VFX houses ‘anxious’ about B.C. film sector’s post-COVID-19 future

Industry reviving from pandemic hiatus but still dependent on sets running smoothly with safety protocols

FatBelly VFX Inc. founder Shannan Louis launched her company just weeks before the COVID-19 crisis shut down film sets across the globe |  Chung Chow

Curious times await Adam Stern’s visual effects (VFX) supervisor when he returns to the set – the first time in months – to offer guidance to the crew on how to capture shots that will dazzle after some post-production magic.

“He won’t be able to stand next to the director and look over a monitor. So how are they going to manage stuff like that? How are they going to manage those kinds of communications and immediate collaboration?” asked Stern, founder of ASL Artifex Studios Ltd., referring to new safety protocols on B.C. productions. “We’re sort of anxious to see how all that works out.”

The Vancouver-based VFX house recently resumed work on a TV project suspended about a month into the pandemic at the request of the networks and studios, and Stern said over the past four weeks Artifex is “very, very busy again.”

“Basically we froze everything in mid-April and then it stayed that way … until July,” he said.

With B.C. productions rolling cameras once more, throngs of Artifex staff who’d been getting by on the Canada Emergency Response Benefit returned to working remotely in August. What remains to be seen is how the pandemic will permanently change Vancouver’s bourgeoning VFX sector.

Stern said he’s been pleasantly surprised by how effective his team has been working remotely but it’s an industry that depends on creative chops and constant collaboration.

“I’d personally like to see some kind of hybrid model,” he said, adding that such a mix of remote and in-office working would likely remain in effect even after a vaccine is in wide distribution.

But uncertainty remains on the amount of work coming in, especially in the event filming is suspended if someone on set tests positive for COVID-19.

It’s a situation that played out recently during production of the Robert Pattinson film The Batman, which ground to a halt for two weeks over the summer following a positive test on the U.K. film set.

And a September 29 story from Deadline reports a number of Vancouver productions have been held up, not because of positive tests, but because of long delays in receiving results.

The backlogs in turn have the potential to delay work on the post-production side of industry.

Earlier in the month the Canadian Media Producers Association and Association québécoise de la production médiatique cautioned that a lack of COVID-19 insurance coverage for 214 productions across the country was putting $1 billion in production volume at risk.

The industry groups, which estimate the productions would directly create 19,400 jobs, are calling on Ottawa to create a government-backed insurance program.

A spokesman with the Department of Canadian Heritage said it hoped to provide a solution “in the near future.”

Meanwhile, other smaller VFX studios like Artifex face similar questions about their business even as productions slowly resume.

Shannan Louis was being strategic about launching her visual effects (VFX) house in February.

“March and April are really busy – they’re pilot season,” the founder of FatBelly VFX Inc. said, referring to the time of year TV networks commission pilot episodes for potential ongoing series. “So I wanted to start a month earlier, get all our tech sorted.”

The studio was in the midst of bidding on projects when the pandemic swept that planning aside.

While the FatBelly team continued working remotely for the first month of the pandemic, Louis said she had to navigate both financial constraints as well as employee attrition.

“The positives of only being such a small startup was that my outgoings were a lot less than a lot of bigger, more prevalent studios,” she said, noting more people from her team are set to return to work in October. •