... and What It Could Mean for Stateside Production and Post
Two-way trust is a big issue when doing business in this part of the world. It could be a serious advantage to develop a straight-shooting relationship with a reliable house, having the talents and abilities suiting your needs. I’ve developed relationships in Central Europe where I could personally get work done on a handshake, but I always paid them early and fully. Trust is such a rare and wonderful thing to experience on any kind of production, why tempt ruining it.
What some houses lack in equipment and software, they make up for with ingenuity and artistry. But you might be surprised to learn that a fair number of the nearly 1000 studios in Eastern Europe are equipped with current technologyÃ¢Â€Â¦even bleeding edge in some cases. The best houses even buy their seat licenses for the expensive software systems offered by Discreet, Autodesk, Softimage, Avid and others. Much of their in-house R&D efforts are not in developing proprietary film related software; it’s in developing project management systems that ease the task of working with western productions nine hours distant.
Rumor has it that some of the houses started out using bootleg software on equipment kludged together from units discarded in the west. If so, I’d have to say "Bravo" (forgive me lord,) because today it’s become a matter of pride for them to pay hard cash for their seat licenses. In Eastern Europe, a land of bootleg software, having paid seats signifies you have arrived ‘ you have risen to the brotherhood of legitimacy. Further, it might get you some support from USAID which has a huge effort there to encourage respect of IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) within the film and video industries.
My argument for the above “Bravo” is that, in the beginning, none of these filmmakers could have possibly been customers for expensive software or hardware. But having learned to use it with great artistry and achieved a measure of success, they can now afford to purchase their seats. Now they can suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous copy protection just like the rest of us. If they are not already, I think the big software houses should find a way to support these efforts, thus opening vast new markets for their wares. It could be a win-win if they provide free software to the companies running schools. This assures that the students will be learning on Softimage XSI or 3dS Max – whoever gets there first. Later in the series you learn about universities that teach film and video post, VFX and animation, run small post houses on the side, the profits of which help pay for the university programs.
Although film crews seem fairly abundant in key areas like Sophia, Bulgaria and Prague, Czech Republic, there are shortages in some of the less known areas where the industry is growing. Much as in Hollywood there are also shortages of well trained, talented people through out Europe. The answer in Eastern Europe is for studios, often with government support, to open their own schools teaching post production, 3D animation and VFX. A few Macedonian houses are also experimenting with distance learning. In most cases, these schools are free.
It is not widely known, but this outstanding facility will accept gifted students from outside Germany. If you qualify, virtually anyone is welcome, even Americans, to come and get a top drawer free education professional production! Consequently competition can get fierce for the limited number of openings. So it is that a number of exceptionally talented young people from Eastern Europe are accepted each year.
Back to the East, VFX and Post houses (usually combined) are providing training and practice workstations to build up a farm team of trained artists. They often do this at their own expenseÃ¢Â€Â¦sometimes with local or national government help and sometimes USAID pitches in to open doors and make connections and support infrastructure development.
The emphasis in most training is on versatility. Students are taught to be flexible in their use of software and its application. A person who is a VFX wizard may find himself work on game animation, film promotion posters or just about anything that needs to be done to complete work that is available.
The houses providing the training skim the cream off the top for their own operation, and the rest usually find employment at smaller houses nearby. Getting that training can be the ticket to a comfortable life style for many, as a good portion of the houses pay well above average for their local area. In fact, some pay as much as three or four times the local average salary, making post artists semi-wealthy citizens. This wealth spreads rapidly, raising the economic health of many local areas.
Danilovski adds, “We want our artists to have financial satisfaction as well as the creative one. We do not want to run some sort of sweatshop here. In that sense we have positioned the income of our top VFX people to match the highest salaries in our economy.” And he’s able to do this while still charging remarkably reasonable rates for their work.
FX3X has a well established reputation for both quality work and timely delivery. Later in the series I’ll be talking more about how important this is when you want to work on big Hollywood productions. Although most of their work comes from Central and Eastern Europe, they’ve done a fair amount of work with American and Canadian production companies, and are currently working with Academy Award nominated Director Milcho Manchevski on a Macedonian action film, Senka. In addition to creating VFX for the film, they’ve been working with the stunt coordinators to carefully previz motion and physics for the risky action sequences to reduce the possibility of injury.
The capitol city Skopje, a place I’d only vaguely known of, is on its way to being an important name in our industry. I talked with Danilovski about it. “FX3X is a pioneering company in the VFX and animation industry here in Macedonia. We’ve worked very hard for the last 10 years to build a solid company and a spotless international image for the Macedonian industry. Any of our international clients will testify to that.”
This kind of endorsement helps ease the way to bringing in more foreign work. I asked him how he managed to establish an international reputation in the first place. “It took us countless tests to get the jobs, and thousands of hours of hard work without ever missing a deadline. We also invested a lot of effort to expose and train the young people in the new media, animation and VFX.”
Fx3x has a commitment to film and new media in Macedonia in general. “In order to further strengthen the growth of the Macedonian industry we have actively participated and supported the large Digital Media Park project. In this project, participating Macedonian companies will co-locate into our grand 50,000 sq. meter facility, where we will share high end-infrastructure and increased flexibility. The Digital Media Park is real ‘ and it is currently in the new construction phase ‘ it will open by the end of this year (2006).”
Putting in financial investment to develop an area with new infrastructure has expanding positive effects. The money fans out through the local economy. The availability of high-speed Internet will flow to nearby businesses and individuals, further expanding possibilities.
I detected a lot of excitement about media production in Macedonia and I noticed that the USAID has an active representative working there to help bring in US production work. They’re also helping to train young people and providing subsidies to help with the infrastructure work.
MADE has the (unrealistic) stated goal of bringing the entire digital entertainment industry to their location. I don’t see this happening. They will grow and other centers like the Media Park will grow as well. MADE is getting a lot of encouragement and some funding from USAID. They too are working to train young people in the area for careers in digital media. As I understand it, under the leadership of Collaborative Media Group (CMG,) the MADE collective plans to eventually provide a wide range of studio services available including sound stages, back-lot facilities, sound recording and more. With a small reported initial USAID investment of about $700,000 things are well on their way. Actually, that’s a lot of money in this part of the world.
You can almost always find a little bit of Hollywood somewhere in Prague (more on Hollywood Expats living there in the next installment). Big Hollywood studios are doing a lot of business there because the main facilities and crews here have proven themselves reliable. That reliability is the secret to success throughout Eastern and Central Europe. The other secret to success is the comparatively low cost of doing business in this part of the world. Quality output per dollar can be astonishing. For intense, new VFX on the perishable edge created with evolving proprietary software and technique, you would stick to the West. But for most other film and TV post and shooting, you’re likely to find an Eastern Europe house willing and able to accommodate your needs at very reasonable prices. In the third installment of this series I’ll introduce you to one interesting post studio in Prague.
If you’re a small producer on a limited budget, but with big ideas, I encourage you to consider removing your head from that rock wall you’ve been beating, and look East. Consider some of more unlikely places in EE to find a small post house that you can form a trusting relationship with. You may be their first US client and they will be excited about that. Start out small and build up as they prove their reliability.
This approach can be a win-win with you saving a bundle and them establishing a track record. You can become their US reference with other companies. Friendship may well ensue.
In the next installment of this series I’ll introduce you to some of the people and other companies, both large and small, that can help you pull off miracles of budgetary prestidigitation. So keep your eyes open next week for my next chapter.
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