Whatever you may think of CDP’s 40-second Gothic pastiche for Honda cars as a piece of effective advertising, you can hardly deny that it’s a spectacular slice of film-making with immaculate production values.

Whatever you may think of CDP’s 40-second Gothic pastiche for Honda

cars as a piece of effective advertising, you can hardly deny that it’s

a spectacular slice of film-making with immaculate production


You know the one ... the crazed Germanic professor complete with black

cape, flowing grey locks raiding a car scrapyard - ’First I took a

high-performance engine, then a smaller more economic one,’ he announces

in suitably guttural tones - before you see him conducting a creepy,

moonlight experiment to create a monster of a motor from the two


The sets are flawless: tall, shadowy, Gothic edifices, shot in muted

blacks and browns. Yes, the director, Fabrice Carazo, has done a grand

job, and his set designer deserves a pat on the back too. But the unsung

heroes of the piece are undoubtedly the 3D artist, James Mann, and the

Flame artist, Rachel Mills, at the post-production hot-shop,


Karen Cunningham, who produced the ad through her commercials production

company, Pink, calculates that probably only half of the sets were built

for real; the rest was created digitally in post-production. ’It was

extremely well done,’ she says. ’I bet no-one’s even noticed.’

The Honda commercial is just the kind of mid-budget, effects-heavy job

on which the latest post-production techniques come into their own. A

week’s worth of 3D post may cost you an arm, but it won’t cost you the

arm and a leg that an extra few days shooting in a studio or on location

would. So in Honda’s case, the decision to rely so heavily on

Glassworks’ expertise made sense, both financially and creatively.

Most industry insiders agree that as post-production techniques have

become more flexible and less of a ’black art’, they have been more

fully integrated into the creative process. Clearly, this doesn’t apply

so readily to straightforward comedy-dialogue scripts, but for

commercials that demand a more challenging visual approach, it would be

no exaggeration to claim that directors now select their post operators

as carefully as they pick out their cameramen.

Working relationships and levels of trust, of course, develop with

shared experiences, so it’s only natural for directors to stick with the

experts they feel most comfortable with. And it’s often incredibly

difficult to describe subtle visual tweaks and effects in words, so a

mutual understanding that has been nurtured over time is extremely


Specific disciplines have become so specialised and compartmentalised

that directors may even have a favoured telecine, Henry or Flame


’Post-production is recognised as an important part of the whole

process,’ says Cunningham. ’It has a far less tecchie image than it used

to, the operators aren’t regarded as button-pushers, but as extremely

creative people who can bring something extra to the party.’

’Now that the process has been demythologised, the talent has started to

shine through,’ adds James Studholme, managing director of the

production company, Blink. ’The companies are only as good as the people

in them.

They’ve started to push personalities forward within the umbrella of the

company, almost like a brand within a brand, so you get someone like

Barnsley at the Mill. They all seem to have bonkers names. Perhaps

they’re stage names. The equipment has ridiculous names, so why

shouldn’t the people?’

The emergence of Discreet Logic’s powerful and versatile Flame, Inferno

and FIRE software (which typically run on Silicon Graphics Onyx super

computers) as an industry standard has perpetuated the notion of ’star’

operators, or Flame ’artists’ as they somewhat grandly prefer to be


This, in turn, has led to the establishment of Flame-based boutiques

such as Glassworks and Smoke & Mirrors in the past few years, which rely

almost entirely on the virtuosity of their top-flight operators. The

beauty of the Canadian-developed Flame system is that it is

’open-ended’, that is, it can be added to and customised as required.

Described as ’a studio in a box’, Flame can handle complex editing

tasks, as well as motion tracking and warping, and has extensive 3D


So with Flame, the sky’s the limit, the only thing holding the software

back being the expertise and imagination of the person at the


’(Being a top Flame artist) probably is more about skill than

personality,’ reckons Hector Macleod, managing director of Glassworks,

which has recently worked on spots for the Vauxhall Corsa through Rose

Hackney Barber and John Woo’s extraordinary Nike commercial featuring

the Brazilian national football team, through the Los Angeles-based

production house, A Band Apart. ’But it does help if an operator has a

certain amount of charm as well. After all, people don’t particularly

want to be stuck in a suite for hours on end with a grumpy old


In other words, you’re looking for someone with technical know-how,

visual flair and social sophistication - no wonder these characters are

in such short supply. ’There are many adequate Flame artists,’ continues

Macleod. ’But few really good ones.

It’s easy to spot stuff that has been over-Flamed. It’s pumped too hard

and detracts from the photography. You need to have a light touch.’

Macleod is quick to single out Jon Hollis of Smoke & Mirrors as possibly

the leading exponent in the UK. Hollis, incidentally, was mentioned by

absolutely everyone interviewed for this article, though some were more

unstinting in their praise than others. ’He’s just brilliant,’ says


When I question his motives for bolstering up the competition, he

replies, ’I don’t have a problem with it ... it’s just like one director

being complimentary about another. Besides, Jon is good for the industry

as a whole, because now there are all these young guys out there

aspiring to be like him.’

The speed at which Hollis and his cohorts at Smoke & Mirrors managed to

establish themselves as one of the commercials industry’s premier

post-production outfits was impressive. Now three years old, recent high

points have included Tom Carty and Walter Campbell’s second extravaganza

for Dunlop tyres through Tony Kaye Films; the Times X-Ray spots directed

by Malcolm Venville; and several complex Adidas commercials for Leagas


On the pop video front, it delivered a singing foetus for Massive

Attack’s Teardrop and spruced up the raven shot on Madonna’s Frozen.

The company has even been known to make the occasional sortie into

Hollywood for high-resolution effects work; most recently on The Jackal

starring Bruce Willis and Richard Gere.

But not everyone in the industry is entirely convinced about the

long-term prospects for the so-called Flame boutiques. ’The problem is

that these small companies are so heavily driven by the individuals who

work there,’ says Sharon Reed, managing director of FrameStore, which

was established some 12 years ago as London’s first all-digital

post-production house, and now has around 100 staff. ’How can they

sustain that pressure and workload day-in, day-out, night-in, night-out,

weekend-in, weekend-out?

They inevitably get burned out and can only carry on for so long. I

think you need a broader platform for a long-term venture that will last

for more than a few years.’

Reed goes on to explain that FrameStore is involved in a wide range of

high-end special effects work, including commercials, mnemonics,

television programming and feature film work, and that the company is

constantly evolving to reflect the changes in a fast-moving industry.

Sensibly enough, she cautions against an all-eggs-in-one-basket

scenario, and points to the FrameStore group’s acquisition of the

digital effects specialists, Computer Film Company, and the

establishment of FrameStore Design as means of ensuring a diversity of

interests within the group umbrella.

Robin Shenfield, managing director of the post-production house, the

Mill, also has reservations about Flame-oriented hot-shops. For him, the

fundamental problem is one of scale. ’Flame is a very inclusive system,’

he admits, ’but it’s important to be able to offer clients a full

network of resources; you can get different things done with

complementary systems.

And the kind of size we are at the Mill (around 90) means that we are

able to build flexibility into the post-production schedule. We have the

capacity to take on extremely complex jobs and get people in for


Timings are a lot tighter at the smaller places.’

Shenfield is remarkably complimentary about Smoke & Mirrors (’You can’t

but respect them,’ he says) considering that it was, in effect, a

potentially damaging breakaway from his company. However, now that the

dust has settled, he feels that the Mill can offer the same and more.

’We were the original creative hot-shop,’ he claims. ’We set out to be

the commercials directors’ favourite company from day one.’ He points to

the calibre of directorial talent which regularly passes through the

Mill’s doors, the likes of Ridley Scott, Tarsem, Daniel Barber and Sam

Bayer. They are ’extremely testing people’, he says with admirable

understatement. ’But we have the resources and scale to satisfy their


When you’ve reached the dizzy heights of some of the directors

name-checked above, of course, you can call the shots. For the majority

of commercials directors, however, matters aren’t quite so

straightforward. The agency which has employed them may have a stake in

a particular post-production house so there is a certain amount of

pressure to take the business there.

’If you’re a director taking your pick of ten scripts a week, you can

demand a personal chef, a constant supply of Jaffa Cakes and any

post-production team you like,’ confirms FrameStore’s Sharon Reed. ’Not

everyone is fortunate enough to be in that situation. While many

directors are keen to go around town to individuals for different bits

of the job, agencies tend to be happier with the security of one


In general, advertising agencies - in the shape of TV production

departments - are taking a far keener interest in post-production

matters than they ever used to. It’s now common practice for them to

take full control of the post budget, previously - in the dark days of

labs and chemicals - very much the remit of production companies. This

is a means of doing away with the production companies’ mark-ups and

keeping tighter financial control. ’In the UK, we operate a kind of

halfway house system,’ explains Bertie Miller, managing director of the

recently formed production company, Spectre. ’In the US, you are

expected to hand over the rushes to the agency which then gets the film

edited and post-produced itself. In contrast, it goes down really badly

over here if the director goes off to work on another job before he’s

completed the post-production.’

While Miller is genuinely enthusiastic about the impact of Flame, he

also mentions another, often neglected, area of development in

post-production technology, namely telecine. ’If you look at commercials

from even six or seven years ago,’ he says, ’they look really dated.

That’s because of the grading and the quality of the telecine. It may

not be glamorous, but it’s an integral part of the production


For Jon Hollis though, unleashing the creative potential in Flame has

undoubtedly been the key to his high standing within the post-production

fraternity. It has also changed the face of UK post-production, making

it a more challenging environment. But is he afraid of burning out? ’I

don’t think so. I have been working non-stop for about ten years now,

and putting more enthusiasm into the work I take on than ever

before ... It’s the ’more than my job’s worth’ types that tend to get

used for padding in the bigger companies that will suffer from burnout!’

It seems the young upstarts and the establishment - not for the first

time - will have to agree to differ.