To get an idea of just how much the post production industry has changed, try to find a company that describes itself as a post house in 2016. It’s not an entirely impossible task but there are more and more VFX studios, creative production studios and yet more convoluted phrases. Many of them, familiar names, do colour grading, compositing, CG animation, editing and other processes we might associate with a traditional post production house – but that word ‘post’ is increasingly raising hackles.
And with good reason. ‘Post’ is a word that carries heavy connotations. It’s something that comes after everything else, an after thought. It’s the final step in a linear process, sitting in its own little silo. It’s the bottom of the food chain. And if you look at the ways these companies are working, the new business models, the move upstream, the technological and creative innovations emerging from their R&D departments, the word ‘post’ and all of its baggage couldn’t be less relevant.
At The Mill, MD Darren O’Kelly calls the phrase post house ‘an antiquated descriptor’; Jon Collins at Framestore jokes that it has taken him 10 years to get people to call the company a VFX studio and now that he’s succeeded he wants them to stop because even VFX doesn’t encompass everything they do. The thing is these companies are no longer the last stop in the advertising process – they’re adland’s vanguard.
Smashing Up the Silos
The biggest change in post production is, in fact, one that’s been happening for years… but one that people are only really opening up about now. As budgets shrink, post houses and VFX studios are swimming upstream, developing direct relationships with clients, developing creative departments. In past years it’s something that was discussed very much off the record – no one wanted to anger agency clients by appearing to ‘bite the hand that feeds’. These days it’s so commonplace that it’s just part of a new reality.
“In that traditional silo model, we know that the ‘hand’ doesn’t feed so much anymore,” jokes Jon Collins, President of Integrated Production at Framestore New York. When Framestore started directing commercials ten years ago, he says he would have been hesitant to talk about it. But the reality of the old linear, hierarchical production process meant that the only way for squeezed post and VFX houses to survive was to try and grab more of the marketing budget.
He says it’s not the case that companies like Framestore are trying to become agencies, but that there are times when working directly with clients can offer more value and the days are numbered for the traditional hierarchy. “The problem at the moment, when you’re working in that silo model, is that there are conflicting agendas. The agenda isn’t to deliver the best value to your client. The agenda is to hold onto as much of the production budget as you can. That’s an abusive model.”
The companies that are doing more direct to client work say that agencies' strategic thinking and specific skills means that there is room for both agencies and upstream creative production companies.
“Given the ever evolving market, there are more and more brands either operating independently from agencies or using them for above the line work while at the same time managing some elements of their content output,” says The Mill’s Darren O’Kelly. “Creating end-to-end content or providing VFX services directly to a brand hugely differs from the bigger strategic thinking that agencies offer brands. While we have employed artists with broader thinking, the reality is that agencies offer a very specific range of services and we have neither the skillsets nor the inclination to challenge this as it takes us away from what we do best.”
Rachelle Madden, the Executive Director of the AICE, notes that much of this change has been a response to client needs. “Clients usually drive this by asking their partners on the post side to help with production projects, often asking if they can assist with creative and strategic thinking too.”
But just as post and VFX studios move upstream, ad agencies and holding companies are moving downstream, opening production agencies and post facilities. There’s WPP’s Hogarth, Publicis’ Prodigious, Craft at McCann. The post facilities at these production agencies were originally set up to take the low level finishing and versioning work in-house, though the breadth and scope of their creative ambition is growing.
When they opened their doors, these sorts of agencies were met with hostility among independent companies and the APA’s Steve Davies argues that they have squeezed revenue.“Obviously it means that there is now less work for external pre- and post-production companies, especially those that have always specialised in creating content on a lower budget. Agencies want to keep the money within their own network, so in order for the post production industry to survive, it has had to adapt.”
Rachelle at the AICE adds that member companies are concerned about the transparency of the whole process and the neutrality and honesty of the bidding process when in-house post services are used. “In some instances, independent companies are required to submit their bids to the very same in-house facilities they’re competing against. We feel this presents a host of problems.”
However, others see some surprising positives. “For us it’s a good thing because for years our biggest struggle was getting the talent. When you have more people working on systems and software, that generates new talent,” says Ton Habraken, founder of Dutch studio Ambassadors.
As Ton sees it, change is inevitable and agencies entering the post game simply pushes companies like his to improve. “It doesn’t make sense to be defensive about things because it’s going to happen anyway. The way we look at it is that if you can offer something different or extra you can stay relevant, but if you stick to the old school post production mentality you’ll suffer.”
Moreover, the production agencies are generally flexible on whether they work with outside studios and companies, depending on the requirements of a particular job or project.
The confusing explosion in channels and platforms has also driven clients’ needs for integrated production, and the sheer complexity and number of moving parts means that at times it makes sense for an agency to keep production and post in-house, argues McCann Craft’s Sergio Lopez. “It’s not just about the TV ad anymore, there’s a version that goes on TV, a version that goes on Facebook, a version that goes on Instagram. There’s a lot of stuff and it’s difficult to do these things outside,” he says.
Sergio also says that it’s important to support the production community and for agencies to pay these companies fairly so that they have a sustainable pool of outside collaborators.
Darren O’Kelly at The Mill says the situation is finding some equilibrium. “You could say the industry has bifurcated into two streams - the highly creative discipline of creating original content and the more functional adaptation stream that is increasingly managed internally by agencies.
“Agencies have been very successful in taking that adaptation work in house, less so the creative. The creative remains very much in the realm of companies like The Mill due to our ability to attract and retain the best talent.”
Programmatic and Big Data Are Changing Everything… Even Post
Traditionally the worlds of media strategy and post production have been pretty separate, but all that looks like it will change thanks to growing demands of programmatic advertising and the constant feedback loop of big data.
In the standard production process, film content is ‘finished’ at the post house and delivered to a channel and the job is more or less over. Now there is a growing demand for flexible, dynamic content that can be tweaked and targeted automatically.
“What keeps me awake is that right now media agencies are talking about programmatic and dynamically created storytelling. Programmatic means you have to shoot materials in order to customise your commercial based on who the viewer is, where they are, what channel they’re watching,” explains Sergio Lopez.
This process involves building a base edit, with shots or text that can change automatically. However the technology and understanding of this is still relatively young and the big challenge that faces agencies and production is how to do this in a creative way. “Doing a shit job of that would be very easy, to approach it like a cookie cutter… but if you can get creative with it, then that’s the holy grail,” says Sergio.
Data and the capacity to get massive volumes of feedback quickly also means that post facilities can no longer wash their hands of a project when it’s done. At Craft, Sergio says that with some clients they re-edit films on a weekly basis.
In Amsterdam, Ambassadors are dealing with this challenge by empowering their clients. They’ve beefed up their cloud-based asset management and delivery system, Cube, with a new functionality that lets clients edit and change films ‘on the fly’. It works by creating a template that allows clients to add new footage or image files or text, something that was particularly useful for Médecins Sans Frontières, who have to tailor their content to on-going crises around the world. They’d initially wanted to create 30 films, but found the process so easy that they created 300.
This has eaten into some of Ambassadors’ income, particularly for low-level versioning work, but Ton’s philosophy is that getting ahead of the inevitable changes is better than sticking one’s head in the sand.
“It isn’t necessarily good for turnover in the end because the client does a lot of the work you used to do. We had to have a conversation internally about whether or not we were going to do versioning and adaptation ourselves any more or if it was going to be part of the cloud,” he explains. “Progress might hurt a bit at first but it’s a good thing in the long run. If losing part of your work leaves a hole, something else will usually come along to fill it up.”
For Ambassadors, Cube Compose turns them from post vendor to tech partner. It also frees them up to focus on more creative projects and technological innovation.
Post production and VFX are demanding businesses when it comes to physical space, bricks and mortar. But in the world of remote, flexible working and cloud-based-everything, companies are finding ways to free themselves from the heavy hardware that clogs up so much prime real estate and ties talent to working in specific spaces.
It’s now not uncommon for post and VFX companies to outsource render power or have offsite render farms, but recently Absolute Post went one further and took all of their hardware, including their artists’ kit, out of central London.
There are now – MD Dan Bennett quickly scans the Soho office – just seven computers in the studio. Work stations are simply monitors, keyboards and Wacom tablets hooked up to the offsite facility in Hayes via a superfast dark fibre connection. It means that every station is flexible and artists can access any machine they desire, turning a room from a Flame to a Nuke suite in an instant.
What’s more the new set up completely removes one of the biggest challenges of running a post house: the cost of kit and the need to constantly buy in new, more powerful machines as technology improves and expectations grow. Instead of buying in their tech, Absolute has a service agreement with the company ERA. They are contracted to pay a monthly fee and in return ERA maintain and upgrade the hardware.
They ‘flipped the switch’ in February, and since then have noticed a huge change in their business. For one thing, it’s easier for different disciplines to sit together and collaborate more closely on projects. For another it’s freed up talent. “People have more time to focus on the quality of the work,” says Dan, who explains that the sheer speed of the new set up means people can get through more iterations of a project in a given time and worry less about being held up by tech problems.
In a wider sense, this remote way of working has opened up access to great talent. MPC offers remote grading with their top colourist, Jean-Clement Soret in Amsterdam, Paris and beyond. For businesses, it has broadened their potential client base; in Amsterdam, Ton estimates that at least half of Ambassadors’ clients are now international.
The Tech of Tomorrow
Of course we can’t talk tech and how it has revolutionised the post and VFX business without talking about virtual reality. Across the industry, VR labs are popping up in post facilities like acne. While there’s still uncertainty about the potential scale of VR in the advertising world, for now VR and other avenues like augmented reality, gaming and experiential represent a growing aspect of the post and VFX business.
Steve Davies at the Advertising Production Association in London notes the impact of these new platforms across the industry. “These new avenues are of great interest and all the post companies, to varying degrees, are at the forefront of inventing the creative future for these devices and techniques. The tech itself is incredible but what it needs to take off with the public is creativity to engage the public and make the tech take off. Post production companies are vital to that and are leading the way,” he says. “They are a significant and growing percentage of revenue in some post companies, while some continue to be more focused on VFX.”
The Mill, which recently completed a powerful journalistic VR project with The Guardian called ‘6X9’, say that VR and AR are exciting areas. “We see the space where this emerging technology and creativity converge as one we naturally occupy,” says Darren O’Kelly.
However, these new platforms are still young and so the company is not pressurising them by relying on them as revenue streams. “At The Mill we aren’t setting any commercial targets at this stage. We have a team drawn from all our disciplines who are working with our clients to help develop innovative ideas that can be brought to life with new and emerging technology.”
Framestore can be credited with being the company that really kick-started the VR arms race among post and VFX shops thanks to its ground-breaking 2014 Game of Thrones experience. According to Jon Collins, President of Integrated Production at Framestore, their current position at the forefront of creative technology has come about by embracing risk and making decisions that, at the time, did not make obvious business sense.
“Someone said to me a long time ago, ‘everyone wants to be first to be second!’” he chuckles. “I’m not saying it makes good business sense to be first, it just so happens that we’ve built teams of people over the years that strive to work differently.”
During the tough times of the post-2008 economic crash, Framestore found themselves experimenting and fumbling around for a new direction out of necessity. “I will put my hands up and say that during that time we were taking risks and making changes and perhaps that lost us some share in some of those more traditional areas, and I’ll happily take the blame for it,” says Jon of Framestore’s evolution from VFX studio to innovation powerhouse.
“In one sense, that might have weakened our position in the industry but that was a risk I was prepared to take because I didn’t want to cling onto that model we’d had for 20 years. Not only do I feel like this new way represents an exciting future for me, I’ve also got a responsibility for all these people working for us around the world.”
And while some of the platforms and technologies they pioneered at the time didn’t quite explode in the way they predicted (real time rendered animations, for example)… but in a sense that doesn’t matter. It led to interesting projects and, more importantly, laid foundations for the sort of projects Framestore is known for today. Playing about with games engines led to the inspired decision to try a VR experience for Game of Thrones, and that in turn has led to augmented reality and other cutting edge realms. And it’s fundamentally changed Framestore’s position from vendor to trusted advisor - it’s currently working with Magic Leap to help the much-hyped AR firm shape their idea of just what its technology is.
Post houses and VFX studios are moving upstream, building relationships with clients and blazing new trails in creative tech, building the future, even (what happens when AI meets AR and real-time animation…?). Not only is the ‘business model’ changing, these companies are completely changing what they are and how they work. We don’t currently in the industry have the vocabulary to talk about them and conceptualise what they do with any accuracy. But one thing, perhaps, is clear. Maybe it’s time to ditch the word ‘post’ once and for all?