Post-production sector innovates as ‘two-phase disaster’ looms

COVID-19: The industry has rapidly introduced work-at-home measures, but is contending with unexpected costs and the reality of a post-production dead zone in the fall. (Unlocked)

While Canada’s production industry remains at a standstill, the post-production sector finds itself in a very different position. For the most part, there is enough work to sustain post-production houses for the next two or three months, and in some cases more. But as the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, a number of short- and longer-term issues are quickly revealing themselves.

In the immediate term, the additional costs associated with working from home have proven to be significant for some businesses, especially in VFX and animation. And the supply of work is gradually running dry.

Then, slightly further down the road, the sector recognizes there will be a post-production dead zone. Some estimate it will begin in the summer, others the fall, but all acknowledge it will happen and it will be devastating for a sector comprised primarily of freelance workers.

“What’s really tough on the VFX and animation community is that this is going to be a two-phase disaster – right now, people are enduring this financial hit, but at least there’s revenue coming in, there’s shots coming in,” Matt Bishop, vice chair of industry association Computer Animation Studios of Ontario (CASO) and a partner and producer at Sinking Ship Entertainment, told Playback Daily. “But what happens when that dries up? We know there is a tsunami of nothing coming this fall.”

Unexpected costs hit VFX, animation houses 

CASO represents 25 companies of varying sizes, from businesses with two or three people to those with between 400 and 500 artists. Bishop says the “unexpected” costs of deploying remote, work-from-home teams ranges from a few thousand dollars all the way up to around $250,000 monthly, depending on the size of the company. The primary reason for the spending uptick is twofold: investment in remote desktop applications, and the need to increase bandwidth to accommodate the reality of personnel working remotely.

For Sinking Ship, which handles post-production on both proprietary shows and third-party projects, the additional costs are projected to be around $100,000 over a three-month period. “Not only are studios not operating at 100% capacity, they’re also experiencing new costs at an unprecedented level,” noted Bishop.

In order to gauge the financial scope of the COVID-19 crisis, CASO this week released a survey for post-production companies. The survey is aimed at VFX and animation studios, as well as other companies operating in the post-production space. Much like the production-focused survey released by the COVID-19 task force last week, the data gathered will be used to form a clearer picture of what is needed to support the post-production sector during this time of crisis. (The survey is here. The deadline for submissions is April 6.)

Meanwhile, Jane Tattersall, partner and SVP of Sim International’s post operations in Toronto, says she has concerns for the freelance community that forms the majority of Canada’s post-production community – especially for those that are new to the industry, which has enjoyed a number of boom years as the demand for video content has risen.

“I’ve been in the post business for years and am very aware that it can be cyclical – but that wasn’t the case in the last two or three years. I really worry about people who are new to the business not having saved any money, because they assumed that whatever paycheque they’re getting this week they’re going to get all year round,” she said.

Going remote

But while there may be tough times ahead, necessity is proving to be the mother of invention for the post-production sector. Across the country, companies are implementing work-from-home protocols that are reimagining the ways in which they complete projects. For Tattersall’s teams at Sim, it has a number of shows in progress, and others it will start working on shortly. Tattersall said the company is midway through sound editing and mixing The Trickster (CBC), Disasters at Sea (Discovery) and This is Pop (Netflix), as well as a film for Deepa Mehta and David Hamilton. “Most of this work is now taking place out of the office,” said Tattersall.

Other companies, too, are launching remote solutions to address the new reality of working in isolation. Among them is Technicolor, which yesterday (March 30) rolled out Technicolor TechStream, an app which gives creatives a “secure, real-time window into their colour grading session or VFX review.” The product, which can run on Wi-Fi or mobile LTE networks, enables storytellers and creatives to collaborate with Technicolor’s artists from anywhere. Technicolor had planned to release the product later in the year, but said the COVID-19 pandemic expedited those plans.

Meanwhile, Nick Iannelli, EVP or post-production at Take 5 Productions – which handles post-production on series such as Vikings spinoff Vikings: Valhalla and The Handmaid’s Tale – said the company was able to “immediately deploy a remote work scenario” for its VFX teams to work securely outside the office.

While working remotely isn’t quite as efficient, it’s not far off, said Iannelli. “We’re not running at 100% efficiency, but maybe about 80%, which, given what’s going on, is something we’d be willing to accept. As things move along, who knows, maybe we can increase that,” he added.

A new era for post-production?

While the post-production industry has been shifting over the past few years to allow for more work to be conducted remotely, members of the industry say that the COVID-19 situation could instigate a broader shift that sees even more work completed from home.

“It’s something the industry has always talked about. We knew there were solutions that existed, but because of the security of assets and clients’ content, everyone was a little hesitant to go there. I think it’s an opportunity to test this in a real-world situation, and realize it can be secure, it can be effective,” said Iannelli.

Whether it will completely alter the landscape for post-production internationally remains to be seen, he added, but the early signs are that the COVID-19 crisis will force companies to adapt their processes to allow for more remote work.

“Will this change the way post production is done in the future? Who’s to say. But I feel that the world will be very different when we all come back from this, and we’ll all work a little differently. It could very well be that we do work remotely,” he said.

Image: Unsplash