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Queen’s Award – Financial Times profiles FilmLight

The Queen’s Awards for Enterprise are highly prestigious awards for outstanding achievement by UK businesses in the categories of Innovation, International Trade and Sustainable Development. The awards are made annually by HM The Queen, and are only given for the highest levels of excellence demonstrated in each category.

FilmLight recently received its third Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Innovation, previous awards include Innovation (2005) and International Trade (2006).

The Financial Times published a special report on the awards with a profile on the company…

Deep in FilmLight’s building in a Soho side street, Jacqui Loran is making the Lake District look sinister. With one eye on a vista of Lake Coniston on the screen before her and another on a screen of blinking data, she moves her hands over a sleek black desk studded with buttons shining softly in the pitch-black studio.

A swipe of the hand and the buttons become a qwerty keypad for typing; another swipe and the mood in Coniston has lifted. The scene looks sunnier, the ferns intensify in colour, every frill of lichen is visible. A car comes into view – it’s red, but maybe the film director wants it to be blue? No problem.

FilmLight, a pioneer in digital film technology, which has won its second a Queen’s Award for Innovation, is working with Sony on the production and post-production workflows of images being output from its new F65 motion picture camera.

Ms Loran is using FilmLight’s latest version of Baselight, one of its flagship products, to manipulate the footage.

Founded 10 years ago, FilmLight develops and manufactures kit that helps creative professionals keep pace with the digital revolution in moving images, from movies to TV drama and commercials. Directors can be sure that the final image on screen will have the look and atmosphere they want, with accuracy and consistency.

Baselight was used in Hugo, Martin Scorsese’s latest film, to suggest the look and feel of early cinema. In The King’s Speech, FilmLight technology wiped out the modern skyline to render it suitably 1930s for the confrontation scene in Regent’s Park. Baselight can also help control costs – if the sky clouds over during filming, it simply changes the weather.

Upstairs from the basement, the reception has the almost standard Soho media company table football. Less usual are the framed accolades on the walls. In 2010 FilmLight won four “technical Oscars”, the scientific and engineering award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – unprecedented for any company.

As well as its earlier Innovation award, the company has won an award for International Trade before, thanks to the fans it has won around the world.

How does it maintain its pace of innovation? First, it prides itself on a powerful mix of software and hardware engineering with strong industrial design, says co-founder Peter Stothart.

“You constantly look ahead and analyse what is coming up,” says Caroline Williams, finance director. Everyone, whether in sales, support or development, is expected to listen out for the next thing clients are looking for. Even when there are no big launches, FilmLight introduces updates so it always has innovations to announce.

At this year’s NAB trade show in Las Vegas, Wolfgang Lempp and Steve Chapman – two co-founders with Mr Stothart – are demonstrating Flip, an on-set system that will break new ground for FilmLight by inserting its technology earlier into the scene-to-screen process. More than ever, it will allow the director and cinematographer to set the look they want before and during production and then save it for further manipulation during post-production.

Up another flight of stairs, the development team is ensconced behind a display of beautiful old cameras – a reminder of how technological developments have driven innovation in the movie industry.

“The development team is working with clients on almost a daily basis,” says Ms Williams. They may develop a bespoke service for one client – say, to achieve a matt appearance – that is then applied more widely.

The company invests heavily in recruiting talented people, she says. Many of the team hold technology PhDs, some are recruits from the booming video­games industry and one is a former Ministry of Defence scientist.

Another plus is the lack of outside finance, even though FilmLight struggled at first with start-up funds of just £240,000. Turnover is now about £13m, with net profit of £2m. The company is “freer” without financial backers, Ms Williams says: “Outside finance can sometimes be a process-killer.”

She even notes the advantages of the economic downturn for innovation: “The danger is the temptation to sit on your laurels. But a downturn jerks you into action – you start behaving like a new company again.”

Published Saturday 22nd April (Financial Times)

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