Production Row

The Downtown Film Scene

Austin Film Center

photograph by Bruce Dye

For a city that has as many filmmakers and cinéastes as Austin has, you might have imagined that the production end of the community would have centralized long ago into a single area. At least, that's what common sense dictates. Los Angeles has its studio row and New York has most of the Lower East Side, the Village, and pretty much wherever NYU film grads put down roots, but for years, Austin's filmmaking community was spread out across the city in random profusion. This situation has changed dramatically in the last year with the opening of not one but two professional post-production facilities, a full-time theatre/restaurant, and a number of equally impressive satellite operations, almost all within a few blocks of each other in downtown Austin.

For Austin, a city which prides itself on its sense of community, this gathering of the tribes was a long time coming, but now that it's finally arrived, the situation is literally a filmmaker's dream, not just for the locals but also for any location shoots that may need high-end venues for screening dailies, working on digital effects, or mastering sound. And they're all - more or less - next door to each other.

Founded just under a year ago, Digital Anvil (316 Congress Avenue) is a combined effort by computer game whiz (and former Origin honcho) Chris Roberts and local wunderkind Robert Rodriguez. The operation splits its time between creating games, finessing the digital effects on Roberts' upcoming Wing Commander film, and acting as a post-production facility for whatever project Rodriguez comes up with next.

"Basically, we were set up to make games and movies based on universes and properties that we created," says Roberts, adding that the interaction between the fields of gaming and moviemaking is something the company looks forward to. "We want to use a lot of the skills to do one for the other," he says.

"It's mostly all in-house, but for people like Robert or Richard Linklater, we're basically building up an effects facility. I'm shooting the Wing Commander movie over in Luxembourg for Fox, and we're doing all the digital effects for that here. We have about 27 effects artists at the moment, though a lot of them are actually on contract from Los Angeles. I guess we're probably the only effects facility in Texas that can handle high-caliber feature effects."

Decked out in black, gray, and plenty of chrome, the DA suites are a hive of high-end digital activity. In addition to its team of designers and animators, the facility boasts several AVID editing stations, a sizable screening room outfitted for THX and Dolby Digital, SGI workstations, and everything else that's necessary to digital post-production and editing.

"We're certainly hoping to be part of the Austin film community and help people out," states Roberts, although the work is "obviously based on what we're doing too. We're not a 100% facility that says, `Here, come and use our editing machine.' But, you know, given the right situation we're more than happy to work with other people if we're not using the equipment on something else."

Up two blocks at Richard Linklater's baby, the Austin Film Center (412 Congress Avenue), things are much less chaotic. I first viewed this space abutting the Speakeasy Lounge during South by Southwest '97, but the change since then is amazing. Gone are the sawdust-covered floors and bare walls, replaced instead with deep, burnished woods, lofty ceilings, and scads of rare, imported 24- and 6-sheet European film posters for Citizen Kane, Godard's Tout Va Bien, and Sam Fuller's Forty Guns. It's a lush, ethereal working environment where Linklater is currently editing The Newton Boys (assuming he's not screwing around with his vintage Ms. Pac-Man and Space Invaders, that is).

Linklater describes the Center's origin as having been born of necessity: "We felt that Austin needed a screening room, and I wanted one for my own purposes - a good, state-of-the-art screening room to show dailies in and to watch an entire film, double system. Before this, if I wanted to watch a whole film uninterrupted, I had to send off for $5,000 worth of equipment just to have like a preview screening, and I thought that was really kind of backwater, you know? I mean, c'mon, let's get up to speed. So, finally, I just broke down after talking about it for a while and here it is."

The Center currently houses a pair of AVID editing systems in addition to a complete system editor's room, a 35mm screening room with TXH and Dolby Digital, sound editing facilities, and of course the requisite ping-pong table.

"It's a great location, you know," adds Linklater. "When people are in town visiting on the set, it's just great to be able to walk over to a restaurant or something, you know?

"And then, it's funny to go from nothing to suddenly... all this. I remember talking to Chris [Roberts] before either of us had a screening room, and we were both talking about our similar ambitions. It's like Austin goes from zero screening rooms to two within a block of each other at the same time." So it goes.

Just above the High Life Cafe is Rocket Productions (407 E. Seventh Street), headed by partners Diane Weidenkopf and Glenn Dill. Although it's a smaller facility than either Digital Anvil or the Austin Film Center, Rocket's post-work using Discreet Logic's new D-Vision online editor is both user-friendly and outstrips the industry-standard AVID in image resolution.

Since its inception three years back, Rocket has parlayed their partners' editing savvy (Dill was a longtime editor at the late, great Metropost) into a "full broadcast-quality online editing facility."

Alamo Draft House

photograph by Bruce Dye

Dividing their time between television commercial projects and short, indie films (by Kodi Sawin and Harry James, among others), Weidenkopf notes that they're "busy all the time. I think one of the things that's good about what's happening in Austin is that you used to have production houses and then you had production companies, and now you get both because the production companies can afford to have the online technology. So you have people that aren't just buying editing systems so that other people can come in and edit, they're buying also to complete their own projects, whether they're commercial, art, or film."

Moving just to the other side of I-35, one finds the cavernous 501 Group (501 N. I-35), where Dallas export and new executive producer George O'Dwyer heads a team of wildly creative artists and editors on some of the most powerful equipment in the field of post-production, including Quantel Suites Henry V4, the single best effects editor in the world.

Arising from the ashes of Metropost, the 501 Group tackles commercials, music videos, and feature film work (Forest Whitaker's Hope Floats, Linklater's The Newton Boys) with professional and artistic abandon. Truly a wonder to behold, their multiple AVID and SGI animation suites are jaw-droppingly top of the line in every respect.

Says O'Dwyer, "501 Group is a post boutique. That is, it's a post facility in that it caters to the post-production aspects of a production: editorial, graphics, effects, et cetera. What we're trying to do is create more of a personality and more of a home atmosphere to bring this factory down to a level that's a little bit more fun, a little bit more intimate. We focus on not only all the creative aspects of post production, but also the customer service aspects, you know? Whatever you need, we can handle it. We'll walk the job all the way through."

KOR Media (1717 W. Sixth Street) is a bit of a hike from downtown proper, but it bears mentioning as an up-and-coming post-production facility for both commercial, agency-driven properties as well as its cutting-edge multimedia work.

With clients ranging from Coca-Cola to National Geographic wildlife documentaries to videos for Wu-Tang Clan, KOR (based out of Austin but with a sizable Atlanta arm as well) is made up of 25-plus designers, producers, directors, animators, graphic artists, and programmers all headed by president and founder Joe Sawin.

"We're doing a lot of 16mm work at the moment, though we'd like to do more 35mm in the future. Advertising is kind of a different world, and that affects the way we work. We have our editors and directors flying all over the place; location doesn't matter (even our editors are all over the place)."

Equipped with AVID editing suites, graphics, animation, and programming capabilities, as well as a rotating league of talented directors who have cut their teeth on names such as MTV, VH1, and various Turner Broadcasting projects (the aforementioned Atlanta connection), KOR is looking to expand into both the Dallas and San Francisco markets and then, presumably, take over the world.

The Alamo Drafthouse (409 Colorado) has become so ingrained into Austin's filmgoing mindset that it's easy to assume everybody already knows about the Capital City's premiere food & flicks establishment. Anointed by Entertainment Weekly as "the best movie theatre in Austin" recently, it's also the only one that encourages you to eat and drink before screening The Exorcist.

Co-owner Tim League notes that a new sound system is on the way sometime before SXSW '98, which should help match the venue's audio with its already impressive video and film capabilities.

"We're upgrading to a Dolby CP500 sound system shortly before SXSW. That'll probably be one of the first times that we unveil our new, high-end sound system. Right now we're using a fairly antiquated system. It's clean, it's equalized, but it's not cutting-edge by any stretch of the imagination. That's about to change."

Apart from its regular and midnight screenings, the Alamo's co-owners Tim and Karrie League have also been working to bring in projects from various local filmmakers, including the ongoing Texas Documentary Tour.

Says Tim League, "We do a lot of different things in the film arena, and we're probably going to continue to do so. We've been working with the Austin Film Society, bringing in alternative events and we'll be expanding that throughout the year. Just more good stuff, you know?"

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