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August 2014
Issue: August 1, 2007

BIDDING WARS

By: Ken McGorry

The bidding game, you quickly learn, is based on trust, not bluffing. Busy VFX and editing houses pride themselves on their ability to prove to their clients that they are getting it right: the right work done by the right talent on the right software in the right amount of time for the right price. And it had better be right, since our post houses need to be profitable to continue providing the industry with stunning effects and storytelling. Post recently spoke with a number of VFX and editing shops around the country to learn their ways of working with clients — both to get the job and to keep them coming back.

THEY’RE GOOD WITH ANIMALS

This Canadian visual effects house gets to work with all kinds of animals — beavers, sheep, whales… Howard Hughes. Buzz Image Group in Montreal works to unify disparate elements, including convincing, natural-looking CGI, into seamless scenes for commercial clients like Ford, Coke and Bell Mobility, and for major motion pictures like Brokeback Mountain and The Aviator.

Bell uses recurring characters — the furry and frisky talking beavers, Frank & Gordon, created in Buzz’s Softimage|XSI and featured on Post’s cover last year — to promote its mobile products. A recent job for Irving Oil required realistic footage of Right whales making their way serenely amid undersea canyons. Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain would have been less convincing if the two leading men did not have a virtual sea of sheep to watch over — hence the replicated herds of CGI sheep set in rugged backgrounds comped together at Buzz. Scorsese’s Aviator drew realism from old newsreel footage of Howard Hughes, replaced by Leonardo DiCaprio in Buzz’s computers.

So how do you bid all this varied, high-end work?  Like most post shops, Buzz builds a package deal out of projected hours, talent and gear required. “From the first proposal we usually make the estimate by using our standard rate card per hours for Flame work and per days for motion graphics, 3D animation or Shake,” says Benoit Drouin, EVP at Buzz (www.buzzimage. com). Their next step is to evaluate how busy they are, as well as the challenge a job represents to the artists, and even the level of impact the job would have on their reel. “Then,” Drouin says, “we make a package!”

Even if “junior” talent is used on a project, a Buzz bid ensures that the top talent in the company will be closely supervising every step of the job. “Everything will be top notch,” says Drouin, “so the price is based on quality and result.” The first impulse at Buzz is to work a job the most cost-effective way. Drouin says, “We will always try to use the cheaper way to achieve the work, but when it comes time for speed — a short calendar — we have to use the high technology; Flame for instance.” Drouin and company keep the client informed as the job progresses, and if costlier gear must be employed, “usually they trust us.” In the event of a short deadline, Buzz would most likely need to use that high technology as well as overtime, and there is an impact on the project’s budget.

And when a Buzz artist comes up with a great idea — one beyond the storyboard and the scope of the contract — it’s time to consider the relationship with the client and the schedule at the shop. “Usually we give more; it’s part of the Buzz philosophy.” Drouin adds. Buzz will also take a cool creative idea into consideration “if it’s good for our reel,” he says, “and the reel is starting to look pretty nice.”

A TWO DOOR PACKAGE

Opening their doors in Orlando about three years ago, Holly and Diego Torroija set out to make their Two Door FX the go-to VFX shop in the area. Since then they have racked up an impressive client roster that includes Google, Adams Golf, Mizuno, Wilson Tennis, Disney I.D.E.A.S. and furniture outfitter Room to Go. Diego Torroija is a veteran of the LA game-development industry who wanted to expand his 3D animation, motion capture and compositing skills in different media. He even went back to school at the local Full Sail to hone his 3D animation skills.

Today Two Door FX (www.twodoorfx.comp) remains on the small side — with seven full time employees — but aims large and can draw from a roster of about 20 top freelancers when needed. Two Door projects range from commercials to a new feature film — RoboDoc, written and produced by Doug Gordon and Gordon-Tynes Productions — for which they just finished 60 visual effects shots.

Lauren DeBellas is the Torroijas’ production manager and she walked into Two Door shortly after they opened. “Advertising agencies tend to hire us indirectly,” DeBellas says, “through a production company.”  Besides VFX and animation, Two Door also offers motion graphics, motion capture, on-set VFX supervision and previsualization, as well as their own brand of morphing. As production manager, DeBellas sees the project all the way through, covering initial client meetings, estimates, the relaying of comments between clients and artists, approvals and invoicing.

She says Two Door’s bids usually end up as an all-inclusive package deal rather than an hourly fee. DeBellas relies on a strong relationship of trust with clients and simply asks them how much they have budgeted for effects. And, if a client’s eyes are bigger than their budget, “we can come up with really creative ways to make something look cool” at an affordable price. “We like to stay true to our pricing structure for our own sake,” DeBellas adds, “and we don’t want to cheapen the industry for anybody.” Still, Two Door is “always open to providing options to the client. If they’re not happy with the cost, then we are totally open to talking about, ‘Okay, how can we make this work for you?’ I just want them to be happy from the start.”

The Two Door team wants “to deliver what the client wants and then above and beyond that” and DeBellas will sit down with Diego and the artists and figure how best to allocate man-hours to provide a better, more impactful shot that they might like even more — without necessarily charging more. Clients will also be given options, in the estimate phase as well as the approval phase, to choose between shots that differ in sophistication. If, in the early going, the team comes up with a killer approach to a project, they will present it to the client and explain how its implementation would affect the pipeline and billable hours.

At Two Door, Diego Torroija acts as art director and VFX supervisor working with the team of artists. The shop relies mostly on Maya and 3DS Max for 3D work; for compositing Two Door primarily uses After Effects or Combustion and choosing between such programs does not affect the bid.

BIDS BASED ON HOURS

Filmworkers Club is a growing full-service post house based in Chicago (with locations in Nashville and Dallas, too). It offers telecine, editing, VFX (via various Autodesk platforms, including new Flame and Smoke seats) and finishing to an impressive array of national advertisers. The shop also does work for TV, independent film and documentaries. Advertisers such as KFC, Allstate, Budweiser, State Farm and many more get their editing, color correction and/or VFX at FWC.

Lift, Filmworkers’ in-house graphics company, has a team of designers and motion-graphics artists who mainly work on the Mac platform. Another branch, Vitamin, is owned by FWC, but operates independently as a boutique digital production company handling live-action production, animation, editorial and motion graphics design. Filmworkers Club (www.filmworkers.com) operates Chicago’s only 35mm film lab, providing dailies services for spots and features, and is about to launch a DI service.

“Our bids are always based on hours,” says company president Reid Brody. “We discuss the project with our artists and determine the time commitment, then negotiate from there. We present bids for both hourly work as well as a package price.”

Hiring or offering lesser-known talent is not a part of the FWC business model, Brody says, “but we are grooming the next generation. We may offer up-and-coming artists when appropriate for the role.”

In addition to classic big-time post house gear such as Flame and Smoke, FWC also provides Mac-based platforms “that may be more appropriate to do certain types of work,” Brody says, “and it is priced accordingly.”

A longer deadline may sometimes account for a discounted bid. However, Brody says,  “we often find that the demands are the same, whether the timeline is long or short.” He adds that FWC typically approaches a client with their best creative ideas from day one. “We often pitch projects in tandem with our affiliates, Vitamin and Lift,” he says.

HOURS AND PACKAGES

Perception, a six-year-old broadcast design, VFX and editing shop in New York City, had a big June. Among other things, the studio aired promos for the NBA Finals on ABC, won the Promax/BDA gold award for its Major League Baseball Division Series spots, and launched a newly renovated Website at www.perceptionnyc.com.

Brendan Werner, creative director and partner at Perception, is a veteran Avid editor with many years at R/GA to his credit. Werner continues editing today. Perception focuses on network promos, commercials, trailers, title sequences, and an array of other visuals that require high-end motion graphics, VFX, editing, or a combination of the three.

Perception has bid projects both as hourly and as package deals. “Generally, we do an internal tally of what resources we are going to need, that is, how much is it going to cost us in time and labor, and make a bid on based on that,” says Werner. “Hourly rates are simpler in letting everyone know how much money a job used up at any given time. Package deals make you feel free to take extra steps to make it as good a final product as you can.” However, Werner says, “when bidding as a package it’s important to list deliverables and set expectations of the schedule and the work involved.”

Whether clients get an hourly bid or a package bid is usually dictated by client needs. “Sometimes we ask them their preference,” says Werner. These days, “clients are very budget based and sometimes need a breakdown. If you are going to bid with a package price, be prepared to back it up.”

But the use of particular talent on a broadcast graphics job does not affect the price at Perception. “We assess the best available talent for the job and take it from there,” says Werner. “I don’t find graphic artists to be like directors, where the difference in rates can run into the thousands.”

High-priced technology is not a part of the equation at Perception, Werner says. “Our company is modeled on this ideology: We do all of our work, including effects, on desktop machines. We’ve had clients say they think they need a day on a Flame for a particular idea. They’re always surprised how quick and good we can do it using alternate software, therefore saving them thousands.”  Clients should let the VFX experts get behind the wheel when it comes to technology. As Werner puts it, “You have to have the client’s trust that you are using what’s appropriate for their job. If you can’t win that trust, there’s something wrong with the relationship.”

Since TV broadcast is a very deadline-oriented world, no demand for quick turnaround should be too surprising. As Werner says, “Short deadlines are a part of this business. It all comes down to time and resources. We try not to charge an ‘emergency’ fee. But if there is a lot of rescheduling and shuffling of other clients then you should be compensated.” Werner says that a bidder should also ask whether there will be weekend work or double shifts. “One calendar day could actually mean two business days worth of work. Everyone obviously prefers a relaxed deadline. It’s important on longer deadlines to outline a schedule and milestones.”

As far as those great creative afterthoughts that broadcast designers always have, Werner says you should always suggest your ideas to the client. “Even if you think they can’t afford it, it shows you care about their product. We all heard the old adage of ‘this is one for the reel’ or ‘one for the bank account.’ The goal is to make every spot you do reel-worthy and profitable for us while cost saving for them. If the client goes away happy you’ve done your job right.”

JIGSAW PUTS IT TOGETHER

Jigsaw Edit in LA specializes in Avid and Final Cut editing and Flame effects for commercials, including a recent big one for AT&T. The shop has also provided offline and finishing on Flame for big-ticket clients such as Nissan, Sprint, HP, Toyota and more.

Jigsaw’s executive producer, Sybil McCarthy-Hadfield, is in the unusual — and useful — position of being a veteran of the ad agency world, so she knows the bidding process from both sides. She was a senior producer at TBWA Chiat Day LA for nine years ending in 2006. There she handled lots of automotive clients and others, such as Pepsi and PlayStation. “By discussing in detail the parameters of the job with the agency producer, we understand the scope of the project,” says McCarthy-Hadfield.

“From there, we assemble a bid that allows for their creative, their schedule and their budget. We usually break out Avid time by 10-hour days, as well as editor labor and creative fees — but it’s all assembled in a package that defines the service we provide. We do not ‘flat’ our package deals unless the budget is severely limited and one-time deals are made.”

The AT&T spot, out of GSDM in Austin, TX, also involved visual effects house MacGuff. “On the AT&T project, we worked together with the agency producer to provide superior client service for scheduling and interfacing with third-party vendors. We worked together with their selected VFX house, MacGuff, to be sure that the post production effort was linked and the transitions back and forth throughout the process were smooth.”

Availability of editing talent is becoming more desirable; so much so that Jigsaw editors often travel to the client rather than vice-versa. “More and more clients are asking us to travel to them to keep their costs down,” says McCarthy-Hadfield. “Both Avid and Final Cut now make portable editing systems that allow us to tailor the editing needs to a specific project. Editorial has become much more mobile than ever before.”

With the advent of HD and DI, clients are forced to become more knowledgeable about new technology options. However, clients are generally less interested in the “latest whiz-bang technology” and more interested in superior service. “They want it done on time, on budget, with the finest quality and no headaches,” she says. “Of course, that is changing, with more and more clients being asked to deliver in HD, the agency producers are becoming better informed and smarter about HD, 2K, 4K, etc.”

Jigsaw usually bids a :30 for five days of editing. A shorter deadline would lessen the bid, but agencies like to spend time in the edit bays working, McCarthy-Hadfield notes. Corporate cost controllers, she adds, are impacting how much time an agency can spend in edit as well. Brainstorms in the edit bay are typically the editor’s prevue, but if an alternative cut develops and the client likes it, that could lead to obvious additional billing. McCarthy-Hadfield adds, “We’d charge an extra creative fee if the agency decided to finish an alternative version. And there would likely be additional finishing [telecine, online etc.] costs.”