In July this year 422 South passed a major milestone; 20 years in the business of producing CGI for non-fiction television. During that time we’ve always specialized in documentary work – perhaps because when I started the company with two other ex-BBC staffers I already had almost a decade in documentary TV behind me, including some of the first major international series to use CGI.
The changes in our business over that period have been profound, not just in terms of technology, but also in the nature of the relationship with our clients – driven by ever-tighter budgets and often overreaching expectations. But documentaries still light my fire, so rather than seek a new job, I prefer to adapt and survive.
I make a point of attending as many conferences and summits as I can – it’s useful to get a handle on broadcasters’ changing needs and priorities which form the common backdrop to our clients’ day-to-day issues. But in times of financial squeeze, experience and the ability to empathize are not enough – producers need to see value. Based in the UK as we are, an unhelpful dollar exchange rate has provided an additional stimulus to become more efficient. Though not planned as a coherent strategy, I can look back and identify a number of steps we have taken to stay competitive.
First, by basing ourselves in Bristol, the UK’s second media city, we avoid London wages and costs; perhaps a savings in the region of 20% compared with our capital-based competition. We’ve always worked internationally, so where we are in the UK matters little to most of our clients, especially in an age where everything is delivered electronically.
Second, we flex our size, running a lean operation based around a core team that represents depth of experience in all the key areas of our service, supplemented by a pool of talented freelancers who we call upon when needed. Alongside our management roles, Craig Howarth (my co-director) and I are both hands-on, alternately storyboarding, directing, producing, editing and, in Craig’s case, writing specialist computer code. It keeps us ‘grounded,’ and close to the business.
Third, we have formed relationships with trusted subcontractors in lower wage countries. A team in Sao Paulo, Brazil is currently on its third project for us, and we are in exploratory talks with an Indian animation house that we hope to use for future work. While the level of talent available in such countries is often high, their work is usually passive/reactive, reflecting their experience in TV commercials and movies. 422′s contribution is the empathic art direction that comes from experience working closely with documentary producers, and project management to ensure robust delivery. It should be a persuasive combination, so I don’t try to hide it from clients.
The last plank in our strategy is to encourage non-traditional trading terms. For example, 422 might offer to produce an animation or a computer model at reduced cost in return for retaining the rights to the animation for another project at some point in the future; in other words, a licensing deal rather than a straight work-for-hire relationship. I usually suggest such an option if the CGI is generic in nature – such as a globe, a common dinosaur or a biological animation.
Another option is for us to invest a proportion of our fee into a project in return for a share in the back-end profits. If a production is only partly funded, but seems to have great international potential, I sometimes offer a part deferral of our fees to make the project happen sooner than it otherwise would. Sister companies in our group include studios, HD cameras, post facilities and distribution, all of which can be considered part of an investment deal. Not every project will be suitable, or will come at the right time, but there are several UK and European companies that we work with in this way.
I think the key to survival is being open to new opportunities and new ways of working. But I am also a firm believer in the value of experience, and the maxim of ‘Know your client, and your client’s problems.’