How do you measure the success of a sales video? One client was ecstatic to get a commitment for five sales. If that sounds insignificant, consider that the client was Raytheon Aircraft, and that those five commitments totaled $72 million in aircraft orders. The overall project involved an elaborate stage presentation, a well-planned video production, beautifully rendered 3-D models and a tight three-month schedule. The result? A room full of millionaires stood up and applauded after witnessing one of the most impressive video presentations this side of Hollywood.
The crowd came to its feet immediately," says Scott Kalister, vice president of marketing at Raytheon. "The people just got up and started moving toward the front, like they were in Close Encounters of the Third Kind or a revival meeting." The crowd had seen Roy Norris, president of Raytheon, transported from the podium into a Star Trek-like holodeck displayed on two large video screens. Within the video, Norris works with the holodeck's computer to create a full-size version of the Hawker Horizon, a $14.5 million business-class jet that won't be available until the year 2001.
All the action takes place in a 3-D-modeled cathedral-like building with a large center section that brings the simulated 67-foot aircraft up from a lower level. Norris walks around the jet, runs his hand along the wing and stands inside the plane. After asking for a version of the plane that people can feel, the computer agrees to create a third-scale "reality transfer." The computer then warns that everything on the stage will be affected. That's Norris's cue to return to the podium. "I think the command is 'Beam me up, Scotty,' " he says.
"He beams out very much like Star Trek, where the beam comes in from the top, and out he goes," says Kalister. "We open the curtains to a big laser-and-light show, and the one-third-scale airplane appears on a turntable in a poof of smoke and a cone of laser light."
The video gives potential buyers a way to judge the design of an aircraft that won't exist in a full-size version until years after the initial orders have been taken. "In the past, we've used third-scale models, which we also did this time, but a model can't give you the feel, presence and beauty of the plane-the scale of it with someone standing beside it," Kalister says.
To put together the video portion of the presentation, Raytheon hired two companies in Huntsville, Alabama: Media Fusion and Intergraph Digital Media Studios. Media Fusion's two partners, Tim McElyea and Bill Schweikert, were employed at Intergraph before starting their own company in October 1995. McElyea does Media Fusion's 3-D rendering, animation and multimedia work. Schweikert handles the video, film and photography.
McElyea specialized in 3-D rendering and animation and had worked on all of Intergraph's CD-ROMs, including some that won international awards. He also did the 3-D modeling of Bill Gates's high-tech house for the CD-ROM that accompanies Gates's book, The Road Ahead. Schweikert worked as a video producer on training, corporate-communications and trade-show videos and CD-ROMs while at Intergraph. Before that, he had spent nine years working in film production. "I came through the trenches as a grip and a gaffer on low-budget features up and down the East Coast," Schweikert says.
Intergraph provided its own crew, including Carl Spurlock, a creative consultant and product manager at Intergraph who served as the director on the video shoot, and Charles Snoddy, a sound man. The company also supplied a large sound stage, a $2 million editing suite and a Sony switcher. "It was very nice to have Intergraph's huge facility," McElyea says. "We had a bigger crew and a lot more capabilities than we normally have. And we had a huge sound stage with a lighting grid, a light mixing board and teleprompters."
For the Raytheon project, Media Fusion was in charge of the 3-D modeling. "We hired McElyea to be responsible for the design of the hangar and the computer animation," says John Kraft, Raytheon's group engineer for industrial design and visualization. "He could work with Carl Spurlock and crew at Intergraph, and that worked out to be a real good blend, because they could drive across town, find out what they needed, get to work at it and deliver it that same evening."
Intergraph handled the traditional video production-shooting, editing and post-production sound. The team didn't keep the production digital-even though Intergraph sells its own high-end digital-editing system, the Studio Z-because a nonlinear editing system wouldn't have been fast enough and because they had to deal with as many as 16 layers in real time, Spurlock says. The production team used a Sony switcher for compositing and overlaying and for setting up the cameras in real time.
Further, Roy Norris was available for only one day of shooting. (See the sidebar on page 78.) "A nonlinear system wouldn't do much good in this type of situation," says McElyea. "You'd be grabbing a frame, going in and compositing it-then you'd move the camera more to the left. When you realize how much longer it's going to take, you say, 'I don't want to do that.' "
Because the team members had worked together before, they adapted quickly. "We kind of crossed the boundaries on the production side because Bill was the lighting director on the shoot," says McElyea. "We spent two days pre-lighting the set, and then I coordinated the camera angles." Such a strange mixture of duties would probably have been much more difficult, if not impossible, had the production group not been composed of former coworkers. "Typically, there would be a lot more tension or nervousness about who does what, who's good at what, and 'Why are you standing by that?' " says Schweikert. One Intergraph employee describes the unusual relationship as "co-opetition."
Raytheon was closely involved with the production, especially with the script. The idea of using the holodeck and transporter came early in the production schedule. "The original script contained many more references than the final script," says Kalister. "We had to get it shorter. It had to be snappier-bang, bang, bang. We didn't want it to be too hokey."
During the early stages of the project, Raytheon's industrial-design department functioned much like an art department on a feature film. It provided detailed storyboards that were unlike anything McElyea had ever seen. "They were absolutely incredible," he says. "I asked them whether they had done storyboards before, and they said, 'No, we just went down to the library and got a book on how Disney did it. We figured that would be a good place to start.' " The storyboards had arrows indicating movement, and the sketches of Norris even looked like him. "It took them two hours," says McElyea. "I would have spent a day on them. But they're illustrators and industrial designers-that's what they do."
High Tech, Low Tech
Raytheon also supplied Media Fusion with a CAD-created model of the plane so that McElyea could import the data into 3D Studio MAX. "It was way more data than I needed to animate, especially when you're seeing it from 100 feet away," says McElyea. "They even had lubrication nipples on the landing gear. We rebuilt a lot of it but essentially took the original information from there."
Though all the post-production editing was done on traditional linear equipment for reasons of speed, the team did use several Intergraph Studio Z systems to help with the rendering. When a deadline was moved up a week so that the video would be ready for a Raytheon board meeting, every available machine was pressed into service for rendering, including previously idle computers at Media Fusion, Intergraph and Raytheon. "There's a whole sub-story in how all that got done, including how files were transferred between three separate organizations," says Kraft. The time it took each frame to render depended on the machine, Kraft says. "Really fast four-processor machines would turn out a frame in under an hour. Then we had some 90 MHZ machines that were taking four and a half to five hours per frame."
Blending the project's computer and video elements raised its own problems. "A thing can look too good," says Spurlock. "If it looks too clean or too edged, you realize something is wrong." Because computer and video images have significantly different levels of detail and contrast, Schweikert adjusted the detail and black level on some test subjects days before the shoot.
To help mesh the video-produced material with the computer-generated images during the shoot, Schweikert used a double fog filter. "It's different from just defocusing the camera," he says. "You get the highlight and the softness around the highlight. The untrained eye can't tell that was done, but it went the farthest toward smoothing out the transitions between the subject and the background. It's an old film trick."
On some close-ups, Schweikert even fuzzed the previously sharp computer images in the background. "If you use a long-focal-length lens, your depth of field goes away," he says. "Tim McElyea hated it. He said, 'You'll ruin the image.' But sure enough, it worked." Having worked in film production, Schweikert isn't afraid to direct the viewer's attention. "Focus, like lighting, is one of the things you can use to shift emphasis," he says.
Careful planning paid off for everyone. "It was the very first animation job I've done that didn't require a change," says McElyea. "Not, 'Tim, we need three more angles. We need this. We need that.' We choreographed this thing out and got all of our camera angles defined ahead of time." Because Raytheon knew just what it wanted, Media Fusion was able to do a better job. "It really helped that they're used to working visually," McElyea says.
Despite the elaborate 3-D renderings and the attention to detail, which seems more typical of a feature film than a sales video, the project didn't have a million-dollar budget. "Raytheon's attitude when we started out was to keep this thing pretty simple," says McElyea. Raytheon asked him what he would charge for building the models, producing the animation and being a technical supervisor on the digital side of the production. "I told them anywhere from $15,000 to $25,000 for two months of us doing whatever it takes," McElyea says. "And Raytheon said, 'Let's keep it on the lower side of that.' Then Raytheon's marketing people got in, and they started to pull out all the stops, so the budget started to increase. Our portion was about $20,000."
McElyea warns that a small animation shop won't get rich with this kind of project, but that it's enough to get the job done right. "I think Intergraph's budget wound up being twice what ours was, maybe more," says McElyea. Raytheon had its own internal pre-production costs, the cost of an outside scriptwriter and the costs involved in presenting the video to the prospective buyers.
It's not unusual for clients to loosen the financial reins as a project progresses, says McElyea. He calls it the "sight-unseen syndrome." "You don't want to commit to something you haven't seen," he says. "Then you start getting other people involved, and it's 'Wouldn't it be neat if we did this?' " Raytheon seems happy with what it got for its money. Scott Kalister, Raytheon's vice president of marketing, says that his company "couldn't have asked for better results."
From a producer's point of view, a successful project means getting repeat business. Raytheon has already started planning a second project, picking up where the first one left off. "In the next video, we'll go down below the decks into the design department of Raytheon," says Spurlock. Why do another sales video? The question most frequently asked of Raytheon after the first presentation was: "How are you going to top this next year?"
David English is a writer in Greensboro, North Carolina. He has written articles for Omni, Computer Shopper, CD-ROM Today and Compute.