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Shape-Shifters: California's Facilities Branch into New Realms

California's production, postproduction, and audio recording facilities arebranching into new realms and trying to recreate themselves in the face ofwhat most agree is an extremely competitive environment. Some are creatingentirely new facilities to complement existing operations. Others aremoving their assets to join Santa Monica's short-form community. Stillothers are restructuring their identities with new names, divisions, andmarket focuses.

One thing seems certain: Both Northern and Southern California's facilitiesare demonstrating that they can shape-shift just as quickly as our proteanindustry can.

Northern CaliforniaSan Francisco-based Colossal Pictures-which designs, produces, and developscontent for television, feature films, and new media-has been working onmeeting the demands of what executive producer Jana Canallos sees as thepredominant "faster, cheaper, and better" climate. A form of animation thatshe calls "kind-a-mation" is one way of keeping costs down whilemaintaining a level of creative integrity. "It's animation that isn't goingto have to be animated on ones or twos," she explains. "It can be veryengaging, and yet it doesn't require heavy-duty, expensive animationtechniques. It can be in the form of cut-outs or hand-drawn animationthat's been put into the computer and animated in After Effects."

Colossal is also reconfiguring some of its television assets for Webbroadcast. "We're trying to create entities that can live on both screens,"states Canallos. In addition to more traditional short-form work, thefacility recently designed Flash-based animation for Cartoon Network's WebPremiere Toons.

Despite the competitive environment, editorial/design house Pomegranit, hasbeen seeing a lot of work-enough to support relocation to aturn-of-the-century brick warehouse off the Embarcadero in San Francisco."All four rooms are booked and our graphics stations. A lot of times wehave to keep rendering on one station and designing on the other two,"remarks Mitra Tyree, senior editor and co-owner (with Randy Trefzger). "Wehave had absolutely the best quarter this year, which is strange becausepostproduction is going through a shift."

Commercial work for companies including Aerial Communications, Direct Web,Amazon.com, and Sears has been keeping Pomegranit's 15-personteam-including recently hired senior editor Kerie Kimbrell, senior motiongraphics designer Brandon Martinez, and motion graphics designer LesaHerrera-on its toes. The facility also plans to add an Avid onlinecomponent room to its four existing Avid online rooms and three Mac-basedmotion graphics stations.

San Francisco's Varitel, which was recently acquired by Los Angeles-basedModern Videofilm, has been revamping itself in view of increased boutiquecompetition. The post facility, which plans to put in a new room with aSoftimage digital studio, has already added Twiggy and Scandal telecineupgrades and the 5D Sparks package for its Inferno. Jonathan Wank, adigital artist previously with ILM's commercials division, has recentlyjoined Varitel's ranks, as well.

"What I've seen over the last five years is a lot of consolidation amongpost houses because there are lots of new start-ups and boutiques. As faras the desktop platform, that has definitely taken away a lot of oureditorial and online business. So we have to revamp ourselves and figureout what our next move is. We've been staying very high-end as far as thetype of boxes that we get," states Richard Costello, president and generalmanager.

Full-service post facility Realtime Video, also in San Francisco, has addeda few assets to keep up with the game. Among them are Emmy Award-winningdesigner Anne Maroon, a Smoke system (with Satellite Workstation), a HenryV.8/Infinity upgrade, and a new graphics division called 168 Design. "We'vebeen taking a much more active and aggressive role in being producers inbroadcast, corporate, and interactive," states president Will Hoover. "Thedesign group that we've just put together is another extension of that.We're controlling our own destiny and being our own client in a sense."

Jan Philips, president of 168, is optimistic about the possibilities thatSan Francisco offers. "We're going after the many creative opportunitiesthat this city does afford: everything from broadcast to agencies,certainly to the Silicon Valley Internet, as well. The opportunities hereare so wide across the board that it's kind of like being a child in acandy store."

Another operation taking advantage of the Bay Area's resources (includingproximity to RESfest's homebase) is The Orphanage. True to its name, theSan Francisco facility is becoming a reservoir for independent contractorswishing to create for venues other than the latest summer blockbuster.Founder Scott Stewart embodies this rebellious spirit, as he himself spentthe last four years at ILM working on such high-profile projects as SW1,Mars Attacks, and The Lost World before founding The Orphanage in January1999. "My vision of the company was not just to create just another visualeffects company-or at least not just another post facility," he explains."What I wanted was a sort of hybrid facility, which did both visual effectsfor television and film-emphasizing talent over technology-and also digitalproduction. So we have a bunch of digital cameras and postproduction gear.We're working our way into DV features."

To prepare the DV pipeline for eventual feature-length work, The Orphanageis currently preparing a 25-minute film based on Raymond Carver's storyWhat We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The short is scheduled forrelease this month for life on the festival circuit.

Speaking from San Francisco's audio front, Eric Eckstein, chiefengineer/co-owner of One Union Recording Studios, is optimistic. "We areconstantly busy-the work seems to be unending," he enthuses. "Not only is alot of good advertising being done in San Francisco, but a lot of goodadvertising where the creative is being done in San Francisco and is nolonger going to L.A. or New York to finish."

Part of the advertising flow that the all-digital audio recording facilityhas been seeing stems from neighboring Silicon Valley's Internet companies."They have rather big budgets and are not afraid to spend them," saysEckstein. "They use top sound designers, and I get to mix the tracks ofsome really excellent sound designers in town. One of the cool things aboutthe Internet companies is that they tend to let the agencies do some workthat might be shunned by some of the larger corporations. They'redefinitely taking more risks." One Union recently recorded, edited, andmixed spots for Internet companies Food.com (out of Blazing Paradigm, SanFrancisco) and Fogdog Sports (out of Odiorne, Wilde, Narraway & Partners,San Francisco).

"Right now commercial distribution is shining, and the corporate side istaking off now, too," states manager of business development Paul Suppleeat full-service video duplication company Fast Forward, San Francisco. Hesees this success as partially due to the fact that Fast Forward is open 24hours a day, seven days a week. "People can walk in with their masters ateight o'clock and get it done overnight," he says. "That's been the biggestplus for us."

The facility also houses what Supplee claims is "the largest vault inNorthern California" with over 83,000 keyword-searchable elements. Recenthardware additions include a new Avid 9000 nonlinear editing system,digital Betacam machines, and high-band 950 series upgrades to its 3/4machines.

Southern CaliforniaWarner Bros. Studios, Burbank, has answered theatrical productions' demandfor more space by adding 26,000-square-foot Stage 23, which president ofstudio operations Gary Credle says is the first new stage to be built onthe lot since 1955.

The studios have also renovated and completely replaced all of theelectronics on Scoring Stage One. "It's been renowned as one of the bestscoring stages in the industry, but it had grown tired and wasn't state ofthe art," explains Credle. Renovations include all-new Solid State Logicmixing consoles, reconfigured recording rooms, new television monitors,video projection capabilities, and a new stage floor.

Warner Bros. has also added a brand-new dubbing stage, converted anotherdubbing stage into one with full-digital standards (with AMS Neveconsoles), and last-but certainly not least-built a new parking structureto facilitate what Credle calls "enormous efficiencies" in trafficmanagement.

Despite recent closings in the Hollywood area, View Studio has been doingquite well. "With mixed feelings-mostly sadness for our friends at otherfacilities-we have reaped some benefits from others' downsizings orclosings," elaborates executive producer Henry Kline.

Competition may have forced rates down, but the studio has seen a dramaticincrease in work-including compositing for three Animal Planet promos (for3 Ring Circus, Los Angeles and Nelson Page Entertainment), design work fortwo new spots advertising Knott's Berry Farm attractions (for DavisElenAdvertising, Los Angeles), and morphs for Star Trek: Deep Space Nine andThe X-Files. Also of note is View's new completely blue/green-screenableinsert stage (17' x 12'), which is busy serving clients and also offeringView a venue for co-developing original work.

Although primarily an episodic facility, postproduction house Encore,Hollywood, is now cultivating more commercial and music video clients."We've started up a program called Encore Express, which is to supportcommercial dailies," says managing director Josh Touber. "I believe that ascommercial clients, agencies, and production companies that do dailies hererediscover that they're getting a top-notch colorist, they actually likethe experience so much that they actually come back and do the final colorhere." Encore has also hired Allen Williams as executive producer and salesrepresentative for short-form.

Encore, Hollywood, is also the HD center for the Encore Group of 4MCcompanies. Stocked with the full Philips Spirit Datacine environment, a 2Kda Vinci color corrector, and a Sony online HD editorial bay, the facilityplans to do at least four episodic shows this year in high definition,including City of Angels for CBS. "We're reinvesting in Hollywood," statesTouber. "We've put five million into Hollywood, and we do see it as thesmartest location."

But The Encore Group is covering its bases with Santa Monica-based RIOT,formerly known as Encore, Santa Monica. The post facility has seen morethan just a name change in the last three months. It has added two newcolorists (Clark Mollar and Bo Leon), a C-Reality from Cintel, and a secondSpirit telecine.

These additions, perhaps, reflect what managing director Michael Taylornotices as a shift away from "in-your-face" visual effects work in spots."Visual effects now is pretty seamless," he notes. "Telecines are soimportant these days. What the colorist has done is really taken thedirector's vision, and they work very closely together these days with whatis shot in the camera and what the colorist can pull out of the negative orpaint in pictures." RIOT has recently performed effects and telecine workfor Spree (Daely and Associates, Los Angeles), Sprint (Grey Advertising,New York), and Saab (Martin Agency, Dallas) spots.

525 Post Production, meanwhile, is putting its money solely on SantaMonica. The facility-which handles telecine, compositing, and CGI forcommercials and music videos-has moved its resources from Hollywood to thebeach community. It is also expanding its 3D department, a move that CEOEric Bonniot says is the product of demand. "A strong percentage of thecommercial work that we've been doing and music video work requires somedegree of 3D elements or integration," explains Bonniot. "I really thinkthat more and more of what we're doing is saying not, 'This is 3D and thisis 2D,' but, 'What's the best solution to make this look stunning?'"

The facility has also had some staff additions: Jais Lamaire, telecine;Steve Scott, Inferno artist; Steward Burris, CGI; and Leslie Sorentino, production. Recent projects for 525 include music videos for Missy Elliot, Puff Daddy, and Will Smith and commercials for Subaru, Dannon, and Novell.

Although Santa Maria-based Computer Cafe has opened a new office in SantaMonica to support its commercial clientele, the 3D animation and effectsfacility wants to emphasize both its short-form and long-form work. "Wewant to let people know that we're a small facility, but we're working onreally high-caliber projects, and we don't just specialize in one thing,"states owner Jeff Barnes. The facility's recent spate of projects-whichincludes creating a CGI crow for Miramax's The Crow III as well asspot/promo work for NBC, HBO (Pittard Sullivan, New York), and McDonald's(Leo Brunett, Chicago) -reflects this dual focus.

According to Barnes, Computer Cafe is also trying to build up itsreputation for photo-realistic CGI by putting more "car stuff" on its reel."The guys have done some in-house pieces that are pretty impressive.They've done a formula CGI race car that you literally cannot tell is notreal." In addition to the in-house project, which was overseen by Barnes'partner and technical/artistic supervisor David Ebner, the facility iscurrently doing tests for some Detroit manufacturers.

The L.A. Studios have also added a new Santa Monica operation to thefamily: Margarita Mix de Santa Monica, a new recording facility forcommercial mixing that COO Jesse Meli describes as "Old World Mexico withStar Trek technology." The facility, configured for 5.1 surround, boastsfour mixing suites and one pre-lay transfer room-all networked with dSP32-track Postations and each featuring a different "theme" environment.

"We polled our clients verbally and with questionnaires. They basicallysaid, we want everything that you have in Hollywood, just pick it up andmove it," Meli elaborates. "The whole place is a beautiful Mexican resort,which is juxtaposed against all of this technology." The facility is acomplement to Margarita Mix, Hollywood, which focuses primarily on thetelevision network market.

Mixer Jimmy Hite also developed and customized an instant-access soundeffects network for the facility that integrates into the dSP and allowsany function performed to be done simultaneously to the 60,000-plus soundeffects that the network links.

Cinesite, Los Angeles, has recently restructured itself into threedivisions: visual effects, film scanning/recording, and digitalmastering/preservation. "For visual effects, we want to broaden ourservices that we provide to include character animation, models, andminiatures, and we also want to broaden our markets to cover what we wouldcall 'special venue,' which would be large-format IMAX movies, commercials,and the television market," states Gil Gagnon, VP of visual effects andhead of production. Cinesite is ramping up the animation pipeline bycreating Maya-compatible proprietary plug-ins for facial animation andhair/fur rendering and by working on an animated, 100-percent CG shortcalled Plant Doctor. The department has also hired Academy award-winningsenior visual effects supervisor Michael McAlister.

Cinesite's digital mastering/preservation department is working on aprocess called "digital intermediate" that will both allow for afilm-resolution digital master that can be down-converted to alldistribution platforms and for cost-effective digital film restoration.Forrest Fleming, VP of film scanning/recording and digitalmastering/preservation, explains: "Digital intermediate will be a way thatwe completely scan full feature films to a digital format and then alterthem in variety of ways, perhaps give digital enhancements to principalphotography, and record back out to film for distribution."

Meanwhile, Cinesite's scanning/recording division is providing six partnerfacilities around the world with Kodak digital film scanners and recorders:Monaco, San Francisco; Eclair, Paris; Digifilm, Stockholm; Dfilm/Atlab,Sidney; Videolab, Johannesburg; and Chile Films in Buenos Aires and SaoPaulo.

Also dipping a finger in the digital cinema pie is Rainmaker Digital, LosAngeles. While continuing to nurture its imaging, new media, andinteractive departments, Rainmaker is taking on a new dimension called the"DataLab." This venture-backed by Philips, Panasonic, SGI, Mountain Gate,Digital Projections, Sony, Ciprico, Pandora, and ARRI-is part ofRainmaker's plan to diversify its existing technology into new arenas. Forinstance, the facility will evolve its visual effects tools intorestoration and optical support for the DataLab operation.

"We are developing the ability to color correct feature-length motionpictures digitally, so that we can use traditional telecine tools in adigital film environment and make it technically possible and economicallyreasonable," explains Peter Sternlicht, head of imaging and DataLab. "Thisis a very huge project and is part of the process that will be on theproduction end of enabling electronic cinema."

With this comment Sternlicht puts a fine point on a common theme inCalifornia-people are following their own visions of what will be the nextbig thing. While the early to mid 90s saw a lot of "keeping up with theJoneses" in a flurry of equipment buys, today's successful facilities arebetting on diverse and distinct views of the future. While negotiating thechanging business climate of postproduction, facilities are aligningthemselves for the success of electronic cinema, HD, Webcasting, and anarray of new services and business models. In the process, they are givingcustomers unprecedented choice in the kind of services and relationshipsthey can buy.