Spotlight On… Vine FX: The VFX company elevating High-End TV and highlighting history

Features  |  13 September 2019

In this month’s Spotlight feature we talk to Michael Illingworth, founder of Vine FX – the BAFTA-nominated visual effects company based in Cambridge who offer the full range of visual effects services.

Vine FX, VFX shots for ITV's Beecham House after. Gurinder Chadha’s Beecham House, ITV’s new Indian drama set in 1795. Vine FX founder Michael Illingworth assisted during development and supervised the team of artist, creating set-extensions, matte paintings and period assets.
Vine FX, VFX shots for Gurinder Chadha’s Beecham House, on ITV

Vine FX has been operating for 12 years now, and has been described as a ‘pop-up pocket rocket’ kind of facility – Can you give us an overview of how it started?

It began when I had the opportunity to buy a second-hand Flame in 2007 and decided to start my own company. “How hard can it be?” I thought, “What’s the worst that could happen?” besides losing your house!

The ‘pop-up’ description refers to our ability to move with the market. At the time we would crew up and operate out of cutting rooms for a particular production. This flexibility allowed us to ‘pop up’ where needed and resulted in us getting work on Merlin, Atlantis as well as Harry Potter, The Deathly Hallows and later on Fantastic Beasts at Leavesden Studios.
These days our ‘pop-up’ aspirations have diminished somewhat but we’re happy to have put down some roots in Cambridge, where we plan to grow the business in future.

Where does Vine FX stand today, and what services do you offer as a visual effects and production facility?

We offer a wide range of services from basic clean-up work to full CG creatures, also producing first-class matte paintings and comp services. We like to get involved at the start of the project, break down the scripts and help production to get the best value from visual effects.

The Vine FX team did some wonderful work on (Satellite, BAFTA, and Primetime Emmy) award-winning Patrick Melrose series last year – Did this achievement effect the visibility of and/or demand for creating seamless reality shots with VFX?

The reaction to Patrick Melrose was amazing – it was brilliantly produced and directed and it deserved all of the awards it received. Benedict Cumberbatch is a real hero of ours. Our work transforming Glasgow into New York really captured people’s imagination so we got a lot of interest in the traditional press as well as in VFX circles. We knew if we didn’t get it right we would get found out, so it was essential to make the shots 100% believable. Thankfully, everyone was delighted with the results!

Vine FX Team group photo
The Vine FX team

Also, congratulations on the recent expansion! Now based in Cambridge, Vine FX is in a unique position as a visual effect’s facility in the UK – What new advantages and challenges come with the territory?

Cambridge is a great place to live – I’ve been here for over 20 years. Early on it was difficult to persuade some people that it was a good idea to set-up outside of London. The truth is it doesn’t matter if the work is done in Soho, Manchester or Canada; it’s all about the artists, and if we create a relaxed atmosphere for our team we find that we get great results. London is an amazing place, but I really enjoy getting away from the hustle and bustle of a big city. Plus, we’re only 50 minutes away by train if we need to get to meeting, so we have a good balance here.

It’s an exciting place to be, plus there’s over 800 years of history in the city. There is a vibrant tech and biotech community here so there’s companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Rasberry Pi, Ninja Theory and Jagex right on our doorstep. We’ve already struck up good relations with some of them, and hope to share some exciting news about a non-VFX collaboration very soon…

Is there plenty talent available locally, or do you find you have to look further a-field?

We are finding it surprisingly easy to find talent. Most people commute into London these days so there are plenty of people living in places like Stevenage, Hitching, Welwyn and Royston – like I said we’re only 50 minutes away, which is handy.

Do you think any attitudes in the VFX industry are changing regarding skills pipelines and training?

That’s a good question. There are some terrific courses in both VFX and Games production in Cambridge, Norwich, Hertford and East Anglia. There’s plenty of overlap between the two disciplines so we are getting interest from graduates wishing to work in VFX. That said, we need to do more for people find out about working in the creative industries. Vine FX are working with local schools and have offered work placements to school students this summer – we really hope this will pique their interest in working in film and television when they’re older.

black-mirror-season-5-smithereens-vine-fx
Vine FX worked on Charlie Brooker’s hit series Black Mirror Season 5 – Episode 2 ‘Smithereens’
Image credit: STUDIOCANAL/FNG/AGC

Vine FX has been working on several very exciting projects, from Gurinder Chadha’s Beecham House to Netflix’s Black Mirror, to Fox Networks and Canal Plus’ upcoming adaptation of War of the Worlds. Do you have any favourite projects that Vine FX worked within the past year?

Patrick Melrose was a real favourite – it really put us on the map in terms of producing VFX outside of London. We worked really hard to make sure that Edward Berger, the director could see version good quality versions of our shots and that he could provide feedback. We decided to us Frame-io as it gives us the ability to upload shots quickly and our clients can annotate directly on the image and send notes in real-time. We even found this to be more efficient than the long client sessions we used to host in the past.

Are there any marked goals or aspirations on the horizon for Vine FX’s future?

We want to establish a name for ourselves as a studio where both quality and creativity are key.  Our overheads are lower in Cambridge so we have the real luxury of not having to accept work we don’t believe in and can work on the best projects for us. We take great pride in what we do; removing satellite dishes from period dramas is just as important while delivering quality clean-ups as delivering full CG creature shots. Our clients expect the best. We also hope to reach out to more local schools and colleges and get them more interested in VFX. We have a collaboration with some big tech companies who’ve studios here in Cambridge coming up – I can’t share these details at the moment but it’s exciting stuff!

We’ll keep an eye out – Thank you for your time Michael!

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