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Tough Enough: How Some Stay Vital in L.A.

Compared to last year, the news is good: Business for Los Angeles’production and postproduction community, although sporadic, seems to be upfrom 1998, and many companies have felt secure enough to expand theirfacilities, services, and staffs.

The bad news is that the so-called “runaway production” treadmill is stillturning, forcing companies to continuously produce on lower and lowerbudgets. While agencies may be happy with the lower rates, many say thatthe need to underbid is slowly undermining the business. At any rate, theclimate in all facets of production and post is intensely competitive, andcompanies need to find ways to stay in the game.

The strength of design/production collective Miss Jones, which formed lastyear, lies in its artists who have crossed over from sister companyWindmill Lane. According to executive producer Bronwen LaGrue, each memberof the seven-person team can take a project through the multiple stages ofproduction and post. “We had operators, directors, and designers who weremulti-talented across the board, not just individually talented on Flame oron Avid,” says LaGrue. “[We formed Miss Jones] to explore an environmentwhere they could obtain work for themselves utilizing all of their varioustalents.”

The company either handles projects from production to postproduction orpicks them up in post. “We’re not set up just to do production here becauseI think that would be unrealistic in this market,” notes LaGrue. “But wedon’t want to be seen as just a facility house creating your end title oryour end tag. If we do something that’s post-oriented only, we want tobring something to the project.” Recent projects include campaigns for ESPNand Toyota. The company is transferring its television knowledge to Websites, as well.

While jobs are coming in, LaGrue does announce that it is difficult tobuild a reputation in L.A.’s intensely competitive market. “Advertisingagencies tend to want to go with well-known names, which I can understand,”she says. “That’s the challenge, to say: ‘Look at the work, don’t look atthe reputation.’ Because we’re still building ours, but we can do a goodjob for you.”

While not as new as Miss Jones, five-year-old production company A Pictures(with an office in New York, as well), is also struggling to staycompetitive and tread carefully in L.A.’s volatile market. Director JohnAlper has worked on a variety of campaigns, including one for the ChicagoTribune and another for the U.S. Post Office. Director Greg Vernondemonstrates his flashier talents through campaigns such as the one herecently completed for Pontiac Sunfire. But despite its directors’ skills,A Pictures still finds L.A. a tough place to be.

“The budgets are smaller than they ever were before and the competition ishuge, so you have a lot of directors vying for the same work,” saysexecutive producer Kent Feuerring. For him, staying competitive involvesfervently backing the directors, not taking a high markup on every job, andbeing extremely frugal with production expenses. “That doesn’t mean thatyou have to pay people less. But instead of going out and paying for the$10,000-a-day camera package, find a way to get it for $6,000 a day or$3,000 a day,” he explains.

One place to look for camera packages is at Birns & Sawyer. Last July,Gunner Camera merged with Birns & Sawyer and moved all its North Hollywoodequipment to Birns & Sawyer’s showroom location. “It’s given us a freshstart,” says Tom Schweickart, rental department manager for operations.

Aside from the obvious inventory acquisition that the merger produced, theprimarily film-oriented company has also dived into the digital-video andHD markets with a Canon XL1 mini-DV camera and a Sony HDW-700 camera. “Weonly have one at this point,” says Schweickart of the Sony camera. “We aretrying to get to know it a little bit better and figure out ways toaccessorize the HD cameras with some film accessories since there is goingto be this crossover when people start going with HD.” The company has alsoadded the set of Cooke S Series prime lenses and the Hot Gearsremote-control head.

Schweickart claims that business has steadily improved over the last year.”We took a downturn a couple of years ago, and now we’re starting to bounceback. It’s an old established name, but it’s a new company.”

Another L.A. “old-timer” is animation house Duck Soup. The studio, whichhas seen many changes during the 28 years it has been in business, iscontinually reinventing itself and adding new techniques. The company nowoffers 3D-CGI and mixed-media work in addition to traditional celanimation. Over the last year, executive producer Mark Medernach hasnoticed a demand for animation “that’s more like live-action, with movingcameras, depth, and dimension.” He also notes that meldings of 2D and 3Dare becoming increasingly popular.

Recent projects for the studio include an HBO campaign, several BellAtlantic spots featuring James Earl Jones, and two spots for Nestlestarring Grant Hill of the Detroit Pistons. Medernach says that whilebusiness has been good overall this year, it’s been very erratic. “There’sbeen no rhyme or reason this year [in terms of business],” he says. “It wasvery busy in beginning, very slow in summer, and now very busy again.”

For Mixin Pixls, the inconsistency has been in what clients are asking for.”Just to give you an idea of the spectrum,” says CGI director and co-ownerHarry Paakkonen, “last summer, I went from the Deep Blue Sea main titlesequence to creating a photo-real whale for a Pacific Life Commercial tocreating an animated Kraft character to creating smoke that needs to lookphotoreal and mist that needs to form letters for a Rice-a-Roni commercialto creating a photo-real butterfly for a Home Base commercial.”

But one thing that Paakkonen does see as a steady trend is that directors,who are becoming increasingly literate about CG effects, are preparing fortheir creation at an earlier stage. “Five years ago, talking to a director,there was much more mystery about it. Now I think people are educated andvery savvy and able to use this tool,” says Paakkonen. “You get into thisdialogue very early on about what is the best way to go about it. The bestway is that during the bidding you are already talking about what you needfrom the shoot.” He does note that he and Henry artist Mark Dennison stillhear “fix it in post” and that he often finds himself in situations wherethe CGI was thought of only after the shoot. “You just have to be veryflexible,” he says. “Try to work in a way that can give the director andthe creative people enough room.”

Practical-effects shop Hunter Gratzner-which has recently wrapped projectsfor End of Days and The Crew-has also been seeing more directors askingearly on for guidance in effects development. The company just worked on alow-budget film called Pitch Black, from storyboarding the opening scene todesigning, building, and supervising the photography of a spaceship. HunterGratzner’s early involvement led to the incorporation of many traditionaleffects and in-camera shots, which, according to CEO Shannon Blake Gans,saved the production a lot of money.

“For a film that wasn’t a high-budget film, it got high-quality visualeffects by getting us involved from the beginning,” she states. “Therewasn’t a lot of fixing at the end, which is part of the reason why peoplesay visual effects are so expensive. If you don’t shoot your first unitwith the thought of what’s going to happen in post, then you spend a lot ofmoney fixing instead of spending the money to shoot.”

Those in post don’t want to overspend either. Which is why Avid-authorizedrental facility L.A. Digital Post has been so successful. Michael DeMucci,VP of business development and marketing, says that post houses thatpreviously purchased their own equipment have begun renting to avoidwasting money on support and upgrades.

Another shift he has seen is the move toward facility-based editing. “Theynot only want the machine and the technical support; they also want an editsuite and a facility to edit at,” DeMucci says, noting that the edit roomsat the North Hollywood and Santa Monica locations are always booked. All ofL.A. Digital’s portable systems are booked as well, a testament to whatDeMucci says has been a great year. “The downtime, the hiatus periodbetween the season ending in the spring and then starting up again in thefall, that period is becoming smaller and smaller,” he says.

As for what people are renting, DeMucci says that the Avid 9000 Mac-basedsystem is still the first choice, although interest is slowly crossingplatforms. “People are starting to look at NT, and we are starting to putthose systems out. There’s also a lot of interest in the Avid Symphonybecause of its online finishing capabilities.” L.A. Digital has recentlyadded 23 Avid NT machines, five Avid Symphonys, and an Avid Unity MediaShare to its inventory.

CCI’s rental department is flourishing also. “We’ve added more Avids andsome high-definition gear to the rental fleet,” says vice president CraigBarnes. And CCI is using its move from Hollywood to Burbank as a chance torethink its postproduction services wing as well.

The biggest news at press time was CCI’s move into high-definition filmtransfers. “In addition to the Spirit, we also have ordered several of thePanasonic AJ-HD 3000 decks and also the Sony HDCAM,” explains Barnes. “Wewill be doing all film transfer in 24p, loading that into the Universal,the newer Symphony software, and doing both a 525 and a 625 output to them,as well as a 24-frame HD EDL, which will come back into conforming. Itallows us to do three transfers with one system.”

Everything is paying off so far. “We’ve been able to increase our profitmargins, which is hard to do in this day and age, and give our clients thelevel of service that we weren’t able to in Hollywood,” Barnes notes.”We’ve managed to land most of the major studios as clients.”

Harley’s House has been expanding in terms of physical space. The editorialhouse-with its commercial, music-video, trailer, and promo divisions-hasdoubled its size in recent months. “We had a design philosophy called’Zen-Tech,'” explains owner/president Harley Rinzler. “It’s a combinationof the quiet, harmonious elements of the Zen philosophy with the smooth,clean lines of high-tech. Philosophically, it incorporates the union ofcreativity and the technology that is used to exercise creativity. I wantedto create a holistic environment that mirrored, fed, and enhanced the workthat takes place here.”

So far, it seems to be working, as Harley’s has attracted substantiallymore business than last year, according to Rinzler. But he knows that it’snot just the new space that has kept up the steady flow of incoming work.”In building the different creative brands that we have here with thedifferent divisions, we’ve managed to even out the annual cycle so that wehaven’t, fortunately, had any period where we’ve just been dead,” heexplains. Having so many divisions under one roof also encourages crossoverbetween genres, as recently hired editor Einar demonstrates by frequentlyincorporating lessons learned from his music-video background intocommercials.

Change is also in the air at Encore, Hollywood. The commercial and episodicfacility has repositioned itself to include feature-mastering services,including transfers for video release, DVD, HD archiving, and internationaldistribution. “We’ve been happy to start working with Miramax, withParamount, with Fox Worldwide, and to continue work with Showtime, whichdoes movies for TV in the same manner as the feature-mastering projects,”states Joshua Touber, managing director.

Encore has also hired 20-year post veteran Carey Michaels to developdigital-trailer and film-restoration services. “Her first act was to getour film knowledge in order, and we’ve established our systems for usingthe Domino and the Fire and our high-def tools. We’re now putting those touse to do film outputs,” says Touber. “We have a Wide Area Network thatconnects to POP, and we can electronically move our files down there foroutput to film within our own organization.” Encore recently worked on thetheatrical release and PBS broadcast of video-originated Buena Vista SocialClub. For the PBS broadcast, Encore developed an alternative to Filmlookthat it calls “Filmstyle.” (See related article on page 15.) Says Touber,”It’s a much lower-cost real-time solution that we can apply to anyvideo-originated material.”

While the visual post world keeps on humming, all Walter Werzowa, owner ofaudio composition company Musikvergnuegen, wants is a little peace andquiet. Less acoustic stimulation may seem like a strange thing for acomposer to ask for, but Werzowa insists that our sound inundation cannotbe healthy. He uses a recent job for DTS to illustrate his point: “I workedon the DTS feature logo. THX and Dolby are really loud, and I know manypeople close their ears when they are watching. I think that the DTS isvery esoteric and peaceful-it should be opening your ears and inviting youto listen, not scare you.”

Musikvergnuegen composes for films, commercials, trailers, games, and TVshows for companies such as Imaginary Forces and yU & Co. “It feels like amarriage-you know these people and they know you,” Werzowa remarks oncollaborating with his visual counterparts. “They really have to trust youand know that you can give them something good, if not great, the next day.They don’t have a lot of time and energy to explain a lot; you really haveto understand what’s important.” Other recent projects for Musikvergnuegeninclude the entire score for October Films’ Cherry Falls and the sounds ofthe First Union campaign, which required 85- and 100-piece orchestras.

Audio post facility AudioBanks, sister company to music production houseEar-to-Ear, has been facing an inundation of a different sort. “There’sbeen so much ‘dot.com’ business about, it’s almost become, ‘Oh, whatdot.com spots are you working on this week?'” exclaims general managerSarah Banks. The facility has recently finished spots for Internetcompanies women.com, CNET, and Virtual Vineyards.

However, Banks says that overall business in both L.A. and other parts ofthe U.S. has been sporadic and not as abundant as facilities anticipated.”I think that this year has been very strange,” she says. “I was in justNew York, and they said, ‘It’s just been a very weird year here.’ No one isreally defining ‘weird,’ so it’s not a very helpful comment. But I think’weird’ is really a euphemism for ‘bad.'” Banks speculates that, perhaps,because companies are doing so well, they are not feeling the need toadvertise as much. But despite frustrated expectations, she is quick tonote that both the music business and the postproduction business havegrown in previous years. “I must be careful about making it sound too bad,”she says. “Although on the audio post side, I would have loved for it tohave been even better.”

While well-known places like Melrose Avenue and the Sunset Strip continueto draw out-of-towners, don’t neglect Los Angeles’ other virtues duringyour downtime. The city is blessed with a wealth of natural resources, andmany Angelenos will tell you to “head to the hills” for a breath of freshair. Where to go to get above the smog? Try the Santa Monica Mountains orthe easily recognized Hollywood Hills.

While at Griffith Park, let the kids ride the miniature train and theponies. The Gentle Barn, a private petting zoo and nature-education center,is another great place to bring the family. But make sure you call ahead:(818) 705-5477. Barn doors open by appointment only. And if you feel like akid yourself, don’t miss the Malibu SpeedZone, which offers go-carts foradults at 3/4 scale.

Those who prefer more cerebral activities can stroll through the LosAngeles County Museum of Art, the Getty Center, Bergamot Station ArtCenter, or the Museum of Tolerance. After touring the museums, you can restthose tired dogs amid USC’s or UCLA’s well-stocked libraries.

If you want to stick close to the ocean breezes, rent a boat at Marina DelRey and sail out to Catalina Island. Not-quite-as-adventurous lovers of thesea can hole up at Shutter’s in Santa Monica, the only hotel in L.A. thatsits directly on the sand.

Other suggestions: The Rose Bowl Swap Meet (held at the stadium the secondSunday of each month), Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum in Topanga, La BreaTar Pits, Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific, and the Paramount Ranch.

No matter what you choose to do, you have to eat. Here’s a selection ofhaunts that come highly recommended:

Asanebo-Studio City, (818) 760-3348. An exquisite sashimi shop open fordinner only.

Geoffrey’s-Malibu, (310) 457-1519. For the ultimate in Californian cuisineand sunsets, don’t miss.

Joe’s-Venice, (310) 399-5811. A relaxed storefront restaurant servingcomfort food California-style.

La Serenata de Garibaldi-Santa Monica, (310) 656-7017. You cannot leavewithout eating some of the city’s

delicious Mexican food, and locals say that La Serenata offers some of thebest.

Lucques-West Hollywood, (323) 655-6277. Everyone likes this one. Bring bigbucks and settle down for

some Cal-French-Med cuisine.

Patina-Hollywood , (323) 467-1108. Some consider Patina, with its sublimeCal-French food, to be the

best and most popular restaurant in L.A.

Pinot Hollywood-Hollywood, (323) 461-8800. Sip martinis and dine on thepatio at this French Bistro.

Roku Sushi-West Los Angeles, (323) 655-6767. An ultra-hip spot servingartfully prepared sushi.

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