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Innovation Economy

A new script for moviemaking

MIT alum blends actors, virtual sets in real time

Email|Print| Text size + By Scott Kirsner
January 6, 2008

When three Boston entrepreneurs started the Technicolor Motion Picture Corp. in 1915, they situated their offices in a black railroad car so they could easily transport all of their equipment to the set of a movie. Over the next 25 years, they collaborated with filmmakers like Douglas Fairbanks and Walt Disney to improve their technology for producing movies in richer-than-life color.

By the time "Gone with the Wind" won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1939, Technicolor had nudged Tinseltown toward a tipping point, making black-and-white films seem suddenly outmoded - and the company had relocated to Southern California. Today, few people remember the company's Boston roots.

Another entrepreneur, Eliot Mack, started his company, Cinital Inc., in a Cambridge cubicle, rather than a railroad car, but he's hoping to have a similar impact on the movie industry. Like two of the founders of Technicolor, Mack is a Massachusetts Institute of Technology alum, and like them he was drawn to California last spring. His aim is to improve the way that movies and TV shows blend real actors on a soundstage with "virtual sets" - footage shot earlier at exotic locales, or fantastic realms conjured up in a computer.

Ordinarily, it's hard to tell what live actors will look like once these digital backgrounds are laid in; that work, called "compositing," is usually done afterward by visual effects specialists. But the concept behind Mack's company is to mix the actors and the backgrounds in real time, so the director can see what the final shot will look like by glancing at a high-definition monitor - and reduce or eliminate the costs of all that laborious, after-the-fact compositing.

Mack's Cinital system could be used on as many as 20 TV productions and a handful of feature films this year, says Sam Nicholson, chief executive of Stargate Digital, a South Pasadena, Calif., visual-effects firm that bought the first system. One of the first projects to which Cinital contributed is NBC's new made-for-TV movie "Knight Rider," which airs next month.

"This year is going to be a watershed year for us and this technology," says Nicholson, whose company has contributed visual effects to movies like "Charlie's Angels 2" and TV shows like "Heroes."

Mack, after earning a graduate degree in mechanical engineering at MIT, went to work for a short-lived Cambridge research lab run by Walt Disney Imagineering, and later iRobot Corp., where he helped oversee the manufacturing of the Roomba robotic vacuum cleaner.

As a hobby, he started making low-budget science fiction and fantasy movies with a group of friends. But trying to shoot swords-and-sorcery dramas in the Boston area didn't look very realistic, Mack found, and when he tried to plant the actors in front of virtual sets, "I realized it was staggeringly hard," he says.

Mack left iRobot in 2004 and started working on Cinital full time. He happened to find some office space in a Cambridge building where Bill Warner and Eric Peters, the two founders of Avid Technology, also worked, and they offered him guidance. (Aside from Technicolor, Avid is the only other area company to have significantly changed how movies are made, by digitizing the editing process; both Technicolor and Avid earned special Academy Awards for their achievements.)

But things really took off last January, when Mack demonstrated his system at a conference in Rancho Mirage, Calif., where he met Nicholson.

"It's one thing to design something in a lab, which Eliot had been doing," Nicholson says, "and another to have directors and actors and crews using it. Until you're on set, you don't really understand that workflow." Nicholson offered to buy the first system, and loan Mack a corner of space at his company's office. Last March, Mack packed up his equipment and moved from Cambridge to Pasadena.

Cinital attaches sensors to a camera that keep tabs on what the cameraman is doing: where the camera is pointed, where it is in space, and what it's focused on. (Some of the sensors are made by another Massachusetts company, Bedford-based InterSense Inc.)

So when the Cinital-enhanced camera is pointed at an actor standing in front of a green background, it uses a powerful multiprocessor PC to replace the background with footage digitized earlier. The merged image appears on a high-definition monitor on the set, so that the director can adjust lighting or the position of actors to make the shot look more realistic. When the camera pans across a landscape, or zooms in, the background imagery adjusts appropriately.

One of the first times that Stargate tried using the system was to place actress Holly Hunter in front of the Grand Canyon, for an episode of "Saving Grace." More recently, it was used on the set of "Knight Rider," to show the director what the interior of the famed KITT car would look like with scenery whizzing past the windows.

"Eliot's system allows us to achieve a much higher level of realism in the way that something is shot," says Nicholson, who adds that he is considering an investment or a strategic partnership with Cinital. So far, Mack has bootstrapped the company with money from the sale of some of his iRobot stock.

Alex Lindsay, a former employee of Industrial Light & Magic, the granddaddy of visual effects companies, says that while big-budget movies often cadge together a complicated solution to do rough compositing on the set, Cinital offers a less-expensive solution. (The Cinital system, not including the camera, costs about $85,000.)

"What you're getting for the price is really interesting," Lindsay writes via e-mail. "The industry, I think, is going to be . . . pushing more and more for increased value for less money. This plays to Cinital's strength."

Mack has spent his time in Hollywood so far making improvements to the system, and getting out to see the occasional movie. "What I've learned is that the technology needs to be bent to fit the users' needs, rather than the other way around," he says.

Avid started off selling its editing systems to the TV industry first, and Cinital is taking the same approach. "The world of TV is so competitive," explains Nicholson. "You have a 10-day turnaround for an episode, instead of 10 months for a feature film, so anything that can give you a leg up is essential." Producers and directors of movies, he says, "change course very gradually," so "they're probably not the first adopters."

Nicholson has long been predicting the emergence of a "virtual back lot," which would replace the need for sets built by carpenters, or traveling to real-world locations. "A technical innovation can change the industry," he says, "and in time, I think Eliot's device will be capable of doing that, though it still requires a lot of development."

"We've definitely been giving him a trial by fire," Nicholson says.

Technicolor's first big tests came when Douglas Fairbanks and Walt Disney agreed to use it to make movies in the 1920s and 1930s, and its breakthroughs with "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz" in 1939. Cinital's still lie ahead.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

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