Posted by Valentina Valentini on October 26, 2012 at 1:52 am
Fast on the heels of Light Iron’s recent hire of Stephen Lovett (who helped shuffle in such software platforms like Internet Explorer, Outlook Express, and a Java Virtual Machine during his time at Microsoft), I got a chance to sit down with co-founder and CEO Michael Cioni. And quite honestly, based on this last year’s slate I’m not sure how much longer Cioni and his ever-growing team will be able to fit into the indie category of post production houses…their britches are about to burst. That being said, Cioni and his crew started from the ground up, which is what all of us ‘indies’ are out there doing. Maybe he’s got a thing or two that could help you if you’re in the market to branch out on your own. Because, as we well know now, the democratization of our industry has led us to the best time ever to do so.
And for those of you who don’t know who they are, Light Iron is a post-production company specializing in on-site dailies, digital intermediate, archival, and data services for projects originated on file-based motion cameras. They came onto the post scene only three years ago by brothers Peter and Michael Cioni and Katie Fellion. For a full history, link here.
VIV: Let’s start with the tough question: Would you say ou’re almost too big now to work with indies.
MC: It could seem that way, but if you look back at my interviews and writings since I began to work in post in 2003, you’ll note that I’ve always been a major proponent of democratized technology. Democratization doesn’t just mean indies have easier access to capturing good quality pictures (although that is true), it also means that studios can take equal advantage of the technology as well.
I’ve published this in a theory I call “Evolving Creative Democratization.” In my experience, ECD suggests that at first, independents are the most likely entities to take advantage of democratized tools – e.g. HD offline editorial, digital cinema capture, file-based post production, etc. But after the independent truly begins to fully leverage new climate offerings, the studios also begin to evaluate the results and explore the same tools for themselves. The result for Light Iron is a win-win. Our independent customers continue to take full advantage of democratized tools – We had two independent features at Sundance last year, and expect to have a few more this year. We recently finished a wonderful and provocative independent documentary directed by Eva Orner called The Network, all shot on the Canon 5D. Eva’s talented editorial team mixed with the Light Iron independent team (which we call “LightWork”), enables films like The Network to have a professional finish without the [huge] budget. Likewise, new customers to Light Iron, such as Fox and Paramount have opened up to a more democratized age of D-cinema and celebrate how they’re leveraging the benefits of democratization. Light Iron’s knowledge, skill set, tools and workflows
have the ability to transcend every potential budget. We deploy the same talent and technology on The Amazing Spiderman as on our smallest indie. I am just quick to point out to an indie, Spiderman just takes a bit longer…
VIV: What are some projects you are working on currently?
MC: With over 60 features per year, Light Iron is constantly moving through a multitude of challenging and unique projects. We worked on Flight, director Robert Zemeckis’ latest live-action feature shot on the RED Epic by Don Burgess, ASC. Flight is a strong, heavy drama story to which Burgess and Li colorist Corinne Bogdanowicz built a palette that includes a natural but “weighted” feel through careful manipulation of mid-tone and shadow placement.
We’re also finishing up Hitchcock, which comes out in a couple weeks and I think audiences will absolutely love this story. Imagists will also love the way it looks – Colorist Ian Vertovec teamed up with DP Jeff Cronenweth, ASC for the third straight year (they previously collaborated on The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and explored a new area of digital cinema for both of them with this film. Hitchcock is a period piece but is not colored using the more “traditional period-piece” look. Vertovec, modeling the movie after Hitchcock’s Technicolor look from North by Northwest, updated it to feel classic and still grounded in reality.
VIV: You’ve expanded recently, tell me about that.
MC: Funny you should ask…since we started Light Iron, we’ve been expanding nearly every quarter. In fact, when we started in the fall of 2009, we only had three employees. Since then, we’ve added talent to our growing team nearly every month resulting in the assembly of the largest concentration of top digital cinema talent in all of Los Angeles. But our most recent expansion focuses on our production division, which we call OUTPOST Enterprise. For people that come visit the OUTPOST Enterprise building, they are literally getting a peek into the future of worldwide post-production. OUTPOST Enterprise handles the manufacturing, outfitting, shipping and training of union members to run full-service mobile post labs that are built into three different models. The result of programs like OUTPOST is the continued decay of customer reliance on legacy post-production entities. OUTPOST’s reach extends to nearly 100 projects per year – all executed without the help of a brick-and-mortar laboratory. With an impact of this size on some of Hollywood’s biggest TV shows and feature films, it was time to expand Light Iron into two facilities so we can better service our creative customers with the area of the process they need.
VIV: Why, beyond sales and marketing, is it important for Light Iron to maintain a presence at conventions and conferences, festivals, etc? I feel like you’re at all of them!
MC: I am a big believer in recognizing the distinct difference between SALES and MARKETING. In the past, the concept of traditional “sales” used to have a lot more merit when companies were all competing through offering the same services. In other words, you have to remember that productions tended to shoot the same format on the same cameras and used one of two companies for the final negative cutting, printing and distribution. That meant that salespeople offered a benefit to working with them through preferred pricing. That loyalty lasted for many years and was logical given the ecosystem at the time. But when companies like Light Iron (and there are many others) can now compete directly with traditional companies at a fraction of the headcount, we’re seeing decades of customer loyalty to a company or salesperson dwindle from a multi-year deal to an annual Christmas card.
What Light Iron recognizes is that you have to be value-ad to your clientele, and that value isn’t significant enough if all you can do is lower the price-per-gigabyte a few cents. Instead, customers today look for two things: brand strength and leadership.
Brand strength is the manifestation of confidence, reputation, expertise, and trust. Light Iron works hard to build our brand strength because that is far more attractive than any preferred pricing model. Given most of our competitors are shrinking each month, the Li brand is automatically being elevated because people tend to prefer affiliations with strong companies – especially when in troubled times. Far less interesting is working with a company that proclaims downsizing is in the interest of the customer by “righting the wrong.”
In my opinion, leadership is the most important presence to have in this market. If you want your brand to survive (company or personal) you must become a D-cinema sherpa. What customers want (creatives, indies and studios) is someone to navigate projects through the complex world of digital cinema from a strategic perspective. Sales and marketing is evolving into an advisory and supervisory role as opposed to the preferred pricing role of the past. The strategy that our team comes up with is far more valuable to them than a discount.
The name Light Iron literally means “scale-able” – we believe in leveraging the power of both the light and iron sides of technology. I’ve observed many struggling entities attempt to attract business by lowering the price-per-unit. Or others that think placing expensive ads and relying on name recognition will generate business (eg: Kodak still prints full-page anti-digital ads in professional magazines). But methods like this are a race to the bottom, making it harder to stay buoyant before it’s too late. My advice to people is not to let pricing play so significant a role in their corporate sales identity…just like you wouldn’t want your age or weight to play a significant role in your personal identity. Many customers pay Light Iron more than our competitors simply because we’ve proven the brand they’re hiring is more valuable than the price-per-unit. By being a reliable leader, people quickly see the value offered by being a next-generation master of the craft…and everyone is willing to pay for that once they’ve been burned.
VIV: Take that apple and eat it.