Just over a year ago, West Post Digital left its home of nine years to put down roots in a larger facility better suited to meeting its clients’ needs. The new location in Santa Monica fomented a desire to broaden the scope of the company’s services, and after barely settling into its new address, West Post joined forces with Emmy Award-winning visual-effects supervisor and Flame artist Les Umberger to hatch Elicit Effects, a visual-effects division that services the commercial and music-video markets.
“We were looking to expand into effects and Les was looking for a new opportunity,” explains West Post CEO Todd Brown. “With Elicit, Les has been able to set up his own shop within West Post and take advantage of the infrastructure we already had in place.”
West Post has traditionally targeted episodic television, providing finishing services for such shows as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County and Aliens of the Deep. Elicit’s focus on commercials and music videos “fits my background, and it’s also the arena [West Post] wanted to break into,” notes Umberger. “This is a true partnership that benefits us both.”
West Post’s facility was previously occupied by Deluxe Media, though the space today bears little resemblance to the one Brown and West Post President Kenny Fields found. “We wanted to build from the ground up,” says Brown. “Consequently, we were really able to make this the type of facility we wanted it to be, particularly in terms of the design and layout of our editing bays and machine room.”
Leading AC on a tour of the space, Brown and Umberger pause to illustrate the pains taken to establish an intelligent, ergonomic workflow throughout West Post and Elicit’s pipelines. The machine room runs the length of the hallway on one side and houses myriad editing systems, which are connected via Ethernet extenders to the editing bays that line the other side of the hallway. Essentially, this arrangement makes the bays a series of interchangeable monitoring stations, allowing a project to be moved quickly from one room to another. With that in mind, West Post has designed the bays to be as consistent as possible from one to the next, minimizing the learning curve between rooms, which also boast such amenities as satellite TV and Internet access.
According to Brown, another benefit of tying everything back to the machine room is that menial tasks can be carried out there, rather than taking up clients’ time in the bays. “Space is the premium, and we’ve found that we can be bigger than we appear by being able to run systems simultaneously in the machine room,” he says.
“Because we mostly do finishing work, we’re somewhat at the mercy of the editing system the clients started with,” he continues. “Some of those systems have proprietary storage that we’ve traditionally been stuck with. For example, we have a Unity for the Avids, and the Final Cuts have Xserve RAIDs. It is shared storage within a given family of systems, and we can certainly pass media from any one system to another, but ultimately, we want to integrate everything into one mass store that everybody can pull from simultaneously.”
Mindful of the shifting trends in the post arena, Brown emphasizes the flexibility inherent in West Post’s layout, even down to the pre-harnessed shelf space within the machine room. “We can rent any equipment we don’t currently own, plug it in and go. There’s also room to expand and add more racks. There isn’t a prescribed path you take through post anymore; there are so many different acquisition formats, editing and effects formats, deliverable formats, frame rates and resolutions — it’s a huge puzzle.” Umberger adds, “Part of our job is educating clients about which path best suits their needs. We’re one of the places where people can bring their strangely shot and non-standard workflows, and we’ll take the time to figure them out.”
“Our clients’ best interest is our best interest,” adds Brown. “We encourage them to come to us before budgeting, before deciding what camera to shoot with, so we can help them figure out a workflow that will make sense down the line.”
Leading AC into his office, which doubles as the hub of Elicit, Umberger underscores Brown’s point: “When we’re there from the beginning, we can really take ownership with the client, and at the end, everyone winds up with a much better product.”
Umberger expands and reduces Elicit’s freelance staff as needed. With 4,000 square feet of production-office space at hand, he estimates Elicit could house as many as 60 workers to tackle large jobs or keep multiple clients’ projects moving at an efficient clip.
At the heart of Elicit’s visual-effects workflow is the new Autodesk Flame 2008 for Linux. “It’s an amazing system,” says Umberger. “I can work in full 3-D space, and it really frees us up on the creative side. It nurtures interaction with the clients instead of making us sit around and wait for renders. We have the freedom to experiment.”
To demonstrate the system’s power, Umberger pulls up a recent Honda spot Elicit worked on. In the commercial, a Honda Accord drives through China’s Forbidden City, chased by a young emperor and his imperial guards. The footage Umberger worked with was shot in Vancouver in front of long stretches of greenscreen, and the closing wide shot that would eventually feature 500 extras in front of the palace comprised about 20 extras and a view of downtown. “Using only the Flame, I was able to construct full 3-D environments,” says Umberger. “Everything down to the reflections in the side of the car had to be redone to sell the setting.”
Umberger’s Flame is also connected to West Post’s 6,000-square-foot insert/visual-effects stage, which is located in the same facility. This connection frees him to take a feed from the camera’s video tap onstage and run the output directly into the Flame, allowing him to do temp comps and immediately confirm whether a shot will work. Additionally, the in-house stage gives Elicit the ability to shoot its own customizable effects quickly and efficiently. “We target [the stage] for insert and effects shots,” says Brown, “but we’ve had full-on productions rent the space for music videos, commercials and even high-end Webisodes. It’s kind of the ultimate trifecta: we have a post facility, a high-end visual-effects house and a stage all in one location.”
“We have artists with very specific talents together in the same building — it’s almost a commune,” notes Umberger. “We’re all masters of different areas, and the fact that we’re partners and share the same space can’t be beat.
“At the end of the day, we view every image that comes through here as our own,” he concludes. “I take every image that comes out of this bay very personally, and I want it to be right.”
Elicit Effects and West Post Digital, 1703 Stewart St., Santa Monica, CA, 90404. For more information, call (310) 857-5000 or visit www.westpostdigital.com or www.elicitfx.com.