MPC LA: Growing the Core VFX Business

Mark Tobin divulges how MPC's new commercial-focused boutique is faring in Santa Monica during the economic downturn.

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In about six months, MPC LA's work has included high-profile spots for Guinness (Fridge Magnet) and PlayStation. All images courtesy of MPC. 

London's Moving Picture Co., a pillar of Britain's visual effects community, enhanced its reputation by adding a satellite facility in Vancouver, British Columbia (working on Watchmen). Then in the autumn of 2008, MPC branched out even farther, launching a boutique commercial-focused facility in Santa Monica, California. Operating under the leadership of veteran producer Mark Tobin, MPC LA has already made its presence known with music video work for Depeche Mode and commercial spots for such major advertisers as Guinness and Sony PlayStation.

Because MPC LA is connected to the company's London headquarters via a high-speed network, the studio can deliver a lot more than one might expect from a studio staff of 25 (regularly supplemented by freelancers). In addition to offering capabilities in 3D animation, previs and 2D vfx and compositing, Tobin notes, "We are different from the other houses in L.A. because we have telecine under one roof, alongside high-end visual effects. Being able to share work with London means that we've had big jobs that a standalone company of our size typically wouldn't be able to do. We can split those up so that a crew here and a crew in London will work on it." Tobin hopes that the new facility can also benefit from the expertise of MPC's parent company, Technicolor (especially now that Tim Sarnoff has become president of the new Digital Prods. division). "The idea is that we would help our clients realize the benefits of Technicolor in terms of film processing for dailies for commercials. They've been really supportive in terms of working out color science for us. Technicolor also has an interactive and games division, and I think that could be a natural area of business for us."

MPC LA was launched by Tobin with a handful of industry veterans, including Senior Colorist Mark Gethin, VFX Supervisors Franck Lambertz, Duncan McWilliam and Daniel Sanders and Head of Production Andrew Bell. The majority of staff hires have been from California, notes Tobin, who previously was a producer at Method and managing director and exec producer at A52. "We're always on the lookout for good freelance CG people. Most of our technology is fairly user-friendly -- we primarily use Maya, Flame, Smoke and Shake. We've tried to organize it so that freelancers can come in here and within a day get up to speed." However, Tobin adds that the studio's use of Shake may change. "Shake has been actively developed by MPC's feature division in London, and it works for us right now, though I imagine we'll eventually migrate to Nuke for compositing because of the talent base that knows how to use it."

At the same time, MPC LA offers its clients the benefit of the proprietary tools that MPC London has developed throughout the years. "That's where the added value is for clients who want to do something that you can't get off the shelf at any old place," Tobin asserts. MPC's proprietary toolkit includes the crowd simulation software Alice and the PAPI physics engine, which is used for realistic shattering of hard materials and detailed fur grooming. "Right now, all the R&D is happening at MPC in London," explains Tobin. "We do some simulation work in L.A., but the idea was to not reproduce what we have in London. We want to leverage what MPC London has developed over the years, and use those resources as we need them."

MPC's proprietary toolkit includes the crowd simulation software Alice and the PAPI physics engine, which is used for realistic shattering of hard materials and detailed fur grooming.

A current example of putting that idea into practice can be seen in a commercial MPC LA is doing for the San Diego Zoo through M&C Saatchi. "The piece has CG mastodons, which supposedly had more hair than you might think," laughs Tobin. "We're using MPC's proprietary software solutions developed in London, so that part of the job is being done there. It helps us win work when we can tell clients that we have some solutions in place that can help them, and that we won't have to reinvent the wheel. Nowadays it's all about cost, so any edge you have helps your business."

In projects that lean heavily toward 3D-CG, MPC London might do all or most of the work, with MPC LA doing the compositing. Communications among MPC sites and clients are facilitated by a secure network and the teleconferencing software CineSync. The time gap between the L.A. and London studios means that one site often works while another sleeps, edging the company closer to the holy grail of 24/7 production cycles. "I would love it if it were that easy," Tobin admits. "But it comes down to communication, and making sure that people on both ends know what needs to be done.

"You leave work and your email box is empty and when you come in the next morning there are 30 to 40 messages. That's the only downside," Tobin believes. The fact that London is eight hours ahead of Santa Monica can actually work to the advantage of MPC LA. "When we're pitching a job, we might have a director leave here at four in the afternoon and then we send concepts to London along with a brief description of our conversation with the director. We come in the next day and we have something waiting for us from London that we can show to the director -- who I know is scratching his head and thinking 'How did those guys do that?'"

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While their portfolio now includes mostly commercials and music videos (including Depeche Mode's "Wrong"), MPC LA will soon branch out into interactive, back-end coding and other diversifications. 

The give-and-take works both ways, notes Tobin. "We've worked on projects where the agency is in London and the director is here. We can have the agency people in a room at MPC in London see what we're doing -- and it's fully collaborative. We also do remote grading back and forth with London where the clients can sit here or in London and view the session in real time. At the end of the session we send the files back via our network." Tobin recalls a particular example of a job being done for Traktor in London that MPC wanted to show some Traktor people who were working in L.A. "We had the spot that they were working on in London wired across so they could sit here and look at it. Those people could ride their bikes up the bike path in Santa Monica to look at their job from London."

Another key benefit that Tobin sees for MPC LA is the ability to tap into the deep digital backlot that has been built up at MPC London, using a tool called Hub Viewer. "If you keep track of digital assets and archive them properly you can tweak models or animation cycles a bit and make them work for a new project. We're able to leverage some of the CG stuff that's already been built. I'm sure there have been times where people have been digging around for something that they couldn't find, but so far it's worked well for us."

Tobin's goal for MPC LA is to develop firm relationships among directors. "The great thing about having a company like this is that you can support those directors throughout their careers. Hopefully, we can maintain those relationships and grow with them. We hope we'll see them when they do features. So you always have to look after them in all facets of their careers. As soon as directors feel you've gotten complacent they sense that and move on.

"The dream of MPC is to work with directors and production companies that we've worked with in the past, and keep them happy. There's definitely a lot of crossover among people that I've worked with and that MPC has had relationships with, too," Tobin remarks. "It was nice when I met Mark Benson, who's the CEO of MPC, and Graham Bird, who runs commercials in London: that we talked about the people we knew and realized it was a really small world. But then Graham said, 'No, It's just the right-size world.' That has turned out to be true."

At the moment, MPC LA is busy working on a spot for Wrigley's gum with Fredrik Bond, and another with Danny Kleinman for a Traveler's Insurance campaign. Tobin is happy that the word about MPC LA is reaching people who admire the reputation of MPC London. "We certainly see agencies that are shooting here with an American director that come in to work with us because they know MPC." That leads to some interesting "international moments," Tobin admits with a chuckle. "We're doing an ad with Tom Kuntz for cheese strings... and I don't even know what cheese strings are!"

When Tobin turns his eye to the future growth of MPC LA, he expects that growth would probably come in the areas of desktop CG and compositing. "I think we have lots of things to do in terms of ad agencies and production companies to grow our core business. We also have to look for more talent to grow our telecine business -- at least by another telecine room. We also want to look into more of the digital interactive, web-based areas. We think there are cross-over possibilities for the assets that MPC has built that lend themselves to web-based applications. Everyone is looking to see how that will play out.

"In London we have a whole department that's Flash and back-end coding for websites," adds Tobin. "That's still a young, growing department and I think that's something we've got to do in L.A. as well. We can't just sit and think of ourselves as just making regular television commercials or we'll be in deep trouble in a year or so. So that's definitely an area of growth."

The biggest surprise that awaited Tobin in his new position, though, was nothing that could have been predicted. "Everyone has been dealing with the massive economic meltdown, and that's been a surprise for everyone. It perhaps wasn't the best time to have opened a new company, but we've been lucky to have gotten some great work and we've done well. I think if I had started a new company from scratch instead of a company with a proven brand name it would be a very different story!"

Ellen Wolff is a southern California-based writer whose articles have appeared in other publications, including Daily Variety, Millimeter, Animation Magazine, Video Systems and the website CreativePlanet.com. Her areas of special interest are computer animation and digital visual effects.

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