Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Relocation became a common theme for the characters and production staff of DreamWorks’ latest animated film, “Madagascar,” which opens tomorrow.

The movie’s story involves a zebra, giraffe, hippopotamus and lion who are to be transferred from the cushy confines of New York City’s Central Park Zoo to a Kenyan animal reserve. Through the meddling of a crack team of penguins, the four friends instead find themselves in the untamed wilds of Madagascar, which leads to plenty of hilarious situations.

For the makers of the film, moving was a bit less amusing. Usually, producers, directors, writers and staff members convene in the same city for several weeks or months to prepare for and execute a movie shoot.

“Madagascar” producer Mireille Soria, whose credits include “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” and “Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron,” immediately had a logistical problem in that she could not get her entire team to commit to working in one place.

The Los Angeles homebody wanted the best animation folks at DreamWorks’ Redwood City, Calif., and Glendale, Calif., campuses to collaborate through the entire process.

Additionally, she wanted Kendall Cronkhite, who lives in San Francisco, as the production designer and San Jose, Calif., native Eric Darnell and Los Angeles resident Tom McGrath to share directing duties.

What she got to solve the problem was a communication marvel called the Virtual Studio Collaboration system (VSC), which allowed her entire team to work closely together from multiple locations.

Hewlett-Packard combined computer might with a team of 20 DreamWorks technicians to devise, in less than a year, a state-of-the-art, cross-platform, real-time video-conferencing center.

“We could not have done this movie without it. We all have kids and did not want to travel back and forth,” says Mrs. Soria, who, with Mrs. Cronkhite, stopped by The Washington Times to talk about the film and its technology.

“However, I wanted to take advantage of the talent, and [DreamWorks co-founder Jeffrey Katzenberg] said if there was a way to do it, let’s get it done.”

The VSC uses tech-heavy rooms for specific production functions ranging from reviewing special effects to meeting for story pitches to giving technical demonstrations.

Depending on the room’s requirements, technicians may incorporate high-quality digital video and multiple large-screen plasma screens to allow for a virtual conference or use high-definition cameras and a high-quality digital light processing projector to generate a 16-by-9-foot virtual extension of a large meeting space.

That allowed a team of “Madagascar” staff members to enter the video wall room and virtually sit across a mirror image of their table as they chatted with co-workers. Additionally, in the business-to-business room, as many as five people could sit across from one another for more intimate conversations.

A digital editing room offered a couch and a monitor, while a screening room could be used to view layout dailies, giving staff members a feeling of sitting next to one another in a theater.

“We could have 20 people in a room and could even have parties. If we reached a milestone moment, we could get together on both sides, buy duplicate cakes and champagne and celebrate,” Mrs. Soria says.

In addition to the core technologies that allowed for high-fidelity image and audio, some other VSC features included desktop sharing applications, document sharing, storyboard sharing, and remote pointing and mark-up.

Designers could control camera zooms via touch-screen panels, use real-time sharing of 3-D images and sequences by animation departments, and have the ability to carefully scrutinize storyboards, down to highlighting quadrants of particular boards.

“We grew with technology, and it has grown with us,” Mrs. Soria says. “We were the first test movie to completely use [VSC], and it took some getting used to. Now it’s seamless. It changed our lives. It’s still not like going to an office for person-to-person contact, but is the next best thing.”

Write to Joseph Szadkowski, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20002; or send e-mail (jszadkowski@washington

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