VIDEO GAME GRAPHICS IN REVOLT
Copyright 2002 Centaur Communications Ltd

[ January 9th 2002 ]

Exhortations to broadcasters to unleash the talent of the graphics community have not fallen on deaf ears. Last year's survey revealed a community not only itching to be included in all areas of broadcasting, but also to embrace the new technology flooding on to the market. Despite concerns about falling budgets, it looked like a good year ahead for the image-makers.

2002 shows the usual rise in budgets, though not at the usual rate; last year an average 30-second title sequence came in at GBP11.5k. In 2000 it was GBP10.6k and the year before GBP9.6k. In 2002 it's GBP12k. So this year has seen the smallest rise in three years. But, perversely, the industry isn't so worried about budgets this year; instead it's the politics of the business that are bothering respondents.

The pitching process is the bone of contention for many. Comments range from annoyance at the lack of understanding among clients as to how much work is involved in a pitch to expressing how difficult it is to compete for work for the BBC when most ends up being done by BBC MediaArc. As one designer commented, "Uncle Greg puts pressure on them to use their own facilities, and we can't compete with that."

Part of the growing problem, say our respondents, is the amount of time spent pitching in relation to the time spent actually working on jobs. Head of design at Liquid TV Tim Varlow concedes that competition ups the ante and improves the quality of work. But he also feels that "you lose design-time even if you're successful, because you're having to pitch more ideas to compensate." And instead of pitching against three companies, it's now six, which means coming up with more answers to a brief to increase your chance of winning.

Richard Markell's Red Pepper had to close last year, but staff joined forces with XTV. His grievance about clients concerns a certain level of respect: "We did a pitch recently and found out that we hadn't won it via e-mail. It shows the value they place on you."

And what kind of work are they pitching for? Well, last year, broadcast jobs were up 10% and accounted for 40% of overall work, and that's gone up only 1% this year. Film jobs in 2001 were at 12%, but this year have dwindled to 9.5%. A reason could be that straightforward facilities (once pure cut-and-pasters) are doing a lot of graphics work on big films like Harry Potter and Tomb Raider. Having access to the "big guns" of effects, like Inferno and Flame, makes it sensible for a director to get the post-house to supply generic graphics for features.

In other areas, corporate work is up 3% from last year to 20%, and new media, not yet grown to its potential, is up 6% to 18%

2001 not only saw the demise of Red Pepper but also of Refinery (nee Aldis Animation). The companies cited similar reasons for closure: cashflow and smaller budgets coupled with a general malaise in the industry. Ex-Refinery employees Phil Dobree and Will Rockall have moved into CTV and become Jellyfish Pictures; Dobree says having half the overheads means charging half the rate. Refinery closed partly because, "although we were quite busy, we weren't getting the rates we needed to cover our costs, which is the danger of being in between a small and a large company," he says

. He plunges into the pitching debate, however, by demanding that pitches should be paid for. "You're basically pitching all year round for little work, and people like Lambie Nairn don't pitch unless they get paid, which is fair." Indeed. Not a new argument but one backed up by many of the smaller and medium-sized outfits

On a brighter note, there's a consensus that clients are going for talent rather than technology. BDH's John Durrant remarks that "people are much more important than what equipment they are using. Ideas and approaches are higher priority for our clients." And Finn Brandt of Brandt Animation adds that "clients are slowly realising that cheap European deals are not always as attractive in reality. The business has become focused on talented people rather than black boxes and rates."

It's always been people rather than hardware, thinks Dobree: "that was something the facilities did. Everyone's got more or less the same kit, depending how much money they've got." According to the survey, the most common software is Adobe After Effects, closely followed by Maya and Discreet's Studio Max. But there's also a big increase in people using Flash, which shows up in the expanding work in new media. Cost may partly explain low numbers of Infernos and Flames, but it's probably also because of post's stronghold in that kind of work.

Ratecards are a law unto themselves, as usual, as many stick to the old unspoken agreement to avoid undercutting. As Varlow puts it, "it would be a disaster. It backfires on everyone, including clients, because people either go over-budget or can't deliver the standard required because of a lack of money." This view, however, doesn't hold for most respondents, with over three-quarters saying that discount deals are increasing.

And agreeing not to undercut doesn't stretch to DVD work either, apparently: though production continues to grow, budgets are lower. At The Pavement, Lloyd Shaer finds high-end work has increased, but "unfortunately budgets have decreased. Competition from low-end companies has fuelled the undercutting war - which goes on." And then there's copyright. The broadcast production community has been wrestling with the issue for some time, and now the question of repeat fees and who owns the material is something niggling the graphics producers too. At Jellyfish Dobree has built models and completed a job in the expectation of repeat work, only to find clients taking his models and work to someone else; "you don't own the models, and there are no repeat fees. We get really stitched up in that area. It means you're just a service, and makes it very hard to grow in the future."

The consensus seems to be that the industry needs guidelines to protect companies and clients alike. One md says that working on a speculative basis without protection is "an increasingly immature way of working for supposedly professional businesses that want to be taken seriously. We're basically a service industry that hasn't grown up yet."

What's needed, says Dobree, is someone with the time and the enthusiasm to organise everyone round a table, but he ruefully adds that no one has the time, they're too busy pitching. And other graphics producers echo the idea that if everyone from the sector could get round a table, a consensus on working practices, even a union could be realised... Up the revolution!

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