Geraint Owen Leads a Content Production Dream Team Inside the Grading and Conform Facility

After industry veteran Geraint Owen and his partners closed their award-winning production and animation house, Superfäd, in 2013, Owen came to Nice Shoes with an idea: Why not build a symbiotic creative studio within the Flatiron facility, already well known for its local and remote color grading and finishing services? He and Nice Shoes CEO Dominic Pandolfino both agreed the home-grown shop — offering a rich palette of design, production, direction, animation and high-end visual effects — would give a new content production company an instant advantage within New York's tight and often territorial market. Given the infrastructure and reputation Nice Shoes already has in place, Owen says, "we'd have all these other resources available to us. But it would also give us another angle to present ourselves to the world. And we think it could really lead a new onslaught on the market by going after creative work and producing whole projects, from start to finish."

The new studio's core offerings, says Owen, are creative direction, visual effects direction, project management, "and a big chunk of thinking," all driven by the rubric of design. "I don't mean design in how it looks but design in the real sense of how something works, taking something and making it work better and harder, make it communicate better and making it that much clearer, elegant and engaging. It's what we try to infuse into everything we do."

This June, with a strategically chosen team in place, Nice Shoes Creative Studio (NSCS) officially opened for business. Though a few of the founding team had worked together before (Owen and Creative Director/Director Harry Dorrington, in fact, met when both were starting out in the business), it's clear the collective experience of Creative Director James Coulson, Dorrington and CG Supervisor Parish is also by design, underscoring the studio's deep roots—and current focus—in VFX and animation. Parish also brings a foundation in feature film VFX as well as VFX-infused commercial and television work to the mix. An alum of The Mill, Smoke & Mirrors, Whiskey Tree and ILM, he's supervised campaigns for HBO, Pepsi and GE, and worked on tentpoles such as Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, Elysium and Thor: The Dark World.

A spot directed by Harry Dorrington for Hasbro's Battleship Live movie tie-in game

"CG is being done by more people," says Parish. "But our difference is we can push CG and VFX because we know we can offer it more efficiently within their budgets. We have the equipment and the render power here to support that. And the degree of control we offer also means that it can be done at a very high level, which is another thing that sets us apart."

Efficiently managed and executed visual effects, however, make all the difference. "Because we can control the whole pipeline, we can set stuff up early, manage expectations for the client and show them examples early so they can make key decisions, even before the shoot," says Parish. "That in itself is invaluable; I've not had access to be able to do that before. Usually I have to pick up the pieces from someone else's mess. When we can control it, then the entire team runs much more efficiently because, obviously, expectations continue to rise but budgets are coming down."

A spot directed by Harry Dorrington for Titlest

In an upstairs floor of Nice Shoes near the roof deck, the Creative Studio's 10 workstations run Maya, Nuke and Softimage software (though, with Softimage's coming demise, the studio is already standardizing on Maya), Pixel Farm's PFTrack, the entire Adobe Suite, Autodesk Smoke, and GenArts effects software. An additional Flame and several Mac-based Avid and Final Cut seats round out the hardware. "We can work as a team in that room and have a central monitor, where we can all chip in and offer ideas," says Parish. "Every one of us has a great eye, so it's brilliant to look at stuff together. This worked really well on our latest project. We make quicker decisions as a team, too. It definitely has its advantages over people working on their own in isolated rooms." Render nodes and all the workstations live in the machine room. "We just have a remote-access point for our work upstairs, so we keep all the machines in one place down there," he says.

Last month, the machine room was reconfigured while the studio pushed a large nine-minute 2D/3D After Effects project through it for IBM. "But it was the same workstations," says Dorrington, "because they can all be swapped out, depending on the project." 

This kind of flexibility, says Owen, is a potential game-changer. "Steve and I were talking today, and he pointed out just how much stuff is already right here at Nice Shoes. When we have a complex idea, we don't have to scrabble around quite so much to execute it." Dorrington says the new-found proximity with the color suites is a huge advantage for clients with tight schedules and budgets. "At previous jobs, I'd work only with color houses bookable late in production," he says. "Now, with this setup, if I'm going out shooting, I can test the whole process beforehand," he says. "I can do color and finishing tests way before I finish the project, just to make sure the client will be happy with the way that we're shooting and setting up the specifications for the end. All of that is now available to me at any point during the pipeline." When it's fixed in post, changing it comes with a cost. "In this digital world, everything is changeable, but whether it is efficient or economical when the client or the budget curve is up against you is another story."

One of six brand logo identity promos James Coulson devised while creative director of the Syfy Channel's recent rebrand

Dorrington points to a recent film tie-in job for Hasbro as a case in point. "We were doing some casting, which had to be done very quickly," he says. "The shoot had to be done very quickly because there were a lot of visual effects, which Steve helped us navigate. But because that timeline was crunched, I had a piece of wardrobe that wasn't quite right. It was the wrong color, and I wanted it to tie in to the one seen in the movie, so I had that echo of what was worn in the film. Having the color-correction right here meant I could do a proper test the night before the shoot and work out what I could achieve on shoot, knowing I'd be able to correct it to the exact color used in the movie."

The Creative Studio team agrees that beyond budgets, clients are most challenged by managing crazy schedules made more intense by the number of possible deliverables. "Agencies in particular now must cope with the daily demands and expectations of clients," says Dorrington, "on top of figuring out how to make eyeballs stick to whatever new method of communication there is. We can help smooth out that chain for them by being much more efficient with the pre-planning. The more you can visualize the intention, the more successful the production is going to be. Nobody likes surprises."

A live-action and CG spot for Beatles Rock Band supervised by Steve Parish while he was at Smoke & Mirrors

As formats, social media and new devices constantly change up the way messages are seen, NSCS is well positioned to deliver them just about anywhere. "I'm not sure we've delivered anything yet in which the primary delivery was TV," says Owen. "A bunch of it has ended up there, due to repurposing, but it rarely starts there. We make stuff, and then it ends up in many different places." And the way to make eyeballs stick to that content, wherever it goes, adds Dorrington, is to start with a clearly thought out design. "As Geraint says, everything we do is going to be influenced by design, by story, and by ideas. Nothing is just eye candy."

In the end, says Owen, NSCS always aims to deliver something unique, no matter what the client, or situation, throws at them. "We want to sell ourselves as people who can run jobs and think on our feet and not just execute," says Owen. "We're people who can help clients by working through problems with them as we go, but we also know when to bring in whatever resources we need to get the job done."