The opening 17 minutes of the 2013 science fiction thriller film Gravity amazed cinemagoers.
In a long take, shows a Nasa Space Shuttle in the mid-orbit being destroyed by a rain of space junk, sending astronaut Ryan Stone played by Sandra Bullock launches into space.
The Director Alfonso Cuaron conceived the visceral scene, but it was with London-based visual effects company Framestore who did the hard work of turning it into reality.
The company won an Oscar for his work on the film, which lasted nearly four years and a team of 400 specialists to complete – from the animators and physicists to computer scientists.
“No one had really successfully portrayed zero gravity in a movie, so we had to reinvent the film-making process,” says Framestore’s boss and founder Sir William Sargent.
“Many of the techniques and technologies used to create the film simply didn’t exist when we started.”
Founded in 1986, Framestore has worked on a number of other great films, including the Harry Potter series, Batman, The Dark Knight, blade runner, 2049, and the Paddington films; its annual income exceeded Â£129m.
But as the strategic brains behind the company, Sir William has had to navigate a rapidly changing industry, which has left some of the visual effects companies are struggling to stay afloat.
Born in the Republic of Ireland, Sir William actually began his career in rock and roll in the decade of 1970, equipment hire Irish music bands such as the Boomtown Rats, Thin Lizzy and U2, while the study of business and law at Trinity College Dublin.
“My dad was a chartered accountant, but I do not share the vision,” the 61-year-old, says with a smile. “He does not support me, so I had to find a way to pay the bills.”
Moving to London after graduating from the university, Sir William had a dream of writing film scripts, but soon realized that he was the most suitable for the business side of things.
“I think that I am a failed writer,” he says. “But I’ve also learned that the writer is the bottom of the food chain, and if you want to progress there is nothing like being the producer”.
Along with four friends he set up Framestore in 1986, with the goal of having a new technology that allowed producers to “digitally” paint on the film.
One of his first jobs was the music video pop, Norwegian group a-ha’s hit debut single Take on Me, which featured the band in a pencil sketch animation mixed with live action.
“It was pretty revolutionary stuff 30 years ago,” says Sir William. “We were starting as well as the digital effects that were coming in.”
Videos of David Bowie and Paul McCartney followed, as well as ads for brands such as Weetabix. The firm has also worked in television, the management of the computer-generated imagery for the BBC’s award-winning natural history series Walking with Dinosaurs.
But it was not until 1998 that Hollywood knocked on the door, and Framestore was hired to work in the sci-fi comedy Lost in Space staring Gary Oldman and Matt Leblanc. Sir William says that the film, which was shot in London, at the dawn of the renaissance in British movie making.
“The united states does not see the uk as a centre of excellence of the performance of films in those days -but today it is,” he says.
“Think about the number of Hollywood films, made in the uk; in any given month, you’ll have three of the big six [US] the studio filming in London”.
Some have criticized the film industry for relying too heavily on digital effects, in particular in the blockbuster action movies. But Sir William, who ironically has always preferred narrative-led films of the loaded effects, says that “ultimately, it is only a tool.”
“Almost every film uses digital effects, in any way, there are a lot of invisible work that we simply don’t know,” he says. “It also opens a lot of story-telling possibilities that did not exist 30 years ago.”
Today Framestore employs 2,500 employees, around 1,000 in their London headquarters, and the rest through offices in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Montreal, Pune, India and in Beijing.
Its annual revenues have grown by 12-15% each year since it was founded, says Sir William.
Matt Mueller, editor of the film magazine Screen International, explains that the tax cuts and the cheaper the technology have allowed companies all over the world to enter the visual effects market in recent years.
This has increased the competition for companies like Framestore, and led to a string of big effects houses in the united states outside of the company.
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Mr. Mueller says: “The uk has been a growth industry, but could face challenges as more enter the market.
“You can see a large part of the migration of this work to the South East of Asia.”
Sir William acknowledges that there is a “downward pressure” in your industry, but says that is “has always been difficult,” and Framestore has kept growing.
What could be more of a headache for the company is to Brexit, which analysts say could encourage a ‘brain drain’ in a uk industry already faces skills shortages.
Sir William admits that he is concerned as Framestore’s London headquarters employs staff from almost all the countries of the EU. But he points out that it has diversified well, the opening of offices in up-and-coming visual effects centers, such as India and Canada, and will continue to do so.
In 2016, Framestore sold a 75% stake in its business to Chinese conglomerate Cultural Investment Holdings (CIH) in the Â£150m – a clear sign of where it sees the future.
“China’s creative industries are growing quickly and I want to be a part of it,” Sir William says. “China’s box office has gone up six times in the last nine years. They are consuming a great deal of other digital content.”
Despite the CIH treatment, Sir William, and his management team to continue with the business.
In addition to being a leader of Framestore, Sir William, who was knighted in 2008 for his services to business and government of the united kingdom, has also held a number of senior civil service roles.
Between the years 2005-2010 he was a permanent secretary of the Cabinet Office, advising on regulatory reform under the labour prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. He was also on the board of the Treasury until 2010, and is now part of the Mayor of London’s business advisory board.
On top of this, he still finds time to follow his beloved Tottenham Hotspur, and take up to 18 months of age, child has two adult children also).
“I like to do the two things at the same time, stays cool and you learn a lot,” he says.