Vancouver, also referred to as “Hollywood North,” has long been a magnet for filmmakers and “runaway” Hollywood TV productions seeking financial advantages, diverse locations, a sophisticated technical infrastructure, and a talented workforce.
Major studios were developed in the greater Vancouver area in the late 1980s, and the government of British Columbia began providing industry incentives in 1998. Today, British Columbia accounts for approximately 60 percent of all foreign-location film and TV production in Canada, and total direct and indirect full-time equivalent jobs generated by film and TV production are estimated at more than 36,000.
SHOW ME THE MONEY
Tax incentives are a big factor in attracting US productions. The government of Canada offers tax incentives, amounting to 16 percent of Canadian labor costs, to qualified foreign film and video production through the Canadian Audio-Visual Certification Office. In British Columbia, the government provides a 33 percent refundable tax credit for Canadian or international film and television production companies that incur eligible labor costs in the province.
More recently, the region’s Digital Animation or Visual Effects (DAVE) tax credit rebates 17.5 percent of labor costs for digital animation, VFX, and video game development. Recipient corporations don’t have to be Canadian-owned or have an interest in the copyright.
Little wonder that Vancouver has experienced an influx of international VFX studios to the marketplace, joining a strong roster of facilities already operating in town.
The DAVE tax credit is “a huge driver” in the growing VFX industry, says Randy Lake, executive vice president and general manager of Sony Pictures Digital Production Services. “In the majority of cases, the client claims [the tax credit] directly or the VFX facility can claim the rebate on a per-project basis and pass it on in pricing to the client.”
In fact, Sony Pictures Imageworks recently moved its headquarters from Culver City, California, to Vancouver, where it became the city’s largest VFX and digital character animation studio in terms of floor space.
“Vancouver is not just a TV town,” says Andrew Orloff, one of the founders of Zoic Studios, creative director for episodic television and president of the thriving British Columbia office. “Motion-picture studios are even more strict about saying they need tax credits on VFX. They want to see their money on the screen, and they go where they can get the most [credit]. Internationally financed projects for TV and film get financing based on Vancouver tax credits.”
Tim Jacobsen, executive producer and co-founder of FuseFX, which opened a full-scale facility in Vancouver last fall, finds that “not all work requires tax incentives, but you need to have options for all clients: those shooting in Vancouver or those working here in LA, but directed through a Vancouver office. Vancouver allows us to expand and cast our net wider.”
Ollin FX has a capacity of 120 at its headquarters in Mexico City, which offers tax benefits through NAFTA, plus a Los Angeles office established 10 years ago. “We were already one of the major VFX and post facilities in Latin America, but we wanted to reach Hollywood from the inside,” says Charlie Iturriaga, VFX supervisor at Ollin FX. “That’s where the key creative people are. We needed space in LA so our artists could sit down with the creatives.”
Right now, Ollin FX is “running the numbers” on establishing a facility in Vancouver, where it has been working with several independent artists on shots for House of Cards. “We’re in the process of understanding how things work there, how we can help clients who require tax incentives,” Iturriaga says. “We have been working in two locations for years, so we have a road map for transferring data and sharing resources.”
Tax incentives aren’t the only financial benefit for productions. With the Canadian dollar currently valued at approximately 84 cents to the US dollar, the exchange rate alone is advantageous to clients, Orloff says.
WHAT’S NOT TO LOVE?
A seaport town hugging the mainland of British Columbia, Vancouver is a bustling modern city endowed with great natural beauty. It’s known as a very desirable place to live and work. “Artists really like Vancouver,” says Orloff. “It’s more like an East Coast city in style: It’s a real walking city that has good public transportation, too. There are lots of independent neighborhoods and stores.”
Vancouver can double for locations worldwide, both quaint and contemporary, and there’s a wide array of terrain just outside the city. “Production can get a lot of value from a diversity of locations — the cityscape, neighborhoods like Gastown that can play New York, and the forest primeval is a short drive away,” says Orloff.
The area is also well equipped for stage-based shoots. “Vancouver is well positioned to capitalize on virtual production, especially for TV, with stage space and the production apparatus to handle big greenscreen sequences,” Orloff notes. ABC’s Once Upon a Time, a Zoic client, is a big virtual-set show that’s based in town.
Some may believe that the cost of doing business and the cost of living in Canada are higher than in the US, but Orloff finds real estate and utility prices a little cheaper than the Los Angeles area.
Vancouver is also a straight run up the Pacific Coast from Los Angeles, so it offers the benefit of proximity. “It’s a two-and-a-half-hour plane ride,” says Orloff. “We can be in an LA edit room or at a pitch meeting tomorrow. And we can communicate by phone in real time. Fiber on the West Coast is very good for sharing media and files in pretty much real time, too.”
“Being in the same time zone as Hollywood offers a lot of workflow advantages,” says Lake. “The amount of productivity lost with even small differences in time adds up.”
The diverse Vancouver landscape can substitute for many international locations. Here it serves as a background for an episode of once upon a time, whose effects are handled at Zoic, a local studio.
VFX studios opening in Vancouver need to be assured of a deep pool of talent to maintain their facilities on a full-time basis and enable them to bulk up as projects demand.
Historically, Vancouver has had a talent pool of Canadian animators working on television or direct-to-DVD content. “There was a nice solid base of animators, modelers, and CG specialists here,” says Orloff. “Now, the talent base has exploded, and the last couple of years have seen an influx of compositors. We’re at a tipping point with more Canadian artists who have at least five solid years of production experience. And people are coming in from all over the world.”
Zoic’s roster in Vancouver includes artists from “all over Asia, Israel, and other Middle Eastern countries, Central Europe, England, Australia, and New Zealand. They all want to come here, become Canadian residents, and build the industry,” Orloff explains.
Lake says that Imageworks has also been successful at attracting senior talent to Vancouver. “With our growth and more of our competitors in the marketplace, Vancouver has emerged as a hub of activity for the industry,” he says. “Artists go there feeling safe that there are lots of opportunities in town. They’re coming in from San Francisco, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.”
FuseFX has hired locally but has been challenged to find talent that hasn’t already been snagged by other companies, says Jacobsen. “The community has done a great job educating talent and making training available to those who want to become VFX artists. But it’s a process; it takes a while for a pool of talent to grow large enough to accommodate every-body’s needs,” he says.
“Having so many facilities in Vancouver doesn’t scare us,” says Iturriaga. “It means a lot of talent is there. Of all the cities we’ve considered expanding to, Vancouver has the biggest benefits in terms of experienced talent and talent coming out of the schools. Louisiana offers tax incentives, too, but New Orleans doesn’t have the talent pool you find easily in Vancouver.”
The educational component is an important factor in building a thriving VFX industry. “We’re putting time and energy into growing the talent base by partnering with local universities — Simon Fraser University, Vancouver Film School, Emily Carr University of Art + Design — and offering internship programs,” says Lake.
Orloff notes that Canada tightened some immigration regulations recently, which has created a short-term challenge with VFX hires. It’s widely hoped this situation will improve, since keeping Canada open to the best talent the world has to offer “will create a vibrant industry for the long term,” he states.
Vancouver’s chapter of the Visual Effects Society (VES) is “one of the most active and is growing in numbers,” reports Iturriaga, a member of the VES Board of Directors.
Once Hollywood was the ultimate destination for those in the industry. Today, they are following their GPS northwest.