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When New York's Click 3X opened its doors four years ago it was the first U.S. digital studio to embrace the Flame in commercials work. But it was anyone's guess how the technology would pan out. "We had Flame and SGI," recalls Click co-founder and creative director Phil Price, "and we had to make this stuff work."

Well, they did just that, and today the shop is in good company. Under the umbrella of co-founder and director Peter Corbett's holding company, recently renamed Illusion Fusion, Click 3X has grown to a staff of 25 from five, and has opened offices in Atlanta and San Francisco, with another about to open in Los Angeles. And in the last year and a half, a dozen Flame boutiques have sprung up around the country, feeding off a new school of work available for digital doctoring that allows them to take a bite out of the turf traditionally dominated by large postproduction and effects facilities.

The upstart boutiques take a handful of forms; most are independent divisions of edit houses, spun off to keep the books separate, or more importantly, to better catch the spray of business coming from rival editing shops. Others are simply opened by Flame and effects artists breaking away from the Wal-Mart-styled one-stop effects houses.

A sampling of these places includes New York's Spontaneous Combustion, a year-old division of Palestrini Post, and Quiet Man, which is conveniently located downstairs from editing house Crew Cuts, from which it enjoys a healthy referral business. Quiet Man is headed by talented Flame artist Johnnie Semerad, whose work includes uncanny effects jobs like the Pepsi "Goldfish" spot for BBDO, directed by Joe Pytka, and another Super Bowl spot with Dallas Cowboys' Deion Sanders and Wile E. Coyote. New York's First Edition Editorial is also about to cut the strings on its in-house graphics department, which will have a Flame.

In Los Angeles, there's the six-month-old Area 52, run by Rock Paper Scissors editor and owner Angus Wall, which has racked up an impressive workload in its short existence, with assignments from Nike and Coca-Cola, among others. Then there's Ring of Fire, a year-old startup by Flame artists Jerry Spivack and Mark Zarate and executive producer John Myers, which is in the middle of a heavy effects job with Intel and its agency Dahlin Smith White.

In San Francisco, there's Radium, one of whose founders, Simon Mowbray, was part of the team at Discreet Logic that developed Flame in the first place.

What's enabled these companies to flourish? The number of commercials designed with built-in effects work is exploding, with some producers estimating that two-thirds of all spots today contain some kind of digital effects. "In two years our graphics department has grown 10 times," says Bobby Smalheiser, president at First Edition, explaining why it was important to establish its graphics department as a separate unit. "I think we're just at the beginning." Those effects could range from simply removing a rig from a shot to more complex jobs that involve often startling multiple compositing.

Sure, there's more effects business available, thanks to all the tech that's out there waiting to be exploited, but why is it booming in small settings? First, as the Windows NT platform replaces costly Silicon Graphics machines, software-driven effects machines are finally becoming affordable to small businesses. Sparks, or software plug-ins, are constantly being developed for the Flame, adding new features and fighting off threats of obsolescence, which makes it a more secure investment.

The environment of a boutique also might be a backlash to the impersonal treatment people were getting at large tech facilities, which appeared so hip in the '80s. The boutique is often positioned as a smaller, friendlier place with hands-on attention that is more conducive to creative collaboration. Price chuckles when he sees promotional brochures from these joints that remind him of Click's early marketing shtick. Going to a facility "used to be like going to the Starship Enterprise," he says. "When we opened up, it felt like a creative house, not a monument to technology." To promote that warm and fuzzy feeling, Click, and many of its successors, installed windows in rooms, which was taboo up till then, added comfortable couches and did away with the intimidating darkened corridors. And with the bright new image, forget about slapping a boring name on the door. Ring of Fire and Spontaneous Combustion go for Towering Inferno-style Flame tie-ins, while Area 52 is true to its UFO-inspired name: several staffers, including owner Wall, are aliens who emigrated from abroad. Quiet Man is a description of the low-key Semerad himself. Hand in hand with the friendlier environment is the attention a smaller company can give to individual projects and the talent they are able to attract. It's that personal attention that makes the difference, says Deanne Mehling, executive producer at Jigsaw, who helped start Area 52. "When you go to a big shop, it's almost as if you're turning the project over to a black hole," she says.

And if clients enjoy the more intimate setting, then Flame artists are even more likely to prefer it. Area 52, for instance, sports a gigantic reel with work from Flame artists Nick Piper, Ben Gibbs and recent recruit Simon Brewster, an Aussie. Brewster's work includes an ethereal Cadbury spot in which people appear to be floating in a fanciful, Willy Wonka-inspired dream, and a spot for Dr Pepper where the Statue of Liberty takes an underwater stroll and sets up her perch overlooking the Sydney Opera House.

"A lot of these people were working in big companies, and the more talented guys realized they could do it themselves somewhere else, their way," says Amy Taylor, executive producer at Quiet Man. Semerad opened Quiet Man in '95 after having worked his way up the effects ladder at Charlex, from a starting position on the Paintbox, to the Harry, the Henry and then the Flame.

Indeed, as Taylor notes, artists might just get tired of the politics in a large facility. Tony Robins, executive producer at Spontaneous Combustion, has worked on both sides of the large and small post fence, from Varitel Video and Sight Effects in Los Angeles to Editel/New York. "Working at the large places, there's so many people involved in the decisions," Robins complains, a problem that's only worsened when you don't respect everyone in the decision-making jury. The committee approach can also be a turnoff to clients, Robins says. "People get bitter because they're too far from the source."

But there are also disadvantages in going to a boutique, according to the big houses. For one, boutiques are limited in the equipment department, hence they're limited in the ways they can solve a creative problem, says Dean Winkler, president at the not exactly pocket size Post Perfect, New York. "You know the level of attention will be high" at a boutique, Winkler says, "but the resources will be limited." There's also a degree of security working with a larger facility, Winkler argues. Usually a producer oversees complex effects jobs, and if something goes wrong at any stage, "the responsibilities lie under one roof," he says. Whereas if effects are done at a variety of places, the blame might be harder to pinpoint and the solution more difficult to effect.

But the boutiques are definitely taking their toll on the larger facilities. Because their overhead is lower, small outfits are better able to negotiate deals, undercutting the large facilities with the added bonus of personal attention, says Mehling. Winkler says by-the-hour charges, a longtime mainstay of facilities, are now rarely used for lengthy projects, and that Post Perfect is constantly looking for ways to make the place a friendlier, more inviting environment.

The larger issue at stake though, is whether the big facilities risk obsolescence as a new breed of lean, adaptable companies emerge. "The possibility exists," says Robin Atherly, president and one of three animation and effects directors at Six Foot Two Productions in San Francisco, which, most notably, did the effects on a Goodby Silverstein spot for Bell helmets in which the tagline features a revolving brain that gets a bike helmet snapped on it. But the possibility is slim, he allows. Places like Six Foot Two still rely on the larger facilities for the high-powered machines that can make effects changes in real time. "We can't muster that kind of horsepower," Atherly says. "We can't play with the entire piece in real time." Even though desktop platforms are getting more powerful all the time, clients will still want the instant ability to test several ideas at once.

While Click's Price agrees that the digital boutiques are "eating away at the big guys," he doesn't believe it's time to commission last rites. "I think with high definition it'll provide a whole new life to service bureaus." With the widespread use of digital effects-in commercials, videos, and movies-he believes there's just more work to go around these days, and plenty for everyone. He does see facilities picking up more of the necessary but basic tasks, and doing fewer creative jobs. And who knows how small the boutiques will stay? Already Click 3X has outgrown the boutique moniker, and given the propensity of creative people to align with each other, Quiet Man's Taylor says, "We were joking that 10 years from now we'll be buying each other."

Ultimately, the work follows the talent, wherever it may go. "If someone great shows up on our doorstep," Taylor adds, "we get him a machine." Winkler adds, "If the person you really wanted to work with was in a garage in Burbank, you'd

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