It's the web, of course, that's largely fueling this evolution. Despite the current spate of dot-com failures, post houses have not shied away from adding Internet-driven new-media services to their palette. For example, New York's Charlex this year opened Grain, an offshoot dedicated solely to interactive advertising. So far Grain has completed a website redesign for Moviefone.com and an online ad for Sprint through McCann Relationship Marketing. For Sprint, Charlex has created an animated arrow icon for a broadcast spot; Grain later used Flash and 3D Studio Max to develop the symbol in a 45-second Web commercial (viewable at sprintbiz.com).
Among other post houses that are redirecting some of their priorities, last year saw San Francisco's Western Images partner with production house Pandemonium to form Mekanism. This interactive production company promptly scored a high-profile hit with the multimedia "Yes/No" campaign for MTV's Rock the Vote 2000. In the viral e-mail portion of the campaign, checks marking "Yes" or "No" boxes were superimposed upon images linked with hot-button issues like a fetus, an electric chair, or a gay couple. A rollover of the mouse revealed the arguments for and against each particular political persuasion. The campaign extended across several other platforms - print, broadcast TV, online, interactive TV, streaming video - but elements from one medium were not merely slapped onto another. Mekanism served as something of a "preproduction" company, looking ahead to all the specifications necessary for each format before the project was executed. "Instead of thinking about repurposing, you think about prepurposing," explains executive producer Tommy Means.
New-unit fever is sweeping the business here and in Europe. The U.K.'s The Mill, for instance, which has a reputation as a high-end effects shop, just launched new-media arm The Mill Lab. One of the division's recent projects was a pop promotion for Orbital's track "Oi!" from the new album The Altogether. Animation and live-action director Paul Donnellon created a five-minute Flash-animated promo for the band's DVD, as well as an interactive online game. In the game, the player steers a character through the obstacle-ridden streets of Paris, and in the process creates a remix of elements from Orbital's track. The company's broadcast experience influenced the look and feel of the work, says Mill Lab new-media director Andy Barmer. "We were able to bring a televisual sensibility to the new media space," he notes. "The promo doesn't look like typical Flash. Some of the animated elements were exported into an online game, which similarly has a televisual look to it."
One notable example in the post-to-interactive movement is Robert Greenberg's R/GA, which in the '90s had been known for its sleek effects and titles for movies like Superman and Predator, as well as the acclaimed campaign for Diet Coke that paired old-time movie icons with modern-day pop stars. In 1999, the company shut down its effects arm and went into interactive and new media full-time. "Much of what I was doing in the early '80s was developing the future of digital production, since nobody had a lock on how to do the work," Greenberg says. "We were all inventing as we were going along." His full-time move to address the creative convergence of narrowband, broadband, and wireless technology represents the next phase of this invention. So far, it's been successful. R/GA has developed websites for clients like IBM, Ericsson, AOL/Time Warner and the Rhode Island School of Design, and has garneredcreative kudos from the One Club and the trade press.
Part of the Package
Most companies, however, are better served by adopting new media as part of a well-rounded stable of offerings, observes Matt Peterson, president of Scenic Wonders, Inc., a Madison, Wis.-based consultancy for the postproduction industry. "The successful houses that will make the transition are the ones that see interactive as a service they're going to bring to existing customers as they need it," he says.
Rick Wagonheim, executive producer/partner at New York's Rhinoceros notes, "For us, new media is something that's part of our new-business plan, but it's not like we're changing who we are. We don't want to be a pure offline company focusing only on commercials, and we don't want to be a pure online company focusing only on web design." Recent mergers have also helped companies to expand their roster of services. There was the notable joining of forces, a year ago, by Santa Monica-based postproduction shops Riot, POP Film, POP Animation, and Digital Magic Co., which became the full-service facility Riot. Among others, Irvington, N.Y.-based Market Vision Studios, a digital effects company, merged with Command Post; and in 1998 video production company 601 Design and Flame design shop Wissing & Laurence were folded into the video division of interactive shop iXL, to form New York's iXL Video.
Historically, postproduction has been something of an evolutionary phenomenon, working its way into technical niches like visual effects, editing, and music production - areas that advertising creatives and other clients have little time to sort through on their own. "The changing services are reflective of what people are looking for," says Terry Rainey, president of the Association of Imaging Technology & Sound, a trade group based in Vienna, Va. Moreover, competition in the past decade has stiffened. Five years ago, small sub-million dollar companies comprised about 60 percent of the industry, says Peterson of Scenic Wonders. Today the availability of affordable digital tools has significantly lowered the cost of entry into the field, and that figure has jumped to 80 percent, he adds. In order to survive, post facilities must anticipate clients' needs, especially those triggered by the developing technologies.
Next to the democratization of advanced equipment, the explosion of distribution formats has had tremendous impact on the industry. "Traditionally, you pretty much finished your work for videotape, end of discussion," explains Peterson. "Now people have to finish for videotape, CD-ROM, DVD, and streaming over the Internet. All these new distribution formats have been pushed into the media services business. Managing assets throughout the whole production and postproduction process has become an important service, to ensure that those assets can be deployed through all media - linear, interactive, and downstream."
This year, Liquid Laboratories became the latest addition to New York Media Group, the umbrella organization that includes Post Perfect, Crush Digital Video, and Cyclotron. The company was formed in response to an onslaught of new-media and DVD interest from clients at Cyclotron and Post Perfect. "The music video clients started wanting enhanced CDs and promotional DVDs, and that started sliding to the rest of our clientele," explains Peter Wehr, Liquid Laboratories general manager and NYMG multimedia specialist. "It became evident we needed a new unit." Tapehouse New York had originally tapped into new media, creating content for CD-ROM games in 1995 via Tapehouse Interactive, but since then, it's shifted its approach, focusing more on broadband, DVDs, and archiving. "The demands of advertising have changed so considerably," says principal Mark Polyocan, "we've expanded into other niches." Tapehouse partner Zuma Digital, for instance, which evolved out of the company's former interactive arm, has created DVD and in-store presentations for Kenneth Cole and Burger King, as well as a mini-DVD catalog of spots for M&M/Mars.
In a frequently confusing multiplatform universe, the ability to deliver assets in various formats is key to the new postproduction business. "We realized if we could make hi-res video and make hi-res files, you can distribute them in a number of different ways," says Craig Leffel, apartner/senior colorist at Chicago's Optimus, of the company's decision to create assets primarily in hi-res. "You can remove yourself from conversations like `Do I need a three-quarter?' or `Do I need a VHS?' and also, putting them on the web is almost an afterthought. It's already there and the idea is, `How much are we going to compress? How much are we going to dumb it down to get it to move around the fastest?' "
When Optimus first offered interactive services about two years ago, it dabbled in traditional website development, but eventually found a more pertinent niche. "We've come full circle and decided that the only interactive job in terms of web development that make sense for us is the video-based streaming applications, specifically for clients that we already have," says interactive director Dan Brown. One of those clients is McDonald's, for which Optimus has now developed two online interactive libraries. The first manages various types of product shots so that they can be purchased and used by McDonald's agencies around the world. "We're talking about thousands of clips here," notes Leffel. "The idea was, if you needed a drink shot or you had a shake that you were going to promote that week, you had to jump through a lot of hoops to get a tape into your city that you could put on a local commercial. Also, you didn't have access to a good way of cataloging. We used to do CD-ROM work, and before that we had to print out shots and their descriptions." Optimus also developed a creative archive that houses about 15,000 spots - the entire collection of commercials McDonald's has produced from 1962 to the present. Searchable through more than 50 database fields including production cost, ethnicity, and year, the site was developed as both a historical reference and a creative resource for McDonald's ad agencies.
Advancing technologies have opened up new sectors for specialization as well. Consider music and sound design; in 1998, for example, Terry O'Gara and Michael Sweet launched Blister Media in New York to cater to the sonic needs of the interactive community. Blister provided both the technology and sound for interactive projects like MTV's Web Riot, a broadcast cable and Internet quiz show; the interactive game Loop on Shockwave.com; various web sites for Sesame Workshop; and the Nasdaq learning kiosks in Times Square. Such assignments go well beyond the needs of the traditional TV spot. "We have a lot more homework to do than someone who just has to kick out the track," says O'Gara. "With interactive projects, everything relies on constantly evolving technology to deliver the message. Even though we're a music production facility, we have to understand all the technologies our client is speaking - or at the very least, how our technology and code will integrate with theirs from project to project." Blister is not alone in its efforts; full-service music and sound design houses like Elias Associates in New York and Hest & Kramer in Minneapolis have both added what the Blister crew calls "interactive sonification" to their services.
Creatively and technically, postproduction shops are well-positioned to take on the new responsibilities that come with the new technology frontier. Compared with more technically-oriented interactive shops, Charlex's Alex Weil says that post facilities' experience helping ad agencies sift through branding problems makes them better situated to help communicate brand ideas across emerging platforms. And even though many traditional agencies have built up their own interactive divisions, Weil is confident that the need for specialized services will ultimately arise. "In the future, it will become too technologically difficult for most agencies to manage an interactive department at the level of technology that is going to be required for the high-powered new era that's around the corner," he notes. "I think we'll be at the same place that shows why most agencies aren't in the production and postproduction business; there'll be so many details to be dealt with that it would take away from their main discipline, which is to develop, with their clients, strategic plans and designs for communication, rather than the actual doing of it. Companies like mine are set up to do these complicated jobs that involve a lot of technology, which makes it easy for our clients to participate."
Mekanism's Means concurs. "What's really frustrating about the ad industry right now is that all of a sudden everybody wants to do an interactive TV campaign - but not thinking about it beforehand will produce something that's going to be analogous to slapping a banner ad onto a website," he says. "We don't want to see it go in that direction."