Is it possible to dodge the sky-high rents of Soho and still attract high-profile work to your facility? Can you really have your cake and eat it? With an influx of indies moving up to Manchester and local filming on the rise, it appears you can indeed.
The infamous cakes trolley at Sumners post-production house has never seen so many takers. According to Andy Sumner, who with wife Janet heads the facility, the Mancunian post market has evolved alongside people's perceptions. "Manchester is now seen as a good place to go to make TV shows. And those companies that have decided to come up here have been impressed by what they've seen," he says.
Richard Wallwork, director at 422 Manchester, adds that while the city "will never equal London in size, there's a very strong and complete post market, with experienced companies and individuals. Over the past five years the centre of Manchester has become like a mini-Soho".
While the market may have matured recently, it hasn't grown from nothing - ITV has been making programmes in Manchester since 1956, a fact underlined by 3sixtymedia's head of studios, Paul Bennett. Despite being 90% owned by ITV Productions and 10% by BBC Resources, 3sixtymedia maintains it's not guaranteed work on Granada or BBC shows. "We usually get work because of our history and all the years' experience we have in making TV programmes," he explains.
While facilities recognise that it's still early days, the knock-on effect of the BBC's planned move of its children's, sport, new media and Radio 5 Live departments to Manchester is certainly creating a buzz. The Northwest Regional Development Agency has predicted that the move has the potential to bring 4,400 jobs and£1.5bn to the regional economy over 10 years and last year awarded the corporation a cash injection of£50m to aid the transition.
The BBC is also understood to be in negotiations with developers for two possible sites in Manchester itself and another two in Salford.
422's Wallwork for one is positive: "Natural law says that if there are more people in the city working on a lot more commissions, then this should feed along to the post houses."
But while he believes a BBC move would create more work, he says the jury's out on just how much work will be created and how it will be distributed. "I do think the move would result in extra work, though in what form remains to be seen."
His caution is shared by 3sixtymedia's Bennett. "It wouldn't be a bonanza of work, more an addition to the pre-existing work," he says.
Sumner points out that if the BBC does move to Manchester trained staff will be at a premium. "They'll need a lot of troops," he says. The facilities managing director is on the board of Media Training North West and is working with bodies such as UK Post to set up a Manchester media training academy, while working with Avid to develop training courses. UK Post's Gaynor Davenport too is focusing on training for the growing Manchester post market. She says: "We're looking at taking First Post, which is backed by the London Development Agency, and rolling that idea out in Manchester, in conjunction with Skillset," she explains. "The interest is there, we just need to find the money and the training partners."
David Mousley, managing director at Red Vision, adds that the Manchester post market can only be stimulated if the production market is: "We need companies actually making programmes here. We've been talking to people who are setting up here and they are realising that the north-west has great cityscapes for shooting, as well as great talent; we have brilliant scriptwriters and directors."
Sumner, meanwhile, has found that it pays to be proactive and help indies new to the region get established. For him, this means being practical: helping companies to find office space, giving them contacts for landlords, furniture companies, even helping them with their tele-coms set-up.
Wallwork has already started pitching to the new kids on the block. "Our experience is that people are happy to keep the post local - provided you can prove you can work to the same standards that any other good facility house in any geographical location can work to. But it's on a case-by-case basis as to whether these companies are keen to keep the post in Manchester."
At 3sixtymedia, Bennett has already been providing studio and post-production facilities for newly arrived indies, including Hat Trick North. "There are people who'll always want to move the post back to London," he maintains. "Everyone has their own comfort blanket, whether it's a particular DoP they want or a certain post house."
Red Vision's Mousley thinks that Manchester sometimes loses out to London on the capital's "cool" factor. "Also, productions can be headed by staff who may be shooting in the north but who are from London and want to be near their families and might know the London companies better." To keep post in the north, he says: "We need companies to take the chance once and then they'll build their confidence. There are some facilities in London that have capabilities you won't find in the north, but these are for film; for broadcast work, there is no difference."
Facilities in Manchester are also gearing up for HD and tapeless technologies. Wallwork describes 422 as "HD-ready, as are most local facilities." 422 has completed "a small number of projects" entirely in HD, using its HD Smoke and HD Flame, but he notes that "we're still at the stage where people are talking more about HD than doing anything" - particularly with broadcast work. "Our best HD clients are still our commercials customers."
Sumner is quick to point out that becoming HD-ready "isn't just about getting a Nitris: you also need to invest in things like wiring".
He has spent around£250,000 on the company's HD set-up, which includes a 2k Da Vinci, HD-ready edit suites and a HD-ready dubbing suite. "You have to do HD properly. You simply can't cut corners: the broadcaster will just reject it and the client won't come back," he warns.
But he believes the money was well spent: after buying the Da Vinci this spring, "we're now being asked to do big drama series in HD". At Red Vision, Mousley says there's "a huge amount of HD work" underway, mostly co-productions with US broadcasters. "But," he warns, "there's an increased cost and clients don't always realise that."
While acknowledging the "huge general buzz about HD," 3sixty's Bennett says it's having a limited impact on his business, and is only really important for co-productions with broadcasters like Discovery and National Geographic. "We're interested in the development of tapeless technologies," he explains. "We've recently invested in new cameras for Coronation Street so we'd like to take the show tapeless. It's hard to say when, but we'll do it in phases, and the first phase will come next year."
422's Wallwork says he's spent the past 10 years "persuading people that we can offer virtually identical services to those available in London. And there are things we can offer that Soho can't: clients comment that things are more friendly and relaxed here, and people are more enthusiastic and eager to complete projects to their full potential. Some people don't want to listen to this," he admits, "and generally these people aren't spending their own money."
However, even if the post business in the north-west were to mushroom with the arrival of the BBC, several newly established indies and a wealth of fresh-faced trainees, nobody wants it to be at the expense of Soho. The post business needs to think nationally rather than regionally, a point succinctly made by Mousley. "If the post business worked across the whole country, then projects could be divided up throughout the whole country: that would let us all get to work on some really exciting and large-scale projects."
Northern Highlights: Funland - Sumners
The brainchild of The League of Gentlemen's Jeremy Dyson and EastEnders writer Simon Ashdown, Funland is the darkly comic Blackpool-based thriller recently shown on BBC3 and produced through the BBC Comedy Unit.
Producer Sanne Wohlenberg wanted the show's look to reflect its combination of comic and dark themes. "It was important to base the drama firmly in the present and not make it too unnatural and grotesque. We wanted people to recognise Blackpool, but also to show how surreal some of the lives of the characters were, such as the Dutch taxidermist," she says.
According to Wohlenberg the cast would have liked to use film but started off with Digibeta, combined with some shooting on Sony's Z1 HD DV camera. "The quality of the cameras was truly extraordinary," says Wohlenberg - too extraordinary, as she adds that the clean, crisp, digital look of the HDDV format needed to be grained, as well as de-interlaced, at Sumners facility by colourist Jamie Parry.
As the Z1-only shoots in interlaced mode, film effects were applied to achieve the more filmic, progressive-mode look required. Footage was then downconverted and onlined on Avids before being conformed and colour corrected on Sumners' 2k Da Vinci system.
While Parry's main concern was that the HD footage, with its greater compression, has a more limited colour palette, Wohlenberg fortunately was not after saturated hyper-colour. "If anything, we wanted things to look 'sicker'," Parry explains. "There's a hotel in the piece, which is the kind of hotel you really don't want to end up in - we wanted to convey that this place meant trouble, so we made the colours greener and turned down all the warm colours. We really weren't after glamour."
Parry also manipulated light sources in many scenes, so that the viewer isn't quite sure where the light is coming from.
"It's an extreme story, so a lot of the time we were looking to 'nasty up' Blackpool. It's a beautiful city, but really changes at night. The aim was ambiguity."
Parry encountered a few instances when the Z1 format proved troublesome. "A couple of times, the DoP changed his mind about how a scene looked, and then the format's limited colour rendition does make it harder to change back than it would be on film, for example," he admits. "But overall, it was great: using the Z1 for this sort of drama was a groundbreaking decision."
Northern Highlights: Little Robots - Flix Facilities
Now in its fifth series, CBBC's preschool animation Little Robots is produced by Cosgrove Hall Films for indie Create TV & Film. Senior producer and director at Create TV Francis Vose says she'd wanted to do an episode featuring water "for years" but the kit the company would have needed to use was out of its budgetary range. For series five however - due to air early next year - Vose began consulting Cosgrove Hall's post-production company, Flix Facilities, about how it might create water in CGI.
Vose had come up with the idea of retelling the Noah's Ark story: "The robots' planet floods and they have to build an ark to survive."
Flix couldn't simply use real water because, shooting at 25 frames per second, it would be impossible to control the water. Clingfilm and Vaseline are most commonly used to depict water but the sheer amount they needed meant that Flix had to come up with an alternative. Vose explains: "The robots literally float in their boat right up to the sky, where the water is pouring in through a hole. They then mend the hole before emptying the water, and swirling back down in a whirlpool."
The Little Robots models were filmed in stop-motion (in Cosgrove Hall's studios) and the footage was sent upstairs to Flix's CG specialist Simon Partington. Flix bought in a programme named Real Flow to create the water, which needed to take a number of shapes, including splashes, waterfalls, whirlpools and underwater environments.
"The design of the water also had to fit in stylistically with the filmed elements, so it would integrate with them," explains Flix Facilities' managing director, Leo Casserly.
Compositing was carried out in After Effects and unlinking on an Avid DS. "There were lots of layers in each shot, because of the amount of elements that had to be inserted," says Casserly, "but the result was seamless." Biblically enough, it took Flix 40 days from September to create the water shots for the tale, plus the usual work of de-rigging, colour correcting and adding other elements, such as smoke and mist, as well as a further 20 days of onlining.
In all, the special CG water effects added around£20,000 to the usual post costs, "but once that CG water has been created, it can be used for other episodes" , Casserly points out.
Northern Highlights: The Crusades: The Crescent and the Cross - Red Vision
Lion TV's The Crusades: the Crescent and the Cross combines dramatic reconstructions of bloody battles in the Middle Ages with computer-enhanced visuals to tell the story of the 200-year conflict.
The 4 x 60-minute series started earlier this month on the History Channel and the production team filmed on location in the Middle East to achieve an epic look.
Lion's production budget could stretch to about 30 soldiers; an amount ideal for close shots where the frame is filled, "but you need thousands of people to get that really epic feel," says Andy Goldie, creative director at Manchester FX facility Red Vision.
Goldie had been involved in the production from storyboard stage and wanted to make sure Red Vision gave the producers and directors enough freedom to go and shoot how they wanted, while taking post-production concerns into account.
"It's always good if producers shoot in a way that suits you in post, but you have to give them the creative freedom," he explains.
To re-create extensive historical battle sequences Goldie made use of a specially written piece of software called Red Legion which was developed when the facility needed a piece of software that would depict large numbers of people realistically.
Goldie explains: "We use motion-capture studios to capture people running, walking, sword fighting and waving, for example, and then we can apply these movement cycles, as well as things like costumes and textures, to the characters. This means they all look and move slightly differently."
The Crusades also required a lot of matte paintings, which were added to location footage to restore buildings - allowing a pristine Jerusalem to be recreated or to enhance an existing vista. "Using the mattes also meant that simply by changing a background, the look and therefore the identity of a whole army would seem to change along with it," Goldie says.
Northern Highlights: Mercury Music Prize - 422
Alison Howe, producer at BBC Music Entertainment, brought 422 broadcast designer Gareth Price on board to design new titles for BBC4's Nationwide Mercury Music Prize, which aired in September, after seeing work he'd completed for previous Glastonbury festivals.
It was a completely open brief, says Price, apart from the stipulation to incorporate Nationwide's Mercury logo into the sequence. Price, who had just three weeks to complete the task, started off by watching the event's existing titles, which, he says, "were several years old, had lots of live-action and looked old-fashioned".
The designer took his inspiration from Rowan Mersh's sculpture which was commissioned by Mercury as its signature art piece, and is also incorporated into the set design. He decided to create a lightwave effect which would react to music beats while also forming nominated artist names.
Opting for blue "because most awards sequences are purple, gold or red", Price began with sketches on paper before moving on to After Effects. "After Effects lets me spend more time on a project, but still create titles within budget, which is important in an environment of ever-decreasing budgets," Price explains. "I can't imagine going into expensive edit suites for title sequences any more."
Price researched After Effects plug-ins until he settled on 3D Stroke, made by US-based Trap Code. "It was reasonably priced and let me create light beams within a 3D space; the end result looks like a slinky toy," he says. Price then added "hundreds" of layers in the same package. "It needed so many because I wanted to give the titles lots of depth," he explains. "The text looks like light trails and the type I hand-drew myself: I guess simplicity is always the key."
Maya and 3D Studio Max were used for the animation and compositing and grading was done in a 2k Flame. The whole post process took around four months and Price declares himself and his client extremely happy with the final result.
Northern Highlights: Jericho - 3sixtymedia
3sixtymedia completed CGI shots on the first series of LWT's period detective series for ITV, starring Robert Lindsay and set in 1950s London.
Matt Wood, head of 3D graphics, explains that the enormous changes to the capital in the past 50 years made CGI work invaluable.
"So many times, locations were only half-adequate because of changes to the location or difficulty of access. This meant we would have to take digital stills, to change into backgrounds later," he explains.
One important location was Scotland Yard, but because the crew didn't have access to the building, Wood travelled down to London and took around 60 digital stills. The directors picked the shots they liked, and using Photoshop changed the colours to indicate night time, as well as introducing hand-painted elements. Completed backdrops were then finished in Fusion.
Coming up with convincing wide shots of the city to use as establishing shots also required extensive CG work. "These are the kinds of shots where you can't just rely on a clever camera angle," Wood explains. "We did have a piece of archive news reel to work from, but it was a really bad colour, all blue and yellow, with a big yellow streak through it and lots of grains and scratches." Grain and noise were removed in Fusion and the image was also sharpened. "Then we could add buildings by hand-painting them in, and we also added smoke coming out of chimneys and some birds flying around," says Wood.
Another major project was the creation of an authentic 1950s replica of Piccadilly Circus. "This was difficult, as even when we found reference materials, the colour photography of the day is very poor and looks hand-coloured," Wood explains.
"So we had to make some assumptions." The Circus was modelled in Maya by 3D operator Tanvir Hanif, using a satellite photo of the location for reference. Other elements, such as signage, were added in Fusion by compositor Simon Blackledge, and all the elements then rendered into one large backdrop, "eliminating all the various layers and making things much simpler for Flame", explains Wood.
Actors had already been shot against green screen, so the green was knocked out in Flame, colours were balanced and layers of mist and fog added.