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3/22/07: Threshold Animation Studios

IBM-MIT/ESD Innovation Lecture Series:
Engineering Systems Solutions to Real World Challenges in Media and Entertainment:
Threshold Animation Studios

Larry Kasanoff, CEO, Threshold Animation Studios and Producer/Director/Co-creator/Writer, Foodfight!

Moderated by Irving Wladawsky-Berger, Visiting Professor of Engineering Systems and VP, Technical Strategy and Innovation, IBM

Event Details
Thursday, March 22, 2007
Time: 4:00 pm (Reception to follow)
Location: MIT, Building E51-345 Cambridge, MA
Map and directions
Contact: Lois Slavin
Sponsored by: MIT's Engineering System Division and IBM

The short history of modern digitally animated films has so far been huge budgets, animation staffs in the hundreds and long, long production cycles. This "blockbuster model" reflects the labor intensity of the traditional process, where an artist at a workstation meticulously creates a series of separate frames to illustrate action. This method, a 21⁄2 minute sequence involves 3,600 frames and can take up to six months. The back-end process, in which animation code is translated or rendered into viewable frames also requires extremely large amounts of processing power.

Today changes are taking place. Audiences have developed high expectations for animation quality. Major digital animation studios realize to reduce risk and time-to-market requires making movies faster, cheaper and more flexibly, while improving quality. Digital animation has had a long record of innovation. But today one surprise is a driver of innovation-Threshold Animation Studios-has emerged not from the industry's center stage but from the wings.

Innovation plays a small role in most studio strategies but Threshold's entire business model is built upon it. Employing fewer than 200, this upstart studio broke into the animation business by overcoming one of its most potent barriers to entry-the need to invest in a costly infrastructure to handle the massive processing requirements of rendering-through an agreement with IBM to deliver computing capacity on demand. Rendering resources are especially critical for Threshold because of the groundbreaking and complex nature of its first full-length film, Foodfight!, a film set in a supermarket after closing time. The set, a complex digital "marketropolis" with over 300 buildings intricately designed in 3D, thousands of "extras" and more than 100 speaking characters, posed an unprecedented rendering challenge.

This lecture will discuss how Threshold achieved an order-of-magnitude increase in animation complexity-on time and within budget-as well as a fundamental change in the animation process. Their e-studio uses an animation technique known as motion capture, where the movements of live actors are captured via fiber optic sensors and converted directly and in real time to 3D digital files. Threshold's innovation took this mocap technology that plays a peripheral role in the business, customized and enhanced it and made it the foundation of a first-of-its-kind real-time animation system.

About the Speakers

Larry Kasanoff is a film producer who is CEO of Threshold Animation Studios (TAS), one of the world's leading digital animation and visual effects production studios. TAS is backed by a unique alliance with IBM.

To date, all of the films and film deals made under Mr. Kasanoff's leadership are profitable.

Currently, Kasanoff is producing and directing FOODFIGHT!, a full-length digitally animated feature film.

Kasanoff is the Producer of all Mortal Kombat non-video game media including two highly successful films, a television series, an animated series, platinum selling soundtracks, home video, CD-Roms and a live tour.

Kasanoff was Executive Producer of the film "True Lies," which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and was directed by James Cameron. As President and Co-Founder of Lightstorm Entertainment, he assembled a consortium of worldwide film and ancillary rights distributors who agreed to provide $500 million in financing for the company's films. This unique structure gave the company complete creative control and 100% ownership of its films. Also in that capacity, Kasanoff supervised production, marketing, publicity and merchandising for the four-time Academy Award winning film "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." This property has generated over a billion dollars in revenues, several hundred million of which came from non-film rights.

Previously, Kasanoff was head of production and acquisitions for Vestron, Inc. He executive produced over 25 films and created "prebuy" financing and acquisition deals for over 200 additional films, including the 1986 Academy Award Best Picture "Platoon." Mr. Kasanoff also co-founded Vestron's original and music video programming divisions.

In the music world, Mr. Kasanoff has packaged or produced video projects with several of the world's biggest talents, including Michael Jackson, The Rolling Stones and Dick Clark. He founded Lightstorm Records and Music Publishing (a partnership with Sony Music). For T2, he produced MTV's 1991 top video "You Could Be Mine" with Gun's 'N Roses.

Kasanoff holds an MBA from the The Wharton School and a BA from Cornell University.

About the Series

Today's increasingly complex world requires engineers to innovate as never before. To have real impact, whether within a firm or society as a whole, engineers must not only develop technologically superior solutions, but also know how to think systemically and lead strategically.

In the 21st century, mastery of a wide range of interdisciplinary skills is needed to create effective, resilient solutions to complex problems. Today's engineers must understand how to work individually and on teams. They must recognize critical factors that emerge along technical, organizational, and societal boundaries that can enable or preclude technological success. Moreover, they must apply careful analysis not only at the product level, but also within the technical and managerial context in which engineering and design challenges occur.

Engineering Systems Solutions to Real World Challenges is a seminar series co-sponsored by IBM and MIT's Engineering Systems Division. Each seminar will show how today's leaders and practitioners are using engineering systems and services sciences approaches to address complex problems. Drawing from real-life examples, the series will explain how these approaches were applied at IBM and other organizations, and demonstrate how to achieve breakthrough solutions that deliver sustained value to enterprises and society as a whole.

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