By Randi Altman
Every post business has its own recipe for success, and while some ingredients vary, a talented and well-trained staff is a necessity in every kitchen…um, studio. So is making sure clients are well fed with creative ideas, solutions and quality work.
Evan Schechtman was just 20 years old when he started NYC’s Outpost Digital (www.outpostdigital.com) in his apartment back in 1998. You could say he was something of a prodigy.
After dropping out of film school, Schechtman threw himself into the technology of the industry. He was a heavy Adobe Premiere user who built his own systems. That led to a tech support job for a company called MacHattan, which focused on media-based companies in the city. “I got to see how a small business ran, and I got to see what real companies were doing with media technology at the time.”
He liked the job, where he became “the de facto digital video guy,” but grew tired of syncing palm pilots for executives. It was about this time that he saw the potential of the DV format and felt a business could be built around it. “It redefined the price/performance curve for acquisition and editing, so I started a little company which was based on the idea of being the Kinko’s of desktop video — highly specialized rinse and repeat tasks. I was like a service bureau and rental facility doing a lot of DV work.” Schechtman worked in Premiere at first, but then got his hands on a copy of Apple’s Final Cut Pro 1.
He quickly saw the benefits of the software and became an expert of sorts on the tool, often teaching others about its benefits. This got Apple’s attention. Around that same time filmmaker Gus Van Sant was also embracing Final Cut Pro, but had no one to help him through specifics of the software. Schechtman flew out to the West Coast and trained Van Sant and his producer Danny Wolf. This was a very fortuitous meeting, because it was Wolf who introduced Schechtman to John Kamen from Radical Media.
Kamen, too, believed that Final Cut was the future; they hit it off and in late 2001 Outpost was acquired by Radical. Their first project together was 32 episodes of ESPN’s The Life, which was being shot on DV.
That successful partnership flourished. “I don’t think there is any kind of secret math in what we do,” says Schechtman about staying successful in this business, with this economy. “Post, even with the change in cost structure, is still a capital-intensive business.”
Outpost maintains a core of staff in specific disciplines, and around that core staff developed a pool of “trusted permalancers. This gives us the ability to scale as needed. So we have the core staff that understands rules and regulations, the way we manage our storage and naming conventions, so we are not re-teaching our process every time we ramp up for a job.”
Having a core staff in place also helps Outpost control its rate card. “It’s definitely better than if we were fully freelanced talent with a few producers in-house,” says Schechtman. “Our rate is a composite based on what we are paying for labor and some sort of overhead expense based on breaking down the area we are renting out — there is a square footage calculation.”
Outpost’s core staff has largely been the same for a decade, and part of that stability is, according to Schechtman, the diversity of the work the studio services. “We aren’t pigeonholed into doing only one thing. So if one of the core editors had been in promo land for two months, they may then spend six months on the Paul Simon film or something. So the good news is that sitting in one place they can attract the work that they would have to go to multiple companies to get.”
Another reason staffers like staying at Outpost is there is a CTO at the helm. “Other places may have a CIO or head of IT, but not really a person who is figuring out what the trends will be before they are trends — Schechtman (pictured working in an Outpost ssuite) has embraced Smoke, now in a 2013 iteration, as well as the controversial Final Cut Pro X. “The staff is working on the smartest grouping of technologies; we enable them to have full control over the creative process. We protect the creative integrity of their job.”
Educating the staff is also a big part of what Outpost and its owner Radical do on a monthly basis. Radical has Radical U, where an executive who is practicing something of note will give an after-hours presentation to the staff, accompanied by pizza and beer. “They are constantly being educated to what’s out there.”
Outpost offers the Outpost Roundtable targeted at its staff and the permalance community learning from an assistant, editor or directors, using case studies. “We superimpose greater value on the facility by having a place where there is knowledge sharing.”
Recent projects/clients at Outpost include spots for Grey Goose, THNKR — You Tube Channel; Verizon Fios; Under African Skies —Graceland, a Paul Simon doc; and Oprah Presents Master Class.
BIG SKY EDIT
Chris Franklin started Big Sky Edit 20 years ago in New York City — back then it was just himself and an assistant. Over the years the company has grown and evolved. In addition to Franklin, there are three full-time editors (Valerie Lasser, Miky Wolf and Cristina Rackoff) as well as a graphics department that was started in 2004 and is run by Ryan Sears. There are three artists working in 2D and 3D; their executive producer is Cheryl Panek.
Big Sky’s addition of a graphics department mirrors an industry trend of studios providing more than just one type of service — this is particularly true for editors, who are often asked to do much more than just cut. “A lot of it has to do with the toolset that an editor brings,” says Franklin.
“In addition to the graphics department at Big Sky, we are also audio freaks. We don’t have a mixing studio per se, but since Media Composer is so expansive in terms of how you deal with audio, we can work heavily at sound design as we are editing. That makes a big difference and becomes a big part of our workflow.”
While Media Composer is a big part of that workflow, the studio does have some Final Cut Pros — “the old Final Cut,” Franklin says with a laugh. The graphics department uses Adobe Creative Suite, so Premiere Pro is in-house as well. This is something that Franklin intends to give a longer look, especially after the buzz that followed CS6 during and after NAB, he shares. Still, Avid has been the studio’s foundation, and he calls Media Composer 6 “fantastic.” While finishing is done in-house, they do go outside for color and final mix.
In terms of staffing, Big Sky has always hired from within. It begins with an internship that grows to assistant editor and then to editor. “The three editors that are with me have worked with me since they’ve been in the business,” reports Franklin. “They all came up through ranks, and they are all brilliant. It’s exciting because you are working with people of like mind; it’s a collective in a sense, because everybody feeds off each other, and the four of us rely on each other’s opinions and suggestions.”
While Big Sky has its core staff, they will bring in freelancers when needed, but Franklin prefers to keep their numbers small. “We like it that way,” he says. “We are not looking to over-expand or double our size.”
With so much competition these days, bidding has become an even more important part of the process, but for Franklin and company they set a rate and stick to it. “You have to be as resourceful as possible to get the most out of a job, even while many have curveballs thrown during process,” explains Franklin. “We make sure we have enough to throw at it so it’s done right.”
He emphasizes that “you have to hold onto what your worth, since that could easily become distorted if you start playing around with what your value is on the job. The clients we work with know we are crazy passionate about the job, so we develop these relationships and luckily they come back.”
While about 85 percent of the work at Blue Sky involves commercials, they do long-form work as well, and it’s this type of diversity that helps keep the editors fresh. This long-form work tends to be independent features — or as Franklin calls them, “labors of love.” They also do docs and shorts. “We are spread out into a lot of different areas, and because we are small we have the freedom to do that.”
If company comes from position of passion as opposed to “setting up a company just to make money, it’s going to succeed, and your by-product is success,” he explains. “It sounds idealistic, but I believe it’s true. Your passion feeds off onto your projects and makes everything you do better. You never stop learning and you can always be better.”
Dallas-based Janimation (www.janimation.com), which offers animation, visual effects, design services and more, opened its doors way back in 1993.
Staying successful, and privately owned, after 20 years is not an easy feat, especially in these challenging economic times. According to founder/CEO/chief creative director Steve Gaçonnier, diversity and the ability to evolve to meet clients’ needs was and still is key. “We have supported a diverse client base — commercial, game and feature film work — and provided diversity in our style and offering,” he explains. “We have created a studio that provides whatever the client needs: stage, live action, motion capture, editorial, audio, Website development, technical solutions, award-winning creative and, of course, bad-ass animation. None of it possible without our clients.”
A big issue for today’s studios is figuring out what they have to charge per job to stay in business. Janimation tends to bid the projects out as “a firm bid,” according to Gaçonnier, “so it’s important that our EP sees a reasonable margin for each project, and it’s the producers job to keep the project scope in check.”
He loosely defines scope by the number of artists multiplied by the number of days required to accomplish the project to the clients’ satisfaction. Regardless, the work has to be high quality: “Good work ain’t cheap, and cheap work ain’t good,’ I think that was a Norman Collins quote. It’s a great feeling to have former clients come back to the studio specifically for our quality and professionalism.”
In terms of ROI, every project becomes a window to what is needed to produce faster, smarter, higher quality work, he says. “While hindsight is 20/20, it isn’t always clear what is needed… until it’s needed. Keeping abreast of the latest technology allows us to find solutions for clients that may have been out of their price range last year but due to a new innovation or tools may be possible this year.”
And the value of the people running those tools has become even more important these days since some clients are taking advantage of the lower cost of tools and are bringing tools in-house. Sometimes it means competing with your client. “They may have an editor or an After Effects guy, but there will always be needs that are above and outside of whatever the ‘in-house’ team can accomplish. You need talent, and sometimes a lot of it. Regarding choosing talent, there is one thing to keep in mind, owning a paintbrush does not make you an artist.”
So acquiring the right talent is of huge importance. Gaçonnier compares talent to a professional football team. “You have your franchise players, positions that you must have filled, and a few that you only need for certain situations. More gridiron analogies include always keeping your eye out for a first round draft pick that would be a good fit for your team, bringing in a proven free agent when it’s clear you have a weakness in a position. In addition, we are always mentoring and training undrafted free agents in hopes to find someone special. Our interns are the practice squad, and you never know when you might get called up to play.”
Janimation is also giving a little back. This summer they are offering an animation camp for kids ages 9-12. No computers necessary, says Gaçonnier. “We will teach the kids the fundamentals of story, motion, light, composition, sound and organization...we will teach them that its not about the gear, it’s about the vision.”
Janimation’s talent recently produced a tomato character for NatureSweet through agency The Richards Group. They used Softimage for 3D, Arnold for rendering, Nuke for compositing and plenty of Photoshop running on mostly Dell workstations with Nvidia graphics cards.
Glenn Dady, Wade Sturdivant and Dan Calhoun at The Richards Group approached Janimation about creating character animation for “Tim the Tomato” for NatureSweet. “They had already produced great spots like Triage, featuring Aardman-style animation, so we had the opportunity to jump in and collaborate on the new spokes-fruit, or is it a vegetable? I can never remember. Anyway, we were stoked.”
The animation is running on broadcast, at POS and on the home page of their Website (www.naturesweet.com).
We recently asked Brooklyn-based creative company Hush (www.heyhush.com) a few questions about running a post biz. Creative partner David Schwarz, who is pictured below (right) with partner Erik Karasyk, was kind enough to answer them…
POST: How do you acquire your talent? Train from within, or hire experienced artists?
DAVID SCHWARZ: “Every member of the Hush team, from intern to senior, is a student at heart. We expect everyone to grow in our environment through collaboration and experimentation. No hierarchies, no wrong answers. Just improvements. Senior talent tends to diversify their skills rapidly as they’re exposed to new design constraints, platforms and disciplines. A motion designer must talk to architects. A software developer collaborates with traditional directors. Our goal for junior talent is to sink their teeth into a rigorous design process, as well as to boost their presentation abilities — from writing and reference to live pitch.
“We’re lucky that portfolios and reels stream into the company on a daily basis. Part of that is because we have a great network of established freelancers, friends and mentors who recommend special, Hush-ready talent to us.
“When we look to bring new people in, we never follow the worn path, and we rarely hire rock stars. Instead, we seek uncommon artists with unexpected skill sets, diverse backgrounds and a unique point of view on the world. After all, who would you rather eat lunch with?”
POST: How do you keep your artists from going to competition, or becoming competition?
SCHWARZ: “As a design agency, we spend a lot of time in the ‘pre’ phases of projects — concepts, explorations, ideation. So, we don’t fit the mold of a post company proper, but we do engage in a great deal of ‘post’ processes, from animation to software development and technical builds. They might happen first or last. Doesn’t matter. We support this diverse talent by offering the biggest incentive of them all: unique creative opportunities, room to grow and succeed, and the ability to try new things, to diversify and to test themselves. Career evolution is a natural part of the business. If someone leaves for another opportunity, it’s probably the right time for both of us. Ultimately, change is good — and while turnover is often tumultuous and difficult to manage, it’s a great way to shake up processes and start with fresh eyes and renewed energy.”