Universal’s Close-Knit Team Helps Post and VFX Meet Tough Deadlines

At some studios, executives — even on the production side — are locked in perpetual “Game of Thrones,” jockeying for influence within the studio.
Universal’s production, post and vfx team, though, prides itself on the camaraderie.

“We have a very close-knit team,” says Jeff LaPlante, the studio’s head of physical production. He says his own physical production office, the post-production office headed by executive VP Greig McRitchie and the visual-effects unit led by executive VP Jennifer Bell work especially closely, along with music and production finance. “We all get together at least twice a week to kind of talk about what’s going on, what issues have come up. And we’re all about communicating.” Pictured above is McRitchie, Bell and LaPlante.

Visual effects have become so important that Bell, like LaPlante, reports directly to studio chairman Donna Langley. McRitchie reports to LaPlante.

“We look out for each other,” says Bell. “Greig hears something that maybe hasn’t trickled down to me yet. He’ll call me up, let me know. Or I’ll hear something from my guys in the field on a movie, I’ll give him a heads-up, so he’ll know best how to manage it.”

That teamwork became important for the 2015 slate, as two major post and vfx projects, “Jurassic World” and “Furious 7,” were pushed from 2014 into this calendar year. The Nov. 30, 2013, death of “Furious 7” star Paul Walker before shooting was completed meant the entire project had to be re-thought. “It took us all of December and January to figure out what the best path was, and how we could achieve it.”

LaPlante credits Bell with being unflappable and more. “She never tires,” he says. “She can handle so much multitasking. It’s kind of crazy. At any one time she could be dealing with probably 14 to 15 movies.”

Including the additional shots added to finish Walker’s missing scenes, Universal’s 2015 releases had about 8,000 shots total, says Bell. “And you look at them 200 times,” she says with a laugh. “It’s rarely right on take one.”

Bell doesn’t personally check every shot, but she makes sure the vfx studios and filmmakers are working productively together. “Because when you don’t,” she says, “that’s when you get into trouble.”

Meanwhile, McRitchie must ensure every Universal pic is ready for its release deadline. The China market, he says, has made that more difficult. Day-and-date international releases have to be delivered four weeks in advance, but Sino authorities insist on getting the film a full eight weeks in advance.

“I’m proud of being able to make these Chinese releases now very comfortably with our films, to the point where if (Universal Pics president Jimmy Horowitz) or Miss Langley or whoever says, ‘We need to do a Chinese release on this film and we have a very short schedule. Do you have a plan?,’ I immediately have a plan.”

Only after they view a film do Chinese officials decide if they’ll accept it under their import quota, McRitchie says. “The trick is making great films that they want. But they always want our movies.”

U’s Post Topper Has Seen It All

The year Greig McRitchie joined Universal, the studio had a good year: “American Graffiti” was a smash and “The Sting” won seven Oscars.

It was 1973, and McRitchie was just 16. Now he’s Universal’s executive VP of feature post-production.

“I think you’re pretty much not going to come up against a situation that Greig hasn’t got experience on,” says Jeff LaPlante, Universal’s head of physical production and the executive to whom McRitche reports.

McRitchie has seen enormous changes at the studio, not least in its culture, from his early days when former super-agent Lew Wasserman ran Universal. “I can call (NBC Univeral vice chairman Ron Meyer) and say ‘Geez, you know, I’ve got this issue.’ I would never have been able to call Lew Wasserman. First of all, he wouldn’t even know who I was. Ron knows us all.”

Today’s Universal is a more comfortable place to work, he says. “You feel like someone cares. You feel like a family. You want it to feel like a university, and that’s what it feels like.”

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