Question: What does the title sequence of the latest James Bond movie, Goldeneye, have in common with the whole of the recent production of Gulliver's Travels, and advertisements such as Yellow Pages' 'Thank you for the days', the Central Office of Information's Modern Apprenticeships, the Halifax Building Society vote and Sony playstations? Answer: the post-production and special effects on them all was done at Framestore, one of London's leading film and video facility houses and the first non-US company to win a Visual Special Effects Emmy (for Gulliver's Travels). To work in special effects takes not only good visual sense, but lots of computers and lots of networks. Which is why I found myself sitting in Soho, the heart of 'filmland' in London, talking to Jon Ferguy, an engineer at Framestore, finding out what they do, and how they do it.
Ferguy, a physics graduate from Southampton, has worked in various facility houses in London, and has been at Framestore since July 1996. He explained that Framestore is mainly composed of creative artists and producers, but, for the company to work, technical engineers are essential. The artists need to have 'cutting edge' equipment so that they can produce the effects wanted by the client, while the engineers need to understand the technology that the artists manipulate. Ferguy has a brief to cover a range of areas, including equipment maintenance, installations, programming, intranet development and technology training, to name but a few.
A great deal of his time is spent troubleshooting. Sometimes solutions can simply be a ten minute explanation, or the mere flicking of a switch. At other times he might have to write a program to solve a problem. He is involved with ordering new equipment, organising equipment demonstrations, and occasionally even dismantling a machine, fault-finding and replacing components. "Play-outs, too" he remarks. "They take up another large chunk of time."
Play-outs? Ferguy explains for me, starting at the beginning. Although it provides post-production work, Framestore is involved in films at an early stage, and sometimes has its artists on the set itself, ensuring that everything is technically correct and lending post-production expertise to the director. A set of prints known as 'rushes' is processed directly after shooting for review by the director. When the rushes come into Framestore they are transferred onto digital video if they are on film. Then all the clever stuff is done to them using various dedicated, single-function computers (one of the most powerful is a special effects machine called Henry, which works at TV resolution). All of the effects are brought together and various technical specification checks ('tech specs') are made. These ensure that the video adheres to all of the appropriate standards governing colour, sound, image sharpness and other elements of the digital video quality.
Once it passes all of the tech specs, a film is ready to go. If it is an advertisement, a copy will need to go to every commercial television company, as they all play adverts at different times. Dubs (physical copies) can be sent out by courier, or play-outs can be done. For play-outs, the advert, in the form of digital video, is played down a dedicated fibre optic line to the BT Tower. The signal then goes to London News Network (LNN) and from there to the national network of dedicated lines which link all TV companies in the country. The TV companies set their equipment to record the incoming signals. Play-outs have even been done to the US, using satellite links, and can cost up to five pounds per second. Ferguy admits that they can be nerve-racking - especially at that sort of cost - as several operations need to work absolutely perfectly and with precise timing for a transatlantic play-out to be successful.
Could university film-makers use SuperJANET in a similar way to transmit their work? Bandwidth would be the problem at present . Ferguy stresses that the lines which Framestore uses for play-outs are not what most of us use when we send data down a line. For TV the standard for serial digital video is roughly one megabyte per frame, making 25 megabytes per second. For film, the amount of data required each second is much higher - more than fifteen times that of video. To cope with this, the facility houses have set up their own Metropolitan Area Network (MAN), Sohonet , a dedicated high speed network which runs at 155 megabits per second. The video and broadcasting industries have been at the cutting edge of technology for a long time. Indeed, they are used as test beds by manufacturers - digital video recorders, for example, which are only now reaching the domestic market, have been used at Framestore for the past decade.
So, what is Ferguy's vision of the industry five years down the line? At present Framestore, like most facility houses, has a library of tapes from which items can be borrowed. With ever-increasing network capabilities it is likely that in the future these libraries and their contents will be accessible remotely. Ferguy also believes that PCs will soon be able to be used for high-end applications such as special effects, morphing, 3D animation and editing. "But it will always be the skills of the artists and operators, rather than the power of machines and networks, which creates a good effects sequence."
Whatever the technical change, Framestore is determined to stay at the forefront. Emmies can be addictive.