SANTA MONICA, CA. — Last week, 11-year-old high-end visual effects house Asylum VFX closed its doors. They were another victim of our economic climate as well as, according to owner Nathan McGuinness, runaway visual effects production.
The reason the facility closed wasn’t for lack of work or lack of creative and talented artists. They were busy up until they turned off the lights on November 17, working on commercials and multiple movies. The burden of trying to finance a privately owned company just became too much.
McGuinness, who ran the shop with his wife, Emma, was kind enough to talk to me about the closure, the independent visual effects world, and how the California government should be doing more to incentivize productions to stay in LA for their visual effects work.
I know this was a very difficult decision. Can you talk about what led up to shutting your doors?
We’ve been around for 11 years, and we’ve created an amazing culture here at Asylum—it was about the people and the quality of work. The reason why we had to shut our doors is we just couldn’t keep up with the money. We are privately owned. It was simply the case of having no financial support, because Emma and I did this on our own. We can’t compete with the corporations any longer.
We also could not compete with the tax incentives and the visual effects companies around the world—the UK market and the Canadians, who do stellar work, plus what little work was still in town. It just got too hard. We’ve always been very good at our business, and we have survived all this time by managing jobs correctly, managing our people, and treating them well. People might argue later on down the track that we paid our people too much, but we honestly felt we did everything you should do as an owner to support your artists.
I kind of blame this a lot on this town. We weren’t protected or given the opportunities to compete with the rest of the world. We weren’t given the incentives for studios to work with us. It was, ‘How come we didn’t have the same playing field as those other companies [not based here]?’
Looking back, do you think you could have done anything differently?
I would never have done anything differently. I shut the doors on Wednesday because there wasn’t an offer out which would allow Asylum to run the way it runs today…all the things that made Asylum a special place. I don’t regret anything. It was a case of not having the working capital to sustain it.
People have asked, ‘Why didn’t you do pay cuts?’ I just wouldn’t do it. I prided myself on putting our people in the position they deserved.”
What would you suggest to others who might currently be in your position and struggling in the same way?
If there are people in my position, I feel sorry for them. We don’t have the adequate support from the government here to try to preserve the community where we can run mid-size effects houses that were really just focused on high-quality work for commercials and motion pictures.
I would tell them to do what I did. I hung in there. I fought for everything I could. I tried to maintain integrity. I didn’t sell out to the corporations because they would have rolled us into their system and we would have lost the culture and artistic forefront of what we were trying to do. I would say to others in our position to keep fighting if you want to maintain a level of control in your own business and control your own destiny; you have options and that is to find investors.
That must be very difficult currently.
Not a lot of people want to invest in visual effects because there isn’t a big profit margin in visual effects these days. We do it for the glory, for the laughs, for the dreams of being in this community.
What effect do you think this is going to have on the VFX community in general if companies like yours cannot survive any longer?
I don‘t know. We were always one of those companies that just went about servicing clients and doing great visual effects. We were never out to compete or hurt anybody; we were just going about our business the doing the best we could. I am sad there isn’t a place where people can come to a private facility. A place where directors can just walk in and talk to the artists directly and everybody has a feeling that they have a strong part of this.
Maybe we are just old-fashioned and maybe we are the last of its kind—just a nuts-and-bolts creative facility that put the jobs and creativity first. I hope there are people out there today with a lot more power than I have who can sit up and take a look at what’s going on in town. We should help out the facilities, particularly the ones who are trying to maintain some type of individuality and who aren’t run and managed by corporate structures out there.
What’s next? Too soon to even think about it?
All I have done is worried about trying to get through this and trying to preserve the staff. For me, I am a visionary and a dreamer, and I love film, and I love visual effects. I was an artist and visionary trying to run a business at the same time purely because I wanted it to stay as an artist-driven company. Are there other opportunities out there later on? I don’t know. I think what I’ve done is special, and how I ran this company is special. I think there is room for special companies like ours.
I just hope the government comes out and gives us a fighting chance. For me, I need to focus on my dreams, and that is to be a visual effects supervisor on films, to direct and maybe one day to do this again...and do it probably no differently than I’ve done it today. I don’t feel like I’ve done anything wrong. I just feel like I didn’t have the backing.
Everybody has loved what we have done, and nobody has walked away from me. Is there another resurrection of a company like this? I hope so. I hope somebody else tries to do what I’ve done. We need to have an independent high-end visual effects world out there. A place where artists have a say and people like us can create a comfortable culture and working environment for others.