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Prefab Technology Helps Simplify Set Builds for Movie Productions

At first, it seems like an improbable pairing. Glenn Gainor is head of physical production for Screen Gems, Sony’s genre film division (“Underworld: Blood Wars,” “Don’t Breathe”). Noel Maxam is a veteran producer and director of soap operas (“Days of Our Lives,” “The Young and the Restless”).

But their minds — and business plans — met because Gainor is always looking to make film production more efficient and environmentally friendly, and Maxam has developed a system to do just that.

Now CEO of Emagispace, Maxam showed up at Gainor’s office on the Sony lot in Culver City, Calif., lugging a suitcase containing a stack of MDF (medium-density fiberboard, for the uninitiated) boards, screws and Lego-like plastic tops.

Recalls Gainor, “He said something like ‘I’m going to show you something so simple you’re going to think why the heck aren’t we already doing this?’” With that, Maxam demonstrated his EmagiBlocks, a kit-based interlocking construction system with easy-to-assemble components that can be arranged in a seemingly infinite variety of configurations.

A single 4-by-4-foot pallet of EmagiBlocks, according to Maxam, can be turned into 400 square feet of double-faced wall that can be hinged and outfitted with doors and windows, as well as plumbing and electrical — and at half the cost and in a tenth of the time it takes to build a traditional set. Once shooting is completed, the walls can be quickly disassembled and stored or shipped.

“It can be reused many times, so you can imagine that’s much better for the environment,” says Gainor. “I said, ‘OK. I’m in.’”

An obvious question that comes up in connection with a modular system that reduces labor requirements is whether some production workers could lose their jobs. Gainor says that’s not the case. “It’s just allowed us to do things that previously wouldn’t have been affordable, and to build more and bigger environments,” he says.

Maxam’s urge to innovate was inspired by his 25-plus years in daytime TV, where productions go through as many as 16 sets a day. “We spend a lot of money to put them together; then we throw them out,” he says.

So he set out to devise a reusable construction system, experimenting with materials such as cardboard, plastic and steel. He brought in his older brother, Clark Maxam, a portfolio manager and an early-stage investor, as co-founder. They decided MDF was the way to go because it can be cut locally by any shop, saving on shipping costs.

Screen Gems became Emagispace’s first big customer, using its system on a pair of features. The first, “Cadaver,” shot at New England Studios in Massachusetts, where construction coordinator Ted Suchecki says he used it to build walls in assembly-line fashion. “It was super quick,” he affirms.

When the film wrapped, the sets were disassembled, and the EmagiBlocks were stacked on pallets and transported 40 miles away to construction coordinator Kurt Smith on another Screen Gems production, “Proud Mary.” “We had two truckloads of walls, and we sent them back when we were done,” Smith says. Normally, they “would’ve been stuffed in a dumpster.”

Gainor explains that traditional sets built with plywood are specific to the project. “So you have specific storage requirements,” he notes. It’s a restriction that doesn’t apply “when you can disassemble them block by block.” Another plus: The walls don’t need to be taken apart for a set changeover. “Skins” such as painted surfaces and paneling can be applied, and window and door sections can be swapped.

“It’s often faster to change the living room to the nurse’s station than it is to move the company from one place to another,” Maxam says. “So now you’re saving a fortune in lighting time and everything else, and you’re able to put all that money and time onto the screen rather than destroy the Earth.”

EmagiBlocks can also be used to build structures for trade-show booths, office spaces and art installations. That diversity helped Emagispace close a $4.2 million Series A funding round in August led by Alpha Edison with participation from Circle Ventures, United Talent Agency CEO Jeremy Zimmer and 54 Madison.

“If it’s an outside four-wall tilt-up, we’re not that, but we’re every wall in that interior,” boasts Maxam. “We’re going to replace the 2-by-4.”

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