I was genuinely lost for words when a junior brand manager at a recent industry event suddenly asked me: "So how do you account for your outrageously high prices?"
I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was. Constantly wrangling diminishing budgets for creatively challenging projects that still demand some of the best VFX in the world; constantly ensuring our technology is one step ahead of the competition; constantly keeping our brilliant artists and technicians stimulated, remunerated and amused - it can take it out of a girl, I can tell you. But to the unenlightened - it might just look like money for old rope.
So, is anyone making a killing in post? A lengthening roll call of names that have disappeared or been swallowed (Condor London, VTR, One Post - in just the past year or so) suggests it's not as easy as it might look. But several agencies' recent opening of in-house mini-studios suggests there is a feeling costs can be shaved without taking some of the post work to specialist facilities.
So why does it cost what it costs? Where does the money go? And why come to us when there's a man in your ad agency with a copy of Filemaker Pro and a couple of Macs?
Much of our advertising work can be divided into two types. On the one hand, we have our creatively and technically challenging scripts, featuring never-before-seen VFX; on the other, the creation of multiple versions, point-of-sale commercials and adapts of international campaigns for distribution across the world, conforming to relevant transmission standards.
"We want to show the evolution of life on Earth in 60 seconds," you learn in the meeting, "backwards." So you come up with a budget (which you worry is too small) and a schedule (ditto too short) and you get to work. But you are creating images that exist purely in the minds of the director, the creatives and the client - essentially shooting rushes inside the computer.
And if the rushes don't look the way their collective imagination expects, you have to change them. But to do this on schedule and to the high standards expected, you need to throw five more staff and more computing power at the problem. But there's no extra money because it's not a change: it's just not quite what they were expecting.
Today's CG and Flame artists find themselves in a global sellers' market - one in which every company, from Sydney to LA, is on a permanent, aggressive recruitment drive. And our competition isn't just the world of commercials; it encompasses those of film and, increasingly, games.
So, wages for good people can be high. What this means for our clients, though, is a workforce that is highly skilled, motivated and actively looking for creative challenges. The staff at Framestore CFC are passionate about what they do; they want to be the best, and they care about doing it right. Our approach means we fit the work we get to the appropriate team, rather than having a one-size-fits-all squad that will do its best to adapt.
For example, a £250,000 budget, spread over three months' post with an initial team of ten, which ends up as 15 to accommodate all the relevant versions, might result in a final daily yield of £300 per day per person. Throw in a 1200 processor render farm, 24/7 engineering systems support, and top-class producers managing the process, and you can see there is very little slack.
The second branch of advertising we undertake is more technically straightforward, and requires efficiency and reliability in the creation of multiple adapts. They are frequently time-sensitive, point-of-sale campaigns. Fair enough, that's what we're being paid for. But these can often go to the wire as far as client approval is concerned.
A not-uncommon scenario might find the final spots receiving approval at 5pm. By 7pm, we have made adaptations and TX copies or digital encodes for multiple territories. Banks of tape machines at £20,000 a pop, and a staff of seven or eight highly trained operators checking back for errors, will ensure the transmission copies will be ready to hit deliveries all over Europe at 9am the following morning.
We do our best to make it look as smooth as a gliding swan, while we're paddling away frantically underneath. At the client end, our library system tracks and logs all the tapes and versions. It's often quicker to retrieve a tape from a Soho post house than from the in-house set-ups of some agencies.
One element that unites both these aspects of our work is kit. High-definition tape is becoming the norm, and the necessary machines cost £60,000 a time. We are developing infrastructures for storage and swift retrieval of high-definition pictures. This year - as usual - Framestore CFC's investment in kit for its commercials division will be well into seven figures.
We are, of course, seeking ways of reducing our costs, and technology is helping us here. For example, we can now offer clients the benefits of streaming, whereby they can log in remotely and see the work as it progresses.
Another possible route to savings is via the outsourcing of heavy-duty VFX legwork to Asian countries. This is becoming ever more practicable, and need not compromise quality - just look at The Simpsons.
What we mustn't lose, though, is the UK's reputation for excellence. It's not just our TV that's the envy of the world; it's our TV commercials, too. A wealth of experience, a culture of excellence and a tradition of creativity inform the work of UK post houses. We should recognise the value they bring to UK advertising, and preserve it. Punitive cheese-paring and in-house bish-boshery seem to me a rather strange way of going about that.