Sir William Sargent, Framestore: The CEO who made British movies magical

Boardroom briefing: The founder of the world's first digital visual effects company on Brexit, #metoo and moonlighting as a senior civil servant.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 17 Apr 2018

Rewind to the late 20th century. The British film industry was brimming with talent – actors, directors, camera operators, sound technicians, you name it. Yet it remained a commercial backwater.

In a good year, there’d be a handful of major Hollywood pictures (think Chariots of Fire or Four Weddings and a Funeral) produced on these shores; in a bad year, there’d be none. Lacking steady work, the UK’s considerable creative talent either fled to Hollywood, or found seasonal jobs in TV and adverts.

Then something magical happened. Or rather, someone.

‘Harry Potter,’ explains Sir William Sargent, ‘was the final piece of the jigsaw. It meant we could prove ourselves as a community. Now every year maybe 20 major Hollywood films get made in the UK.’

Sargent has a good view on such things. He’s the CEO of Framestore, the visual effects company that he co-founded in 1986, and which put the visual magic into JK Rowling and Chris Columbus’s 2001 blockbuster, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

It’s now one of the world’s largest computer graphics (CG) businesses and a visible champion of Britain’s creative industries, employing 2,500 staff globally (1,100 in London) and turning over £129m. It recently won its third Oscar for Blade Runner 2049.

A world first

The company was born 32 years ago when Sargent and a group of friends sat down over dinner to thrash out the idea of using computers to power visual effects in TV and film, something he claims had never been done before (visual effects combine the digital and real world; purely CG effects had been around a while - think Star Wars).

‘We never set out to be first,’ says Sargent, a softly, swiftly spoken Irishman who spent much of his childhood in Rio.

‘The right reason to start a business is that you can deliver something that benefits people, as opposed to "I want to make a load of money" – 95% of those businesses will go bust. We felt we could use a computer to do animation work, but the places my friends and colleagues worked couldn’t see that.’

So the group pressed ahead – despite having neither a technical background in computing nor any real funds to draw on.

‘We borrowed an amount of money we couldn’t afford to repay. It’s one of those classic scenarios where it had to work,’ says Sargent. ‘If you knew how hard to was going to be, you’d never start a business.’

Early successes, including the MTV-perfect music video for A-Ha’s Take on Me, soon convinced others to follow suit. But for years, Framestore and the others existed only in the realm of TV and commercials. It wasn’t until 1994 that the company first cracked the film market.

‘We knew we were going to do film when we set up in ’86, but the price of processors and storage was too expensive then. You need 16 times more data for a single frame of film. But we knew that Moore’s Law meant we’d arrive in the early 90s at the point where we could do for film what we’d been doing for TV.’

Unusually, around the time that business was really picking up in the noughties, Sargent took on another job as a permanent private secretary in the civil service, first as chairman of the Small Business Council under Tony Blair, and later under Gordon Brown as the chief of the Better Regulation Executive (the ‘red tape tsar’).

Dobby - brought to life by Framestore

‘I would do Harry Potter in the morning and the Cabinet Office in the afternoon,’ Sargent laughs. ‘I’ve always done two things in my life at the same time, that’s what keeps you intellectually curious. But the fact that I was allowed to do it was astonishing.’

The first thing he says he learned from the ten-year experience was how bright and motivated the civil servants themselves are. The second was that the public sector’s much more difficult than many business people think.

‘Most people going from the private sector to the public sector fail, because they go in with the assumption that they’re both the same, that you can do command and control like in a business. But you have to win hearts and minds,’ Sargent says. ‘I learned how to listen – as a CEO you’re often used to listening to the sound of your own voice.’

The Brexit spectre

As part of his penchant for renewal, Sargent seeks new investment for Framestore every ten years or so. The most recent was from the Chinese firm Cultural Investment Holdings, a partner he selected to help the company in the burgeoning Asian film and TV market.

(There are, as he points out, a billion potential end-users for his product in America and Europe combined; the population between Mumbai and Beijing is four billion and they’re rapidly developing. Do the maths.)

While the growth of the international market makes this a good time for both Framestore (revenues rose 21% in the year to March 2017) and the wider British film sector, Brexit still clouds the horizon.

‘We’ve got 52 nationalities in London, someone from every member state of the EU. By lunchtime on the day after the referendum, 20 or 30 people had come to my office over the course of the day, and they were really psychologically disrupted. They felt rejected.’

While that hasn’t caused an exodus of talented workers yet, Sargent is concerned that tough visa conditions could put people off coming here in the first place.

‘At the moment graduates from Stockholm can come here and get a job. If they had to have two years experience first, for example, then the juniors are no longer available to me – and they’re the lifeblood of what I do.

‘London has the highest quality creative industries in the world. It’s one of the UK’s biggest success stories of the last 20 years. If you want to be in a world class sector, you come to London. Take that away and you’re dependent on British talent only, and suddenly the competitiveness goes out the window.’

#Metoo

Brexit isn’t all that’s exercising the showbiz c-suite. The sector’s still convulsing from the Time’s Up and #metoo backlash against ingrained male chauvinism and harassment. Sargent says it’s about time, but acknowledges the difficulty of bringing about equality in an historically uneven industry.

His own direct reports are 50:50, but on the floor it’s nearer 20-25% women. While that’s double what it was five years ago, there’s clearly still a way to go.

Much of it comes back to a lack of girls choosing STEM subjects at university, and perceptions of both films and tech being male-dominated. But there are things you can do, says Sargent.

‘We have yet to have a female supervisor who fronts a film. When I look around the industry, I know of only one woman in that position. My brief with my colleagues this year was, I don’t care what it takes guys, I need to send one woman on set, fronting a show.

‘If we haven’t got a woman at that level – and the last thing you want to do is put someone in a position to fail because they haven’t got the experience – then what are the steps we can take to support the women in leadership positions two steps below? It’s being conscious of the barriers. I don’t know the answer but I’m trying to figure it out.’

Companies that don’t try and address wider social problems, or that hide behind them, will eventually pay the price, Sargent argues, pointing also to the tech giants’ tax travails. ‘There are four stakeholders in a business – the creditors, the shareholders, the employees and now I add society to that list. If you run the company for the company’s benefit, those four groups will be looked after. If you distort it towards any one of them, at some point you’ll be in trouble.

‘It’s coming home to roost in 2018. It won’t happen overnight, but people will either come round or they’ll be brought around, and the mood of society at the moment is to bring them around.’ 

Images: Framestore

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