Growing Your Post Business: An Interview with Zeb Chadfield

Running a growing production or post company is hard. As business starts to pick up, challenges like hiring the right people, deciding on the right pace of expansion, and keeping the pipeline full of the right jobs start to occupy more and more time. This week, I spoke with Zeb Chadfield about the approach he is taking to expanding The Finish Line, his London-based post production company that specializes in picture finishing, online editing and colour grading for broadcast television.

What was your reason for branching out and setting up your own shop?

This is a business that I've been working towards setting up for well over ten years.

Prior to working in London I was based in Sydney, Australia at a large production company that did their own post production. The environment there and the people I worked with always had an emphasis on finishing the best quality programs that we could deliver, obviously within the time constraints we had.

I felt a huge shift from this way of working when I arrived in London in the worst part of the recession and found that I couldn't put the energy into the programs that they deserved. Budgets for making TV programs had been cut, contracts had been pulled and many production and post production companies were going out of business.

At the time, I got on with my work and did the best I could to make sure what I was producing was the best it could be, often working extra hours off my own back to get programs to a point where I could be happy to put my name on them.

The frustrating part was that two years on nothing had changed.

I think that if the industry you work in changes you need to evolve to make things work. My passion is picture finishing, specifically colour grading and online editing, and the way things were going I wasn't happy, I felt my work was suffering and I needed to find a way to do my job the right way with these new budgets in mind.

I left my position as the head of the Grading & Online department at Clear Cut Pictures and set up my own suite with all the bells and whistles - Avid Symphony, FCP 7 & X, Adobe Creative Suite and DaVinci Resolve, Grade 1 Reference Monitor, Standards Converter, Colour Control Panels, correct lighting, sound proofing etc, essentially my dream suite. I met with people in the industry all around London, production companies that do their own offline editing and post production companies that needed someone to help with overflow work. I made myself available out of house, in their suites, and I made my suite available to do finishing when that was needed.

Being my own boss allows me the flexibility to work in whatever way I feel is going to benefit the final product the most. I have clients that just send over a drive and I'll grade the program in Resolve or Symphony depending on what makes the most sense for the job. Sometimes the client will attend, most of the time they just leave me to it and view the final pictures when I'm done. As it turned out, people liked what I was doing and have referred other people to me and my client base just keeps growing.

You recently expanded your shop. Tell me about how this has come about?

I had actually been holding off expanding for awhile. Earlier this year I was looking at a major expansion and had investors that were keen to get involved to help make it happen.

In the end, I decided not to make a big jump. Instead, I decided to take a slow and steady approach to growing the business. Given that my main interest is delivering great pictures, taking on too much too quickly would have divided my attention and I didn't want the quality of my work to decrease.

The next logical step was to bring on some help to lighten the load, so I got David Grewal involved who is an amazing online editor and colourist who has been working in London since the dawn of time and is an absolute legend. Now he is managing a large amount of the day to day work so I can be freed up to focus more on expanding the business and keeping things moving in the right direction.

I have since invested in an HDCam SR deck amongst other things that allow me to do all the final deliverables for various jobs. I'm also looking at starting an apprenticeship scheme, so I can start training future online editors to expand my team. Learning these skills takes a long time so that's a big investment.

With the way that post production has changed, I feel there isn't so much of a natural progression for people to take from learning the back end in the machine room to online editing. The skills I learned dealing with tapes every day are still just as relevant to my job as they ever were, but with everything going tapeless I feel that the up and comers are missing a big chunk of knowledge. Bringing someone on as an apprentice will allow David and myself to train them up using our combined thirty years plus experience. This investment should produce a great editor and member of our team.

How did you find the right person? What were you looking for when you hired them?

Bringing in David was easy. He was my right hand man at Clear Cut, so I knew he had the right work ethic and that clients would be happy with him and with his work.

The main thing, was making sure I had enough work for him.

When I went to NAB this year it was the best time to bring him in because I was also going to my home town in New Zealand for a visit, so I was away for over a month. I had loads of work coming up, so I knew that at least covering the work I had lined up was going to keep him busy. It also gave me time to let all my clients know he was joining The Finish Line and that he would be available for bookings. It's great to have him working with me because he is incredibly reliable and hard working.

Now that I'm looking at bringing on an apprentice, the main skills I always look for are that they are motivated, hard working and have a great attitude. I've applied the same rules when hiring assistants in the past, for the simple fact that I can teach them everything else, but it's very hard to teach someone to be motivated, hard working and have a great attitude. Those skills need to be taught at a very young age.

How did you decide to bring people on full-time versus bringing in contractors on a project basis?

Well, the whole game plan is a bit different, so it was never really a decision I made consciously. I'm not out to make a quick buck, so the focus hasn't been on just bringing in staff to get jobs done, it's on building a team of people that love what they do and want to do great work. Everyone that I have spoken to about positions within my business has been really excited about the future of The Finish Line and are all keen to get involved when the time is right.

The best jobs I have had have been at work places that have a real family vibe, a lot of love and respect for one another. We want to work together and deliver the best programs we can and we also like to share as much new information as we can so that things stay exciting and we keep learning and improving. I would bring in a contractor if I really needed to get a job across the line but I prefer to avoid that and just deal with people that I know and trust to do work at the highest standards.

What were the biggest challenges you encountered in expanding your staff and your business?

There haven't really been major challenges, I'd say the obvious one is money. To get the best equipment is very expensive and this part of post production isn't an area you can skimp on, especially buying things like standards converters, tape decks and legalisers. It's expensive stuff, so I'm putting pretty much everything I make back into the business at this stage.

I could take on investors or take out a massive amount of finance to do everything I want to do, but so far it's worked out better to just take things a step at a time and build everything more organically. Not only is it better for my stress level, but it's also helping me to build a much stronger and healthier business.

How has expanding the team changed your workflow? Is it harder keeping projects organized now that there are more people?

Not at all, it's a bit more work staying on top of bookings and getting confirmations from clients. Invoicing can be a nightmare when we have so many different clients over the course of a week, but in general we have a great process. We are there to back each other up when needed, so the pros have far outweighed the cons.

Has your role at the company changed since expanding? Are you spending more time on building your client base, managing technology at your facility, administering the office, etc.

Yeah it has, I'm still doing online and grading jobs, but I'm allocating much more time to meeting with clients and talking about how we can work together and what services I could look into setting up to better service them.

Setting up a game plan for the next five years has been integral, so that I can break it all down into smaller targets and work toward specific goals each month, whether that's to do with David or myself learning new skills or figuring out the next investment in software, hardware or expanding offices. There is a lot to think about and we are in the midst of the biggest and fastest changes our industry has ever seen.

I've also got a lot of side projects on the go like Panoptik Timecode which is an iOS app for calculating Timecode that I developed with two friends of mine. I spend quite a bit of time time marketing that to editors. I'm also working with one of my Panoptik partners to make another app for Film and TV professionals, but I can't say much about that at the moment, we hope to have it out soon. I'm also working on a script for an animated series I'd like to make some day and I constantly post stuff that I find interesting on Twitter @PanoptikTV so keep an eye on that if you want to stay up to date with industry goings on. Oh! and I also have a girlfriend / social life that I try to keep up with too.