|Canadian post houses offer the same services that US facilities provide, be it for TV, commercials or feature films, but while many think of Canada as a place to save money on production and post costs via incentives and tax breaks, the studios up north downplay that way of thinking. It’s “world-class quality” that attracts business to the country’s well-equipped facilities, they believe. Here’s a look at what some of them are up to…
Hybride (www.hybride.com) is an 18-year-old facility located in Piedmont, Quebec, that started out posting commercials, and with the purchase of Canada’s first Discreet Logic Flame system back in the mid-1990s, transitioned to visual effects for film projects. Today the studio is home to a team of 100 full-time staffers, who operate in its 17,000-square-foot space.
“We decided never to buy another piece of equipment that was resolution dependent at the time,” recalls Hybride president/GM Pierre Raymond. The studio, says Raymond, spent its first four years doing broadcast and commercial work. “At the time, it was the threshold between people that were doing special effects optically and the introduction of digital. We had a strong background in digital and computer graphics, so for us, moving to special effects for film was very natural. It was really the same thing for all of the high-end companies that were really strong in commercials and TV. They slowly migrated to the film industry and we were one of them.”
Hybride spent two years moving away from commercials, mostly from local clientele, and ramping up for film work.
“We made the decision to stop doing commercials and advertising mainly because we quickly realized that the pace between these businesses was very different, and it was very difficult to deal with the long-term project and a decent workload,” he says. “We realized that if we were not giving up on the commercial aspect, we would not be able to grow at the right size and have the right management to deal with 200 to 300 shots on a film project.”
Hybride also learned how deadlines for commercials and films differed. “The timeframe in advertising is very short,” he notes. “When you work on a movie, maybe you will deliver your last shot in six months from the time they awarded you the work. In this time, they will have you polishing shots until the end. They will not say, ‘Of the 100 shots we are going to award you, the first 50 will be done after two months,’ and it’s locked and final. They have a tendency to never finalize anything. They will carry all of the shots until the last month. This can drive a company crazy.”
Today, Hybride works on approximately 1,000 film shots per year, with anywhere from two to as many as four films overlapping at any time. Ninety-five percent of its work comes from the United States, and Raymond says it’s the studio’s work that continues to attract business. “We don’t have any representation. We realized many years ago that it’s a small business and the supervisors and directors talk to each other a lot. We also have a showcase — every time we are producing effects, people can see what this facility is capable of.”
The studio served as a lead effects house on the feature 300, and has also benefited significantly from the trust of filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, who called on Hybride to work on the Spy Kids trilogy, which included a 3D release. Hybride also contributed to Journey to the Center of the Earth, another stereoscopic release.
More recently, Hybride just finished work on 20th Century Fox’s action film Dragonball Evolution, set for release this month. The studio is currently working on Final Destination: Death Trip 3D, and on another movie with Robert Rodriguez, titled Shorts, set for summer release.
Hybride has 12 Inferno and Flame systems, along with Autodesk Lustre for DI work and two Smoke HD systems. Their close proximity to Softimage, now owned by Autodesk, keeps them updated on the latest R&D for the package, which serves as their main 3D tool. They also have Maya in-house.
Unlike many facilities that scale up as projects come in, Hybride’s talent is full-time. The core of the company has been working there for more than 10 years, says Raymond, and many have been there even longer.
“We are not in the same situation as Hollywood, with the availability of many, many freelancers. We need to be very protective and concerned about the team to support them. You don’t do business the same way when you are at the middle of a pool of freelancers you can let go if you only have a certain amount of work.”
The year ahead, Raymond says, looks to be great, as they’re working on films that have already been shot and are moving forward for pending release. They are also bidding on a number of projects. And, as a division of game developer Ubisoft, Raymond says Hybride sees further opportunity for growth, with the possibility of generating film content based on the game company’s intellectual property.
Toronto’s Intelligent Creatures (www.intelligentcreatures.com) opened up shop in 2003 with the sole focus of providing visual effects for film projects.
“It’s all film,” says Lon Molnar, CEO/visual effects supervisor. “That’s one of the things, right out of the gate, we wanted to do. We enjoy working on longer-form projects, so we focus on feature films.”
Molnar sees Intelligent Creatures as a studio that provides a supporting role to larger shops, like Sony and ILM. “The vision for the company is not to be the leading company in a big-budget project,” he notes. “We see ourselves in a supporting role, kind of like a supporting actor. I think initially, what we wanted to do was compete with Hollywood and compete on quality. That has always been our focus: to put out good work and make it about quality and not necessarily about price.”
Today, Molnar says it would be tough to start up a film-oriented facility because of the struggling economy. He adds that commercial work has a history of paying more. “It’s all about cash flow,” he explains. “You can get the money in and turn it around fairly quickly, and it’s constantly churning work for your bottom line,” he says of commercials. Feature film projects, he says, span “such a long period of time and you have to get those projects to align. When you have projects that are long term and some that are overlapping that are shorter term, the challenge is definitely trying to balance it all and still be profitable.”
In spite of the struggling economy, Molnar says Canadian-based shops do offer some advantages for US productions looking to save on their bottom line.
“I think there are advantages about being in Canada. Right now it’s 20 cents to the dollar, so there is an advantage there. There are also tax credits that make it more attractive as well. So I think that helps. But at the end of the day, the quality stands up for itself.”
Molnar references The Watchmen, the new Warner Bros. feature that the studio spent a year contributing to. “We had to sell ‘quality’ in order to get that project.”
Intelligent Creatures contributed to more than 325 shots for the film, most of which helped to visualize the Rorschach character, whose face is covered in a cloth that features an ever-changing ink spot.
“Rorschach was perfect for this company,” says Molnar. “We could focus on design, which is something we are strong at, put that into a pipeline, and turn that out over and over again.”
As much as three or four months was spent on look development. “We didn’t need to get any plates necessarily, we just got samples from the art department of what that cloth looked like. We had to replicate the cloth for his mask and ink blot samples, and focus on motion and how we were going to create a pipeline for the show when the plates do come in.”
The studio used Autodesk Maya for modeling and animation, and Side Effects’ Houdini for rendering. Compositing was performed using Nuke. “We were testing Nuke with other projects,” Molnar explains, adding that it’s fast and efficient, especially when rendering.
Using Mantra within Houdini was also a cost effective way to get a good look while not having to pay for every render node.
“We had people in here who knew Houdini, and who were raving about it,” he says. “We put Houdini’s renderer up against a couple of other software packages and we tested the length of time it took to render, quality, everything, and at the end of the day we made the call. It looks fantastic, it renders quick and there’s a cost effectiveness to bringing it in.”
In addition to the effects that define Rorschach, Intelligent Creatures also handled some matte paintings and extras, including firemen. Upon its completion, the studio quickly moved on to work on Sony Pictures’ Underworld, which involved a quick turnaround for its January release.
Topix (www.topixfx.com) has been operating in Toronto since 1987, focusing specifically on effects-driven commercials. Over the years, the studio has established partnerships, including alliances with companies in its building, that have allowed it to expand into film work, editorial and broadcast design.
“We’ve been doing business for 22 years,” says Topix president Chris Wallace. “We have a steady, core staff of 30 people. Some companies add to their core business, and go into the feature film side of things. We’ve partnered up with somebody and opened up our side of the feature film business. It’s a company called Mr. X [www.mrxfx.com]. About eight years ago we partnered with [president/VFX supervisor] Dennis Berardi, and it’s got close to 100 people there. So in our building we have 130 working on visual effects, design and animation. They are two separate companies in same building, working on different floors.”
Also located in the building is Traffik (www.traffikedit.com), which offers editing services, and Tantrum (www.throwatantrum. tv), a broadcast design and film titling company that the studio paired with just last year.
Partnerships, says Wallace, are great for offering packaged solutions, and are a smart way to expand the core business because of the high capital investments often required.
“We are working at 30 frames per second for 30 seconds,” Wallace says of the studio’s commercial work. “[Film facilities] are working at 4K at 24 frames per second for 90 minutes, so the scale blows you away as far as the volume of work, the pipeline and capital expenditure to get the rendering and latest technology in place.” And, he notes, the high “number of people that you have to employ to get through the number of shots that are typically involved in a feature film.”
The commercial teams at Topix typically range from four to 10 people, depending on the job. That can increase considerably for “epic” spots that Wallace says occasionally come through the doors.
Most of Topix’s work comes from Canadian clientele, but there are years where US clients represent a considerable portion of the studio’s work. “Canadian business is about 70 percent, and it depends on the years,” notes Wallace. “We have had years in the past where half of our work is US-based. I’d say more recently it’s more like 30 percent. This year is probably the same, but it’s a funny market this year.”
Getting work from outside the country comes down to more than just economics. “No one is going to spend less money for less quality, so everybody has to offer the same level of quality and expertise,” says Wallace. “The Canadian dollar, when the exchange rate tilts in our favor, I think that helps us. There have been times in the past couple of years where the Canadian dollar has been very, very strong, and we did really well during that time. I think that speaks to creative and quality, and I think it speaks to [the fact] that we are a known entity and people trust us to do a good job on their spots.”
Topix’s current reel is filled with work for US companies. Agency BBDO says the studio has become the custodian of the M&M’s characters, having worked on numerous spots over the past six years featuring the animated candies. “We’ve built them from scratch and have been working with them and animating them for the last half a dozen years,” says Wallace.
The studio, which also specializes in matte paintings and set extensions, put its skills to work on a recent Coors Light commercial that, thanks to them, features dramatic Rocky Mountain peaks similar to those in the company’s logo.
An entirely-animated spot for Ritz Bitz brought to life a foose-ball table and soccer characters, who kick the tiny, round cookie around before one player ultimately eats it. And a live-action promo for the next season of the cable series Dexter shows off the studio’s effects work and compositing capabilities.
Topix is home to two Flame suites and one Inferno. The studio also has Softimage and Maya for modeling and animation, and V-Ray and Mental Ray for rendering.
Looking at the year ahead, Wallace says Topix will continue to “work hard because that’s the only thing you can do — keep doing what you’re doing and do it well. Budgets are getting smaller, but the work remains the same, so you have to work harder to make a go of it and be profitable. Most people in this business are going to survive, unless they stop advertising all together.”
DIGITAL FILM CENTRAL
Curtis Staples and James Tocher opened Digital Film Group in 1998 as a video-to-film mastering studio, and in 2007 launched Digital Film Central (www.digitalfilmcentral.com) with a focus on digital intermediate work.
“We kept waiting to see what was going to happen on the DI front in Vancouver and no one was making a major move into this area of the business,” explains Staples, whose post career spans 25 years in the Vancouver and Los Angeles markets.
What separates “Central” from the other high-end facilities in Vancouver is its Kinkos mentality, says Staples, one in which the studio operates in a supporting role, rather than as that of a competitor.
“All of the big players that have high-end, uncompressed HD or 2K capabilities in Vancouver are also in the business of creating visual effects,” he notes. “And in addition to those companies, there are at least another 12 to 15 standalone visual effects companies. What was missing in Vancouver was a complementary facility that could scan, record, offer color management, [and] ingest from SR to create file sequences that wasn’t competing with them on the creative side.”
According to Staples, Central is a data-centric service provider for digital filmmakers, regardless of whether images are captured digitally or on film. “It’s all file based,” he notes. “Video, data or film in and video, film or data back out again. Usually it’s all three.”
Central is home to an ArriScan scanner, which can scan up to 6K from 35mm and up to 3K on Super 16. An ArriLaser is used for film recording. And color grading takes place in a Baselight suite using Truelight color management. Christie projectors display large-format imagery.
On a more secretive note, Staples says the studio also has 10 powerful imaging workstations, but will not reveal specifics, noting that the studio takes advantage of black box and white box technology, as well as off-the-shelf software and its own proprietary tools to provide image optimization.
“We don’t talk about it,” he says of the imaging workstations. “We only sell services, we don’t sell equipment. In terms of how we do de-grain, de-noise, sharpen, resizing, up-rezing, we don’t talk about that at all. When we started, our job was to put standard definition onto 35mm so that it didn’t look like it was shot on standard def. And when that’s your starting point, if you are going to survive, you learn some really clever ways of optimizing images for theatrical presentation.”
If Staples seems guarded, it’s because of the immediate threat of nearby competitors, including big guys such as Technicolor and Deluxe.
“We have these two 800-pound gorillas within a five-minute drive from us, and we are like this little chimpanzee, so we don’t talk about how we do what we do.”
Central’s clients include low-budget independent features and documentaries. Documentaries are often shot over the course of several years and incorporate footage from a number of different cameras, as well as stock footage. “These are the sort of things that we specialize in,” says Staples, “bringing the best possible picture quality to the color suite for the final DI or a film-out. Maybe they never expected it to go to film and now it needs to. They have something that is 60i in HD and now they need to make a really good 24 frames-per-second version of their film. That’s the kind of thing we specialize in.”
The studio is seeing growth in work that’s been shot on Red and Phantom cameras. At press time, Central had worked on approximately 15 Red projects. And that work comes from all over the world.
“A large percentage of our work comes from outside Vancouver,” says Staples, “and of that percentage, a good amount is coming from outside North America. As a brand-new facility, we are doing relatively well, and the main reason for that is that we didn’t open this facility to try to survive on Vancouver business.”