Flemish production house puts the special in special effects

Summary

One Ghent-based animation producer is investing in both its technology and its people to compete with big-bucks Hollywood

Grid VFX has its own in-house academy to keep staff sharp

So used have we become to seeing breath-taking visual effects in animated movies and games that special effects have become less, well … special. But the Ghent-based special effects production house Grid VFX is determined to keep pushing the boundaries of visual animation to nudge viewers back to the edge of their seats. And that ambition appears to be paying off.

Grid VFX was recently named European Animation Producer of the Year at the industry event Cartoon Forum and helped create the prestigious PlayStation 4 game Knack.

Since it was founded in 1995, Grid VFX (VFX is an industry acronym for “visual effects”) has been providing post-production services, like 3D visualisation, character animation, colour grading, editing and set supervision, to advertising and film production companies. In their early days, refining music videos was one of the company’s specialities.

It was the animated film The Triplets of Belleville, nominated for two Academy Awards in 2003, that offered Grid VFX its breakthrough in the animation sector. More recently, it has begun acting as a co-producer for international animation films. Grid VFX also opened an office in Brussels in 2011 to better promote its activities around the world.

Grid VFX is currently co-producing the adaptation of the comic book Astérix: The Mansions of the Gods, which will be distributed in several countries. Their portfolio of international feature film projects also includes the American movies Ghost Rider and Pathology.

Manipulating spectators’ vision

Mark Mertens, who founded the company with Jan Goossen, shows me around the Grid headquarters in the Ghent district of Gentbrugge. Our first stop on the tour of the large building,  which used to house dressing rooms for factory workers, is a room largely taken up by 200 “rendering machines”, with non-stop flickering lights. This advanced computer technology, which can process the most complex calculations, transforms the developed scenes into the final animation movies.

We then head to a small cinema, where an expert is tinkering with the visuals of the new Flemish children’s film Dierenhotel (Animal Hotel). The film follows the adventures of the pop group K3 and is being produced by Flemish production house Studio 100. The Grid specialist shows me how the viewers’ vision can be manipulated to focus on a certain spot by, for example, playing with the intensity of the colours.

In other rooms, Grid teams are working on various productions such as the prestigious, prime-time TV series In Vlaamse velden (In Flanders Fields), which debuted on Eén earlier this month. The Flemish cinema hit Kampioen zijn blijft plezant! (based on the former FC Kampioenen TV series) was also finished here, and the ambitious TV series Little Luke and Lucy (pictured), based on the popular Flemish comic albums about Suske and Wiske, is currently getting its finishing touches for an international market.

Extreme specialisations

“We always have about 50 people working here,” says Goossen, “of whom about one-third have foreign origins.” Many of the company’s Flemish staff completed the Bachelor’s degree in digital arts and entertainment at University College West Flanders.

Many of our staff move on to larger international players after fine-tuning their skills here

- Mark Mertens

“It takes new technicians about three years to master the necessary skills for a specific task of, such as creating the lighting in an animated environment,” says Mark Mertens. “You could say that students may have learned the language of computer animation, but they can’t yet write a book.”

With its own Grid Academy, the company also organises workshops to increase the know-how of its staff. “Many of our staff also move on to larger international players after having fine-tuned their skills here,” Mertens adds.

Some of the artists at Grid are extremely specialised. One expert, for instance only works on animations of water. “This is absolutely necessary,” explains Goossen, “to fulfil the expectations of an audience that is used to highly detailed images in Hollywood movies. We may not have the huge budgets of such productions, but we invest a lot in innovative technology and artistic creativity to keep up.”  

Modern nomads

These continued efforts appear to be impressing the industry. Last September, Grid VFX was named European Animation Producer of the Year at Cartoon Forum in Toulouse. One of the company’s animation projects, the BBC children’s TV series What’s The Big Idea?, was also nominated for a British BAFTA award last year.

The boundaries between movies and games are increasingly disappearing

- Jan Goossen

“This international recognition is flattering,” says Goossen, “but it’s up to us to use these awards as a calling card to expand our markets, while consolidating the quality of our work.” Having just acquired the option to create the feature film version of Canadian animator Michel Gagné’s graphic novel The Saga of Rex, Grid isn’t resting on its laurels. The production is expected to start in the summer with the famous Gagné himself directing, whose long list of credits includes work on the international animation hits Ratatouille and Brave.

The expertise of Grid has also attracted the attention of Sony, which asked the company to work on the visuals for PlayStation 4 game Knack. Grid VFX embellished the technical development and lighting of the 3D scenography and characters in the so-called “cut scenes”, which together last 90 minutes. These cut scenes are in-game movies that bridge the gap between the different levels of a game.

“The boundaries between movies and games are increasingly disappearing,” says Goossen. “Just like we are now getting used to watching television via the internet.” In the future, Goossen expects that apps like Foursquare – which enables social media users to check in at real locations like restaurants and gyms online – will integrate ever more animated features.

Another trend the Grid VFX founders see is the increasing global competition that is turning visual animation artists into modern nomads. Goossen points to Vancouver and London as the current centres of expertise. “Hollywood is losing much of its attraction, as Canada and Great Britain’s tax shelters are helping them to win the competition for talent.”

Still, Goossen and Mertens feel that Flanders is holding its own, in part thanks to the tax shelter for the audio-visual sector. But the two say they agree with the recent calls from the sector to reform the tax shelter, since the current system allows room for abuse.

www.grid-vfx.com

Ghent-based animation producer invests in technology and people to compete with Hollywood.

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