Digital Effects

Bringing Flame and Fortune to the Post Sector

The hottest number in town these days is a shockingly expensive piece of animation/graphics equipment fittingly called the Flame.

The next hottest is the Flame’s young brother, the Flint.

Together they currently lead the pack of hardware and software that give postproduction houses their healthiest chunk of business-an average 25% of total gross sales – and predicting a much higher climb in the year ahead.

Cutters’ Tim McGuire, for one, sees “a great potential for growth” in graphics/effects/design – whatever one wishes to call this area.

Because music and graphics are not legally part of postproduction – “they are production services,” notes Swell’s Mike Topel-some post houses have given this sector its own identity. Swell calls theirs Bazooka Graphics, Skyview’s identity is Sky F/X. And the all-encompassing Post Effects says it all.

Graphics, with its great potential, is also heating up a hardware war. If one post house deems the system good, then other companies quickly follow suit in buying it, too.

That $600,000 Flame software and hardware package, from Montreal-based Discrete Logic and which runs on Silicon Graphics platforms, is presently owned and operated by five companies: Cutters, Editel, Film & Tape Works, Filmworkers Club and Optimus. IPA’s icono-clastic Scott Jacobs says he may be the “only guy in town that doesn’t own a Flame,” pre-great DP/Max by Color Graphics, which is configured to handle everything.”

Flame’s $100,000 to $200,000 sibling, the Flint, is catching up in popularity. But these are not the only two hot items du jour. Other software brands, and proprietary software, also are hard at work.

Silicon Graphics universally has become the platform of choice because the same machine can use myriad of software packages-3D, paint or compositing-whereas dedicated hardware, such as Quantel products, the Harry and Henry, were made to do only one thing.

“We’re being forced into the SGI world,” laments Jacobs, “and then you have to get into the ethernet, fibre or ATM networks and the whole tapeless thing is starting to happen. It’s good if you sell all that equipment, but not good if you have to buy it.”

Not only is the graphics sector sizzling, but it is crossing over and cutting into provinces once held secure by print design firms. And the wizards who can command the software to do their bidding are golden, forming an elite cadre of specialists.

Is there enough business to support a King Midas investment and the constant system leapfrogging?

Apparently there is, with more to come. Jacobs says it’s because there is more of everything in postproduction. Ari Golan’s says Atomic Images’ “booming business” is a “huge growth area.” Atomic Imaging is doing the same amount of business in the three years of its life as Golan Productions has done in its nine years of existence.

Fifty-five to 60% of Sinnott & Associates’ business “involves the computer,” Tom Sinnott noted, and his cel animation business has grown in the last three years. “With better tools out there,” he comments, “we are doing more and better than before.”

Editel and Film & Tape Works attribute 25% of their total gross sales to graphics; IPA and Sky F/X peg theirs at 20%; Swell’s Bazooka Graphics at 15% to 17%. This year, McGuire estimates Cutters’ graphics sector will join that “20% range.”

Cutters’ increased business should come as a result of the Flame for the most satisfying of all reasons, “Clients love it,” McGuire declares. He is a true believer, having been the second U.S. Flame purchaser 18 months ago.

Cost aside, the Flame epitomizes the computer tool of the ‘9Os. It can be an editing as well as a graphics tool, says McGuire. “It is more diverse in its utilization, and software upgrades make it more powerful all the time.”

While Editel does not have a formal break-out name for its graphics and effects division, which was once called EADG (for effects, animation design group), executive producer Harriet Katz likes calling it “our design studio.” And not without justification.

Editel competed against national design companies and won the job of designing the new WCIU-Ch. 26 logo. The award was “unprecedented,” says Katz since print firms are routinely hired for logo design.

The design studio creates “everything from CD-ROM to high-end animation, and we still have a healthy broadcast business.”

In terms of the number of workstations, Editel with six SGIs has the most in the city, augmented by dedicated hardware configurations, the Flameless (though Flint-equipped) Post Effects is right behind with five-and an investment of $4.5 million in equipment.

Post Effects’ president Mike Fayette said they opted for two Flints instead of Flames mainly because “our vision is to have many artists working simultaneously.” More than one person can work on the Flint, “while only one person at a time can use the Flame.” He sees no operational differences between the two-except that the Flint is considerably cheaper.

To blur the distinction between graphics and editing even further, Fayette is installing one Flint permanently in an edit room while the other will go in and out and used as necessary.

“Edit suites are getting redefined in what they are, part of our expansion,” he said.

In fact, to be the ultimately descriptive of what goes on these days in post houses, Fayette is considering a change from “editing rooms” to “project rooms.”

Film & Tape Works’ graphics equipment investment at $1.5 million has paid off, too, said owner Jim Mahoney. He bought his Flame just three months ago at a cost of $500,000. Like the other post houses, he bought an assortment of software packages. Sinnott has proprietary software, mainly Wavefront, for its four SGI workstations.

While Mahoney’s graphics business is “going good at this point,” he has the dilemma of finding more experienced artists to handle the business. He uses a fair amount of freelancers in addition to two staff graphics designers. His third staffer just left to join Cutters.

Personnel wars follow naturally in the wake of equipment wars and ever-busier graphics departments are the most aggressive these days.

The Film & Tape Works’ staffer switched over to Cutters, while Greg Huber left Sky F/X to go to Avenue Edit. Bill Seneshen left Post Effects last June to join Sky F/X as director of design. And IPA, The Editing House picked up graphics producer Michelle Gundy, who was formerly with Post Pro for five years.

The success of the department does not depend on who is running it, necessarily, but it does help to have a knowledgeable person at the helm. Bazooka Graphics’ long-time staffer Andy Montag is the person to ask “when trying to do something tricky,”
says Mike Topel. Harriet Katz says Editel’s “broadcast business comes to us because of our design director Michelle Sundry,” whose work with her design partner, Joe Hunnewinkel, clinched the Ch. 26 assignment.

Sundry’s background includes a stint at Ch. 7 and, more recently, at Fox. She brought the well-known Hunnewinkel with her from Box when she returned to Editel. Cutters’ graphics point person, Mary Beth Bowen, had been an art director at Ch. 7 for six years. McGuire claims “agencies have been attracted to the design capabilities of Mary Beth and the depth of the Flame.”

When asked for a few words to describe the graphics world as it stands today, some called it “digital effects,” others “visual effects,” still others plain graphics. “Complicated” was Jacobs’ characterization, thinking of the complications in coordinating the transfer of all these elements and the production of them.

Regardless of what name it goes by, “the graphics business,” says Jim Mahoney, “is not for the lily-livered.”

FEBRUARY 6, 1995
VOL 17 NO. 5
PG 15,16,18

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