The hidden champion of virtual reality, by Martin-Werner Buchenau and Joachim Hofer.
Emmy-Award winner Mackevision is the small German company behind the digital sets for the TV series “Game of Thrones.”
With his long dark hair tied in a ponytail, Armin Pohl, has the look for “Game of Thrones,” the epic American TV series about mythical kingdoms. Pohl, CEO and co-owner of digital design company Mackevision, can indeed build empires and destroy them at a stroke, but only on his computer, not with a sword.
Mackevision, based in Stuttgart in southwestern Germany, is the company behind the elaborate digital imagery used to create the sets for “Game of Thrones.” Two years ago, Mackevision took home an Emmy Award for its work — an unusual achievement for a small German company with just 400 employees.
At its office, digital set designers are working on the sixth season of the TV series. On computer screens, they are creating medieval cities, oceans, armies and fleets of ships for the mythical continents of Westeros and Essos.
Pohl is confident that even when the series ends, more business will follow. “The market will grow,” says Pohl, because creating digital landscapes is much cheaper than building sets. “That saves the film producers expensive film extras and backdrops,” he says.
And it won’t only be in the TV and film sector. Animated images are the future in almost all digital media, from company websites to smartphone apps.
Pohl, 49, started with a knack for drawing. As a schoolboy, he sketched pictures of cars for his friends. He later studied to be a graphic artist. Then, he put the pencil down and took up the computer as his tool.
At first glance, Pohl appears like any other creative person, architect or advertiser. But his long-haired, bohemian looks are deceiving. He talks fast, precise and candidly. A workaholic, he is devoted to his company and had to fight hard to survive the financial crisis.
When Pohl joined Mackevision as a freelancer in 2000, the firm was just a small outfit for traditional video post-production. Already versed in the emerging new technology of 3D visualization, he recognized the technology’s potential early on. The 3D department he built
Imaginary worlds like the city of Braavos on “Game of Thrones” are Mackevision‘s specialty.
up within the company eventually became Mackevision’s main business.
Back then, no one at Mackevision even thought of TV and film. Pohl’s first customers were in the auto industry. Carmakers had discovered sophisticated computer generated imagery (CGI) to communicate with customers in a new way, including programs that allowed customers to configure their perfectcar online.
As his CGI department became the company‘s bread and butter business, Pohl bought his way into Mackevision with a 35percent stake at first, then took it over completely in 2006. While the company founder and previous owner had preferred staying small, Pohl was set on rapid expansion. It was an ambition that almost led to ruin.
When the financial crisis began, Pohl had locations in Stuttgart, Munich and Detroit — all cities where major carmakers are based. In addition, he had several million euros of debt from taking over the company. Then the crisis struck.“I had to put up my home, and my father’s, as security,” he says, recalling the toughest time of his life. “We held our breaths.” Pohl had to let half go half of his 100 employees during the crisis.
But his company survived, in part because he bet on the right horse. The breakthrough came with a major contract from German automaker Daimler. Today, companies like Daimler can use Mackevision’s technology to digitally construct cars, from the drawing board to the showroom. Since 2010, Mackevision has grown every year, tracking the global expansion of the car industry. Revenues hit €32 million ($34.6 million) in the 2014–2015 business year. Pohl says he is on track for 50 percent growth this year.
Today, Mackevision is among the market leaders in CGI. The largest rival in the automotive segment is another Germany-based company, 3DEXCITE. The Munich subsidiary of French aerospace company Dassault Group is almost twice as large as Mackevision and has 800 employees in 15 offices worldwide. 3DEXCITE’s core business is in cars and
Automakers like Daimler and BMW use Mackevision’s technology to configure their cars.
airplanes, but lately the company has expanded into digital imagery for fashion and sportswear companies like Adidas and Hugo Boss.
To stay abreast with the competition and finance his rapid growth, Pohl needed more capital. He raised the funds by selling a 56percent majority of the company to a Belgian investment fund. Pohl still owns 33 percent, while a small group of Mackevision executives own the remaining shares.
Provided he can keep raising capital, Pohl wants to grow fast. At the top of his agenda is going abroad again and internationalizing his business in the car industry. Already, Daimler, BMW, Porsche and Chrysler are clients, but he is looking to gain more non-German customers.
Pohl has many other ideas in the fast-evolving field of CGI, including ways to apply new technologies in virtual and augmented reality. Mackevision has also branched out into visual effects for television and film, like the work for “Game of Thrones.” Mackevision was also behind the digital effects in the movie trailer for German director Roland Emmerich’s “Independence Day II.”
By 2020, Pohl wants to increase Mackevision’s sales to €100 million and double his workforce to 800. Although Mr. Pohl could easily retire on the money he made by selling his stake to the Belgian investor, he says he wants to give Mackevision his all. His profits will go into new projects, he says.
He also does small things to motivate the employees. On a recent day, he brought a basket of walnuts from a tree in his own garden to the office. Sometimes it’s apples or other fruit.“Working in the garden keeps me balanced,” he says. Pohl likes to see things grow, whether it’s the plants in his garden or the company he created.
Mackevision CEO Armin Pohl went to hell and back during the global financial crisis.
Mackevision’s designers create a character for use in a TV commercial.
Martin-Werner Buchenau is Handelsblatt’s Stuttgart correspondent. Joachim Hofer covers the IT sector for Handelsblatt.
Digitally created movie sets have become cheaper than building the real thing, so the market is growing fast.