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Education and Diversification

Chicago and Detroit Deal with ChangeWith the Screen Actors Guild strike affecting everyone from rental to post houses, many in Chicago and Detroit are choosing to continue down a familiar path: diversification. For instance, many are turning to corporate industrial work to temper the change in tide while others are increasing their involvement in DVD. Meanwhile, the slow adoption of high-definition by broadcasters and agencies has also driven companies to find other outlets for their HD investments and has left others on the fence about whether to make high-definition purchases. Whatever their reasons for venturing into new markets, one thing that Chicago- and Detroit-based production and post professionals are increasingly realizing is that taking the lead as educators is essential to making current investments pay off.

ChicagoTom Fletcher, of Fletcher Chicago, has been one of the leading high-definition educators in the Midwest. While Fletcher currently rents out his Sony HDCAMs primarily to independent and documentary filmmakers, he also sees it as his responsibility to educate agencies – and even their clients – about the virtues of HD. “If I don’t educate the advertising industry about high definition, then the production companies who are my clients are never going to get asked to do high definition,” he says. “We’ve also had to go one step further: If the ad agency is waiting for their client to ask them for high definition, then we’ve had to go right to the advertiser themselves.”

Fletcher Chicago hosts regular HD events and also plans to offer an HD symposium in the fall, which Fletcher says he has been putting off until the company received its first Sony 24p camera. Now the camera has arrived and is already in demand – local production company Room 101 was first to rent the camera. At press time, Fletcher said that the symposium would probably occur in October or November, leaving enough time to gather some footage for presentation. Fletcher has also been in touch with the local cinematographers union and hopes to put on a 24p workshop for camera assistants.

“The market could be healthier in production, but it’s hard to tell how healthy it would be if the strike were over,” says Dave Mueller VP/director of client services for Swell Pictures. “It’s been a little lean here in Chicago, production-wise.” Swell is keeping busy by staying fresh: The company has just started a new division devoted solely to developing new programming called Swell Entertainment. “We are looking more for diversification, to not just depend on commercials,” notes Mueller, who is heading up the division in addition to keeping his normal responsibilities. Recent productions include series for the History Channel and the Discovery Channel.

Swell is also countering the negative effects of the strike by increasing its corporate work. “We’re working with some high-end design companies who come to us to do things on video,” says Mueller. “This is business to business, for Chicago companies.”

Postproduction company I superscript 3 is slowly beginning to receive high-definition requests for spots. “We have one client who has decided to do everything HD this year: Marlboro,” says Mark Adler, partner and director of engineering. “We’re hoping that more will take that approach because obviously we’ve made the investment.”

Some of that investment includes an HD-capable Fire suite and a C-Reality telecine. Adler notes that, overall, resolution independence has been one of the company’s biggest advances over the last year. “Adding HD has been one part of it, and adding 2K data was another,” he says. On the 2K data side, Adler says that the company has purchased Silicon Grail’s Chalice and has been creating plug-in enhancements for grain reduction, dirt fixes, and other treatments that are important when doing 2K.

In terms of being educators to their clients, Adler says that I superscript 3 always answers questions and deals with projects on a case-by-case basis. “The climate is really in a place where clients are beginning to ask about high def,” he states. “Not everyone should be doing HD all the way through, though – some people should be doing data.”

One of the few companies in the Midwest garnering new high-definition broadcast clients is Post Effects. A recent merger with Chicago post house Independent Producers Associates and music and sound design studio Odonnell-Salvatori brought Post Effects a wealth of new services – including creative editorial and compositing for independent film, audio offerings, and DVD authoring and encoding – and strengthened the company’s existing HDTV infrastructure. “All of our detractors said that we would fail in the first year, but we’ve done very well in HD,” says Melinda Perrin, executive producer. Recent HD business includes series work with the History Channel, Native Sun Productions, and Kurtis Productions. The company is also doing HD for large-scale corporate presentations.

Perrin does admit that Post Effects has done very few HD commercials. “It’s a hard sell for commercials,” she says. “We have had a couple of commercials from clients who were traditionally film-production companies that have moved to HD, but it’s been used more in our broadcast and corporate areas.” However, Perrin points out that, while HD spot work has been slow, Post Effects has somehow managed to avoid the downtime caused by the SAG strike. At press time, the company was getting about a quarter of its work from agencies, a normal percentage, according to Perrin. “Diversification has helped us, “notes director of postproduction Chuck Floramo, who also adds that the company is about to take delivery of Sony 24p equipment.

DetroitLike Fletcher Chicago, Stratton Camera has been seeing a lot of rentals from independent filmmakers. Unlike Fletcher Chicago, Stratton Camera has not yet invested in high definition.

“No one has any [HD equipment] in town yet,” says Lon Stratton, co-owner (with his wife Dianne), “and no one can figure out exactly what its place is going to be in this market. We’re just not sure it’s going to provide such a driving reason to change from either film or the existing BetaCam formats for the type of projects in this area.” While he has made the decision not to buy any HD equipment this year, Stratton does note that he will make an investment as soon as it becomes viable for the Detroit market.

Stratton has spent money this year expanding his existing inventory with more lenses, video-assist units, and support equipment. Stratton says that this investment reflects increased business. “The low-budget movie business has continued to take off and the commercial/industrial business has increased,” he notes.

Steve Wild, president of Grace & Wild, echoes Stratton’s sentiments regarding HD. “I don’t really see the reason for making an investment in an application that is in turmoil,” he states. “Our commercial industry doesn’t believe that there’s a reason for it. We’ve had no interest from the ad agency community. We’ve had limited interest from the corporate community, which is interested in the quality derived for projecting large images at venues, meetings, or entertainment sports events where you have a large audience.”

The biggest changes over the past year, according to Wild, have concerned the company’s advances toward a completely nonlinear, tapeless environment. “We’ve added one Henry Infinity and three Editboxes. We’re converting to a nonlinear editing environment and to mass data storage for video servers, rather than using tape machines for that process. We’ll always use tape for archiving our images and our completed program content because it’s inexpensive and high-quality. But I think that the elimination of VTRs and the actual postproduction processes has been a significant change that is indicative of the industry in general.”

While GTN has done some in-store spots and presentation work in HD this past year, Doug Cheek, president and CEO, says that the HD front has been pretty quiet. “It’s chicken and egg right now,” he states. “The broadcasters aren’t going to broadcast because they say there isn’t any content; the content creators aren’t going to create because they say that there’s no place to release it. So we’re standing by with the frying pan and the roaster – whichever way it goes, we’ll be ready.”

Meanwhile, at this year’s NAB, GTN announced a strategic development partnership with Eagan, Minnesota-based WAM!NET. As part of the partnership, GTN has assisted the company in building a postproduction model for managing content across WAM!NET’s layered media network. “We’ve successfully signed on six of the top agencies in Detroit,” says Cheek, “and two of the top film editorial companies are being networked up. We’re very excited about it – this is a real poignant initiative to get this community thinking and working along digital workflow lines.”

Forest Post Productions has gone ahead with its high-definition investments, although the company is realistic about its application. “We see this as primarily for the corporate industrial client more than for broadcast,” notes Chuck Kaiser VP of sales and marketing for Forest Post. “We’re going to educate our corporate industrial clients.” Kaiser also notes that the company will be a beta site for a nonlinear HD system, whose name he could not disclose at press time.

The company has added three more Avid/Softimage|DS nonlinear suites and replaced one of its D2 suites with a Smoke. “Now we’re down to the point where we only have two rooms that are linear,” says Kaiser, who notes that the biggest change over the last year has been in Forest Post’s embracing of nonlinear, tapeless editing.

As far as agency work is concerned, Kaiser says that Forest Post has remained unaffected by the strike. “Some of the work that we’ve been doing a lot of is dealer work that traditionally has some running footage with some kind of treatment, so these aren’t normal on-screen-talent-type shoots,” notes Kaiser. The company is also serving Detroit’s agencies, including J. Walter Thompson, with its DVD services. “We’re doing more work for the agencies, using DVD to archive and create compilations of all their spots, so that they can review them and have easy access to them,” says Kaiser.