Cinesite turns 30: a look back at the VFX studio’s history

Cineon, digital workflows, visual effects highlights and animated beginnings.

When I was first getting into visual effects journalism—in the early 2000s—the main pieces of compositing software were Shake, Nuke and Flame. But in many interviews I did around that time, the name ‘Cineon’ kept coming up. It was, of course, the Cineon digital film system from Kodak and Cinesite made up of a film scanner, film recorder and workstation hardware with software (the Cineon file format) that helped usher in a wave of digital workflows, and remained highly influential for decades in digital compositing.

Cinesite began in Hollywood in 1991, with a London office opening 1994. Back then, and until 2012, it was a subsidiary of Kodak. Now it is an independent studio, currently celebrating 30 years in the industry. And if you haven’t caught up with Cinesite in recent times, the studio now has locations in London, Montreal and Vancouver, and includes the VFX brands Image Engine and TRIXTER.

Cineon is just one of the landmarks in Cinesite’s three-decade history; others include its key role in the history of digital intermediate workflows (O Brother, Where Art Thou?), the advent of its models and miniatures shop (Harry Potter 3 and V for Vendetta), a swathe of killer VFX scenes (all the way from Space Jam to many Marvel films and now No Time To Die) and, most recently, its leap into animation (The Addams Family).

A Genesis film scanner.

A first-hand memory of working at and with Cinesite

Visual effects supervisor Matt Johnson (Mary Poppins Returns) was one of Cinesite London’s early employees. He started at the newly-formed UK office as a runner, then moved up to data operator. “In those days machines were all local and no one could render off a network,” Johnson recalled for befores & afters.

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“So, everything was incredibly slow. My job was to come in the evenings about five o’clock and basically have to spend the night babysitting these computers. I’d watch the animating onscreen charts and graphs showing the shot’s were being rendered. Then I had to write the data onto metrum tapes and then take them down to the film recording system and then they’d scan it out and send it off to the night bath back in Soho Images.”

VFX supervisor Matt Johnson.

Johnson says he essentially self-taught himself to composite with Cineon software, before becoming a compositing supervisor and a visual effects supervisor. In fact, Johnson’s first VFX supervision role at Cinesite, the 1999 mini-series Cleopatra, also earned him his first Emmy—“I took a week’s worth of clothes on location to Morocco and ended up staying three months!”

Johnson praises the Cinesite crew-members he has worked with over the years, and the visual effects they have produced. One of his most fond memories is supervising the studio’s VFX for World War Z.

“In the film, Brad Pitt’s character runs to the top of a housing project as the zombies climb up to the roof and a helicopter comes to his rescue. To shoot that we had a partial set in a green box, and computers created the environment from buildings photographed in New York and backgrounds shot in New Jersey and Philadelphia. I spent many months in Malta and in Glasgow, and I think that this rescue scene of the film is the one i’m most proud of.”

“The only people who went to Philadelphia on that entire film were myself and a visual effects photographer,” adds Johnson. “When the DP came in for additional photography he wanted to know where we shot that scene. We had to say none of it was real; it was all CG. He was convinced it was a real location.”

Across the VFX and animation spectrum

In 2014, Cinesite launched head-first into the animation landscape, working both as a ‘services’ studio on several films such as The Addams Family, which has now also spawned a sequel, while also developing films like Riverdance: The Animated Adventure with production company Aniventure. Upcoming releases also include Blazing Samurai directed by Rob Minkoff, Berkeley Breathed’s Hitpig and the 6-part animated series Iwájú for Disney Animation and Kugali.

For Cinesite, this new era which now incorporates animation has been a challenging one. Warren Franklin, who is executive producing a slate of animated feature films with Cinesite Montreal and Vancouver, and who worked at Cinesite back on the original Space Jam from 1996, reflected to befores & afters on the current state of play in the industry and at Cinesite. (You can re-visit some of Cinesite’s early VFX work on 1996’s Space Jam, which saw the studio innovate in areas such as matchmoving and camera tracking, virtual sets and digital compositing, in their blog post).

“Cinesite was set up by Kodak to provide digital tools to filmmakers to serve their vision. Space Jam allowed Warner Bros. animation to bring their characters to life in a way that had never been possible before. Cinesite continues that legacy today, working with the latest digital technology and top directors around the world. The biggest change is the scale of our operation and our ever-growing capabilities to make all types of content for films and television.”

Warren Franklin, Cinesite executive producer.

“The biggest challenge,” adds Franklin, “has been finding the right talent and developing a creative studio environment to retain them. I think we have been very successful doing this in our multiple locations around the world.”

2 Replies to “Cinesite turns 30: a look back at the VFX studio’s history

  1. I remember working on a Cineon file format reader/writer back for Elastic Reality in early 1993, and being blown away by the image quality of the test images. I still use the classic “Marcie” image in a lot of algorithm testing.

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