The Insider's Guide to Production: Post-Production - Post pioneers

The fluid nature of the job market means talented post-production people can progress to the top very quickly, pushing the boundaries as they go.

Bloody Martians. Bloody opinion polls, too. Twenty years after the digital dawn, in a new golden age when anything a creative imagines can be photo-realistically created in the blink of an Inferno artist's eye, what does the Great British public vote as its favourite TV spot? A bunch of string puppets that look like they were knocked up in 20 minutes by a Blue Peter presenter.

The fact that the Smash Martians bumped Guinness "surfer" - which Framestore CFC posted - off the top spot rubbed salt into the wound.

One of my favourite movie scenes takes place in Shakespeare in Love.

Jim Carter is the bar steward cast as the nurse in the first production of Romeo and Juliet. When someone in the tavern asks him what the play is about, he confidently starts to explain: "Well, there's this nurse ..." Not only is this a brilliant dig at the acting profession, but it is also a piercing comment on the tendency we all have to regard ourselves as the centre of the universe.

Looking back at 20 years of technological advance, it strikes you that the spots that are remembered by people in the industry are not always the ones the public loves most. And vice versa. So while I look back fondly on dancing milk bottles, Joe Public stays faithful to the PG chimps.

It is also worth remembering just how young the digital visual effects - or VFX - industry is. Some of the people consulted for this piece are grizzled veterans who have been there from the start. People well into their forties. It is an industry that has grown and changed very rapidly. Careers have been fast-tracked - one day you are an operator, the next a supervisor, a couple of weeks later you're scouting locations for your first feature. Pioneers don't tread water.

There are many examples. Linda Johnson, an early pioneer in computer graphics, brilliantly animated the milk bottles that danced after the milkman in 1994's "daybreak". More recently, she could be found putting Orcs on the big screen for Weta Digital.

Then there is Ian Pearson, who worked on commercials and created legendary music promos such as Dire Straits' Money for Nothing, before forming his own production company in Vancouver and producing the world's first entirely computer-generated children's TV shows.

In 1993, Mike Milne and Tim Webber helped Framestore CFC create one of the first ever commercials featuring the "morph" effect, Andersen Consulting's "snog" spot. Milne went on to oversee the computer graphics for the BBC's Walking With Dinosaurs, while Webber recently headed the team that delivered a ten-minute underwater sequence of astonishing technical complexity and virtuosity for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

None of these career paths is exceptional and the job market in film and commercials remains an extremely fluid one. Talented people move from facility to facility, city to city and country to country, switching happily from commercials to TV to film, constantly innovating and all the while climbing.

Many of today's best spots are hatched by techno-literate creatives and directors, who understand the new technology and bend it to their purpose.

When Daniel Kleinman or Dom & Nic get together with our VFX supervisors and 3D teams, you can expect some real digital magic - such as Guinness' "noitulove", Renault's "Hector's life" and Johnnie Walker's "fish" - because the directors trust us and are not afraid to push it.

They are not in thrall to the effects, either, cheerfully tossing aside anything that is not serving the whole.

The best creatives, directors and post- artists are true pioneers because they become so consumed by the dream, the destination, that how they can get there becomes almost incidental - at least until delivery looms.

Some of the pioneers of digital VFX were not human. Underpinning it all is the power and affordability of the microchip. It is surely one of the wonders of our age that computing power, which would once have filled several floors with whirring machinery, can now be accommodated in a matchbox.

Terabytes of storage; Spirit; Flame; Inferno; tracking software; motion capture; virtual crowds of little men so realistic that some of them choose to run away when thrown into battle ... Given everything we have achieved in the past 20 years, who can say what constitutes "impossible" these days?

That said, let's not forget that most kit is merely youthful scrap metal.

For every winner, there are 100 Bosch FGSs. The Money for Nothing promo was created in 1985 on a Bosch FGS - a piece of kit that cost about £400,000 (perhaps £1.5 million in today's money), looked like a spaceship control panel, animated in real-time and became redundant around the same time the song left the charts.

Accomplished VFX can make a good ad better, but can't make a bad one good. The best commercials are born in the minds of the creatives. A few well-chosen words or simple, unmediated images are often the starting points. A good director will make it look great or tell the story memorably.

Great post-production can give it some depth, zip, a digital lift - but it needs to be good to begin with.

The best of the work has a richness and artistry that was once unimaginable.

When Jonathan Glazer and the Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO creatives came up with "surfer", a Delacroix painting provided the inspiration - but it was digital technology that made it possible.

- Helen Stanley is the director, commercials production at Framestore CFC.

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