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The rise of the boutique vfx house

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16 January 2015

The last few years have seen a flowering of small boutique operators in the vfx market. Jon Creamer finds out what has sown the seeds

The big beasts of vfx still dominate the UK landscape.

Those big players remain responsible for the vast majority of the standout visual effects work throughout commercials, movies and high-end TV.

But they’re no longer the only show in town. Over the last few years, a plethora of small, nimble and highly talented vfx houses, often led by name talent from the big three, have sprung up in the UK and are producing award winning work on the best ads, big movies and high profile TV shows. Now working alongside the Tescos (or perhaps Waitroses) of the vfx world are small boutique shops, often specialised, but very proud of their produce.



Defining terms
Though the definition of a boutique vfx house is pretty broad, all the way from one or two man bedroom warriors with a couple of laptops right up to companies like Electric Theatre Collective, still sometimes referred to as a ‘boutique’ despite growing enormously since its birth three years ago.

For Will Cohen, formerly of The Mill, and now running his own vfx house, Milk, a boutique “is about culture and atmosphere. It alludes to a sense of personal service and first name terms. A bit of individuality and personality.” While the big shops sell themselves partly on the security afforded by their size, the boutiques pride themselves on being an intimate part of the creative process right from the off.  “Because of the structure in a bigger place, if you call up you speak to a booking person or a producer firstly,” says Mike Skrgatic of Time Based Arts. “There’s a process until you get to the creative person. When people come and work with us, they speak to a creative person first. It’s much more of a partnership.”

For Axis VFX’s Grant Hewlett, a boutique is more able to become another department within the production. “They’re a bit faster on their feet and they can get more involved. We want to get involved and offer our ideas.”
And it’s partnership that’s key to the boutique way of working, says Nineteentwenty co founder Scott Griffin. “In a boutique everybody is close by and hears feedback and it’s a much more cooperative process. You can sometimes get lost in the size of a bigger facility.”

The boutiques frame themselves as offering something different from the majors, but that’s not necessarily a criticism of the big players. “In film you need large companies,” says Milk’s Cohen. “You have to look at the evolution of visual effects over the last decade. [Vfx Oscar winner] Gladiator had less than 90 vfx shots in it, Maleficent had 3,000. In order to realise that you need large companies. In large companies creativity is pushed very high up the food chain and on the studio floor it’s more like a factory line. There is nothing wrong with that, that’s how you get through a package of 500 shots. In a boutique, creativity is more with the artists on the studio floor.”



Tech revolution
However a boutique is defined, their ability to exist in the first place comes down to a revolution in the costs of setting up a professional vfx house.  “I remember working in Soho as a runner when Silicon Graphics had an office in Soho Square,” says Axis’s Grant Hewlett. “The computers were a million pounds each and it was impossible to get any time on the workstations. It’s changed so much.”

“The cost of entry has come down,” says Derek Moore, md and founder of Coffee and TV. “It used to be that the business model of the big companies was built around leasing big machines but now it’s more about the quality of the talent. And if you are that talent, you may as well do it yourself.”

The vfx business is no longer about “flexing your technology muscles,” says Nineteentwenty’s Griffin. “Everybody’s got access to the same kit. It all comes down to who’s operating now.” And though size matters to an extent due to the amount of “firepower” big houses can throw at a job “the gap is not anywhere near as big as it used to be.”

Even just seven years ago, technology costs were putting the brakes on operators and artists going it alone with the initial trickle of talent leaving the big shops mainly being older, more established talent with hefty backing. “When we bought our first Flame, Autodesk told us that we were the youngest guys to buy a Flame in Europe,” says Time Based Arts’ Skrgatic. “At the time it was such a high price point.” As time goes on, the barriers to entry drop, and investors are no longer a necessity. “There’s no backing, it’s just Mike and I,” says Time Based Arts’ James Allen. “We put a bit of seed money down but it’s all cash flow, there are no rich uncles.” And that trend is set to continue. The introduction of Nuke made boutiques even more possible and “whatever software rolls out in the next 10 years, it’ll be pennies,” says Allen.

“We are only Foundry based 2D, we don’t have Flames or Infernos, we’ve built everything on a Foundry pipeline,” says Griffin. And as with many operators, connectivity means a small London office can be backed up by a larger space in Bristol. Cloud based rendering, still in its infancy, should also pull down more entry barriers and rental models on software mean small companies “don’t have to commit. That ability to increase and decrease only helps the boutique facility,” says Cohen.



More bang for less buck
And where technology has made boutiques possible, it’s falling budgets that have proved to be a further driver. “Through the recession lots of people were doing crazy stuff for very little money just to keep money coming through the door,” says Coffee and TV’s Derek Moore. “That made clients realise they could get great stuff done quite cheaply. When we came out of recession, budgets never went back up. That meant people found it hard to hit the margins, leading to a lot of the most talented staff feeling a bit disenfranchised and thinking they can do it better. What’s come about is a perfect storm of budgets dropping and technology becoming more affordable to allow the best artists to be able to prove to themselves whether they can do it better or not.”

Those falling budgets have led some of the top talent to the idea that if they stripped away some costs, they could deliver good work for the now more stringent budgets available. “It seems like the perfect opportunity now,” says Moore. “The cost of entry is low, clients want it, we’re old enough and experienced enough to have a good client base and you know there’s so much cost wasted in the big reception and bookings people and runners.”

Other changes particularly in the advertising sector have also helped the push towards boutiques. Fragmenting budgets means a campaign is broken into many smaller pieces. “Now there is multiple output from the agency and different service providers can do that,” says Time Based Art’s Allen. “We can work on premium stuff with good agencies and directors and pick up a £50k job, which wouldn’t have existed before.” But for many, particularly those who reached a level of seniority within one of the big vfx houses, it’s often also driven by a desire to get back to the coalface of vfx. “At certain times of my life I could have been working in any other industry because a lot of it was spreadsheet based,” says Cohen. “We do still have spreadsheets here but they’re not a dominating factor.”



Get your hands dirty
But running your own vfx house is not all pure creativity. “Being a Flame op is a pretty painful existence anyway, you get used to your family life taking the brunt,” says Allen. “But when you’re running your own business all your hopes and dreams are wrapped up in it too, it takes a personal toll. In the same time we’ve had this business I’ve had three kids and Mike’s had two. In the early days as an owner, when there isn’t the money, your salary is the buffer.”

It also means having to keep your eyes on the bottom line like never before. “Before I was with Axis I’d run a couple of really small boutique companies and when we started those companies we thought we could conquer the world,” says Hewlett. “But it’s a tight margin business and you can easily lose your shirt on a job if you don’t keep track of things.”

There’s also the issue of getting the new brand out there, even if the new company is founded by well known artists. Nineteentwenty has Flame artist Ludo Fealy as a co-founder but even then “you forget how much gravitas companies like The Mill and MPC and Framestore have,” says Nineteentwenty’s Griffin. “Getting the name out there is the biggest challenge at the start. How do we let people know we are here and that we can do the work? The confidence builds and as long as you’re pragmatic you’ll eventually get there, but it won’t happen overnight.”

It can also mean literally getting your hands dirty again. “When you work for a large company a lot of stuff’s done for you,” says Milk’s Cohen. But with your own small boutique company you’re “micro managing every aspect from cashflow to everything else. On the first week here, one of the directors had his marigolds on with his hands down the toilet. You never would have considered that before.”

But if things do go well, and a boutique company becomes a success, how far can it grow before it loses the advantages that a boutique purports to engender? For many, the trick will be to push for growth in many distinct units rather than one big unit. “There’s an ambition to get a little bit bigger just so we have a slightly broader client base and more stability and visibility of income,” says Moore. “But there’s no point in becoming another massive facility.” His company, like Milk and Nineteentwenty, has a London office backed by a Bristol base, and several small satellite companies seems to be the way many boutiques envision future growth. “If you open somewhere else with 20 or 30 people you can very much replicate the culture you have in your main office rather than grow on your main site to 300 people,” says Cohen.

Another big change for those setting up their own boutique vfx houses is a different set of expectations. For the companies that set up shop in the 80s and 90s, many owners went on to become very rich. For today’s new companies, there are no such expectations. “We’re not in it for money,” says Time Based Arts’ Allen. “Ultimately you control your destiny, you work for yourself, you cut away the politics and the crap, that’s what we did it for. We want to do good work, and you can earn good money as an individual but gone are the days when you buy a machine and the machine’s booked out 24/7.”

“Our aspirations are a lot less than the generation that came before,” says Cohen. “We have lower aspirations. We do it because we like it and we can make a living and make it work but not it’s not about second homes in Gloucestershire and all that.”

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