Variety has a fascinating profile on the visual effects company Prime Focus World, which threw its lot in with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For in a gamble designed to raise its profile and bring in money. It did not work out that way.
The company begain in Mumbai, founded Namit Malhotra in 1997. As Prime Focus Limited, the company had great success in India, offering the country its first high-end finishing system, first scanning and recording system, first DI (digital intermediate) system, and was the first in India to operate a motion-control rig. As recently as last year, they were being called a "force to reckon with Hollywood."
But as Prime Focus World (PFW) expanded into Los Angeles, Vancouver, and London, things started to go very wrong. PFW started by building infrastructure in Los Angeles just as the recession hit and VFX companies were generally shrinking. The whole industry was volatile. But Malhotra told Variety that it wasn't just timing that hurt them:
"We came to Hollywood, the only place in the world where Prime Focus has made an investment in real estate, making sure that we planted our flag for the long term," Malhotra tells Variety. "And we realized within 18 months of having stepped into Hollywood that this is not where we were supposed to be."
PFW thought that since its prospective clients were in Hollywood, it should have its facilities there. "What we heard from our clients was we only do business if you want to get us the rebate in Canada and the rebate in London," he says.
So, having scaled up in Los Angeles and built infrastructure there, "we had to quickly transition that and go to Canada and London and build brand new facilities and try and just be relevant in the business," Malhotra says. He admits that antagonized vfx artists, who felt PFW wanted to move all jobs to India, or didn't know what it was doing.
It's cachet didn't raise any by making one of its first high-profile jobs a rush conversion on the Clash of the Titans remake. Variety says that VFW may have taken the fall for the film. And if that's true, they were pushed by director Louis Leterrier's statement that it was horrible:
It was famously rushed and famously horrible. It was absolutely horrible, the 3D. Nothing was working, it was just a gimmick to steal money from the audience. I'm a good boy and I rolled with the punches and everything, but it's not my movie.
The 3D was even nominated in a special Razzie category in 2010: Worst Eye-Gouging Mis-Use of 3D. They "lost" to Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Another blow to the company was that it had been hired to do the 3D conversion of the Star Wars re-releases, starting with The Phantom Menace in 2012. But the rest of the project was put on hold when Disney bought Lucasfilm.
Into that situation came Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, which had completed filming in late 2012. For a year after that, the independently-financed film looked for a VFX company who would do the VFX in exchange for being an equity partner. In other words, a company that would do the extensive VFX work the film would need in exchange for a share of the profit.
Only PFW was willing to take that deal, which made Robert Rodriguez uncomfortable, because it meant that PFW wouldn't have a more experienced effects house to base its work on. PFW was worried that the film would eat up too much of its resources as it worked on other projects.
What unfolded was another tight schedule:
PFW started work on the film in September with only an eight-month post schedule and almost 2,300 shots to complete. "It started off in a bumpy ride," PFW co-founder and chief creative director Merzin Tavaria told the audience at a presentation on the film at the Siggraph computer graphics conference in Vancouver, adding that the eight months really turned into five. Most of the principals involved are being discreet about what happened in those first three months, but there are clues: After production had started, PFW hired better artists to work on the film and tapped veteran vfx supervisor Stefen Fangmeier to oversee the project.
... To get the work done, PFW split work between its locations worldwide. Vancouver handled concept art and look development. Mumbai ended up doing almost 1,800 of the 2,282 shots in the film.
Even though Rodriguez and PFW are generally happy with the outcome, the project didn't end up doing much to rescue the struggling effects house. If Sin City: A Dame to Kill For flops, it could be in the same boat as Digital Domain and Rhythm & Hues, two now-bankrupt effects studios that also swapped work for equity.
Also, part of the reason for taking on this project was to raise PFW's profile in the industry. But it picked a project famous for a very stylized look that may not translate to other projects. Finally, PFW merged with London's Double Negative (which is doing the work on Christopher Nolan's Interstellar). PFW is pretty much conceding that the merger is better for their profile than Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, as Malhotra told the LA Times:
"The visual effects component of our business will be transitioned to Double Negative because that's the company that has the brand and is the top-tier player in the visual effects space," Malhotra said. "They have the best practices and talent, and we're saying very clearly, 'That is their specialty and they should run it.'"
After all this, Malhotra says its unlikely to do a deal like this again. And we'll see in August, after the film comes out, if PFW managed to get anything out of this one.