STITCH: SEWING UP VFX WORK
Creative director/Inferno artist Fred Ruckel calls New York City's Stitch Motion Graphics (www.stitch.net) "as boutique as we could be." But although the company has just a handful of full-time staffers, it offers "all the services of the big boys: a Discreet Inferno; Adobe After Effects for design and motion graphics; a motion control camera; a 3D room with Alias| Wavefront Maya, Softimage and cost-effective Electric Image; and a DVD authoring suite featuring Apple DVD Studio Pro with Digital Voodoo for realtime capture."
Ruckel says Stitch "uses people to the best of their abilities. We have specialists in every genre and hire freelance artists who have specific talents such as 3D particle effects, character animation, 3D shading and lighting effects. This allows us to deliver a great product without compromising anything."
Stitch is a spinoff of Refinery, which offers creative editorial and Avid Symphony finishing from offices in the same building. With Stitch separate from Refinery "clients are able to taste what we can do without being tied to Refinery's services," Ruckel explains. "Or, we can put together a package with Refinery, apart from audio mixing and telecine." Stitch and Refinery are networked for quick, efficient file sharing.
One of the chief advantages to being a boutique is "the ability to give great client service," says Ruckel. "Clients know they're not just a number. It makes them feel they don't have to worry about their projects. They know it will be delivered on time, in the right fashion." Close client relationships make for easy banter during sessions and fun after-project dinners.
Ruckel cautions boutiques to be careful about growth. "As business comes in, you could continue to put in equipment but no matter how great you are, there will always be slow periods and how will you weather them? If you build out rooms, you take on more real estate, equipment leases, upgrades, maintenance contracts."
Ruckel acknowledges that Stitch's new Inferno, acquired last April, was "quite an expense, but we needed to be able to provide more for clients instead of finding work arounds." Stitch previously had Inferno on an Onyx 2 but became "one of a handful of companies in the world," Ruckel says, with Inferno on an Onyx 3 with 600 MHz processors. As a longtime Inferno beta tester, Ruckel has been using V.5 for the past 10 months and has been able to do film work, HD and component digital jobs without switching projects and restarting the software. (Inferno V.5 was released Jan. 24.)
Stitch also added an IMC motion control room headed by DP Nick Mavroson for clients wanting to do tabletop work and full greenscreen shoots on an insert stage. "It's been busy since the day we put it in," Ruckel reports. A promo for A&E's Benedict Arnold featured childlike, stop-frame animation and shuffled typography shot by Mavroson on the IMC, edited on one of Refinery's Avids, with tracking, keying and color done on Inferno.
RENEGADE: LEAN & MEAN
Many animation studios follow the boutique model. "Every commercial produced requires some sort of video element but not every one requires animation. The net number of jobs available are lower, so that keeps you lean and mean," says Ashley Postlewaite, executive producer at Burbank's Renegade Animation (www.renegadeanimation.com).
Postlewaite and animation director Darrell Van Citters opened Renegade, a 2D animation studio whose spot credits include Dodge Ram, Disney World and Cheetoh's Chester Cheetah, 10 years ago. Its 3,200-square-foot space features two large bullpens, one with traditional animation desks and the other sporting computers and editing equipment for pencil tests and compositing.
Renegade's staff of five increases by drawing from a top-notch freelance pool. "We recently had 20 artists jamming on a big project," Postlewaite reveals. "We can shrink and grow very quickly; that's acceptable in the industry. The talent pool is used to working freelance. We work hard to have three or four top choices for every position available, and we work hard to recruit even if we don't need people at the moment."
Postlewaite says animation boutiques have to "fend off the temptation to grow," sometimes in markets that look appealing but may be just a flash in the pan. "Several years ago the whole games industry had a growth spurt," she recalls. "People said, 'You should start a games division,' but we said, 'We're not gamers,' although we can be a service provider to gamers. When the bottom fell out of games we looked smart because we didn't have to close a division."
Still, some growth may certainly be desirable. "You have to weigh if you're being silly to not grow when you have the opportunity," Postlewaite notes. "But when we look back, we think it was prudent to stick to our core competency and not dilute ourselves beyond our main dream and passion."
Where Renegade has focused its growth is in content creation for TV and feature films. It sold a pilot to Cartoon Network and is now working on a second pilot for the same show. Renegade also provided cel animation for the Nabisco Cheese Nips commercial Pullin' the Plug, featuring the cartoon stars of SpongeBob SquarePants on Nickelodeon. In addition, Renegade has helped bring back the popular 1950's animated character Elmo Aardvark by providing cel animation for the weekly Internet series, Elmo Aardvark, Outer Space Detective.
Postlewaite advises boutiques that are doing well to consider the inevitable rainy days to come. "A lot of people get a good year or two and buy expensive things, and when business turns they can't stick with it."
Nevertheless, she believes there's "nothing that outweighs the upside" of being a boutique. Boutique owners derive satisfaction from the hands-on nature of their companies that require their day-to-day, close participation. "In the corporate world there are fewer choices in setting the rhythm of a place and its philosophy," Postlewaite notes. Boutiques can be more nimble and faster making decisions than top-heavy facilities. "The ability to think quickly is extremely important. Darrell and I can take a board of directors meeting at lunch!"
AVATARLABS' ORGANIC GROWTH
Rex Cook learned the "stay lean" lesson when he was a partner and founder of Colony Design, a Hollywood-based motion graphics, Internet and branding studio. "Staffing up and waiting for work is not a good business model," he declares. "There's a natural tendency to feel 'if you build it, they will come,' but that's not necessarily the case. Organic growth may be a little slower, but it's more sustainable."
As executive creative director of Encino, CA's AvatarLabs (www.avatarlabs.com), which opened last summer, Cook is determined that the motion graphics and editorial design studio adhere to the boutique business model. "We have four people on staff and a design talent pool of about 10 others who work on a per-project basis," he says. "We're keeping our overhead lean. We can expand and contract as necessary."
With credits including the main title design/opening sequence for the CBS sitcom Still Standing, graphics for The Discovery Channel special James Cameron's Expedition: Bismarck and graphics for the TV trailer for the independent film, Real Women Have Curves, AvatarLabs is keeping its talent busy. Today the talent pool is deep enough to ensure a good selection of artists for every job, Cook reports. "It used to be harder to staff up quickly with A-list talent; all the good people had jobs at companies. But now, a lot more are freelance. We work with three or four designers remotely, from their homes."
Cook points out that in the entertainment industry, there's a constant need to upgrade software and hardware. "If you don't have cutting-edge, desktop equipment you won't be as competitive as others."
But he advises not growing "beyond what your clients need and what your financials will allow." For AvatarLabs, growth in terms of more rooms and additional staff is predicated on "key repeat clients at the studios and networks. Another couple of clients would necessitate doubling the size of our equipment complement and staff," Cook reports. Currently, AvatarLabs has an Apple Final Cut Pro editing station; five Macintosh workstations running After Effects, Photoshop, Illustrator and Flash; and three PC workstations for Maya. The company recently acquired some dual-gig PowerMac rendering machines for its Fox movie trailers.
The principals and employees of boutiques thrive in a "friendly collaborative environment," Cook says. He remembers working at several trailer companies that started small, then swelled to over 100 people. "When you get around 40 people the culture starts to change. The creatives are no longer as invested or enthused. If we grew to 30 people, I'd consider opening another branch. That way, you could cap the growth of each office."
Cook doesn't believe that boutiques, by their very size, get lost in the crowd of bigger facilities. "Over the last several years, I think big clients have become much more confident working with smaller companies. They used to be reticent about working with you if you weren't a certain size. Now they know we can handle the workflow and deliver the quality needed as well as provide more specialized service and attention to detail" that's a hallmark of boutiques.
THREE FINGERED LOUIE
Creative editorial houses lend themselves to the boutique model of close collaboration with clients, outstanding client service and attention to detail. But perhaps more than music shops or animation and design studios, creative editorial houses are more likely to outgrow their boutiquehood in an effort to offer additional services - sound design, original music, online finishing, visual effects - related to spot work, services that enable clients to remain under their roof and provide additional revenue sources.
Executive producer Lynne Mannino, who's partnered with editors Dave Smallheiser and Wendy Rosen in New York City's Three Fingered Louie (www.3fingeredlouie.com), is a firm advocate of the boutique approach, however.
"We wanted to create an intimate, manageable space," she says of the three-year-old creative editorial company. "This was our first business; we had all worked for other people. We felt it was a wise choice to start small and see how we'd do."
Clients walking into Three Fingered Louie's Flatiron district loft space feel as if they've just walked into someone's living room, Mannino reports. "We've created a space where people are comfortable and clients feel they're getting the attention they're paying for. It's so intimate here that clients know everyone on staff. If one of the editors is booked, it's an easier cross-sell to another editor."
Three Fingered Louie's boutique size also "makes the staff more well rounded," she points out. "We all have to assist each other. And we can grow somebody from the ground up and that person will know how the entire company functions."
Three Fingered Louie, which also numbers editor John Anklow among its members, opened with three Avid offline bays. At the end of its first year the company was doing so well it built an additional room and purchased a Symphony for conforms, titling and secondary color correction. "Symphony allowed us some flexibility while keeping within the realm of our expertise," Mannino notes. "With Symphony, we have the ability to address the budget concerns of certain clients. We can edit PSAs shot on DV and do the titling and color correction in online so we can keep the budget on mark."
Mannino sees Three Fingered Louie remaining a boutique in size and spirit. "We're not interested in being a facility and booking hours. That's where business becomes something different from our creative boutique experience. Editorial is our area of expertise, where we want to shine, where we want to attract clients."