Spotlight on Postproduction: Global Warming

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Ron Soodalter's cowboy boots and gentle manner give him an old-fashioned air, but this scout roams the plain of ultra-high tech. The former sales veep sold `big' for 20 years at post and visual effects goliaths like Editel and Manhattan Transfer, but the '90s onset of industry "boutiquification" led him down a new trail -- toward smaller local and international shops. "Often bigger simply meant more confusion, a longer line of communication, higher budget, and less certainty as to who you were going to get to work on the job," he now repents.

In March 1997, Soodalter left the lumbering giants to craft a new business, geared toward helping agencies sift through the chaos to find high-end work minus the big-biz overhead. He gathered a consortium of smaller, specialized players, starting with local shops like animation studio Celefex and Alter Image, as well as motion graphics house Work In Progress. But Soodalter's search for skill at a decent price inevitably led him beyond the country's borders. His company, Ron Soodalter Associates, now comprises a global array of post and FX artists, including Montreal's Voodoo Arts and Mac Guff Ligne in Paris.

Going abroad for talent is the current bane of the production industry in both features and commercials, but agencies can't deny that budget limits often necessitate having to look to foreign players. Matt Miller, the president of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP), agrees that the international scene presents a formidable group of pocket-friendly competitors. What can be found in an editing suite on Madison Avenue, he says, is now commonplace in countries like Poland or India, with the professional expertise to boot. "We still do have the most experienced crews here," he remarks. "But more and more people all over the world are getting more experience."

Despite industry nervousness over "runaway production," Soodalter believes that other countries bring to the table more than just savings. They also introduce a fresh aesthetic sensibility that just might provide the twist that clients often seek out. In the U.S. he recognizes a wealth of talent, but also observes a lot of well-executed monotony in the vein of "I want something totally original like he did." France, for example, is often more daring. "The best that France has to offer has a wonderful look about it," Soodalter finds. "It's a much softer, more filmic, more elegant look, and in many ways it's a little more out there." Different styles also provide a challenge to raise the quality of the U.S. work, he says.

Soodalter continues to look for reputable companies to add to the RSA roster. He is currently checking out the FX scene in Australia and the Netherlands. Comments Ron Weber, an executive producer at Saatchi & Saatchi, "What's nice is that Ron doesn't rest on his laurels. He's always on the lookout for talented people, no matter where they might be."

Soodalter's role at RSA includes giving advice to technophobes about the increasingly complex world of production and effects. "The fact of the matter is, the technology has so much outstripped the knowledge of the average person in this business that you have to ask questions," he says, adding that having an informed client only helps him do his job better. "You know that old thing about an educated consumer is your best consumer? That's true. It sounds corny, but the more questions people at the agencies or production companies or editorial houses ask, the more sighted they become, and the easier the job gets, with fewer misunderstandings."

Industry execs agree that Soodalter helps them to sift nicely through the high-tech fray. "He has a real expertise and knowledge of the area; he cuts our work in half," says Patty Wineapple, a group executive producer at Grey Advertising who worked with Soodalter on the Hasbro account. Technology has not only made decisions for agencies more complicated; it has also spoiled the eye of the modern-day media consumer, who won't settle for less than reality when it comes to visual effects. "When the magic works, you don't see it," says Soodalter, picking out the practically invisible but crucial details on recent work from Mac Guff Ligne. Soodalter pinpoints the shadows and splashes that impart realism to Mac Guff's CG rendering of chatty dinosaurs on a Lego commercial via Lowe Lintas, or its animated tortoise and hare on a live backdrop in a spot for Badoit mineral water. The company is also famed for its Evian spot featuring the water-dancing babies a la Busby Berkeley, and for morphing the facial features of Jodi Foster in the otherwise underwhelming Contact. Voodoo Arts' portfolio is similarly sophisticated, featuring the X-rayed appendages of jazz musicians in a "Hand Jive" spot for calcium-fortified Tropicana, as well as a Molson ad in which a "refrigerator" of a football player becomes just that, as his sweat-dripping, humanoid likeness unhinges to reveal a single bottle of brew chilling within.

Soodalter says he receives heaps of reels from companies wishing to join his group, but 99.5 percent don't make the cut. "I don't want to have a stable of anything where people throw the raw meat into the pit and whoever comes out of it wins. I want the right people for the right job. Each company I'm dealing with, and looking toward, is different enough that it offers its own special aesthetic."

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