4-star film studio coming to Strip District
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Four movie-making institutions have banded together in Pittsburgh to create what they believe is the best production site outside of Hollywood.
If a producer wants to find comparable capabilities, "it would have to be in LA. Not even New York has what we're talking about today," said Chris Breakwell, chief executive officer of The 31st Street Studios in the Strip District.
His studio, the site for major films including "The Dark Knight Rises," announced long-term agreements to house Paramount On Location, some classes for Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center and Knight Vision, which did the groundbreaking digital effects for "Avatar." The studio occupies a 300,000-square-foot former Crucible Steel plant on 10 acres along the Allegheny River.
"I'm excited that Tom Cruise and Christian Bale and all the big stars are in town, but what it really means to us is jobs," Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said at a news conference at the studio.
Movies have pumped $300 million into the region's economy over the past three years, he said.
Mr. Breakwell wouldn't discuss the details of the collaboration. "There are some financial investments within the three entities," he said, indicating that his studio and Carnegie Mellon's Entertainment Technology Center had made a financial commitment to bring Knight Vision to Pittsburgh.
Knight Vision, based at Universal Studios in California, was formed about a year ago by veterans of "Avatar." Its founder, James Knight, is creating a Pittsburgh company called Knight Vision 31 that will use technology more advanced and precise than that used in "Avatar," he said.
"We're going to do things no one else is doing anywhere," Mr. Knight said.
Knight Vision is the newest motion capture technology, which Walt Disney started during the making of "Snow White," when animators traced the filmed image of an actress to get convincingly life-like motion. Today's motion capture requires actors to wear spandex suits covered in digital markers, so that artists can use computer animation programs to create characters based on their movements.
Knight Vision's innovation allows filmmakers to see virtual characters imposed on the scene where they will appear, rather than guessing where they will be added later, Mr. Knight said.
His company is working with the National Football League and other clients, he said. The technology works for film, television and video games.
"We've got these projects that we want to pull here," he said. "We are very excited about coming here to Pittsburgh because of the tax incentive, because of CMU and because of the marvelous talent that you have here."
Knight Vision will hire skilled animators, he said. "There is a common misconception that with motion capture ... there is no need for animators. That is absolutely not true," he said. "One hundred percent of all the motion in 'Avatar' was edited by somebody."
Knight Vision and the Entertainment Technology Center will feed off each other. The graduate students will work with the Knight Vision technology, learning on cutting-edge equipment and becoming a source of skilled employees and entrepreneurs.
"This is the way of the future," said actor Anthony Daniels, a visiting professor at the center who is best known as the robot C-3PO in "Star Wars." He called the collaboration "a great coming together of the forces."
The immediate advantage is for his students, who will be encouraged to innovate on the state-of-the-art technology. They come from all over the world, Mr. Daniels said, but he believes some will choose to stay.
"They are the only students in the world who get to play with the real thing," he said of the Knight Vision system. "Nowhere else in the world has this facility."
The fourth piece of the partnership is Paramount On Location, a division of Paramount Studio Group, which ships lights, rigging and other equipment to film sites across North America. Pittsburgh will be the regional base for movies shot from the Midwest throughout the mid-Atlantic states.
Pennsylvania's film tax credit had a crucial role in bringing major films here, which in turn sparked the interest of the production companies, said Pittsburgh Film Office director Dawn Keezer.
When the Legislature passed the credit five years ago, "we said that the infrastructure would come, that companies would come to service the industry. And it's happening," she said. "Anything that you can find walking down the street in LA, you can find right here."
Carl Kurlander, executive producer of the Steeltown Entertainment Project, a nonprofit whose mission is to develop entertainment projects and business in Pittsburgh, called the new collaboration a major step in fulfilling the dream of transforming Pittsburgh into the Hollywood of the East.
"The vision has always been that, in order to have the [film] industry, you need to have resources that are connected. Pittsburgh has had the resources, but they haven't been marshalled," he said. "This pulls it together."
In the past, he said, most movies that were filmed here went to California for post-production. "This is our opportunity to create more post-production and special effects," he said.
First Published February 28, 2012 12:00 am