Grist With a Twist

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Back in 1990, when Robin Shenfield launched special effects shop The Mill in London with two partners, 30 employees and more than $10 million in funding from the band U2, many questioned his timing. "We were in quite a recession," says Shenfield. "The market was contracting and there was an oversupply of post companies. The general reaction was, 'Oh great, just what London needs, another post house.' " Despite the underwhelming welcome, The Mill flourished, eventually expanding beyond commercials, which include the recent award-winning Levi's Twist from BBH/London, to movies like Gladiator, Tomb Raider, Harry Potter and Black Hawk Down. "We did quite well because we had a different style of operation," says Shenfield, citing the then-revolutionary practice of sending artists on shoots and applying the budding digital technology to commercials. "We were innovators."

Now, market be damned, Shenfield is doing it again. Slated to launch this month in New York is The Mill's first outpost, located in an airy building one flight above the production company Radical Media, in the space currently leased from the Radical-owned post house Outpost Digital. Despite The Mill's remarkable success in England, people are again questioning the timing of the $1 million venture. "People are asking, 'Why now?' " says Shenfield, acknowledging the budget crunch for high-end jobs. "It's simple: our U.S. clients asked us to. They've been telling us for some time that they'd like to spend less time in London, especially on the less complicated projects." Furthermore, by pulling business from London's vast technical and human resources, the outpost will free up space for the overburdened mothership.

Oddly enough, the 46-year-old CEO got his start in journalism. His interest in postproduction was sparked by a chance gig as a reporter for International Broadcast, a quirky, family-owned British paper that covered the politics and technology of the industry. "We ran riot," he says. "We wrote thousands of words each week with no regard to the advertising coming in." In 1986, his expertise led to a job as a graphics producer at the post house Rushes. It was an exciting time, says Shenfield, with CG in rudimentary form and analog giving way to digital. At Rushes, Shenfield met Pat Joseph, The Mill's future managing director; the two have shared an office since 1987. The third partner is James Morris, a former film editor whose connections to U2's business manager helped secure funding for the venture. The Mill has since grown to include film, TV and interactive divisions, and last year the trio bought out U2 and other shareholders.

From the start, The Mill was different. While most post companies were focusing on music and corporate videos, The Mill dedicated itself to commercials, at least until 1997 when Mill Film was formed. It hired up-and-coming talent, invested in cutting-edge technology and encouraged invention, such as the software developed for the crowd scenes in the Oscar-winning Gladiator and the CG smoke in Black Hawk Down. "We had a very different method of working," says Shenfield, citing the now common practice of bidding at a fixed price. "I do think we invented that." Though The Mill may make some effort to bring U.K. traditions to these shores, like striving to keep directors involved in the post process, Shenfield isn't out to rock the boat. "The way business is done in New York is a little different, and we're aware of that," he says.

Following in its parent's footsteps, the New York base will handle only commercials jobs (it's already finished three Mike's Hard Lemonade spots, for Cliff Freeman). "But that's not the end of the story," says Shenfield. "Clearly, we have aspirations to grow. This is just the beginning, a way of getting started quickly."

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