Engineering Hollywood

An illuminated cinema. The hundreds of seats are empty and screen blank.

Categories: Technology

"Cinema Europa, Lisboa, Portugal" by Biblioteca de Arte is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

22 January 2016


Hollywood may be more commonly known for its film stars and glittering lights, but alongside their movie-town status, the Hills are a top destination for budding engineers.

From the dizzyingly photo-realistic scenery of ‘Gravity’ to the iconic opening sequence of the latest ‘Bond’ instalment, visual effects (VFX) have become a staple feature of modern cinema. Even the pre-film advertisement reel has been digitally enhanced. And behind all of this blockbuster-worthy VFX lies a massive range of artists, designers and both software and mechanical engineers, creating entire worlds from reams of coded script and intricately designed rigs.

Framestore, based in London, and with offices in New York, Los Angeles and Montreal, is the multi-award winning visual effects company responsible for bringing you Paddington Bear, Guardians of the Galaxy, and even this Christmas’s Sainsbury’s ad, featuring ‘Mog’. As well as taking home gongs for Gravity and The Golden Compass, Framestore has consistently collected nominations at the Oscars, BAFTAs, Emmys and Cannes Film Festival over the past few years, for films, documentaries and adverts alike.

Starting out as a five-man team in 1986, the company has since grown to include more than 1000 artists, computer scientists, animators, visualisers, developers and engineers, working on every continent across the world.

A key driving force behind the company’s immersion in digital film and television production was Chief Creative Officer, Tim Webber. Fresh from an Oxford education in Physics, Webber joined Framestore in 1988, and quickly made his mark in the world of visual effects, developing Framestore’s virtual camera and motion rig systems. It is this passion for invention and engineering that has led to the realisation of several ground-breaking filming techniques, highlighted by the development of the Light Box for 2014’s ‘Gravity’. The cube, which consisted of almost 2 million individual LED lights, and containing a static rig in the centre, used moving light patterns to give the illusion of spinning on all axes; all the while allowing actors Sandra Bullock and George Clooney to remain relatively stationary inside. The success of the Light Box not only landed ‘Gravity’ both an Academy Award and a BAFTA for visual effects, it was also named as one of Time magazine’s best inventions of 2013, and resulted in creator Webber being awarded the Progress Medal by the Royal Photographic Society in 2014.

In conversation with the QEPrize, Tim spoke of his love of engineering, and the impact it has on his work in film. “It gives you the opportunity to invent”, he said. “You just have to keep reminding people that you wouldn’t have a camera without engineering. You wouldn’t have a pen to tell stories without engineering. You wouldn’t have communication without engineering. It is just a part of everything around us”.

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