movie-going. Refurbished and reopened in 2015, the Regent Street Cinema projected its first film in 1896 as the Lumière brothers took their ground-breaking moving picture show on its world tour.

Those early 40-second flicks are from another era, but the coming of age of virtual reality might be about to spark a similar cinematic upheaval. ‘The capabilities of VR as a narrative tool have yet to be realised,’ says Fox.

Aside from developing a new cinematic language for VR and 360 storytelling, VR also places significant technical challenges on production.

Monster mash: A creature from Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them and, inset, before colour and detailing was applied

‘It’s another order-of-magnitude increase in computing and storage’, says Robinson from Foundry, estimating production of a three-minute 360/VR piece wold cost ten times more than a traditional flat-screen project.

Digital resurrection

With this potent combination of power, talent and tech it is possible to realise almost any vision with near-photorealistic precision. An exciting proposition for film-makers and film-goers alike, but where are the limits?

Recent employment of ‘digital resurrection’ techniques has drawn criticism. Peter Cushing’s posthumous appearance in Rogue One 20 years after his death and Paul Walker’s finale in Furious 7, despite passing away mid-shoot, both symbolise the cutting edge of today’s visual effects capabilities but raise ethical questions too.

‘Digital character resurrection is a fantastic development,’ says Robinson, ‘but it clearly opens up conversations about whether we should do this at all, and what is the future of real actors.’

Framestore breathed digital life into Audrey Hepburn for a starring role in a recent chocolate advert.

‘There’s always a fear that digital will replace physical but there’s a balance,’ says Fox. ‘It’s about what audiences want to see and, generally, they want to see human performances.’

And while digital cameos are possible, CGI can’t mimic the detail and nuance of human movement to hold an entire movie. ‘Digital humans have always been the hardest thing to do — we’re on the edge, but haven’t quite crossed it yet,’ says Robinson.

Walking back down Wardour Street to Piccadilly, the rain begins to fall. This is no visual effect, this is London. The drizzly narrow lanes of Soho may be several thousand miles from the red carpets of California but the capital’s digital magicians will be every bit the stars of the show on Sunday night.