Want Blockbuster FX? Head to New Zealand

Want Blockbuster FX? Head to New Zealand
When Warner Bros contemplated moving production of Lord of the Rings
two-film prequel The Hobbit out of New Zealand, owing to a protracted
dispute with trade union Actors Equity, Prime Minister John Key intervened
personally. At stake was the country’s long connection with the Rings
franchise — an association that has been a great boon for in-bound tourism — and
the 2500 jobs that the estimated $490 million production of The Hobbit would
create. There was thus relief in Wellington when filming finally began last
month, with actors and Warner Bros mollified by labor law reform and tax
breaks respectively. Hamstrung by the cost of two major earthquakes
, New Zealand needs all the investment that its
movie industry can bring.

The country’s famously scenic locations are a big draw for Hollywood
filmmakers — but they’re not the only one. New Zealand’s Large Budget Screen
Production Grant offers a 15% rebate on production expenditure. The
producers of Avatar, large portions of which were filmed in Wellington’s
Stone Street Studios, received $32 million from the grant . Since the scheme began
in 2003, overseas productions have reportedly spent $1.42 billion in New
Zealand, and received $189.4 million in grants. The absence of fringe taxes
that would be incurred in the U.S. — such as imposts on employee benefits,
payroll and other levies — also helps reduce overall postproduction cost.

Then there’s New Zealand’s innovative visual effects industry, which,
though less than a decade old is now becoming a major player, contributing
around $180 million in film revenues in 2006-07 alone, according to a
Department of Statistics survey. Companies like Wellington’s Weta
Digital, which garnered three Oscars for its work on Avatar, and which will
be working on both Hobbit movies, are winning international plaudits for
their work in special effects, art direction and cinematography. “There
seems to be a unique creative sensibility here in New Zealand, in both the
artistic and technical sense, and Weta Digital certainly sets that
standard,” says Gisella Carr, Film New Zealand’s chief executive.

The Rings franchise has been a huge impetus to the development of the local
VFX industry, according to Mike Horgan, general manager of Digipost, the
first digital postproduction company in New Zealand when it was established
in 1990. “The world has always had one-eye on the New Zealand film industry,
through projects such as Xena, Hercules and more recently Spartacus, but
[Rings director] Sir Peter Jackson has certainly played a huge part in
placing the industry on the map,” he says.

As well as Weta, companies like Park Road Post Production will benefit from
Jackson’s business. The Wellington-based outfit is a one-stop shop, offering
a sound department, digital conversion facilities and film processing
laboratories. “The Hobbit has just started production at the studios here,”
says Vicki Jackways, Park Road’s head of marketing.

Although there is some international hiring, this technology intensive
industry is mainly driven by local talent. “The majority of our artists are
from New Zealand and are very experienced and highly qualified to deliver at
high international standards,” says Cris Casares, a VFX producer for
production house Images and Sound. Horgan agrees: “There are a number of
very good training institutions operating here which help to nurture and
develop young creative minds,” he says. Hopefully, the recent accord struck
between Warner Bros, Actors Equity and the government will form a framework
that will help keep this fledgling industry on track.

See “The Hobbit Goes Hollywood.”

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