Colorworks to offer film restoration, 4K DI

Sony Corp., already a major player in the visual effects and CG animation biz with Sony Pictures Imageworks, is getting further into the digital post business with a new unit: Sony ColorWorks.

The entry of ColorWorks further heats up competition in the increasingly crowded DI space, which already includes Technicolor, Deluxe’s eFilm, Prime Focus, Warner Motion Picture Imaging and Ascent Media’s Company3.

Housed in historic 79-year-old Stage 6, where “The Wizard of Oz” and other golden-age musicals once lensed, ColorWorks will offer full-service digital intermediate, including film restoration and 4K DI.

While still setting up its new facilities, ColorWorks quietly completed DIs on three features: “Michael Jackson’s This Is It,” “Zombieland” and “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” (in stereoscopic 3D), but it is officially unveiling its facilities next Tuesday.

“The idea is if you come here you can have everything done in one place,” said Chris Cookson, prexy of Sony Pictures Technologies and onetime tech exec at Warner. Technicolor ran a DI facility in the Stage 6 building but ankled earlier this year. Sony seized the opportunity to set up its own third-party post facility.

One-stop shopping for post has been an emerging trend for some time, but ColorWorks’ close integration of Imageworks and Sony’s highly regarded sound department gives ColorWorks a significant leg up on its competition.

They are likely to need it. The DI business is “very competitive,” said Stefan Sonnenfeld of Company3. “Some people have gone out of business, like Pacific Title. Others are teetering.”

Since the best post people tend to attract more and bigger projects to the shop where they work, signing top colorists, conform specialists and sound mixers has become essential to building up a clientele.

ColorWorks spent freely and inked some top digital colorists to contracts: Trent Johnson (“Mystic River,” numerous Disney pics); Steve Bowen (“Apocalypto,” “The Da Vinci Code”); and John Persichetti (“Sin City,” “Superbad”).

“The labs (Technicolor and Deluxe) have consistently competed with us in, I think, an unfair way, because they offered a big discount to studios on release prints.

Discounts on release prints can, in some cases, cover the entire cost of the DI. Unlike the labs,” said Sonnenfeld. “We’ve always had to win business on the merits of our creative abilities and business efficiencies and also had to be competitive on pricing.”

On the other hand, he says, newcomers like Sony ColorWorks “are artificially inflating the market for everything.”

“They’re inflating the market for talent, but at the same time they’re undercutting people to get the business. It’s the worst of

everything: higher prices, lower margins. But it’s not sustainable.”

Sonnenfeld’s concerns echo those heard from visual effects competitors in years past about Sony Imageworks, but those concerns have faded as Imageworks’ business matured and it came under internal pressure to cut costs.

Sonnenfeld expects that with the release print business likely to shrink as the d-cinema rollout continues, lab discounts will become less important. That makes it easier for companies not affiliated with a lab — including ColorWorks — to compete.

Sony Corp. is supporting the digital revolution in everything from cameras to projectors and is pushing its own shift to a workflow built entirely around digital files with another behind-the-scenes tech initiative. The studio is phasing in its “Digital Backbone.”

The Backbone is not just a network for sending files, says Cookson: “What the backbone really is, is the management overlay layer that coordinates the movement of the content.”

Roland Emmerich’s “2012″ was a trial project for the Digital Backbone, which Sony is still building out.

With the digital backbone, says Cookson, “(Each) frame becomes an asset, and tracking that asset is what the backbone is all about. When you watch it on your cell phone five years from now, that’s the same asset.”

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