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October 2017
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Facilities 50 2011 Back to Reports & survey Listing

Jake Bickerton reports on a year in which the UK’s post sector has expanded, diversified and continued its move up the production food chain

If you just take a quick glance through this year’s top 50 list you could easily be fooled into thinking nothing much has changed in the UK’s post production/visual effects sector over the last 12 months. Most of the same companies that were there a year ago are there again now and in much the same position or thereabouts as last year too.

But take a little time to dig further, have a read of the little summary boxes attached to many of the entries in the top 50 and you’ll start to see signs of a subtle but potentially seismic shift in the lay of the land.

Closures, takeovers, arrivals
Before we go into all that, let’s run through some of the tangible changes in the post sector compared to a year ago. The most noteworthy closure of the year came when Pepper (or more accurately, Pepper mark three, following numerous previous bouts of phoenixing) shut up shop back in June.

Another brand no longer on the scene is Ascent. Its global post houses – including Ascent 142 and Rushes – were bought by Deluxe in November last year, with Ascent 142 imaginatively becoming Deluxe 142. Rushes stays as it is and both companies have continued much as they were before, though Deluxe 142’s digital intermediary wing has just been merged with Deluxe’s US post house Company 3’s grading wing so there will be some changes coming up there.

Beyond that, Evolutions underwent an MBO and closed its Soho Square HQ but much of the rest of the focus has been on UK houses expanding overseas. This has been something that vfx houses have been doing for a number of years but this year The Farm Group became one of the first broadcast-focused post houses to set up shop abroad, opening an offshoot in LA which is currently posting The X Factor over there.

Very recently there’s also been some activity in the other direction, with foreign post houses opening offshoot offices here. The most significant of these is one of the world’s biggest vfx facilities – Digital Domain – which announced plans to team up with Indian company Reliance Media (which bought Soho-based film processing lab iLab two years ago) to set up a small offshoot vfx house in Soho.

Another Indian company, High Ground Enterprise, is also putting the finishing touches to its Soho-based post house Rain. It’s the company’s first introduction to the UK market and it intends to follow it up with a second office in Salford’s MediaCityUK.
And this is nothing new, of course – Prime Focus’s extensive UK facilities came about after the Indian company took over the VTR Group five years ago. Molinare also received significant investment from India-based Century Communications three years ago, which now has majority shareholdings in the company.

As well as foreign imports there are also one or two home grown new faces on the scene that have set up over the last year or so. Creativity Media opened in August providing post and film finance. It has so far co-produced three films, including Anuvahood and Sket. And this month another post house – WaterTron – opened up in south east London, with its first project being the edit of the trailer for Irvine Welsh’s Ecstasy.

A mature sector
But the most interesting development of the last 12 months isn’t in the companies that have opened or closed, it’s in the general state of the post sector. Put simply, it’s matured and lost the slightly blokey, slightly unprofessional image that perhaps applied to certain less than well run post houses a decade or so ago.

The tight budgets and difficult climate of recent years have forced everyone to focus on tightening up the offer to clients, and to look at ways of ensuring a solid, sustainable future that’s not about desperate undercutting and jobs for the boys.

“A lot of management time goes in to saying, ‘Right, what’s next?’,” says Prime Focus UK md Simon Briggs. “[Previous owners] The VTR Group rested on its laurels,” admits Briggs, “But it’s now very different. The recession made smart people smart again. The challenge to business over the last few years has made everyone think hard about how to be successful.”

This attitude is equally applicable to the vast majority of post houses that make up the facilities 50 list this year, which are, in the main, fast moving, forward thinking and innovative in their approach. They are globally focused to the extent that an increasing number also now have offices abroad catering directly to an ever-expanding client base overseas.

It’s not overstating matters to say there’s been something of a British invasion of the States, with many of the most respected UK post/vfx brands mirroring their offer in New York and/or Los Angeles and finding their creative, professional, flexible approach welcomed with open arms.

When you compare what these finely honed UK organisations offer to the somewhat stale, bulky US post houses, it’s evident the UK’s post/vfx sector is years ahead of its US cousins.

Moving up the food chain
Another sign of progress is the UK’s larger visual effects houses moving ever faster in an evolution that’s fast splitting the UK post sector into two categories. Those that are predominantly there to service clients as post production providers and those that complement their post services with full creative input into productions. The latter are post houses, digital agencies and production outfits.

“In the last few years, integration has been the key word. Our team of ‘creative technologists’ work with the ad agency and contribute as partners. They begin very early in the process to help support and realise the director’s vision,” says The Mill’s md Darren O’Kelly.

“With the digital campaigns we’re involved in, the assets are developed during principal production and reused in the digital campaign. You look at what assets are being built for the TV campaign – car parts, animation cycles, etc – and work with the director to express the creative outside of the 60-second TV spot. It’s about how you can use innovative platforms and technology to push the boundaries.”

The reality for the likes of The Mill, on productions where they are involved in such a way is “we’re increasingly being treated as creative partners,” says O’Kelly. “That’s always been the case but now it’s more explicit.”
Currently, this approach is only being put into practice for The Mill’s commercials clients. Its TV work is much more about conventional post production/vfx work.

“We do a more traditional post role for TV, though some of the opportunities in advertising are likely to present themselves as opportunities in the TV world over time. At the moment we play more of a traditional vfx role,” says O’Kelly.

Framestore also plays an increasing role in creative production. “Our digital wing has a mix of technical skills and strong creativity and a hunger for new trends. They are client-focused producers and have to turn their hands to lots of things and prototype ideas,” explains md of Framestore commercials, Helen Stanley.

“For a recent project we did real-time rendering of cg characters shown on billboards that people interact with in real-time as they walk past. We try to inspire clients with original, innovative ideas, to prototype and set trends.”
“We have ideas and present them to agencies and are very proactive – it’s very embedded and integrated with what we do here,” adds Stanley. “It’s directed inhouse and drips into our core business.”

Post still main focus
However, insists Stanley, this creative involvement in shaping and directing digital productions doesn’t detract from Framestore’s key function of providing post production services. “Our core business is still post. We have a lot of loyal big directors who come to us and it’s still the key part of our work,” she says. “Budgets are diminishing so you need to find other revenue streams that enhance that and find efficiencies for clients, reusing effects and cg assets.”

Likewise, for MPC, “We’ve seen an increase in clients asking us to look at solutions to provide innovative ways to distribute content across different platforms – tablets, mobile phones, projection across shop fronts, and so on,” says md Mark Benson.
“The move to digital production has been about looking for solutions that are cost effective but creatively not compromised,” says Benson. He echoes Stanley in saying: “It adds to the offer and very much doesn’t replace our traditional core services. The animators’ skills provide the opportunities and it’s very much linked to what we do on a day-to-day basis, it’s an extension of that. It’s merely a logical step for guys that can do this kind of work.”

For most of the post houses working on big broadcast series, though it’s business as usual. “We’re slightly old school and have too many clients that might be upset if we did that,” says Envy’s md Dave Cadle. “It’s slightly different to the visual effects guys in our side of post. We want to be brilliant at what we know.”

Drama production wing

But there has been an example of a post house adding a production wing seeking TV commissions this year. In February, Prime Focus set up a full-scale drama production division, headed up by former Sky 1 and Channel 5 controller Richard Woolfe.

“Our approach to business is always to diversify and add complementary services,” says Briggs. “The drama production wing is meant to be a division to generate revenue and provides an integrated solution. An example is we’re currently talking to an Asian broadcaster about a commission and are already talking workflows with them about a Prime Focus way of shooting and posting.”

“The division is a client but it’s an inhouse client. It reinforces our credentials from a drama point of view and shows we understand the drama workflow.”

Post moving to a tape-free zone

For the majority of post houses, the ambitions haven’t been quite so grand. The key focus has been in keeping on top of the explosion in digital cinematography that’s all but taken over the camera world. The hugely popular Arri Alexa and equally prevalent models such as the Red camera, Sony F3 and a string of others, have spearheaded the digital revolution.

Post houses need to have the technical infrastructure and personnel to be able to deal with whatever a client turns up with on external hard drives and memory cards, taking the multitude of camera film formats, processing them and getting the rushes ready on the same timeline for the client to begin working on. And all in as fast a time as possible.

“A few years ago we toyed with getting a Spirit, but now 70% of productions we get are from data cameras,” says Envy’s Cadle. “We get tonnes of stuff shot on the Alexa and have invented a system where we can get digital rushes out to different areas of post quicker than most other post houses. Every night we’re digesting rushes ready for the client at eight in the morning.”

“The days when people turned up with boxes of DigiBetas are over – people now come in with drives and they can be full of anything – it’s insane how it’s all turned around.”

“Tapeless acquisition has become the norm this year, virtually all camera rushes are now tapeless,” agrees Azimuth’s md Neil Hatton. “There’s a real training need for producers to get to grips with best practices in disk labelling and backup procedures. We are treating it as an opportunity.”

It’s been a real learning curve for most facilities in gearing up for file-based working, which prior to 2010 still only accounted for a minority of projects for most post houses. That’s all changed now. “Tapeless threw up lots of technical challenges, which pushed us to deliver storage and workflow efficiencies. We have brought in an ISIS and a new technical team to help achieve this goal,” says Clear Cut’s md Paul Austin.

“Strong and robust tapeless workflows have become increasingly important with more emphasis on media management and storage than ever before,” agrees Simon Kanjee, md, Evolutions.

When asked what they believed were the most significant trends in post production over the last year, the vast majority of facilities taking part in this year’s survey singled out digital acquisition and file-based working now becoming the norm.
“It’s been the first year of really serious tapeless workflows for high-end productions,” believes Nigel Gourley, md, OutPost.
“The move to full HD and full tapeless production across all sectors is complete, I would say. We handle almost no SD or tape rushes anymore,” adds Marc Collins, md, TVC Soho.

“Greater confidence in tapeless has led to a shift away from Z1 HDV shooting to EX3/F3 etc. We’ve seen a huge uptake of full-frame cameras, which in turn means the balance is tipping more in favour of tapeless workflows,” agrees Paul Ingvarsson, joint-md, Storm HD.

“We’ve had hardly any work on film – all shooting is on the Red or Alexa,” says James Allen, joint-md, Time Based Arts. As does Narduzzo Too owner Vince Narduzzo: “The Alexa camera, it would appear, is finally taking over from film.”
And, says Halo, this “development in cameras means so many variable tapeless formats, each requiring different workflows” which the post house is expected to devise and implement. Added to this, “No production deliveries are the same so each production requires tailor-made post routes.”

While there are clear benefits to file-based working, for both the producer and post supplier, it’s not necessarily all great news for post houses, says joint-md of Doghouse, Jules Barton Hill. “The move towards tapeless has had a huge impact on streams of revenue that we used to rely on like digitising. You still need people who know what they are doing, but I think production companies just think you can get a runner to ingest so it will cost less, which is not the case.”

Stereoscopic work

Stereo 3d is the other big technology development of the last few years that post houses have had to take on board. Or not, as the case may be. If there’s one thing more than any other that’s polarised opinion as to whether it’s worth gearing up for or not, it’s stereo 3d.

While around half those taking part in this year’s survey have invested to a greater or lesser degree in some sort of stereo 3d services, it’s still largely a niche service that outside of the likes of MPC, Framestore, Prime Focus, BTV, Mytherapy and a handful of others, there aren’t that many post houses that say stereo 3d is a key focus for them at present.
When asked what opportunities there are for post to progress over the coming 12 months, a number of facilities including Absolute, Air Post, Preditors and the aforementioned Framestore, Mytherapy and BTV, pointed to the potential to bring in stereo work.

But for now most post houses are merely paying lip service to it. “We stuck in a stereo 3d edit suite last year – we’re not really busy with it but have done a few bits and pieces,” says Nicky Sargent, joint-md, The Farm Group. “We needed to buy something so we could investigate and keep on top of it. It’s part of a facility’s job to offer expertise – on everything, workflow, acquisition formats, etc.”

Similarly, says The Mill’s O’Kelly, “It’s been pretty flat. We’ve not got hugely excited by it. It’s yet to be the game changer people thought it might have been initially, but certain projects lend themselves to it.”

At Envy, “We do a couple of 3d projects a month – it’s a bolt-on, an addition to what we can do,” says Cadle. It’s the same at MPC says Benson, though he is confident 3d will become more prominent over time: “We’ve done some but the pace is still measured. That world will continue to evolve. It’s going to happen, it’s all about the timing.”

Prime Focus has a huge and successful global division catering for the conversion of feature films into 3d, but hasn’t seen a great demand for post work on content acquired in 3d, at least in the UK: “We’ve done a few 3d projects in the UK, including a JLS concert – it’s still more cinema driven and music content has a following too,” says Briggs.

“I’m not saying there’s been a massive pickup right now – we need further penetration into the domestic environment to build the audience. We’ve not invested heavily, it’s not a key part of our strategy for the next year but it’s there.”

Much more modest sized post concern Sequence Post is one of many to admit 3d is “not something we have committed a lot of time to,” says md Ben Foakes. “There seems to have been more talk about 3d, but this is far away from our area of expertise.”

Meanwhile, Storm HD is fairly blunt about the business case for kitting up for stereo work at the moment: “The interest from our clients in 3d post production for television has been virtually zero, so we’re glad not to have not invested heavily in stereoscopic,” says Ingvarsson.

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