Suboceanic networks keep U.K. postproduction efficient and cost-effective

LONDON -- Strange as it sounds, some tough commercial sailors working on cable-laying ships are helping bring down costs for big-budget filmmakers.

About 23 engineers work for U.K. company Sohonet, which provides high bandwidth connections to global entertainment companies and has outposts in Sydney and Santa Monica. Sohonet's network of cabling allows U.K. post houses to stay connected to one another, along with international production companies and filmmakers.

Thanks to Sohonet, it can take just minutes to send secure footage, whereas just five years ago that would have taken days, entailing an expensive courier, flight and customs clearances.

Like other U.K. post players, Sohonet rents capacity in cable under the North Atlantic to connect the U.S. companies, and beneath the Pacific Ocean to access Australian and New Zealand outfits. Additionally, in the U.K. it has invested about £2 million ($3 million) in the past five years to lay miles of its own fiber-optic network to connect production and post companies in Soho, London, to anyone making movies at such major British studio facilities as Pinewood, 3 Mills and Twickenham Studios.

And it's safe. Sohonet president and CEO Dave Scammell points to security as a key issue for companies involved. "Our links to Los Angeles are incredibly strong. Anyone with a satellite can receive data sent by that means, but with cable it is nigh on impossible to break into the infrastructure and intercept the data," Scammell says.

As data files of Harry Potter, James Bond and Sherlock Holmes whizz back and forth under the ocean, studios, post houses and physical facilities are all likely to benefit from greatly increased speed in less than five years, fewer delays, higher security for unseen footage and more efficiency.

And efficiency equals savings.

Of course Sohonet has competitors and some of the larger post houses here -- like global operator Ascent Media -- rent their own space on the suboceanic networks to offer their own dedicated supply pipes.

The elephant in the room is the Internet. But post professionals point out the Web has a tendency to crash and suggest it simply doesn't have the capacity: "The scale of connectivity required for the (film) industry is far in excess of what the Internet is capable of dealing with," Scammell says. "And that's not even talking about the security issues."

Ascent Media's senior vp and chief technology officer, Adrian Bull, says offering a dedicated, secure link for the services his company offers -- both here and at its Los Angeles operations -- is a vital selling point in the current economic climate. "We can stream compressed HD content between London and Los Angeles with our service also," he notes.

Ascent is working on Disney's "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time," grading the rushes as they come in from the second unit in Morocco. The London office played host to a visit from producer Jerry Bruckheimer in March, who jetted in to take a look at the materials coming from Northern Africa.

The U.K. enjoys the geographical luck of being right in the middle of the major international film hubs. And with the dollar's strength increasing against sterling, the quality on offer to U.S. filmmakers is achievable for less.

There are a lot of names working in the sector, including Framestore CFC, Moving Picture, Cinesite, Double Negative, Goldcrest Post (with offices in New York as well), the Indian-owned Prime Focus, De Lane Lea, along with facilities on site at studios, including Pinewood and 3 Mills. Framestore secured Oscar plaudits last year for its work on "The Golden Compass," while Pinewood Post's re-recording mixers Richard Pryke and Ian Tapp scored an Oscar this year for "Slumdog Millionaire."

For film productions, communicating under the waves in real time is an indispensable part of the creation equation.

"We are part of an industry where we are usually doing work that usually hasn't been done before," says Double Negative managing director Alex Hope. "Advances in technology means it is constantly evolving."

The costs for operating in the post sector are eye-watering -- mixing desks can run into tens of thousands of dollars and filmmakers seldom just need one to work on -- with companies constantly being asked to invest millions of dollars annually just to keep up with technology advances.

As Bull says: "It is accepted wisdom that you can make a small fortune from post but you need a large fortune to start with."

Costs to the companies aside, there is serious interest in just how much the postproduction sector is worth to the U.K. economy and its global impact.

Postproduction trade body U.K. Screen Assn. is expected to publish the findings of the widest and most comprehensive study of the facilities sector here this month. The report is being written to identify the market worth of the sector, together with key market size, structure and profitability, and to quantify the contribution of the sector to the U.K. economy as a whole.

The last attempt to quantify and clarify operators across the sector came in 2005 from Oxford Economics. The film post sector was reported to contribute about £300 million ($437 million) a year to the U.K. gross domestic product and £80 million ($116 million) in taxes to the government by the end of 2004. Including television, corporate and advertising post, that figure rose to £2.1 billion ($3.1 billion) contributing to the U.K. GDP and more than £560 million ($825 million) in taxes with more than 29,000 employed in the sector in 2004.

While the new report's findings are still being collated, U.K. Screen CEO Gaynor Davenport says the report will put the annual worth of the sector at £2.4 billion ($3.5 billion), a rise since the last study.

"There has been growth in the levels of activity in the years since the last report," Davenport says. "This is a much more comprehensive study and we've asked more than 1,000 companies to take part in our research."

British film commissioner Colin Brown is interested to see the impact of the U.K.'s 2-year-old tax incentive on the sector. If a studio-backed project shoots in the U.K. and completes its postproduction here, there are four points up for grabs toward the magical total of 16 in the cultural test qualifying it for a tax credit of 20% of the qualifying spend. A good saving on a $100 million movie and worth going to ground for.