When Jeffrey Katzenberg popped into the Video Wall room at DreamWorks Animation last November to offer reactions to artwork for Madagascar 2, his presence was felt in Glendale, California, where the company is headquartered, and in Redwood City, 350 miles away, where half of the film's animators are based. "Jeffrey just dropped in, looked at some drawings, and gave us some notes," says Tom McGrath, codirector of last summer's Madagascar and its sequel, due in 2008. "It wasn't something he would've flown up to Redwood City for."
The typical studio chief navigates the globe in limos, choppers, and private jets. But Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, one-ups them all: He has figured out how to be in two places at once, by prodding his technology department to develop what may be the world's most sophisticated videoconferencing system.
How sophisticated? DreamWorks' films, like the forthcoming Shrek 3, can be edited collaboratively between Glendale and Redwood City via videoconference. Plots can be pitched from Bristol, England, where animators work on stop-motion movies like last fall's Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit. And in December, Hewlett-Packard began marketing a $550,000 version of the system, branded Halo.
Katzenberg and Ed Leonard, DWA's chief technology officer, say they didn't intend to build a system from scratch. But after September 11, when it suddenly became more difficult to hop between offices, DWA's technology team began looking at videoconferencing packages on the market and custom installations at places such as NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab. In most organizations, Leonard found that systems sat unused in a corner; it was too hard to make a connection and the quality was poor.
"We convey stories and ideas and emotions through pictures and words," Katzenberg says. "It's a science and an art, and a lot of it is nonverbal."
"We convey stories and ideas and emotions through pictures and words," Katzenberg says. "It's a science and an art, and a lot of it is nonverbal." It's impossible, he says, to communicate Shrek's grimace or grin over a speakerphone or traditional videoconferencing. "We wanted to invest in this videoconferencing system not just because it was a productivity tool but because it was a socializing tool. It unified an enterprise that has three major locations. It socialized us into one."
Katzenberg threw out a very public challenge to Leonard and his team. At a year-end leadership dinner in 2002, he announced to employees that DWA intended to revolutionize videoconferencing. "He said, 'It's going to be just like being together. We'll share artwork and show animation in progress,' " Leonard recalls. "Everybody was oohing and aahing."
Unfortunately, the jaw-dropping technology existed only in Katzenberg's imagination. But Leonard and Derek Chan, DWA's head of digital operations, set out to create three different videoconferencing environments. A prototype of the first room, which DWA refers to as a B2B room, was ready three months after Katzenberg's challenge. It's designed to mimic a typical boardroom, with a polished wood table and Aeron chairs. Meeting participants who are physically present sit on one side of the table, and their remote colleagues "sit" opposite them, projected into the room by three giant flat-screen monitors. A fourth screen, situated above, allows participants to share documents, drawings, and animated sequences. The audio system lets people talk over one another—as they would in a "real" meeting—rather than having to wait for one speaker to finish.
Chan pointed out some of the nuances of the B2B room. (For this interview, he was in Glendale; I was in Redwood City.) For one thing, the arms had been taken off of the Aeron chairs to encourage participants to lean on the table, and thus bring themselves closer to the cameras. The table legs prevented people from sitting in positions where their faces would fall in the gap between two of the monitors for viewers on the other side.
DWA also set up an editing suite, which initially allowed Shrek 2 director Andrew Adamson, in the midst of making The Chronicles of Narnia in Los Angeles, to participate in editing sessions in Redwood City without having to fly north. "In a typical editing suite, you'd be sitting behind the editor, looking at his back while he worked on making cuts," says Shrek producer Aron Warner. "Here, you can make eye contact."
But the real blockbuster is the Video Wall, designed for large pitch meetings where artists present storyboards and sometimes jump up from their chairs to act out scenes. One entire wall of the Video Wall room in Glendale is a high-definition image of the same room in Redwood City; with a simple command, the camera can show a wide view of the remote room or zoom in on a storyboard frame for discussion. McGrath says he gets his Madagascar 2 team into the Video Wall room once a day.
In the early stages of a project, McGrath says it's still important to get old-school face time with colleagues: "There's nothing like having conversations in the hallway." The virtual hallway isn't yet on Leonard's to-do list, but he is working on a telephone booth-style room for more intimate chats. And he and his team are finishing a new feature that will let a presenter in one place use a laser pointer that actually projects a beam of light into the Video Wall room on the far side to point out details on a storyboard.
And Katzenberg? He's still not satisfied with how the systems perform—especially for a first virtual meeting between two people. "When you meet someone, there's that instinctive, involuntary chemical reaction, where you decide what you think and whether you trust them," he says. Replicating that interaction, somehow, is just one of his requests for the next upgrade.
Scott Kirsner (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company contributing writer based in San Francisco.
A version of this article appeared in the January/February 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.