Sci-fi epics in an average Dublin office

Tue, Apr 24, 2012, 01:00

IF YOU WERE told that two new Irish filmmakers had put together something called Lockout as their debut feature, you might well be expecting a worthy but dull drama about trade unions and Jim Larkin.

What you get instead is a full-throttle, wisecracking action movie where the American president’s daughter has to be rescued from a maximum-security prison. In space. It’s not exactly your typical Irish film.

Even more surprising is the fact that the various explosions, space ships and celestial vistas that form the spine of the movie don’t originate from a special-effects house somewhere in California, but from Dublin.

Hidden away on sleepy Herbert Street, the Windmill Lane offices aren’t showy, but inside they are sleek and modern, with the kind of computing power necessary to create other worlds. While they are well established as a post-production facility, this experience has still been a leap into the unknown.

“This is a completely new venture for us,” says founder and CEO James Morris, “to get into what I’d call international-quality visual effects. We’ve always had the capacity to do a number of shots – we did about 60 shots for [Steven Soderbergh’s] Haywire earlier this year – but that was possible because it was one person working over a long period of time. To take on a project like Lockout we had to create a visual-effects production studio and that was an enormous challenge.”

The wheels started in motion roughly three years ago when French director Luc Besson (director of films such as Léon and The Fifth Element) spotted the short action film Prey Alone on the internet. Impressed, he tracked down the Irish co-directors, Stephen St Leger and James Mather.

In recent years, Besson has created a lucrative business out of finding fresh talent and producing action movies – such as Taken or the The Transporter series – more cost effectively than Hollywood. Besson teamed up with Mather and St Leger to write Lockout, and his EuropaCorp company backed the project financially for the duo to direct.

While the film was shot in Serbia, Mather and St Leger were interested in keeping as much of the production as possible close to home. Having worked with Windmill on Prey Alone, they approached Morris and asked him if it would be possible to do all the special-effects work in Dublin.

Morris had been involved with the setting up of The Mill effects company in London 20 years ago and was aware of the huge challenge involved.

“We all know that it’s a real growth area in the industry, but at the same time there’s not really a halfway house. You can do a few small shots, but to do a full CGI compositing visual-effects movie like Lockout takes a completely new set up.”

They decided to take the plunge, and beat competition from London and France to secure the job, and then had to set about hiring more than 80 people, developing an off-site facility in Sandyford for them to work in and, of course, doing some fast learning.

“It took over my life for a period,” admits Morris, “I can’t speak too highly of Stephen and James, without their enterprise none of this could have happened. And of course that Luc Besson was prepared to allow us to put together – from scratch really – a visual-effects project to do this film. It’s quite an unusual scenario. But an opportunity like this doesn’t come along too often. It’s given us a track record. We have a proof of concept now.”

The technical infrastructure developed over the last year in Windmill is now being put to work on creating visuals for the mammoth TV production Titanic: Blood and Steel, with the period setting providing the perfect opportunity for the Windmill artists to flex their muscles and work in an environment completely different to Lockout’s futuristic setting. Learning as you go is a vital part of the effects business.

“One of the real challenges is that you have to have some RD [Research and Development] people involved, because you are actually creating software to achieve some of the visuals, you can’t just do it using off-the-shelf software packages,” explains Morris. “That’s what distinguishes the big visual-effects houses. They have RD departments and in the end they get known for what they do and they’d have their own in-house secrets. And that’s where we want to go, we want to start a company that can compete internationally. I’ve no doubt we have the expertise – there’s a world-class animation industry in Ireland, where you have companies who are producing animation in the classic sense. What we’re doing here is a different strand, it has animation in it and it has live-action in it, so it’s a sort of hybrid.”

While there was a time when Ireland’s location on the periphery of Europe was an obstacle to developing international work, greater interconnectivity has changed the landscape. With the domestic market constricting, looking abroad is vital for companies such as Windmill.

“Being successful with new enterprises is about survival – they’re not a lifestyle choice,” says Morris. “Developing a visual-effects company will allow us to operate in much bigger markets, very competitive markets admittedly, but there is a blue sky aspect to them which is very appealing.

“What we’re trying to do now is get things into a proper sustainable shape. That’s the great thing that Lockout gave us – we were able to pay the bills, but it’s nearly all crew, that’s where 80 per cent of the cost is, and after that what’s left is your knowledge and your know-how and hopefully a core team to build something on a more long-term basis.”

Cinema’s visual-effects boom

James Morris, chief executive of Windmill Lane

“The most powerful driver of success in commercial cinema in the last 10 years has been visual effects. It’s driven fantasy films, like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings; science fiction like Star Wars; period films like Gladiator.

“Even something like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was full of visual effects, as it was a period piece, but they are designed to not be noticed.

“Years ago shots with effects in them were static. The camera couldn’t move because they were often shooting actors through panes of glass with castles painted on them, using perspective to give the impression of a castle behind the actors on a hill.

“For the first Star Wars they used models and miniatures and would matte them in [combine the shots]. Now things are done digitally and the cameras can move.

“For Lockout, we built lots of shots from scratch. Sometime the set behind an actor has to be extended, other times the environment around him has to be built completely. Objects have to be built on screen as a wireframe before being turned into a solid object, then it’s animated, texture mapped and lit.

“It’s created an almost open palate – if you can imagine it we can create it and make it look real.”