Katzenberg brings DreamWorks to the ETC

“I have to go back to my teacher, Walt Disney,” said DreamWorks CEO Jeff Katzenberg on Thursday. “In the field of animation, always in the back of it has been technology.”

That’s why at 1 pm that afternoon, Katzenberg and his DreamWorks entourage showed up at the doorstep of the Entertainment Technology Center. DreamWorks is looking for universities that share its interests, and where else would they go but to Carnegie Mellon?

The second and fifth floors of the Pittsburgh Technology Center building were abuzz well before Katzenberg arrived. Men and women in black polos were milling around the elevators, waiting. “He just left from the airport!” someone announced to the group up on the fifth floor, amid walls lined with Star Wars figurines and Atari consoles. Randy Pausch, the ETC’s co- director, came up in the elevator -- and then raced back down the hallway to meet Katzenberg on the ground floor.

“I’m excited!” Pausch yelled behind him, passing a cluster of console games as he left. And from the look of it, he wasn’t the only one.

Pausch was prepared, too. Katzenberg would be taken through five demo rooms of the ETC in roughly one and a half hours, showing off “what [the ETC students] dream up.” After that, Katzenberg would give a talk to a full McConomy Auditorium, jet to Providence, R.I., to give Brown a once-over, and then go to sleep in California. When the DreamWorks crew showed up, there wouldn’t be a minute to lose.

Katzenberg stepped out of the elevator just after one o’clock that afternoon, with the expression of a true CEO. He stood significantly shorter than anyone in the small crowd of people who surrounded him, but it was clear to even the untrained eye who the VIP of this group was. Katzenberg walked, in a crisp white shirt and black slacks, like someone who knew exactly what he wanted to see.

Along with him were three DreamWorks associates. One of the three, Nathan Loofbourrow, graduated in 1992 from CMU with a BS in mathematics and computer science. (He now heads character development on the upcoming 2008 release Kung Fu Panda.) The other two -- Marilyn Friedman and John Tarnoff -- both head the “outreach” program at DreamWorks, and were quick to show interest in how CMU’s research applied to them.

“The average employee at DreamWorks right now is 28 years old, and has been with us for six years,” Katzenberg later said of his company. So it was fitting that each of the students presenting their work -- five demos in all -- were in the perfect hiring age range.

The first demo showed just how closely CMU’s research can come to DreamWorks’ interests. Fifth-year computer science graduate student Caitlin Kelleher showed off a programming system based on “Alice v2.0,” an open-source 3D animation program that aims to take the pains of coding out of scene-making.

“People never touch the keyboard with Alice,” Pausch said over Kelleher’s shoulder, “and yet they can write 3000-line programs.”

Katzenberg nodded as Kelleher walked him through the interface: a simple drag-and-drop affair that allowed Kelleher to switch “if-else” statements and objectives with ease. If, for example, an ice skater glides over a hole Kelleher puts down, the skater will fall; she can even add modifiers to give the skater a comical expression before letting gravity take hold. The program has two versions, the second being a middle-school variation that aims to “trick” students, girls in particular, into coding. The balance, Pausch chuckled, was choosing when to tell them what they were doing, beyond simply creating a storyline: Tell the middle-school girls they’re coding too soon, and they’ll get intimidated. Tell them too late, and it won’t foster the interest to learn more. Fewer than two percent of female college students are computer or information-systems majors, he said; Alice might help work against that statistic.

After wrapping up, at least eight pairs of shiny black shoes clopped down the hall to greet three graduate students and professor Jesse Schell. Schell shared more than just a common technology interest with Katzenberg; he held the Disney connection, too. The former creative director at Disney’s Virtual Reality Studio, Schell showed how these three grad students -- with backgrounds ranging from fine arts to architecture -- had helped create HazMat: Hotzone, the virtual training ground for firefighters nationwide.

Working with the New York Fire Department, Schell and his students aim to have HazMat finished for a spring 2007 release. A video showed how firefighters were already using the networked game engine to train in entry and exit scenarios.

“The level of technology that allows you to do these types of simulations has suddenly become affordable,” Schell said of the game engine. “Three years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to think of this.”

“Quasi” was next on the stop list -- the new official robotic mascot for the World’s Fair For Kids. Programmed to be either interactive or spoken through using a microphone and PC tablet for motion direction, Katzenberg was quick to pick up on the fact that this was the first portable model since Quasi’s inception in April 2004. “Do you want to go to Disneyworld?” he laughed, alluding to the World Fair For Kids’ location in Orlando. Although the original robot took six students one semester to build, this $30,000 version was designed by 11 students in only 11 weeks.

“This version is for traveling and puppeteering live,” said Sabrina Haskell, an SCS graduate. “We can actually color his dancing with the emotion map, so he can dance sad or confused.” Quasi’s demonstration elicited the most response from Katzenberg’s associates, Friedman and Tarnoff -- enough that they asked to see “under the hood” afterward. Quasi’s complaints of indecency didn’t seem to register.

“Twenty-five percent of our staff is in technology,” Katzenberg would later say in his talk in McConomy Auditorium. Pointing to CMU graduate Loofbourrow and his work on Kung Fu Panda, he smiled, “So he’s basically Frankenstein -- he builds an actor.” Now, Katzenberg is looking for more builders -- and, as Pausch put it, “obviously we were on his list.”

Asked what interested students should consider when deciding their major, Katzenberg laughed. “Well, I started in politics,” he said. “I didn’t get a college degree. I don’t know what you all are doing here.”

But obviously, he does know. Katzenberg has seen firsthand what students at the ETC can do now. Today, there are 1100 people working at DreamWorks, in 150 disciplines, speaking 37 different languages -- and there’s always room for more.

“Just get in the door,” Katzenberg repeated to McConomy’s students that evening. “And if you can’t get in the door? Go in the basement.”