Since the boom in high end TV drama, an increasing number of commercials post and vfx houses have made the leap to long form. But going long requires more resources, different workflows and extra talent. Jon Creamer reports
Commercials and long form production companies exist in very different silos apart from a couple of notable exceptions like Pulse Films and Merman. Few producers are a force in both disciplines.
In the world of post and vfx, that was traditionally the case too.
The big shops would take in both major Hollywood movies and commercials, others would focus solely on the commercials world with others still aimed almost exclusively on broadcast TV.
But, over the last several years, since the arrival of the streamers and the explosion in HETV many of those distinctions have fallen away.
Now, many of those post and vfx companies that dealt exclusively in the commercials market, are becoming players in the world of long form HETV too.
Post in demand
Much of that has come from the explosion of high-end long form content that could not solely be housed at traditional TV and movie post houses. Jon Hurst, MD at 1920vfx (currently working on a major unnamed Disney+ project), says, “2021/22 saw an increase in high-end TV requirements,” so “many clients had to think outside the box from the traditional long form vfx specialists.”
Paul Wright, COO at Freefolk, whose company has worked on long form projects including The Baby, Cursed and The Third Day, says that a “combination of increased demand, technological advancements, cost-effectiveness, creative opportunities and competition has motivated more short form post houses to enter the longform area.”
Leonie Moreton, MD at Coffee & TV, whose company now has credits including Peaky Blinders, puts much of the impetus behind commercials houses moving into long form down to the volume of that work. “There’s just so much work going on that traditional long form only post houses cannot handle that volume. That’s why we’re picking up so much from America because they physically can’t get it through.”
The demand for ever higher levels of finish for long form vfx and post has also played into the hands of commercials houses, says Moreton. Coffee & TV brought in long form specialists Clare Cheetham and Jonathan Cheetham to lead its Film & TV visual effects department and, at first, Moreton asked them if Coffee & TV’s commercials reel would put off long form customers. “Clare said: ‘No, my clients are going to love it. Because you guys can create really high-end work, but you can do it so much quicker.’ That was interesting as we were totally open to even possibly having an entirely different name if we needed to. But our short form credentials are what’s helping to upsell us.
The move of short form houses to long form has been driven by other factors alongside HETV demand. As Freefolk’s Wright points out: “The budgets on commercials projects have reduced and the volume of work as well” and at the same time, “there have been more commercials VFX companies setting up in the last few years, splintered from the bigger companies.
Jordan Andreopoulos, co-founder of JAMVFX, whose company has now worked on End of the F**king World, Black Mirror and Life After Life, says that “over the last four or five years, there’s been pressure from agencies to pull in a lot [of post work] in house and a lot of competition with more post houses setting up.” Long form is another revenue stream, says Adam Luckwell, owner and founder of Unit (Avenue 5, Britannia) “so if any one of those revenue streams ever takes a snooze, you’re a bit more robust.”
Especially when it comes to planning ahead. “Commercials [post] is sometimes a bit of a white-knuckle ride,” says Luckwell. With jobs coming through the door at a late stage and super-fast turnaround and freelance hiring required, “Whereas the long form picture post team are booked out until March next year.”
1920VFX’s Hurst points out that “the commercials market can be unpredictable and High-End TV seems to offer a more stable environment with regards to budgeting and hiring staff.”
Although, the long form market seems to be getting closer short form in some respects. “Long form has a longer lead time, with projects often in discussion for months – with commercials potentially confirming only weeks before they start,” says Meg Guidon, VFX Executive Producer at Freefolk. However, “recently long form projects seem to be confirming later, closer to turnover.”
Another big driver for commercials houses to add a longform string to their bows has been staff retention and attraction. The competition among post houses for top creative artists is intense and many feel that offering them a variety of work can make the company a bigger draw.
“Some artists love the change and option to work in both disciplines,” says Freefolk’s Guidon, as they can “go from an eight-month project with quite strict protocols and an intense attention to detail to a fast turnaround one month commercials project with all the crew mucking-in to make something great in a short period of time.”
Coffee & TV’s Moreton similarly says that a big drive to long form has come in “answer to our artists wanting to be able to do both from one place. We’ve recently recruited people who have wanted to dip their toe into long form but didn’t want to give up commercial work.”
“We’re always interested in things that are going to keep our artists on their toes and keep them interested and fresh,” says Unit’s Luckwell. “That was a much, much bigger driver for us initially.”
Making the move
The bridge for commercials post houses into long form has been a similar one for most. “We always intended to do it but, if I’m honest, it happened really organically,” says Coffee & TV’s Moreton. Essentially an existing short form client that needed help with a long form project. In Coffee & TV’s case, Peaky Blinders. “That was just going to be a couple of shots. And then we ended up doing around 170 in the end. Then one thing led to the next…”
Unit’s Luckwell was similarly approached by commercials clients to work on Britannia. “That was amazing for us because we got nominated for a BAFTA. That instantly attracted everyone’s attention internally.” Vfx on Avenue 5 followed and then “about 18 months ago, somebody said “do you do long form picture post?’ So, we reached out to Louise Stevenson [formerly of Technicolor] and brought her on board to EP the long form picture post side. So, we’ve now got three distinct revenue streams – commercials, long form picture post and long form vfx.”
Freefolk’s Wright also describes “an organic process” but “winning an Emmy early on in our longform journey, for our work on The Alienist, meant that we were then on the radar of the studios and could focus readily on the episodic and film jobs that started coming to us.”
JAM’s Andreopoulos also says his company was “considering trying to get into more long form work” when an opportunity to work on End of the F**king World came about. “Everyone really enjoyed the process of working on that. Since then, it’s been quite organic. We haven’t really gone out there to find that work. It was something that happened through one producer and then that producer introduced us to somebody else and then they pass on the information to someone else.”
But while many short form houses initially dipped a toe into long form, making it an ongoing part of the business requires significant change. “Project duration is an obvious one, days or a few weeks for commercials versus multiple months for longform,” says Freefolk’s Wright. “This difference in duration also affects the allocation of resources: short form projects generally use smaller teams for a condensed period of time, whereas longform projects typically require a larger team of artists, specialised departments, and more substantial resources including editorial and data management to support and handle the increased workload and complexity.” And it’s not just the creative side that requires change. “The bidding, review and approval process in longform is also more structured than in commercials and demands greater production resource over a far longer schedule.”
Getting the right talent is also key. As in commercials, producers and directors in long form will go where their favourite colourist or vfx producer is currently working.
Tech upgrades are also needed. “We have invested in more machines, faster server, more storage and better archiving,” says 1920’s Hurst. “Remote has helped the immediate need for space but we are now in the midst of looking at another floor.”
“Our servers obviously increased in size. We’ve had to add more storage, which is only going to get bigger and bigger so we’re looking at cloud solutions,” says JAM’s Andreopoulos. A new ops director has been brought in and more MCR talent too.
In vfx, says Unit’s Luckwell, “there’s most certainly an investment involved,” but “it depends on what type of vfx you want to do. If you want to do the invisible effects, you’re probably okay with the commercials pipeline. If you want to then go and branch out and do something a little bit more involved, then you’re into an investment.” With greater complexity of vfx, suddenly, “we need an effects department, we need an animation department, we need an environments department. And at that point, it’s a much bigger undertaking.”
Dealing with the workflows of long form HETV require changes too. “Film and Episodic work will quite often be multi-vendor. This brings with it a strict and detailed pipeline you need to adhere to so the work from all vendors is consistent with each other,” says James Etherington-Sparks, Head of Film and Episodic at 1920. “This type of work will generally be worked on over a much longer period than a commercial, so you’ll often find a project evolves more over time in terms of shot count and scope of work which also makes shot tracking all the more important.”
Coffee & TV’s Moreton says the company quickly realised “it couldn’t just be us with a spreadsheet anymore. We needed a proper pipeline to formalise our process.”
And while commercials clients are unsurprisingly security conscious about their content, HETV clients like Netflix require everything to be watertight with a long checklist of physical and data security measures in place for post and vfx suppliers. “Unless you have a TPN [Trusted Partner Network] certificate, you’re pretty shafted,” points out Luckwell.
“Building and IT security is really critical on longform shows with facilities requiring access-controlled rooms, ‘air-gapped’ networks and tighter working practices all coming under the scrutiny of auditors and studios, this is something that traditionally hasn’t been required for the vast majority of commercial projects,” says Freefolk’s Wright.
Customers like Netflix don’t just require greater security, they also require assurances that a supplier can handle the work. “Netflix, understandably, want you to prove that you can deliver the work,” says Moreton. “It’s not just TPN. Have you got those bums on seats? Have you got that amount of artists? Can you deliver this volume of work?”
The bidding process in long form also has marked differences from commercials. “Longform projects take longer to quote, with multiple stages of bid refinement, therefore demanding a larger investment of time and focus from the team,” says Freefolk’s Guidon.
But it is also a refreshing change. “The main difference is that we get to rebid if anything changes in HETV (it’s a very accurate Shot count),” says 1920’s Hurst. “Quite often in commercials we strike an all-in agreement and don’t get to rebid,” when changes are made.
If it’s set up right, many agree that running both commercials and long form post work at the same time can be an advantage.
“It means you can ramp up with staff to do the long form work and, when the commercials come in, you can pull them off the long form because you’ve got capacity and the timelines aren’t as strict as in the commercial world. So it actually works really well as a model,” says JAM’s Andreopoulos.
Freefolk’s Guidon similarly says that “the good thing is that each discipline can support the other, if jobs are delayed or times are lean in one versus the other.”
And variety is often the spice of life. “It’s made it more fun,” says Luckwell. “It’s certainly given me back a spring in my step.”
This article first appeared in the Summer 2023 edition of Televisual Magazine
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