Star Wars creator opens visual effects and animation hub in Singapore

Walt Disney unit formally launches visual effects work centre to create Hollywood blockbusters and bolster marketing efforts in Asia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 16 January, 2014, 11:21pm
UPDATED : Friday, 17 January, 2014, 5:45pm

Star Wars creator Lucasfilm formally expanded its creative universe yesterday by launching its visual effects and animation hub in Singapore, to work on Hollywood blockbusters and bolster marketing efforts in Asia.

"May the Force be with you," Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore's prime minister, said in a speech at the glass-enclosed "Sandcrawler" building, modelled on vehicle from the Star Wars films.

Lucasfilm, bought by Walt Disney in 2012 for more than US$4 billion, opened a small studio in 2005 in another part of Singapore. It has built up the size and skills of the team into a staff of 400.

"This is a very robust operation that is comparable to exactly what we're doing in San Francisco or Vancouver," Kathleen Kennedy, the president of Lucasfilm and a producer of more than 60 films, said before the launch.

"Many of the top-end movies that are being made in the next 18 months to two years, a vast variety of that work will head in this direction."

In Singapore, about 350 artists from 40 countries are now working on a full-length animated feature and films that include Hitman and Transformers 4. More projects would be assigned as Lucasfilm's visual effects unit Industrial Light & Magic headed into its "busiest year ever", Kennedy said, including new instalments of the Star Wars franchise.

George Lucas, the company's founder, who has retired from making big-budget films to focus on smaller features, said colleagues were sceptical when he suggested an expansion into Asia a decade ago.

"Everybody thought I was a little crazy," Lucas said in a speech, recalling how the early days of training local artists and giving the Singapore team basic tasks had evolved into a sophisticated operation and the Sandcrawler building itself.

"This is a symbol of the people of Singapore and computer animation combining with Lucasfilm to create something that is world quality."

The Sandcrawler teems with youthful staff in T-shirts and jeans. Its corridors are adorned with movie posters and memorabilia. Beyond digital studios, the building houses the Jedi Masters Programme that runs six-month courses in the techniques and technology used by Industrial Light & Magic. Of the 182 apprentices trained to date, 125 have been hired as artists.

The Sandcrawler is also the new headquarters for Disney in Southeast Asia and its sports cable network ESPN in Asia.

David Anderman, Lucasfilm's general manager, would not disclose how much had been invested in Singapore but said its location, talent pool, protection of intellectual property and pro-business policies were attractions.

"We have made a significant investment in the growth of the talent, in the growth of training programmes," he said. "George Lucas himself has invested in building this facility as well."

With the seventh Star Wars film now in the works, Kennedy said Southeast Asia was an "interesting and challenging market" because the initial movies were not that widely seen, driving Lucasfilm to "educate an audience as to what has come before".

"We're beginning that process of communication and marketing right now, even though the movie doesn't come out until Christmas of 2015," she said.