With traditional working practices upended, rising costs and technological advances, startup post production firms are eschewing physical facilities in favour of a cloud-first approach.
If you are going to launch a postproduction business today you would at the very least offer the flexibility for clients and staff to work from home.
Only this week, Assembly, a new post-production studio servicing advertising, film, and TV markets has launched colour grading, offline editing and dailies with facilities in New York City (and a Los Angeles facility opening in 2022) with a cloud backbone to offer clients a choice between in-person or remote creative sessions.
Founder and president Art Williams said: “The past 18 months has presented the advertising and entertainment industry with a series of non-traditional challenges that have forced the evolution of working culture and industry-dictated protocols. We identified a great opportunity here to break the moulds of traditional working practices niche specialties to build a business that is truly flexible for our creative partners and talent alike.”
He could be speaking for a number of other post-production businesses that are starting-up with or evolving to remote cloud-based workflows.
Racoon offers virtual collaboration
Racoon was launched in February by the former management team of one of the largest and most successful bricks and mortar facilities around, London-headquartered The Farm.
Racoon though is an online platform providing all the offline, finishing and mastering services you would expect from a traditional facility, but in a potentially more efficient, agile and sustainable manner.
“Increasing fixed costs, decreasing budgets, the move to decentralise the industry from London, the shortage of skills and unsupportive culture many of us find so challenging all point to an absolute need to rethink how we serve up post production to our programme makers,” David Klafkowski, Racoon
“It is very difficult to change your business model if you are having to fight legacy real estate and technology,” says founder and CEO David Klafkowski.
“If I had 50 rooms and I was looking to re-engineer by editorial backbone I would actually engage the services of a company like Racoon because it would be more efficient than buying in equipment.”
He is careful to avoid calling Racoon a facility, even though it does have premises on Frith Street. However, the only hardware on premise is monitoring. Everything else is in a data centre connected to by dark fibre.
“You can’t start a business and be entirely virtualised. I knew we would have to have some real estate to bridge the gap. The industry can be reluctant to change but also there is a need for people to get together and discuss issues face to face. It just doesn’t need to happen anywhere near as much as it used to.”
Klafkowski calls the rooms in Soho “creative collaborative and review spaces” although acknowledges “someone else might call them edit suites.”
Aside from management, Racoon’s editorial talent is all freelance who can access a virtual Avid workstation from anywhere. It also offers ingest, transcoding and media management as well as traditional in-suite functions like logging and collaborative review. All of this is in the process of being glued together under one online application.
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“We will offer a set of tools together inside a platform, some will be bespoke, others off the shelf but it will be a single conduit for producers to work with us. It is still version 1.0 and the idea isn’t new but it’s how you glue things together and offer that service consistently that is most important.”
All the hardware for storage and processing is hosted in Racoon’s private cloud, a data centre located adjacent to an internet switch for optimum speed.
“An aircon basement in Soho probably costs as much as a data centre but having a data centre that is really well located means we can be cloud first and we can utilise the public cloud when it becomes practical and cost effective to do so.”
Right now, Klafkowski feels the costs of ingress and egress of media in the public cloud is cost prohibitive for daily postproduction.
Having worked on a major reality show for an Australian client at the beginning of the year with editors in Portugal, Spain and Italy, Raccoon has also serviced reality shows for Amazon Prime with the aim of landing two to three primetime TV shows before the end of Q1 2022.
“Editors really do want to be remote. It’s a better lifestyle choice for them and they can be more productive too since they don’t have to commute. They don’t need to be in central London until doing the final review.
“I knew this was the case three years ago. It’s madness having all these rooms when most of the time there’s one person in them. It’s managing that ad hoc usage which is a problem for facilities.”
That and the rocketing cost of delivering services from central London. In recent years the London living wage has gone up while Westminster council raised rates in excess of 30% in some locations.
“Increasing fixed costs, decreasing budgets, the move to decentralise the industry from London, the shortage of skills and unsupportive culture many of us find so challenging all point to an absolute need to rethink how we serve up post production to our programme makers.”
BeloFX launch in the cloud
Elisabeth Murdoch is backing VFX startup BeloFX a cloud-first facility founded in Canada and the UK by a group of former senior executives at VFX powerhouse DNEG.
The team is led by Matt Holben and Alex Hope, two of DNEG’s founders, Ellen Walder, former COO at DNEG, and Graham Jack, former CTO at DNEG. It is based in British Columbia, Quebec, and the UK.
“We are remote and cloud first—everything we design is with that in mind,” explains Jack, who is CTO of the new venture. “That doesn’t mean we won’t have own infrastructure or premises but the starting point is to make it work in a decentralised way and open up opportunities for remote collaboration. It would have been challenging to do this five years ago but the technology has now reached a tipping point.”
BeloFX is positioning itself “as a global boutique doing high end work for top end vfx projects across episodic TV and feature film,” says COO Ellen Walder. “We think the technology is only ever going to get better. We had our eyes on this for some years now and the pandemic has proved it.”
Jack says BeloFX’s set-up mirrors the functions of a traditional facility with “secure, cordoned off production networks,” cloud storage and virtual workstations running in the cloud connected to artists machines via Teracidi PCoIP.
“We’re trying to embrace infrastructure as a code - the ability to spin up a new region very quickly,” he says. “While we have an initial base in Canada and the UK if we wanted to spin up a network on the west coast of America we could.”
It relies on cloud providers (Azure, Google, AWS) for a secure high speed data backbone although the economics of doing this at scale may necessitate launch of its own data centre.
“Artists have already restructured their lives and reorganised how they live their day around child care and how they interact with families. People have embraced flexible working. We definitely want to embrace new technology that makes it possible to build a diverse and inclusive company, one that’s merit based,” Ellen Walder, beloFX
“We’re constantly running that analysis,” Jack says. “Without legacy to hold us back we can completely re-imagine the VFX pipeline. We are uniquely placed to incorporate game engines at a fundamental level. Our view is that if we’re making iterative creative calls on VFX work we want to be doing that in a realtime environment whether the outcome is a final frame or for display on a LED wall. We can also embrace open standards such as OpenColorIO and Universal Scene Description to share complicated 3D assets and layouts.
He adds, “Realtime technology is just the beginning. There are a whole range of exciting technologies that we have been exploring and are looking forward to exploiting as we lead the fundamental change that our industry is poised to make.”
Launching as a decentralised facility is also an opportunity to recast the conventions around employment where talent doesn’t need to be living around or commuting into central London.
“Artists have already restructured their lives and reorganised how they live their day around child care and how they interact with families,” says Walder. “People have embraced flexible working. We definitely want to embrace new technology that makes it possible to build a diverse and inclusive company, one that’s merit based. We believe this breaks down the barriers to employment and progression that there has been in some companies in the past. We are passionate that this is the model of the future.”
Green Rock ditch the office
A few months ago, broadcast post house Green Rock closed its physical office in Soho in favour of permanent virtual workflows as it embraces lockdown working practices for the long-term.
The 13-year old business, which has worked on post projects including Netflix’s Myths and Monsters, gave up the lease on its Goodge Place office which contained six edit suites.
Its 12 staff are now working from home full-time, as they were under lockdown.
Green Rock founder and CEO Simon Green says the industry is facing “a real wakeup moment” as businesses attempt to introduce flexible working regimes.
“As staff begin to return to offices, there will be a realisation that the solution isn’t flexible working,” he explains.
Green Rock, which will make considerable rent-related savings, has invested in developing its own virtual edit system, Green Rock Virtual Creative Solutions (VCS), to enable the shift, working with Base Media Cloud and Adobe.
Under lockdown, it was operating a hybrid system under which editors were having to download huge files from the physical edit suites to their desktop computers. However, by shutting the suites it is able to fully embrace a virtual tech platform.
The model will allow the company to take on more work than was previously possible and help it navigate any future lockdowns more easily.
“I’m having conversations with bigger broadcasters and other companies on more ambitious projects,” he says. “Working in the cloud means we will have no limits.”
Cloud-based editing will also allow Green Rock to scale up and down more rapidly to react to demand.
“The pay-as-you-go model gives us ultimate flexibility and scalability,” he adds. “There is a lot more productivity in the early stage as editors can really get their heads down on their own,” he says. “In the later stages of an edit, livestreaming video technology allows producers and directors to collaborate seamlessly.”