I Love My Job: Meet the Philly Ex-Lawyer Behind Some of the Coolest Visual Effects on TV
Justin Wineburgh moved on from a nearly 20-year career at Cozen O’Connor to become CEO of Alkemy X, the Philly firm creating visual effects for big projects like “Split” and “Fear the Walking Dead.”
What happens when you leave the career you always thought you’d stay in? Two years ago, Justin Wineburgh, then 42, moved on from his 16-year tenure as a Cozen O’ Connor lawyer where he built and led the firm’s media, entertainment and sports law practice. In 2016 he became president and CEO of Alkemy X, the Philadelphia creative content company founded in 1981 and known for its live-action production, design and high-end visual effects. In just two years, Wineburgh has made some big changes at the company and just this week he became the company’s sole shareholder. Alkemy X has recently expanded in New York, Amsterdam and Los Angeles and boasts big-name clients like Geico, Amazon, Google, BMW and Pepsi. And two new original Alkemy X shows will air on major cable networks by the end of the year. Here’s how Wineburgh keeps it all together.
I grew up in… an incredibly loving family. I was born in Northeast Philadelphia and then we moved to Huntingdon Valley.
A quote or mantra I live by is… be as good as you tell people you are. We all tell people we’re great at our jobs, that we’re fantastic at this or that and that life is great in general. Just be as good as you say you are. We all know our inner truths.
I decided to move on from my post at Cozen O’ Connor because… because Alkemy X presented me an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to leave a law firm to go into a totally different line of business. Alkemy is a special company, with special people, and I had a chance to forge a significantly different path. As lawyers, we help people. The CEO’s job is also to help people, so it’s still sort of in line with that core skills set.
Something I miss about practicing law is… growing a client base. People with all sorts of issues, big and small, would come across my desk every single day, and I never knew what they were going to come to me with. That’s exciting. That’s exhilarating. I never knew what kind of fight I was getting into or what sort of mess I was going to have to deal with, but I enjoyed that. I enjoyed figuring it out and ultimately helping people.
Something I don’t miss about practicing law… are time sheets, which is what lawyers use to keep track of what they are doing in six-minute increments. Every recovering lawyer says they don’t miss time sheets and every lawyer that I still talk to now says, “I bet you don’t miss time sheets.”
To someone looking to switch gears in their career later on in life I say… it comes back to my mantra: be as good as you say you are. Really perfect your skill and your craft. Be honest and trustworthy and someone that’s reliable. Those are a lot of the intangible skills that transcend any particular type of business.
I’d describe Philly’s entertainment production and advertising scene as… evolving. There are some incredible artists in this city and some incredible artists that are coming back to this city. We have at least three or four, maybe more, new employees at our company that have come here from other cities.
A big change in media impacting Alkemy X is… the distribution of content. How we receive and consume content is changing. Branded entertainment is at the forefront, where brands see entertainment as a way to message. And especially now in the days of DVRs and time shifting, where people don’t really have to watch commercials anymore, brands need to get creative with how they integrate their products into content. That’s where we spend so much of our time, on that creative work at the intersection of art, entertainment, technology and the business of advertising.
Some of the large-scale projects we’re working on are… connected to the upfronts. All of the television networks gathered in New York this week to announce their upcoming shows to their advertisers. One of our shows was announced. It’s called The 212, and it’s going to be on the Fuse Network airing in October. We’re beyond excited. The talent was brought to us, and we sort of developed it organically in-house. We actually had a fairly robust bidding war for the show between Fuse and MTV.
A teaser for the show… is it’s basically a millennial multicultural show. It focuses on six millennials in New York City’s music, fashion and arts scenes as they work to get noticed by major stars and brands throughout the world.
Other projects keeping us busy include… another show for a major cable network that we developed internally. It hasn’t been announced yet. We’re working on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead and Starz’s Power. For these shows we do the visual effects, special effects and graphics.
In Fear the Walking Dead, for example, we add in the blood effects or create the explosion from a shotgun. When people fall off buildings, we’ll go back to our study and remove the wires so you don’t see it. It’s cheaper to have us create fires than it is to burn down a building. Same thing for Power. They have a lot of stage blood, but it doesn’t necessarily do what it should do. It doesn’t really flow the way you want it to flow, so sometimes we have to do that type of work. It’s really an incredible artistic endeavor. When you put a bullet hole through wood, it has to split the right way and the trajectory of the shrapnel has to be proper. It’s tremendously difficult.
We’re also working on Blindspot for NBC. And we just finished up some work on the advertising campaign side. On Tuesday a commercial we did for Sea Shepherd, the Marine Life Conservation Society, went live. Shoot Online named it the top commercial spot of the week in less than 24 hours.
Top Spot of the Week: FF New York, Alkemy X Form "Plastic Ocean" For Sea Shepherd: International non-profit marine conservation organization Sea Shepherd launches with agency FF New York an awareness campaign to bring attention to the overwhelming… https://t.co/M4LFfd4ND4 pic.twitter.com/mETOczpnf0
— SHOOTonline.com (@SHOOTonline) April 11, 2018
I’m proud of… the life I’ve been able to build and sustain. I’ve had a tremendously excited career, a lot of twist and turns. It’s really exciting, rewarding and fulfilling. I’ve been able to balance it against some really profoundly close relationships with my family. I see my mother and brothers once a week for certain. I travel with my fiance, my friends. I’ve really kept a close knit family and friends circle in tact and balanced against a really demanding career, and I think I’m doing reasonably well at it.
A skill I’m still honing is… my balance, even though that may contradict my last answer. I’m constantly working to balance work against those non-work things that are important to me: relaxation, health, exercise, reading for pleasure. There’s always something with this company that I’m so committed to that I could always be working on. So it’s figuring out where can I stop and take a break. I actually recently went on vacation and locked my phone in a case for a week to practice. People think I’m crazy. Literally no text, email, social media, nothing. It was awesome. Although three weeks later I’m still digging out some of those emails, but it’s okay.
A recent decision I regret making… is anything that required a decision that I haven’t made. I’ve really worked hard to avoid that analysis paralysis kind of thing. What I’ve learned in my career here is that not making a decision is worse than making a bad or wrong decision. We can always be our worst critics so I’ve really tried to focus on the ability to make decisions as opposed to being scared to not make that decision.
We have employees in Amsterdam because… we look to partner with the absolute best brands and creators in the world. Part of the Alkemy X business is working with commercial directors. There’s a collective of commercial directors in Amsterdam that operate under the name Wefilm. They’ve won multiple Cannes Lions for their pioneering work in advertising and a really unconventional approach to branded content. Their clients include Google, Heineken, Vodafone, Tesla.
We refer to ourselves as storytellers because… our job is to communicate. We communicate for people or companies or others that can’t communicate for themselves or need help.
We’ve largely shifted from shooting film and post-production to developing television programming because… I wouldn’t call it a shift but a natural growth and evolution of our business. When the company was founded it was a post-production company. But the services had to evolve because more and more people can now access and afford the equipment used to do that work. For a long time we had the best people, with the best and most expensive equipment. As we evolved, it became necessary to ensure we had the best operators and then the best creatives. That grew into the original content, so it’s a natural evolution driven by talent.
My biggest accomplishment with the company since stepping in as president and CEO in 2016 is… in the words of the employees here, I’ve been able to get the ship patched up and right side up. The ship was upside down and sinking, if not at least partially sunk. We’re moving in a positive direction again. We’ve put in place a strategic plan for the future of who we are and what we do. There were probably nine areas I attacked since then, everything from financial operations to HR, recruitment, business development and the formation of committees. The fact that this company is back on sound footing and stable ground is probably my biggest accomplishment.
We’ve grown our visual effects department through projects like… Marvelous Mrs. Maisel for Amazon. That won two Emmy’s last year. We did High Maintenance for HBO. We did all the visual effects work for M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. Everyone knows the beast with the veins. We did all of that. We did the pilot episode of ABC’s Deception and Sweet Bitter on Stars. We’ve done high-end visual effects for a number of commercials and other projects like Julie Taymor’s Broadway revival of M. Butterfly. We’ve recently worked with Geico and NBC’s Sunday Night Football, the commercial with the transforming robots and fireworks. It’s been a good run lately.
I’m inspired by… the world around me. I’ve really taken time to learn from anywhere I can, whether it’s my family and friends. I’m inspired by my colleagues at Alkemy X. I take inspiration from a lot of different places but really from people who are dedicated, passionate, humble and good listeners.
A phone app I can’t live without is… Sonos! I have speakers in every room in my house including the bathroom. I have them mounted underneath my vanities. When you go into the bathroom you’re not leaving the party. There’s a speaker in my closet, one mounted above my fridge. [Laughs] Another is Words with Friends. I play before bed. It puts me to sleep in about three minutes.
Shows I’ve recently binge watched are… The Goldbergs. I have to watch that being from the Northeast. I watch it and love it. No one else around me does, but I don’t care. [Laughs] I’ve also enjoyed Ozark and Billions. Also our shows like Unique Rides on Velocity. One of my best friends is prominent producer in Hollywood so I watch a lot of his stuff, too. He produced The Hangover.
I’d describe my leadership style as… employee first. Lead by example. This means being available as a resource to everyone here to help them be happier and more productive. I’m most interested in our employees. If we focus on them, they’ll in turn focus hard on the company.
Guilty pleasures of mine… are the robust parties I have at my house in Rittenhouse at least twice a month. We look forward to having everyone there. It’s generally just my family and a couple of friends. I like that Friday to Sunday gathering where we literally clear through the wine locker. That’s a pretty significant guilty pleasure of mine because we really sit around and do nothing. We play Postmates roulette. Each person has to go on Postmates and order food from someplace different. We’ve had up to nine deliveries at the same time. We’ll have everything from sushi to pizza to McDonalds to cheesesteaks to South Philly Italian food. We do it more over the winter as you’d suspect.
My not so secret secret talent is… that I play the violin and tuba, not at the same time. I’ve performed both many times at the Academy of Music here in Philly and at Avery Fisher Hall, now David Geffen Hall, in New York.
The best part about this business is… the number of people that I can encounter every day due to the sheer volume of projects we’re working on.
Something that distinguishes the culture at Alchemy X is… that it’s one of encouragement and reward.
In 5 years I believe the company will… be even better than it is today and probably doubled in size.