PRODUCTION REPORT: Post under pressure

Tighter budgets and higher expectations are challenging post-production houses across the world.

Alligators wreaking havoc on the streets of New York; a futuristic world in which everyone has the same face; giant fish gliding alongside cars - they're some of this year's most memorable ads, largely thanks to the hard work of post-production companies that slave for weeks to work their magic on directors' cuts.

THE UNITED KINGDOM

The UK post-production industry has held its ground this year, against a backdrop of massive upheaval in the agency world. The Moving Picture Company's chief executive, David Jeffers, claims diversity is the way forward for the best post-production companies in the UK, and MPC's decision to open a unit dedicated to features shows it is serious about widening its remit beyond its core commercials business.

"Features work gives us great visibility, but it is, after all, the commercials work that enables us to develop new techniques," he says. The company's profile has been boosted on the back of films including Tomb Raider and the forthcoming Harry Potter film.

But its work on "face of the future", Mother's launch ad for Siemens' new phone brand, Xelibri, is the kind of project that heartens Jeffers.

"Not only is it great to have such a large task to work on - it took three months - it's brilliant that agencies are continuing, despite the hard times, to come up with the great scripts, and that directors are making the ads," he says.

MPC's UK rival Framestore CFC has enjoyed a high profile this year, partly a result of its 2003 Bafta-winning work on BBC's The Giant Claw, a Walking with Dinosaurs spin-off, which enhances its status outside its core commercials business.

Its chief executive, Jon Collins, said the company had invested heavily in the kind of technology that will enable the company to work more on features. "It's never been more lucrative to work on features than it is now," he says. For the first time ever, features work pays more than advertising and has the added advantage of attracting the best talent who will work across both industries.

Hence, Framestore has produced strong CGI work of late including Audi's "bull" and "fish" ads. "Dog breath" for Wrigley's, in which a foul dog emerges from a man's mouth, was brilliantly done, even if it was subsequently banned.

All agree, though, that while the creative opportunities of 2003 have so far been excellent and the level of investment in new technologies has been maintained, the climate has forced rates down as companies vie for business with agencies with reduced budgets.

"There is much more undercutting going on now. But when we say 'no' to a job, I'm always amazed when someone else takes it on, as I can't see how it is physically possible to complete for that amount of money," one industry source says.

Collins, meanwhile, claims: "We get calls asking for lower rates; during better times, these projects would normally go to smaller competitors, but now the bigger players are prepared to do the same good-quality work for less."

This in turn has a knock-on effect on those smaller companies, according to The Mill's chief executive, Robin Shenfield. "There is a gap that has opened up between the biggest and smallest companies. Some might see this as a positive - many are trading off their specialisms, such as CGI, features or promos - but however you look at it, what it means is that smaller companies are finding it difficult to grow in these conditions."

He cites Glassworks as a good example of a post-production house that has built up a particular style - in this case CGI - which it uses with great effect in its ad for Hewlett Packard through Goodby Silverstein & Partners.

The Mill is one player that has chosen to stick with its core commercials business. Shenfield claims that now is the time to specialise. "When we opened in 1990 everyone thought we were bonkers to focus on ads, but we never set out to be a jack of all trades," he says.

SCANDINAVIA

"People might leave the region to work in London or LA, but they soon come home to roost," Pasi Johaanssen, a partner in the Stockholm-based Sto.pp, says.

A former Inferno compositor at The Mill, Johannssen spent four years in London before heading back to his native Sweden to run Sto.pp, and claims that the prominence of domestic directing teams such as Traktor adds to the momentum of post-production in the region.

He says that Scandinavia is a growing market for agencies and production companies in the UK and US who want to cut costs but achieve the same levels of creativity.

Sto.pp competes mainly with The Chimney Pot, a post-production company with offices in Oslo and Stockholm as well as Warsaw in Poland, Syndicate and Moland Film Company.

And while the global recession has meant that they have benefited by being able to offer competitive prices, it has also prevented any real growth, according to Johaanssen. "We've been unable to expand in the way we would have liked," he says. "It means we can never relax, too."

Chimney Pot's managing director, Karl Wessblad, says: "There is a recession, and we're not doing as much as normal. Although some are taking advantage of the fact we can do the same work here, there are of course agencies and production companies who want to stick with those they know."

In spite of this, both companies have invested in technology; Sto.pp has recently splashed out £1 million on its first telecine facility, and Chimney Pot has updated its Inferno suite.

WESTERN EUROPE

The premiere of The Matrix Reloaded in Cannes last month showcased the skills of one of the most-respected post-production companies in Europe, Buf Compagnie, based in Paris. As well as its work on features, Buf is also famous for its commercials work, most notably the creation of a renegade troupe of mice-men that kidnap a cat in Bartle Bogle Hegarty's latest ad for Levi's, directed by Michel Gondry. Mac Guf Ligne is the other significant player in the market, creator of a US-airing Mercedes ad from Merkley Newman Harty showing the car transform through the ages.

Buf's communications director and former producer, Celine Ferraud, says the company's work reflects the reputation it has built up in features such as Fight Club and Panic Room, and from developing its own CG software.

"We can offer something totally unique to the market, and that is crucial in a recession," she says. The company's Los Angeles office keeps its finger on the pulse of the US commercials and features industries. The Mac Guf Ligne producer Nicolas Trout adds: "It's been difficult for the past two years, but I believe we've survived thanks to our global presence."

Elsewhere, companies such as The Netherland's Hectic Electric, which the Amsterdam-based ad agency 180 uses for most of its domestically produced projects and which opened an office in Paris in March, are coming to the fore. The owner, Marc Kubbinga, says: "The market has definitely changed. The huge projects are in decline, as clients are not taking the risks, but there is an opportunity to carve out a niche and reap rewards."

But there have been some casualties, most notably the German company Das Werk AG, a 50-strong production company conglomerate that went into liquidation in November after expanding too quickly after a flotation. However, it has been resurrected as Pictorion Das Werk by the German company Media Select, and is now running in five German cities.

THE AMERICAS

Times are tough for post-production in both North and South America and both regions are experiencing certain prevailing trends. In particular, these are faster turnaround times and greater involvement in the entire production process but, most notably, the regions' post-production shops are feeling the squeeze on production budgets.

"In today's economy, everyone's watching their budget," Vito DeSario, the editor/owner of Version 2 Editing in New York, explains.

Limited budgets mean post-production companies are changing the way they work. "We find our own resources going into the work because it's imperative to put out a high-quality product," DeSario explains.

Stu Maschwitz, the co-founder of Los Angeles' The Orphanage, is also having to find more resources in-house. He recently served as both director and VFX supervisor on "consequences" for PlayStation 2 through TBWA/Chiat/Day.

"Budgets are harsh today and changing the effects world," he explains. "As a result, we now handle production, editorial and post on each job."

NORTH AMERICA

As the North American advertising landscape adapts to a weak US economy, post-production companies are suffering. New York and Los Angeles, two major hubs of post work activity, have seen at least 22 post-production companies, with big machine overheads, close down over the past year.

But the boutiques have come off worse. These days, post-production companies aren't prepared to pay their rates: they do the work themselves. "We've seen the complete collapse of offline boutiques because people don't rent when they can buy the equipment for less money," Evan Schechtman, the owner of Outpost Digital in New York, explains. "Professionals now use new technology rather than source externally at an hourly rate," he says.

And Outpost Digital certainly likes to use the latest gadgets, beta testing software for manufacturers such as Apple and Maya. It also encourages ad agency staff to learn and use new kit. Agency producer/editors (known as "preditors") can now get feeds directly from the action on set and start cutting the work on their laptops.

Outpost has worked with Steven Soderbergh on Full Frontal, in addition to recently consulting with the Coen brothers on an upcoming project.

The company, which is now an independent part of the @radical.media empire, will officially open an office in London this autumn to focus on feature film work.

Another post-production success story in the region is the LA-based company Zoic, which is having a remarkable first year amid a flailing local production market.

Episodic television work, spots and promos keep the business ticking over.

Adaptability seems to be the company's watchword. "We're working on an expand-and-contract model to keep our overheads low," the executive producer, Steven Schofield, says.

Zoic has found that to survive recessionary times, it has had to work hard to keep standards high. "We focus on the art rather than just cranking it out," Schofield says.

Therefore creativity is as important as ever. "You have to be a think-tank and a creative resource," Schofield reckons. "That's where the future lies."

Zoic's recent work includes campaigns for Suzuki plus television work for Buffy and Angel, for which Zoic used new "digital double" technology, an advancing technology in the post-production field. This technique allows actors to be seen doing physically impossible stunts. The actor stands in a full-body laser scanner, which creates a 3-D model, which is then animated.

However, new shows and films with amazing effects can often be a thorn in the side of the commercials effects artist.

"Clients check out movies and suddenly want the new effect in a matter of weeks," Emile Edwin Smith, the computer graphics supervisor at Zoic, complains. "What they don't realise is the ramp time for movies can be anything from six months to a year whereas commercials have a matter of weeks."

Despite being a post-production company, Zoic finds it more and more expedient to get involved in the production process early on. "It's better when you become partners with an agency and production company from a very early stage of development," Smith says. "Sometimes we're coming in very late, which can be detrimental to the final product."

Schofield agrees. "At the end of the day, we're telling stories and connecting to an audience. To do that we have to come in as early as possible to iron out the rough spots," he says.

A new player in the US post-production sector is the UK's The Mill, which recently set up an office in New York to be closer to its US clients. "We set up here because our US client base wanted to interact with us. It should result in improved business stateside," Alistair Thompson, the executive producer at The Mill, says.

In the US, as in the UK, The Mill works at the top end of the commercials spectrum. It has worked on ads for Levi's through BBH, New York; with the Smuggler/Stink director Ivan Zacharias, and on Pepsi spots through BBDO, New York with the Hungry Man director Bryan Buckley. "We tend to see the higher quality end of the market," Thompson says.

SOUTH AMERICA

South America's post-production industry remains busy, although still buffeted by the region's numerous economic problems. Argentina's economy contracted by 11 per cent during 2002. That, coupled with its default on $140 billion in foreign debt payments and the devaluation of the peso by nearly 70 per cent last year, dried up foreign investment.

Of all the South American countries, Mexico, with its varied locations and strong film infrastructure, seems to have the healthiest economy for post-production companies. Chile, on the other hand, once a hot spot for production services, lacks any true post-production infrastructure.

The economic pressures mean many companies have been forced to merge to survive. Metrovision is the dominant editing, post-production and digital visual effects company servicing Argentinian agencies and production companies.

Its recent merger with its old rival Post Bionica has allowed both to carry on.

"We were fighting for existence but now we have a future," Adrian Costoya, the director of engineering at Argentina's Metrovision, says.

One problem for a company such as Metrovision is that many of the region's production companies prefer not to use specialists. Many production companies have acquired their own equipment to keep jobs in-house and keep costs down. This is particularly the case with editing. Plug-ins for the Avid plus Final Cut Pro are now widespread in the market meaning that there is no specialist editing company in Argentina. The Mexico City-based production company La Fabrica Films, a top player in the Mexican, US Hispanic and Latin American commercials industry, is a good example of a production company that carries projects from production through post under one roof.

Another trend of businesses in the region is the move toward using cheaper platforms. Manuel Rivas, the executive producer of the Mexican Malpaso Postproduccion, has recently switched over to using more cost-effective software such as Adobe's Final Cut Pro and After Effects, with online rooms using Flint, Smoke and Maya to help the house cope with small budgets and tight deadlines.

As is the case all over the world, making companies efficient and reliable is seen as the best way to stay on top of recession.

"We need to lighten the crews, make the process less expensive and bring down prices after pressure from agencies to shoot in Argentina," La Fabrica's producer Cesar Ahumada says. "As a result everyone is forced to re-think and re-structure their ways of doing business. It's a good thing."

EUROPEAN POST-PRODUCTION COMPANIES

THE MILL

Recent work: Honda "cog"; NSPCC "cartoon"; O2 launch campaign

Staff: 160

Founded: 1990

Kit: Spirit Telecine; Data, cine, Inferno, Flame and Henry; Softimage

xsi, Maya, Mental Ray rendering and in-house software for CGI

Verdict: Surprised everyone by pulling the plug on its features arm,

Mill Film, to concentrate on commercials work.

FRAMESTORE CFC

Recent work: Audi "bull" and "fish"

Staff: 330

Founded December 2001

Kit: Inferno, Flame and Henry suites, and 3D animation facilities;

telecine

Verdict: Has seen momentous growth and acclaim due to pioneering

features work.

MOVING PICTURE COMPANY

Recent work: Lloyds TSB "horses"; Xelibri "face of the future"

Staff: 200 (plus freelancers)

Founded: 1970

Kit: Inferno, Infinity, Fire, Avid; Spirit Datacine, spirit (Pixi),

Cintel DSX with OSCAR; for features, the company uses its new digital

film lab with Quantel iQ, as well as 2- and 3D software such as Shake,

Maya and Renderman.

Verdict: "Outstanding post-production in both commercials and features"

STO.PP

Recent work: Telia "Telia"; VW "surfer"; Folkoperan "repetition"

Staff: 25

Founded: 1996

Kit: Spirit datacine and DaVinci 2K plus colour grading controller;

Inferno, Fire and Combustion suites

Verdict: One of the leading and most creatively led companies for

post-production in Scandinavia.

THE CHIMNEY POT

Recent work: Fokus Bank "apartment"

Staff: 17

Founded: 1996

Kit: Fire and Inferno suites; CGI 3D Maya, and 2D Adobe; After Effects

and Commotion; for features Digital Vision HD-DVNR for grading

Verdict Rivals Sto.pp, but shows extra versatility in promo production

too.

BUF COMPAGNIE

Recent work Levi's "swap"; Smirnoff "emerald girl"; Evian "voices"

Staff: 30, plus up to 70 freelancers

Founded: 1985

Kit: Buf is proud, and secretive, of its in-house software development,

used alongside conventional packages including Softimage, Mental-ray,

Alias Power Animator, T.Morph and Flint.

Verdict: The best post-production work in France, possibly Europe.

MAC GUF LIGNE

Recent work: Paris 2003 ninth World Athletics Championships; Mercedes

"production line"

Staff: 20, plus up to 40 freelancers

Founded: 1986

Kit: In-house software for modelling, animation and 2D work. Maya and

Flame

Verdict: Places creativity and value for money at the top of its list.

HECTIC ELECTRIC

Recent work: Centraal Beheer "horse"

Staff: 30, spread over other companies Mylounge and AVP

Founded: 1999

Kit: Flame, Combustion, Inferno and Fire; and Maya for 3D work

Verdict: An impressive and well-respected post-production house.

PICTORION DAS WERK

Recent work: DaimlerChrysler "cat"

Staff: 120

Founded: April 2003

Kit: Fire, Inferno, Avid Meridian, Quantel Infinity, as well as Rank

Cintel Ursa Diamond and C-Reality using DaVinci

Verdict: A fine legacy of creative work now under new ownership.

POST-PRODUCTION COMPANIES IN NORTH AND SOUTH AMERICA

METROVISION, BUENOS AIRES

Top Argentine full-service video/film post-production, digital visual

effects house.

Founded: 14 years ago

Staff: 50 people, merged with Post Bionica in 2002 but kept same number

of employees

Kit: Array of high-end gear in 18 rooms - includes two Discreet Flame,

Jaleo software, but is more of a Quantel shop with Domino, HAL and Edit

Box equipment occupying the busiest suites. 3D dept, uses Silicon

Graphics workstations - no longer working on animation

Awards: Best post-production for "pacto" for Renault Clio, 2002

Verdict: "We were fighting for existence but our merger has given us

hope."

LA FABRICA, MEXICO CITY

Top player in the Mexican, US Hispanic and Latin American commercial

industry.

Founded: 1995 - La Fabrica Films USA in Miami founded three years ago

Staff: Production and post-production house, represents directors in

Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Spain, Portugal, Iceland.

Kit: Low-fi in-house equipment - Final Cut Pro, Adobe After Effects -

prime example of production company taking jobs though post-production

in-house

Verdict: "Buenas ondas" - good vibes. Globally proficient company, keeps

good relations with solid players. Will always be a worker.

THE MILL, NEW YORK

Following in its parent's footsteps: expanding its UK base to service

clients in the US.

Founded: London,1990, New York, 2002 - founded Mill Film 1997

Staff: Averaging around 14, looking to add more

Kit: 1,500 sq ft satellite operation includes two Flame suites plus

several 3D stations.

Talent: Angus Kneale and Derek Greene - both senior Flame operators from

London; Aaron Hjartarson - animation supervisor; Dadi Einarsson - lead

animator, recently won Emmy for work on Dinotopia.

Verdict: "This is just the beginning. We tend more towards

photorealistic work. Most of the clients who come to us with the bigger

projects tend to be working in a hybrid way between the European and

American method, looking for a bit more input than perhaps they'd

normally get in the States," Alistair Thompson, executive producer in

New York, says.

ZOIC, LOS ANGELES

Digital FX and CG animation studio. The current hotshop has a proven

record of success and is growing day by day.

Founded: September 2002

Staff: Ten

Kit: Twenty CG workstations running LightWave and Maya, multiple

combustion stations and an HD Discreet Flame Talent Andrew Orloff,

visual effects supervisor; Emile Edwin Smith, CG supervisor; Rocco

Passionino, visual effects supervisor - commenced career with FX on

Apollo 13 then did effects on The Fifth Element and Titanic.

Verdict: "Zoic is pushing the limits, implementing new techniques to

satisfy clients and to implement on shorter deadlines," Edwin Smith

says.