Canadians Abroad: François Lambert on Montreal’s changing visual effects landscape

It used to be that if you wanted to work on big budget movies, whether you wanted to be an actor, a screenwriter, or a visual effects artist, you had to strike out on your own and move away from home, usually to California.

In 2003 François Lambert did just that, leaving Montreal for an opportunity at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), George Lucas’s groundbreaking studio in San Francisco. What started off as a five month contract turned into a successful 14 year run in the States. But Lambert decided to return to Montreal last year to head Hybride’s new production studio. And what he found was a changed landscape, with a thriving visual effects ecosystem and the opportunity to work on projects higher in quality and bigger in scale.

“Last April I got an offer to come back to Hybride at their new studio in Montreal. They opened a second studio and I’m now the head of production.”

The funny part of this is that last year Hybride made a partnership deal with Industrial Light & Magic, my previous company. So I left working on Star Wars movies, and came here to do more Star Wars movies, but through the vendor now. In the past years at Industrial Light & Magic I was overseeing some of the projects from there and also dealing with vendors around the globe, and now I’m one of the vendors. Now I’ve just switched to the other side of the phone.

Lambert actually started his career in visual effects at Hybride as well.

“I studied in editing for television, but quickly drifted towards visual effects, which I did for a company here in Montreal called Hybride. I worked for that company for seven to eight years, until I got an offer from Industrial Light & Magic in California in 2003. While I was there my position started as a digital compositor on visual effects for the movie industry, and eventually I became a sequence supervisor, and then a compositing supervisor, working on all the compositing aspect of entire projects.”

At ILM, he had the opportunity to work on some of the biggest films in Hollywood.

“While I was there I worked on the Star Wars films. We also did movies for other studios. So I worked on some of the Harry Potters, Pirates of the Caribbean, lots of Marvel movies, most big franchises really.”

There simply wasn’t the opportunity to work on those types of projects in Montreal when he left in 2003.

“Back then, as far as visual effects, there was mostly local projects. Not as many high profile projects like we have now. So the ecosystem was fairly new, it was a new business. Visual effect work  has evolved quite a lot since I started back in 1994. Part of the reason I got hired back then was because I was in the right place at the right time.”

Since then, numerous major studios have opened shop in Montreal and the city has built a reputation in the visual effects industry. Outside of Canada, Montrealers began to be known for their resourcefulness and technical creativity.

“The perception as far as artists coming from Montreal is that most people are multitalented. There’s this know-how here of people being able to do multiple aspects of a job or being very creative, even in technical challenges. That’s the reputation we have in the States, being able to do a variety of things to find solutions. The work in some of the major areas, if you go to Weta in New Zealand or ILM in San Francisco, it’s a bit more segmented. People tend to work on one specific aspect and be pigeonholed into specific jobs. I’m not sure if our know-how is coming from the schools, or that sometimes companies are just small enough that people can wear multiple hats. But there’s also the will. The artists have this will to learn new things, and that shows.”

Upon returning to Montreal this past year, Lambert found a much bigger ecosystem and an infrastructure that had sprung up to support it.

“Since I came back here the growth of the industry has been dramatic, and the quality of the projects as well. The interesting part as far as visual effects is concerned is that it’s gotten a little bit more streamlined. Now there’s more of an industry. There’s schools that teach the different jobs in visual effects. The quality of the artists has grown because of the school system that now teaches, and then the infrastructure of companies also allows for junior artists to be brought in to learn through a more sophisticated pipeline. Now there’s an infrastructure behind the artistry that helps junior artists evolve and get better.”

Partly I would say that it started with the tax credit, but it’s also because of the quality of the employees, the quality of the art. The tax credit will bring the work, but it’s the quality of the artists that will keep it here.

So would Lambert have left Montreal if 2003’s ecosystem looked like it does now?

“It’s a two part answer. There’s always the adventure part of going and living abroad and also, going to work for Industrial Light & Magic, which is like the mecca of visual effects. The company has been there for 40 years. And it started with the first Star Wars, so there’s this mythical part that as I was growing up, I was drawn to work there. So on a personal level, I would probably still do it. But on a work level, the quality of the projects in Montreal have nothing to be ashamed of versus the quality of the work done in other parts of the world now. Let’s say you’re an artist and you want to work on the biggest movies that win Oscars. It used to be that you would have to go to different places. You would have to move to London, or New Zealand or California. And now most of these projects have set foot in Montreal because of the companies that opened studios in the city. So you can stay in Montreal and still get to work on amazing projects. You don’t have to go abroad to do that anymore.”

And while he wasn’t able to disclose any secrets about the next Star Wars, he did receive some exciting news on a personal level recently.

“Before I left the States I received an invitation to become a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. On a personal level, it’s very cool to have been recognized by the Academy. It’s based on sponsorship, so I got sponsored by two members and got to be invited to be a member. So I look forward to being able to vote on the next Oscars.”

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