As Hollywood North grows, local companies play leading role

Shawn Walsh, Image Engine Visual Effects Executive Producer, and Greg Holmes, CEO

As scenes like Tom Cruise racing down a flight of stairs in front of the Convention Centre or Kirsten Stewart being chased by vampires and werewolves down Vancouver’s streets become increasingly common occurrences, it's easy to forget just how far Vancouver's film industry has come in the last few years.

When Greg Holmes, along with partners Christopher Mossman and Robin Hackl, founded Image Engine in 1995, local businesses servicing film and television productions were rare and new endeavors required plenty of optimism. However, the three had an early vision of the opportunities that might one day exist and began building a company that would provide specialized visual effects services to Vancouver’s nascent film and media industry.

“Chris and Robin borrowed money from their parents, hocked everything they had, risked the capital, and together with myself, who was heading a parent company at the time, put together Image Engine Design,” said Holmes, who now acts as CEO. “The success of it came on the backs of Rob and Chris through their work ethic, their ability to work non-stop, sleeping in their office, and their sheer determination.”

For many years, the studio worked mainly on television series, such as Stargate, in a niche role of creature and character animation. If you wanted an alien in your sci-fi series, Image Engine was ready to help. In recent years, however, the company’s leaders saw the incredible potential presented to them as Hollywood slowly descended upon Vancouver.

“Vancouver was ready for this change. The role that Image Engine played was that we were one of the catalysts that reached out to places like Europe, LA, Brazil and Spain to bring talent here to Vancouver because there wasn’t that home grown talent,” recalled Holmes. “At the time our team really wanted to take it to the next level and get involved with film. At that point, certain people we had hired under the television guise started to become very effective because they had film experience, notably Peter Muyzers and Shawn Walsh, who had been working extensively in LA and in the UK,” Holmes added.

The shift in direction towards film was a risky move, but one that has since paid off in a significant way for Image Engine, culminating in an Academy Award Nomination in 2010 for their work on the film District 9.

“Director Neill Blomkamp really made a leap of faith with us, and we with him. It was really a two-way street. We have a lot of respect and admiration for him as a filmmaker, and he is very appreciative of the quality of the results we produced for District 9,” Shawn Walsh, Visual Effects Executive Producer, said.

He also noted the importance of that relationship and how it is perceived by others in the industry as being critical to the future endeavors of the company. “The ease of opening doors to at least have a conversation is greatly magnified by the success of District 9, and the company is absolutely on the map on a worldwide basis, and there are people that know about our company in far flung places,” he added, noting that Image Engine has been recognized by industry insiders in such diverse places as Japan and Russia.

As the company evolved, it has added pre-visualization, (helping shape scene creation and shot selection), landscape rendering and other services to its creature and character repertoire. Image Engine now employs over 125 artists and continues to grow, having recently added a new facility near their headquarters on West 5th.

“I think there is a general recognition in Hollywood now that their business is a global one and that Vancouver represents something very close to home for them. That’s a big motivation factor. It has a very similar culture, language, time zone, and there are tax benefits and a lot of building blocks to the business happening here,” Walsh said.

Signs of this recognized industry growth include the strength of home-grown talent coming out of the Vancouver Film School and Capilano Film School, plus the upcoming SIGGRAPH exhibition on computer graphics and interactive techniques in August, marking the first time the North American convention will be held outside of the US. This event has drawn up to 25,000 people in past editions.

“Promoting Vancouver as a great place to work is not difficult,” added Holmes. As for Image Engine, the company’s future looks bright, having added work on Twilight: Eclipse to their portfolio as well as work on upcoming projects: The Thing (Universal Pictures) and Immortals (Relativity Media). With Vancouver continuing to earn an international reputation for both on-screen and off-screen film production, it is companies like Image Engine who will continue to shape the landscape of this very dynamic industry.

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