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ImageMovers Digital gives Bay Area's film image another dimension

A major Hollywood studio and director are beginning an enterprise in Marin County to do cutting-edge film work, in the latest sign that the Bay Area has become a mecca for creating digital entertainment.

Walt Disney Studios and Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis are joining forces in ImageMovers Digital, which will create movies using performance capture, the 3-D computer-animation technique used in a number of recent movies, including the upcoming "Beowulf."

The new studio will occupy two huge converted aircraft hangars at Hamilton Landing, the former Air Force base in Novato. ImageMovers Digital now employs about 150 artists and technicians and could grow as large as 250. Next year it will begin producing its first feature, "A Christmas Carol" starring Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and yet to come.

ImageMovers Digital joins a horde of other Bay Area film, animation, special-effects and game-production firms, underscoring the region's emergence as a digital-arts center. Along with powerhouses Lucasfilm, which relocated in 2005 from Marin to San Francisco's Presidio, and recent Disney acquisition Pixar of Emeryville, ImageMovers Digital carries a distinctly A-list cachet.

Zemeckis first employed performance capture in 2004's "The Polar Express" and also used it in last year's "Monster House." "Beowulf" hits theaters on Friday.

The cinematic technique involves placing digital sensors on actors' faces and bodies to capture their movements and expressions, which are then rendered into 3-D animations that can be placed in whatever digital environment the filmmakers desire.

"We're really excited about this new performance-capture company," said Alan Bergman, president of Walt Disney Studios. "We think it's going to play a huge role in making film going forward. We want to be at the cutting edge of this technology."

Why is Disney setting up shop in Marin?

"We had certain individuals that were important to the venture in that area," Bergman said. "Obviously there are a significant number of very talented people there as well."

One key individual is Doug Chiang, founder of Marin's Ice Blink Studios, which did production work for "Beowulf." Ice Blink will become part of the new company. The other principals are producers Steve Starkey, an Oscar winner, and Jack Rapke.

"Bob Zemeckis is a genius," said Patrick Kriwanek, dean and CEO of the Berkeley Digital Film Institute, which offers intensive training in digital film production. "There is no doubt (ImageMovers Digital) will reach the Pixar level. This is definitely an opportunity for Marin County. It's a no-smokestack business; clean, high generation of taxes."

At Hamilton Landing, ImageMovers Digital will occupy two hangars totaling 120,000 square feet. Right now they are empty concrete shells; developer Barker Pacific Group has just begun renovations. ImageMovers Digital, which is now in temporary quarters in Marin, is due to move there in December 2008.

It will join several other digital-entertainment companies on the 22-acre office campus, located next to bay wetlands that are being restored.

Michael Barker, managing director of Barker Pacific, said the remodeled aircraft hangars are well suited for creative professionals.

"We've been able to take these structures and create interesting work environments that are sustainable and friendly," he said. "The floor plates are generous compared to most office buildings. There is a feeling of light and airiness because you have soaring ceilings."

Rents at Hamilton are around $34 to $36 per square foot, he said. By comparison, Class A office space in downtown San Francisco goes for about $50 per square foot.

Other tenants include a small division of Sony ImageWorks; Visual Concepts - Take Two Interactive, maker of the Grand Theft Auto game; gamemaker Activision Publishing; gamemaker Nihilistic Software; retailer Smith & Hawkin; and shoe company Birkenstock.

"This is the first place that allowed us to start with a blank piece of paper and set up the office exactly how we wanted it," said Robert Huebner, president of Nihilistic. "It's a more fun space to work in than a normal office complex."

Disney's Bergman said he thinks Hamilton Landing "is a great facility for what we're looking for." The live-actor part of the company's work will take place in Los Angeles, he said; it is the digital wizardry that will happen in Marin.

"The Bay Area has a very rich network of talent," said T.J. Summers, a senior partner at Digital Artist Management Inc., an El Segundo (Los Angeles County) headhunter for digital entertainment professionals. "It's a location that no major studio can turn its back on. It's sometimes difficult to get people to relocate there, but it's almost impossible to get people to leave."

Kriwanek said he sees the Bay Area, with its growing film community, the synergy of Silicon Valley and a huge pool of talented techies, poised to dominate Hollywood's digital future.

"There is going to be a third center of film production in the world," he said. "It will be Northern California along with New York and L.A."


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