Earlier this year, Rhythm & Hues, the visual effects (VFX) studio behind Life of Pi, filed for bankruptcy. The combination of expensive VFX work, delayed or dead contracts due to the ebb and flow of Hollywood business, and the growth of new studios in Canada, India, and China have made things difficult for domestic studios. Other studios, including Asylum Visual Effects, CafeFX, and Illusion Effects, have simply shut their doors.
Some enterprising Hollywood effect houses have found a new hope in a different entertainment sector: video games. Mill Los Angeles worked with director Guy Ritchie to create the live-action trailer for last year's Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Projects like the Black Ops II trailer have allowed The Mill to grow from 30 employees in 2007 to 145 employees in just its Los Angeles office. The Mill also worked on Sony's 'Greatness Awaits' spot for the PlayStation 4.
"It's complex work, which our guys love doing, and it involves big teams over long periods of time," Mill Los Angeles managing director Ben Hampshire told the LA Times. "It's a huge and vibrant part of our business, and it's flourishing as games get more complex."
It's not just trailers either; some VFX studios are lending a hand in creating the in-game cinematics for many of your favorite titles, if your favorite titles are big-budget AAA games. Digital Domain, a studio co-founded by director James Cameron, filed for bankruptcy and was acquired by China's Galloping Horse and India's Reliance MediaWorks for $30 million in September of 2012. Digital Domain worked on the trailers for Ubisoft's Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, Avalanche Studios' Mad Max, and Bungie's Destiny.
"We view this as a big growth sector," said Digital Domain vice president and executive producer of advertising and games Rich Flier. "We've seen a huge increase in the amount of work that we do for the video-games sector. Everyone's trying to crack that nut to see who can build the most realistic faces and have their characters react and emote and look like their human counterparts."
Giant Studios created an hour's worth of content for 343's Halo 4, and previously did performance capture for Avatar and The Adventures of Tintin. The studio's video game work has grown 50 percent over the last few years.
"It has become much more lucrative over the years," added Giant Studios chief executive Candice Alger. "Now they're doing these very elaborate cinematics, which are almost little films."
Even Rhythm & Hues has already bounced back and is looking to video games as an oasis in the shifting desert.
"R&H plans to aggressively expand into the video-game business," said Lee Berger, president of Rhythm & Hues. "It's a new market and it's the type of work that is conducive to what we're already doing: creating full CG environments with animated characters."