Dave Quinn has grand plans for the VFX firm which began life as the famous (now separate) recording studio for the likes of U2 and Van Morrison but which is which is now working on big-name streaming productions
As a young man, Dave Quinn was interested in working in two areas – aviation and TV and film.
He was lucky enough to get a chance to work in production company Windmill Lane, which at the time was riding the wave of a new form of entertainment – music videos.
Immersed in a world of the biggest music acts of the 1980s, Quinn was hooked.
“Windmill were expanding rapidly at the time when video technology was really becoming a big deal. First of all, I became an assistant editor and was working on the video for U2’s Unforgettable Fire – and then the MTV revolution was happening. It was just a phenomenal time because there were so many bands coming in.”
Working in the old Windmill Lane offices near Dublin’s docklands, big names such as Status Quo, AC/DC, Def Leppard, Van Morrison and Sinead O’Connor could be seen coming and going. The likes of Bob Dylan, Terence Trent D’Arby, and The Thompson Twins also used Windmill’s facilities.
The film, TV and music industry has changed tremendously since then – as has Windmill Lane itself, a leading Irish post-production and visual effect (VFX) business.
Now based on Herbert Street and separate from the recording studios business, Windmill Lane is abuzz with several projects ranging from Irish TV shows to international post-production work.
Windmill Lane was founded 45 years ago as Ireland’s first world-class recording studio
In addition to work on ads and traditional television, it is benefiting from the tremendous success of streamers, including HBO, Netflix and Paramount.
“Twenty-five years ago Ireland would attract one major film project a year,” says Quinn.
“Now it’s the location for dozens of international feature films and a huge amount of episodic TV series which are happening every year. And many VFX-only projects are coming due to the offering several companies like ourselves can provide.”
Quinn puts on a showreel for me, demonstrating some of the projects the company has worked on. Some are well known to Irish audiences, such as RTÉ’s Kin and Sky’s A Discovery of Witches. Others are for European stations.
The way it works is the raw film comes in and Windmill layers on a huge range of digital effects – anything from putting planes in the sky to creating fantastical creatures from scratch.
Windmill Lane was founded 45 years ago by James Morris, Russ Russell, Brian Masterson and Meiert Avis as Ireland’s first world-class recording studio and TV commercial post-production facilities.
Now Quinn wants to lead it to its next phase of success with VFX, a key area of growth.
“In the middle of Covid, we conducted a root-and-branch evaluation of the entire business. Windmill has so much history.
‘We’re finding that our back-catalogue and reputation is helping us hugely in the international market’
“[But] we’ve evolved, and we’ve reinvented ourselves.
“Now we have set out a five-year strategic plan.”
The plan is to increase staff from around 68 at present to around 110, while he aims to double revenue, a figure Quinn declines to disclose.
He says earnings have been stable and are growing.
Under its five-year plan, a number of changes were made to the company structure.
“We brought in more functional management structures and new key hires in operations and marketing and HR.
“At the same time, we started to break down all the silos that have been built up over the years in the business.
“We decided to restructure every department,” says Quinn.
“It takes like a bit longer than you expect. But that’s really starting to bear fruit now, which is fantastic.”
Deborah Doherty leads the production side, while John Kennedy is creative director.
The legacy of Windmill’s past stands to it in this new environment.
“We’ve been in film and TV drama for a long time, and have collaborated with many directors over the years, including Jim Sheridan, Neil Jordan, John Boorman, Steven Soderbergh and Liv Ullman.
“Windmill is fortunate to have an amazing brand name and history and we’re finding that our back-catalogue and reputation is helping us hugely in the international market.”
One of the latest projects is Netflix’s Bodkin, where Windmill is the lead VFX vendor.
‘I think most people in the industry have come at it from a creative perspective and then gone into management’
Bodkin, the first production from Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company Higher Ground, is about a group of podcasters who set out to investigate the mysterious disappearance of three strangers in an Irish town but find a story much bigger than they imagined.
More recent projects include Landscapers (HBO), Sex Education (Netflix), Avenue 5 (HBO) with Hugh Laurie and Henry Selleck’s Wendell & Wild (Netflix). He says more exciting shows are in the pipeline .
Nearly all shows now use some degree of VFX. “Digital Production (VFX and Post-Production) has advanced hugely in the last 10 years,” says Quinn.
“By working closely and collaborating with directors and producers early in the process, we can save a production significant amounts of money by being able to deliver a lot of seen and unseen VFX shots that could not be cost-effectively achieved on the shoot itself.”
As a child, Quinn moved around Ireland in tandem with his father’s job as a schools inspector, before settling in the Leopardstown area of Dublin when he was in his teens.
A turning point for him was when he went to see the first Terminator movie in Stillorgan’s Omniplex cinema. He studied Electronic Engineering in the then DIT, Kevin Street but was fascinated by film.
“I’d heard about Windmill Lane and I knew I wanted to get into the industry in some way, shape or form.
“So I was fortunate enough when I left college, literally to get a job in Windmill a couple of months later.”
After four years at Windmill, he decided to go travelling going on to work in the industry in Australia for 10 years.
Windmill has been enjoying the boost Ireland is getting from the awards nominations
When he came back he was asked to work again at Windmill as a Henry FX artist, the most modern technology of its day. “I was creating and finishing a lot of the most iconic TV ads at the time,” says Quinn.
Over the years he moved up the management ladder, becoming CEO in 2014.
“I think most people in the industry have come at it from a creative perspective and then gone into management from there.
“There’s not many people that come from management and go directly into managing film companies.”
Quinn is a shareholder in the business and management are currently working through an ownership restructuring.
Windmill and others in the industry have been enjoying the boost Ireland is getting from the awards nominations for a wide range of talent behind and in front of the screen.
Quinn, like others, is hoping some tweaks to the industry’s Section 481 tax incentive will keep the ball rolling
He is particularly pleased that the work, or craft, as he calls it of some of the Irish people behind the scenes is being rewarded.
Notably John Redmond for work on Elvis and Richie Baneham for work on Avatar.
Quinn points out that the industry has been building up for a long time, with around 100 Oscar nominations for Irish people in the last 35 years
He, like others, is hoping some tweaks to the industry’s Section 481 tax incentive will keep the ball rolling.
As members of IBEC, the company backs the lifting of the €70m cap on the incentive scheme and would also like to see a regional uplift in the scheme, which rewards projects outside the greater Dublin area, being extended.
“We think that’s really important. We also asked could they match the French and Canadian jurisdictions for VFX incentives.
“Places like Canada and France, and Belgium have extra tax incentives for VFX.
“We’d love to see that.”
The new content levy, which will put a 2pc tax on revenues earned by streamers here in Ireland and potentially raise an additional €25m for Irish production will be hugely welcome also.
He praised Arts Minister Catherine Martin for being supportive of the industry, as well as bodies such as the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland which he says understands the needs of the sector.
For its own part, Windmill is constantly investing in order to keep ahead of fast-changing technology.
“We are currently investing around €600,000 per annum on capital expenditure in VFX/post-production to ensure we keep pace with the equipment and tech required to work to the highest standards of international film and TV productions.
“Our digital artists and engineers are constantly innovating our workflows and techniques and always trying new creative ways to deliver high-end, more cost-effective VFX for our clients,” Quinn says.
“We’re still growing our domestic film and TV sectors, and they are hugely important to us.
“But we’re also very much focused on growing [our] international VFX offering, and that’s becoming a significant part our business.”
Name: Dave Quinn
Lives: Blackrock, Co Dublin
Family: Married to Kim, with three grown-up sons – Aran, Dylan and Ryan
Education: Oatlands College, Blackrock, Co Dublin; Electronic Engineering degree at Kevin Street
Favourite hobbies: I like playing trad flute; film, TV and gardening
Favourite book: Creative Inc – it’s about Pixar
Favourite movie: Anything by James Cameron and Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring
What are your best pieces of business advice?
My best advice to anyone is to never give up.
And to always expect the unexpected.
I would also tell someone entering the industry that it’s amazing but you have got to absolutely love it.
And you also have to love everything that comes with it.