... and What It Could Mean for Stateside Production and Post

This is the first in a three-part series on Eastern Europe and its wide variety of resources in film and video production. Read on to find many things you’ll want to be aware of, especially if you’ve never considered out-sourcing your production, post and VFX work.

Part 2: Boutiques – Small Post Houses in Far Off Lands on the Cutting Edge
Part 3: The Big Boys on the Eastern Block – Western-style Production at Eastern European prices

Eastern Europe has always seemed far off and a more than a bit sinister to me. My vision: castles and ancient landscapes, stone ruins and cobbled streets, vampires and oppressive governments. Ah but Hollywood has long appreciated these lands for their authentic, mysterious locations and dirt cheap crews. For example Romania has become a goldmine for Hollywood productions seeking its fabulous locations, trained crews and low production costs. Anthony Minghella (IMDB profile) actually had important people chewing his butt for shooting the US Civil War story Cold Mountain in Romania, but he had the last laugh, keeping costs in line while paying extras and estimated $150.00 ‘ not per day ‘ but for the entire shoot! It is rumored that he saved more than $35 million US, doing it. Small art films are also shooting in Eastern Europe where you can even find some houses to partner with you on a project that shows promise. You do the shoot, they do the post and VFX for a little up front and the rest on the back end. (I guess they haven’t heard about Hollywood book keeping.)

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.

New opportunity blossoms: Post Production
Much of Eastern Block spent years rusting behind the old iron curtain. It was virtually inaccessible to American Film makers; and all manner of infrastructure simply did not exist. But things have changed over the last few decades. It turns out Eastern Europe has a long standing love affair with film, both live action and animation. For years Eastern Europe contenders for the Academy Award in animation have proved to be remarkably creative and unexpected. That tradition has been expanding into video and all manner of digital media from television to mobile delivery systems and major VFX work to video games.

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 technology…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.

Training the Next Generation of Filmmakers
There are also impressive free schools in places like nearby Germany. My favorite is the remarkable Film Academy Baden-Wuerttemberg, in Ludwigsburg, (Near Stuttgart) where students receive intensive training in production, animation and VFX. Headed by Professor Thomas Haegele, the academy yields a stream of well trained graduates each year. Director Roland Emmerich (IMDB profile) had enough confidence in the Academy to give a few of their students an opportunity to work on Independence Day, Godzilla and The Day After Tomorrow. Emmerich often depends upon VFX Supervisor/director, Volker Engel (IMDB profile) who is a graduate of the Academy.

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 expense…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.

Made in Macedonia ‘ FX3X
I’m going to start my little tour of Eastern European studios in far off Macedonia. There is a lot of new cinema and TV activity there and the US government is actively involved in studio development there. FX3X is a well established one-stop-shop with everything you could possibly want in film and video production, located in ultra modern facilities. Better yet, last November FX3X begins the move into their giant new 50,000 square meter facility. According to co-founder Kristijian Danilovski: “Our new facility will include a fibre channel backbone with state of the art SAN and HD dual link infrastructure, with fibre channel connections to the key compositing and editing rooms. It will also include an 800 sq. meter film stage (sound stage), a 400 sq. meter HDTV studio, both with the support rooms needed, and a preview / mixing theatre.”

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.

Digital Film City
Sometimes very small outfits band together to achieve economies of scale. At Digital Film City, also in Skopje, a number of small and medium media firms and support outfits have banded together as MADE (Macedonian Association on Digital Entertainment) to build a reputation and bring in business while creating infrastructure to grow with. Perhaps inspired by FX3X success, the Film City collective has hired Hollywood insider Rita Cahill to help them market their wares here in the west. Rita is a story in herself, but that’s for another time.

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.

Opportunities Abound
There’s no way I can give you a detailed look at the hundreds of large and small studios you’ll find across Eastern and Central Europe, but I can give you a taste. I’ve picked a few studios in various sizes, locations and situations and I want you to get to know them a little better. But it’s also good to have an overview of the situation. There are cinema centers, much like India has its Bollywood. Rumania, The Czech Republic and Bulgaria, for example are booming. Prague is a great example of how film is helping a substantial city boost its local economy… and inspire inflation. This magnificent, ancient city in Czechoslovakia has become a Mecca for film makers from all parts of the world. Their crews, facilities and post houses are world class.

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.

Part 2: Boutiques – Small Post Houses in Far Off Lands on the Cutting Edge
Part 3: The Big Boys on the Eastern Block – Western-style Production at Eastern European prices