The hid­den cham­pi­on of vir­tu­al reality, by Mar­tin-Wer­ner Bu­chen­au and Joa­chim Ho­fer.

Handelsblatt Global Edition Magazine - - Table Of Contents - BYMARTIN-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.

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