Creative Industries: How Hollywood plugs into Soho

London is a key interchange on the global film industry's production superhighway, writes Melanie Clulow
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The Independent Online
SOMEWHERE on the information superhighway lies Sohonet, a little purpose-built enclave that Neil Harris likes to describe as a "garden suburb of the Internet". But it's a garden suburb with metropolitan ambitions.

Mr Harris is managing director of Sohonet (http://www. sohonet.co.uk) which, as its name suggests, is a network linking the film post-production companies clustered in London's Soho district with each other and, more importantly, with big players in Hollywood. As a digital network dedicated to one specific industry, Sohonet is a world first.

Established in 1995, Sohonet was a logical response to the film industry's switch to digital equipment and computer processing. Using next-generation asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) technology, which works just like the Internet, only faster, Sohonet provides a means of transferring enormous files directly from one computer to another at high speeds and across continents, eliminating the need to haul bags of tape from site to site.

A postproduction company can send moving pictures to Hollywood instantaneously, have video-conferences with clients and edit footage accordingly, in real time. Clients can even send film scenes attached to e-mails. "Our network doesn't choke under that kind of pressure," Mr Harris says.

So far 14 companies are connected to Sohonet, two of them in Hollywood. Among films using Sohonet in postproduction are The English Patient, Event Horizon and The Saint.

London is second only to Los Angeles as a post-production centre. There is strong demand from the major US studios for British creative flair, especially with the recent surge in the use of special effects, be they to add dinosaurs or erase television aerials from period dramas. Mr Harris says such effects were used in half Hollywood's films last year, and he expects this to rise to 95 per cent by the turn of the century.

Until recently, geography prevented London from taking full advantage of these opportunities. In a visual industry that depends on deadlines, sending packages of film back and forth by courier just wasn't good enough.

"The film industry thrives on the approvals process," says Mr Harris. "They have to see what you're doing and see that you're doing it right. Eighteen hours can be the difference between success and failure. It's like the difference between writing a letter and phoning."

Sohonet also helps London post-production firms compete efficiently with larger US rivals. London's film post-production industry, comprised as it is of numerous small enterprises vying for work, has always been characterised by equal parts rivalry and bonhomie - despite jostling for work from the big US studios, few of the film-editing and special effects companies in Soho are big enough to handle a Hollywood film on their own, so the work usually ends up being subcontracted. Before Sohonet, this meant more headaches for clients who faced slow communications links with several London firms.

Sohonet helps London companies exploit the spirit of collaboration and competition by allowing work to be parcelled out to several firms and for various companies to communicate quickly about different aspects of the same job. "They all drink in the same pubs," says Mr Harris. "They're very competitive but they all get along."

Mr Harris believes it is only a matter of time before all film editing is digital, and Sohonet is helping London firms position themselves for the future.

Ultimately, Sohonet has wider applications. It suits any business - publishing or advertising, for example - that has to move large files round a network. "We started off wanting to do something for good technical reasons, then saw there was more potential," says Mr Harris. "We aim to expand the idea of a specialised business-to-business network. It's the equivalent of a private, uncongested motorway."

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