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Issue: February 1, 2005

BOUTIQUES

By: By Matthew Armstrong

It's no surprise that boutiques are thriving. With the cost of entry into opening a post house drastically reduced in the last few years, creatives have, for the first time, the opportunity to open up their own shops. While there have been small editorial shops in the past, today's boutiques also specialize in visual effects and animation, while editorial houses have added sound and finishing capabilities to become sort of "boutique-facilities."

While the technology has afforded all sorts of possibilities for boutiques creatively and financially, perhaps the best example comes from Steve Hamilton, longtime editor of Hal Hartley's films and owner of Mad Mad Judy. On Hartley's new film The Girl from Monday, Hamilton and Mad Mad Judy handled virtually every aspect of post production. "Technology allowed me to step up from just being an editor to being the co-producer of the movie out of this boutique," says Hamilton.

4STROKE

Tony Cleave opened up Toronto-based design/animation/visual effects house 4Stroke (www.4stroke.tv/) last October after spending nine years as creative director of Soho. Prior to that, he was a senior designer at the Canadian Broadcast Company. As much as the financial prospect of powering high-end work on low-cost equipment enticed him, Cleave was equally attracted to the prospect of an organic, collaborative work environment of a boutique.

"I use the analogy of a party," says Cleave. "If you have a few friends over, you can all sit around and contribute to the conversation. If the party gets bigger, it's harder and harder to maintain one single conversation, so then the party [breaks] into two groups and the more people that come to the party, the more small groups break off. So with a post house, once you start growing you have different groups working on different projects and different producers and administrative staff tied to each project."


Mad Mad Judy';s Steve Hamilton co-produced Hal Hartley';s The Girl From Monday (left) and did most of the post work out of his boutique. Below: Hamilton with his wife Jocelyn Joson, who serves as exectuive producer.
4Stroke is housed in an open loft to encourage a collaborative environment between Cleave, the two senior animators/designers and producer Erin Kuttner. In addition to all the members acting as a team, the boutique also forces those members to be more flexible creatively and technically.

"The boutique model is different than the larger studio in that everyone has to be good at a lot of different things," says Cleave. "At a larger facility you may have people that just do the compositing or just the design. Everyone here has to be able to come up with ideas and design, and fulfill the creative process."

This flexibility also extends to the very type of work they are doing, evidenced from the shift in 4Stroke from one with a collective background in broadcast design to now working on commercials and other projects.

"We used to do almost only broadcast design with some commercial work, and now that's inverted," Cleave explains. "The bulk of our work is in commercials, working with agency creatives to come up with ideas and work out the design and much less broadcast. That's much more of an internal shift with the networks, and it goes back to the cost of technology, where networks have found they can do that work in-house. There's less broadcast design work out there so a lot of design companies that have looked elsewhere to commercials, the Web, film titles, corporate videos or interactive stuff. The common element is the design and the work. Even though we like to specialize and get very good in one area of media, you have to be a little more diverse these days."

OUTSIDE EDITORIAL

To see the allure and effectiveness of the boutique model, one needs to look no further than the editorial boutique Outside Editorial (www.outsideedit.com/) in NYC. Founded in 2003, Outside - with two Avid Meridians and an After Effects station, all running on Macs - was opened by the editorial facility Berwyn Editorial (10 editing rooms, three finishing rooms, audio post and other services) to tap into the boutique model rather than simply adding two more Avid workstations at Berwyn.

The main reason for this was to lure in new clients and more diverse work. Berwyn, although not officially aligned with ad agency Euro RSCG, has for many years been primarily fueled by work from this agency and so the perception has grown that Berwyn was Euro's in-house post company. This limited Berwyn's ability to draw in other clients and thus to allow its editors to work on a more diverse array of projects.

"Since I own Berwyn also, there was a need to have a boutique to allow the senior editors from Berwyn to be able to have experiences in that type of environment with a variety of clients that would be drawn to that type of place," explains Scott Gaillard. "While Outside is a relatively new company, it benefits from the years of experience. All the editors that work with us have at least 10 years in the advertising business," says Gaillard. "With Berwyn, one of the benefits of working so closely with Euro is you get an intimate sense of what goes on in an agency and what the particular needs of agency creatives and account people and producers are when it comes to satisfying their clients. So we've been rolling that experience out effectively to Outside."

Even with a solid financial backing, the opening of Outside was made possible by dramatic changes in the prices of equipment.


Guru created animated promos for the ";Detour"; programming block on Canada';s Teletoon. station.
"Technologies have changed to the point where you can do many of the things that were relegated to big facilities years ago: Uncompressed conforms for a client that doesn't want to spend the money for a Flame or Inferno suite," says Gaillard. "You can do a great deal of audio work on Pro Tools and even on the Avid. We can manufacture DVDs out of the office. AE can do most of what Flame can do in the 2D realm, so you are not that limited. Technologies changed things to the point that now a boutique can offer the broad range of services almost like a facility."

GURU ANIMATION

Guru Animation (www.gurustudio.com/) in Toronto opened four years ago with one and only one focus - character animation. After working at other post houses that were sold as visual effects/compositing/animation studios, principals Frank Falcone and Anne Deslauriers established Guru as a pure animation studio, not pursuing visual effects work. Today, Guru has seven animators and a support staff of three.

With an eye set firmly on animation, Guru's game plan is simply the work, and it does not concern itself overly with the type of client or distribution medium.

"We've pitched on series and film work, and are not adverse to doing online work," says Falcone, Guru's creative director. "It's really about the type of project and how interesting it is, and not about the output medium. That's been our philosophy from the beginning. That is an area of specialization and today people don't define themselves as much by the markets they service but more by the type of work they are good at doing."

With this focus on the project-oriented work, Guru has positioned itself as an animation/design production house, rather than simply as a post house.

"We've been called in more as an animation design studio rather than just as an execution place, where people call us in just to execute a certain script or a given set of characters," explains Falcone. "We've done that too, but half the time we're called in to help design and write stories and create an animated piece from the ground up. That makes it a lot more interesting on our level because we are there when people are forming ideas and we help guide those ideas along. We market ourselves as a design and production house and not just as a production house, although we've been called in to do that a lot."

While this business plan has its advantages from the financial standpoint of garnering a bigger piece of the budget pie, it also has its creative and practical reasons.

"When we set up four years ago," says Falcone, "the market was still being served in a post production mentality. So animation, at least computer animation, was done in concert with visual effects work and other post production work. A lot of the companies that were doing animation were established post companies that had large investments in older equipment and were using animation as a part of a larger component for their business. They were just related in that they were done with computers. When we started out, we decided to just to create a computer animation studio."

Like most boutiques, Guru relies on desktop solutions with 15 workstations running Alias Maya, Softimage|XSI and the Adobe tools, as well as a 12-processor renderfarm.

"The people that are doing it well have the same philosophies: invest in the people and adapt the creative to the budget. The successful boutiques are not trying to compete with the larger facilities and the effects houses that have hundreds on staff. That's an uphill battle. Boutique operations are about finding like minds that can work well with minimal support structure. That makes us competitive."

MAD MAD JUDY

While technology has certainly allowed for the boutique model to thrive, maintaining a boutique setting in size and scope is not as easy at would seem. Owner of New York editorial/ audio house Mad Mad Judy (www.madmadjudy.com/) Steve Hamilton knows this well. In 1993, he opened Spin Cycle Post, catering exclusively to low budget feature films. That grew out of his relationship with director Hal Hartley, who he's worked with for 15 years as an editor and sound designer.


Harbor Post, an HD editorial/design house in Stamford, CT, has flourished with Time Warner work.
"Spin Cycle grew, becoming pretty big, with five Avid suites, seven sound editing suites and a Foley/ADR recording studio," recalls Hamilton. "I kept thinking that it would just get a little bit bigger and then things would become easier and more efficient and profitable. That never really happened. It just seemed to get more and more complicated."


4Stroke used Alias Maya to create this spot for RE/MAX reality, via ad agency Yield.

So in '99, Hamilton left and started Mad Mad Judy, a tiny two-suite shop in a space that was only a few hundred square feet. There, he decided to focus on commercial projects. Two years ago Mad Mad July moved to a larger space but it remains a four-room boutique with two Avid suites, a sound mixing room and a soon-to-be-added Avid Symphony finishing room.

For Hamilton, the transition from a large post house, working on independent feature films, to a commercial boutique has meant greater profits and less time managing the volume of projects and a large staff. This has allowed him to achieve his ultimate goal in setting up the boutique: having time to work on different projects, like his film work with director Hal Hartley (Hamilton co-produced, edited and did the sound design on Hartley's new film The Girl from Monday), and on art projects from video installations to sculpture.

"As Spin Cycle grew it never got more efficient or profitable and it wasn't giving me the time that I wanted to pursue my own projects," explains Hamilton. "Moving into the commercial world, I decided I would separate the two things. I'd do commercials to make money and allow that to feed an art career and the ability to support really low-budget features. And that's been very successful because those projects feed me creatively, because I'm not just grinding out spot after spot after spot."

But as Mad Mad Judy has become more successful, Hamilton notes that maintaining the boutique model requires effort.

"It's much harder to decisively remain small and effective. It seems the business has to grow a little, so to maintain a sustained limited growth is much more difficult than to just grow," says Hamilton. He adds that limiting growth may be best achieved by creating an environment that can't easily grow.

"When I got my first place, I wanted it as small as it was so that I couldn't grow, that I could only improve," says Hamilton. "So it just became more of a quality environment with better equipment. The new space, while the footprint is much larger, I've designed it in a way that it can't really grow beyond what it is now. I doubt that we'd ever get to three editors."

The commercial boutique, continues Hamilton, will be better suited to adjust to changes in advertising he sees happening in the not-so-distant future.

"One of the things that is happening is people are panicking, wondering if the :30 will be around significantly in five years," he says. "There's a movement towards making these short films that are more cinematic, more entertainment projects that are being put out on the Web or other outlets. Make it entertaining but branded with product throughout. I think smaller shops like ours, that are not so dependent on the traditional model of cranking out :30 spots with huge budgets, are going to be poised to take advantage of this."

HARBOR POST

Another successful strategy in the boutique model is opening in a smaller market, further reducing the overhead of city rental costs and also allowing for post pros to operate as a big fish in a small pond.

Last year, Chris Cardinal opened up Harbor Post (www.harbor-post.com/) in Stamford, CT, an HD boutique where he is the only staff member. A former editor at Broadway Video, Unitel and National Video, among others, Cardinal says that the exorbitant NYC rents and dog-eat-dog mentality of Manhattan post, along with long commute hours from his suburban home, led him to open up a high-end shop in Stamford.

"A lot of people are leaving New York for a host of reasons: it's getting really expensive and they are realizing that a happier employee is one that works closer to home. And since so many now live in the suburbs, why not get a nice building in Stamford," notes Cardinal.

While Stamford at first does not seem to be a great place from which to draw clients, the location has been key in Harbor's success. Virtually all his work comes from clients based in Connecticut, primarily Time Warner, which is minutes away, as is its agency of record. Key in the success of this marriage is Harbor's HD capabilities.

"I've done a ton of work for Time Warner," says Cardinal. "They are making a huge push in their HD campaign, so I've been doing a ton of that work." 

Harbor is an HD editorial/design house, all Mac-based, running Final Cut, Adobe tools and LightWave, along with 2 TB of storage from Huge Systems, allowing him to post in 100 percent uncompressed HD.

"I don't think I'm offering anything less or limited by the technology at all," says Cardinal. "If you went to a place with a Smoke, the only difference is $400 more an hour."

Cardinal is the one full time staff member at Harbor, but like most boutiques, he has a stable of reliable freelancers.

"If need be, I'll bring in some freelance people and that works best," explains Cardinal. "If you have a staff guy sitting around doing nothing it causes a lot of pressure and forces you to make bad decisions. It's pressure you don't need. These days it seems like most talented people want to be freelance anyway. They don't want to be tied down."

BELOW THE RADAR

Long-time post pros, visual effects artist Ricardo Torres and producer Dick Voss started Santa Monica's Below the Radar (www.btrstudio.com/) in March 2004 with the idea of filling the gap in the post business landscape.

"We knew that there were a lot of boutiques around and we were trying to see how we could be different," notes Torres. "The only companies that are really doing well right now are the small companies or the very large ones, it's hard to be a mid-sized facility. The problem with the mid-sized facility is that the job is either too small for them to make money or they take on a big job but it becomes too big for them to handle. So we initially decided to become a company to help these mid-sized companies handle these larger projects - kind of like a subcontractor."

But as often happens, the best-laid plans do not come to fruition.

"That's how we started it, but when clients came they felt very comfortable working with us," says Torres. "So a lot of the clients were coming back and the idea of helping out these mid-sized facilities was not going on because we were so busy with our own commercial clients. And that's what has been happening since. We're still getting some work from other visual effects houses, but that's not the main part of our business. We have a lot of repeat clients and because we're so small, we don't need that much work - one job, one client at a time is fine with us."

When Torres first approached Voss about opening a new company, the one promise Voss demanded was that the company would not grow into a facility, which had happened at other places Voss worked at in the past. This forced him into the role of business manager instead of producer. With Torres as the only staff editor, Below the Radar has to rely heavily on freelancers, especially to fulfill projects' 3D needs. Torres estimates that 70 percent of their jobs require CG work. While the use of freelancers has worked well so far, they are now looking to add a full time 3D artist. In keeping with their original agreement of remaining small, however, the new addition will not be a mere staff member.

"We are not looking to hire someone per se," says Torres. "Whoever we bring in, we will look to make a partner. At the same time, because not all the jobs we do require CG, we may do something where Below the Radar is a partner to this new person's CG company so they can have their own clients too and we can help each other out."

Below the Radar is powered by Discreet Flame and Smoke, Apple Shake, and the Adobe collection of design tools. The company is looking to add another station when Discreet releases Flame on Linux. 

Below the Radar also diverged from the typical business operations in that it does not bill by the hour, but instead firm-bids its projects.

"Budgets are set these days," Torres notes. "It's not like the '80s or '90s where there was free money out there. These days producers come in with how much they have for visual effects and we can tell them what they can expect for that money. And [we] stick to that so there are no surprises."