At Georgia State University's Creative Media Industries Institute, students take on bleeding-edge storytelling
The Creative Media Industries Institute (CMII) is a digital storytelling mecca in the heart of downtown Atlanta. Created as a part of an initiative to fulfill Georgia State University’s strategic planning to foster the growth of the media industry in Georgia’s economy, CMII focuses on the exploration and intersections of creativity, technology and entrepreneurship. CMII is both part of the College of Arts & Sciences and the College of the Arts at GSU. This content creation center brings together film, gaming, music and visual art students as the next generation of storytellers.
Oz Magazine took a tour of the institute with project manager and president of the Georgia Production Partnership (GPP), Lisa Ferrell, and executive director, Brennen Dicker, through the three floors of the newly renovated 25 Park Place annex, the most foot-trafficked street corner in Atlanta. Unlike a lot of university programming, CMII is bringing the entertainment industry directly to the incubation spaces that students, staff and faculty inhabit to make content. With their artist-in-residence programming, industry leaders have their offices among student workspaces, and they are a big component in the screenings, training workshops and career programs offered. Artists-in-residency include alumni Chris Bridges, known professionally as Ludacris, a multi-platinum, Grammy winning artist, actor and entrepreneur with a philanthropic heart; alumni Tom Luse, executive producer of The Walking Dead and the first GSU student to submit a film for a graduate thesis; Erik Gordon, a member of 100 Black Men of Atlanta, an organization aimed at improving the quality of life and giving community support to African American youth; and Grammy-winning producer, filmmaker, and musician Dallas Austin, best known for his work with musicians like Madonna, TLC, and Boyz II Men and for producing films Drumline and ATL.
A Floor for Every Purpose
Upon entering CMII, every student and guest has the opportunity to interact with Pepper the robot, the world’s first social humanoid robot able to recognize faces and basic human emotions. Aside from being home to Pepper, the first floor contains the main production studio; a 1,900 sq. ft. speed rail room lined with green screen curtains and portable cyclorama walls. These walls allow the studio to be used for volumetric capturing and visual production.
If students aren’t occupying the studio on the first floor, they’re either engrossed in virtual reality gaming in the VR demo lab and VR cave or trying their hands at 3D printing in the Maker’s lab. However, the majority of students gather on the second floor, which is equipped with post production, project and training rooms, as well as audio suites. On this floor, students are encouraged to jump on CMII’s desktop computers furnished with production, game design, sound editing and animation software. Last, but certainly not least, the third floor contains a 1,250 sq. ft. data visualization and digital humanities research lab. Here, students can lounge amongst workstations while training for Esports, editing content or collaborating on content creation near the offices of acclaimed producers, entrepreneurs and recording artists.
Choosing a Degree
There are two degrees offered with CMII: one in media entrepreneurship and the other in game design. “We’re only in our second year and we have 600 majors and 54% of those are women,” said Candice Alger, professor of practice. Alger teaches AR/VR Virtual Production and was one of this year’s finalists for Women in Technology’s (WIT) Woman of the Year in Technology award.
Executive director, Brennen Dicker, has his own list of accolades that proves his enduring promise to CMII. Dicker has 20 years of experience in the film industry including serving as general manager of SIM International, chair of the Atlanta Advisory Council for SCAD, executive board member and former chair of the GPP’s government relations group, chair of the steering committee for the 2018 Atlanta Jewish Film Festival and a member of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.
“What we’re trying to do in the end is to bring in industry, students and all the technology and create a culture where people can truly interact with each other in a way that’s substantial and create” explained Dicker. “We are tasked to teach the next generation of storytellers and also become a thought-leader within the industry in the Southeast, and hopefully nationally at some point.”
Professors of Practice
In the main production studio, professors of practice, Algers and James Martin went more in-depth with their technology. “This is our virtual production studio. It’s a bit of a Swiss Army knife because we only have one,” Algers revealed. “We pull the screen curtain back, [and] we have a full on stage where we can capture multiple performers [and] lens virtually.” Algers has worked with the spandex-suit-white-ping-pong-ball optical motion capture system for over 16 years. CMII has gained access to a newer form of technology. The Xsens suit is the most accurate motion capture suit on the market. It does so by using an HD reprocessing feature. According to their website, “the Xsens MVN Animate enables you to mocap anywhere and everywhere, in any situation.” No more ping pong balls within the studio. Xsens can be taken outside.
“We also have what’s called volumetric capture. It’s a 32-camera system. We capture performers in full costume. This is bleeding edge. When we decided to bring this technology here it was because we wanted to give our students something that didn’t exist at all the bigger universities in the media labs. This is one of eight systems in the world, and it’s called 4Dviews,” Algers added.
4DViews is based out of France and captures a photo-real 360 holographic representation of performances as a digital asset. These assets can Candice Alger and Pepper the robot 42 Oz Magazine - film. tv. entertainment. SINCE 1990 then be deployed into game engines, prototypes, etc. CMII has had a number of performances in their space ranging from cosplayers and extras to former NFL receiver, Jerry Rice. “We captured him for the Super Bowl for a program called You Make The Play. That asset was composited in a virtual representation of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium. People that visited the NFL Experience during the Super Bowl were able to put on VR headsets, see him in the stadium, and hear what he had to say about the school program that United Way sponsors nationally to teach kids how to cope with bullying,” Algers recalled. CMII also has rapid prototyping software packages through a strategic partnership with Taiwan based company Reallusions. “When I saw it 3-4 years ago, I knew that we needed that here because we could teach our students animation much faster by getting rapid prototyping material out there. Vertical slicing of content allows them to build it faster. We’re teaching the students how to tell their stories with emerging technologies because we know that if we can do that, they’ll find jobs in any sector. We’re getting updates on this technology before anyone else in the world,” said Algers.
"We're bringing in students to disrupt how we do all of this...
We want the stories we tell to be more demonstrative of the culture we represent."
Professor Martin teaches advanced VFX and motion capture. “Right now you’re seeing a leap in innovation for things like comprehensive shaders that give a more true-reactive quality to light. You can see it’s getting closer and closer to photo-real and also in-real time, meaning that performance capture can be done on the stage where you’re capturing the overall facial performance, the voiceover and the motion capture as well. If we plug that into the data that we get out of these suits, or another system like the OptiTrack, then we can get basically the entire performance all at once. Full body and things like wardrobe can be worked out; everything down to the details of the eyes,” said Martin about the technology he used on Suicide Squad over the summer. Rapid prototyping technology can also be used for character generation and can instantly produce character functions like walk cycles and idles by way of puppeteering. Auto- generation and machine learning are what Martin describes as the “heavy lifters”.
“Students come to us with their problems, and we figure out what pieces and parts to put together. That’s what’s James Martin and Candice Alger demonstrate motion capture technology really attracting community as well, because people are a little hesitant to invest in this type of technology because it’s very expensive, but it’s changing rapidly, so [CMII] really is a think tank. People have come in from other universities to see what we have, and they’re really blown away. We’re bringing in students to disrupt how we do all of this, the pipelines, and how stories are told. We want the stories we tell to be more demonstrative of the culture we represent, so getting these young students involved has been a lot of fun,” Algers told Oz Magazine.
Each professor seemed so composed at the helm of a rapidly changing industry. “The people who are teaching this are people who are the foremost leaders in the industry,” said Ferrell. In this industry, textbooks are obsolete because technology is evolving every minute. The question arises: how can academia be taught without a textbook? Martin had the answer: “We have an industry related approach, so our curriculum is designed around industry standard techniques that are in play right now in production. We’re not revisiting antiquated pipelines or regurgitating texts. If you’re innovating at the speed of technology, then you have to be utilizing guidance into the field. Right now, professors of practice, like ourselves, are charged with that in our curriculum.”
“There is no single pipeline that works for everything happening today. It’s all experimental, so we do a lot of paid work here, and then we get students involved in those projects so they can get real world experience and money. When they get out of here, they actually have something that’s on their reel that’s a real credit,” added Ferrell.
Max Thomas teaches game design and approaches teaching in an egalitarian way: “My goal is that they’re more generalists than specialists, but that they’ll be well rounded generalists with a more diverse exposure to the industry and the tools, and that’s one of the best things about being here is that we have so many toys. It’s great working with the students here. We have a really great team.”
“That’s what makes it a unique perspective because not only are they getting game lectures on the academic side, but they are also getting professors of practice on the industry side working hand in hand,” Dicker remarked. “James is going out in the summer working on features like Suicide Squad, where he’s bringing students and other professors in to work on these projects. We’re on the creative story side of things instead of the programming and development part of it because coding [will] be something that is done by computers in the future. We want to make sure the students are on the story creating side because that’s where we see the business going, or at least the business we want to be in.”
Creating Virtual Reality
James Amann, director of operations, showed Oz the ropes in the VR Demo Room. “The CMII is giving students and our next generation of storytellers the ability to develop their stories to multiple platforms. When I say stories, it could be film, audio, training modules, games or even data visualization. The problem is that a lot of our students don’t have access to this gear, so the first purpose for this room is accessibility. Accessibility so that they know it’s out there and they have access to it, but then moving them towards developing to it.” The VR Demo Room contains an HTC Vive, an Oculus Rift, a Playstation VR, Hololenses, Magic Leaps and a VR treadmill.
Amann is persistent in pointing out that the VR Demo Room, as well as the entire facility, also is utilized for pitching to clients. “We provide a professional environment for our students to be able to [pitch], so that they aren’t the ones walking into the boardroom spilling stuff all over the place. They can have it all set up here, and [pitch] in a really cool environment. [In the VR Demo Room] people are standing in place doing VR. In the VR Cave, they can wander around, which becomes a compelling use of space for training modules, where maybe you’re doing a training module where an emergency doctor has to move around the room.”
Oz also toured CMII’s VR Cave with GSU student, Henry Bernreuter. The VR Cave is completely sound dampened and light controlled. The three-walled immersive projection is straight out of Star Trek, and is even called a “Holodeck.” Rapid Prototyping in the VR Cave is utilized with technologies such as Vizard. “We run experiments in immersive January / February 2020 43 Brennen Dicker, executive director 360 degrees of FLIR camera technology 44 Oz Magazine - film. tv. entertainment. SINCE 1990 design,” he explains. Bernreuter took us through demo launchers of tranquil mountains, beaches, and waterfalls as well as a brain surgery training module and the dojo where Neo first fought Morpheus in The Matrix.
Bernreuter is working directly with artist-in-residence Luse to develop an LED nano lumen display to revitalize the Five Points Area downtown. “The first thing I did was build a three quarters model of this building. I figured out all the math for the projections. Then we started working on the software to create it. We’re using commercially available software right now, but we will be writing our own software. The idea would be that it would be a permanent fixture [for] students that wanted to create content on the building,” said Bernreuter. The projection, unlike the screens in New York City’s Times Square, will be energy efficient and capable of displaying anything from ticker tape to an interactive piano. With all the foot traffic on Park Place, there is so much opportunity to explore in this display.
The Maker's Space
The Maker’s Space was the last stop. Support specialist Elliott Kirkpatrick maintains all of the machines in the space, and when we came in, he was 3D printing octopodes and an 18-inch Eiffel Tower. The Maker’s Space has many plans in the works and is available to all the students, staff and faculty of the CMII space. Kirkpatrick assured that the space will open to the public in the form of workshops. “This is supposed to be an open space where we provide tools and some knowledge, and then access to everybody so that they can make things happen that maybe somebody alone couldn’t. We don’t do it for them. That’s a big part of the Maker’s Space: we’re going to help you get your hands dirty so that it can be exactly what you want. We do everything from electronics to 3D printing.”
“It can be a task. I have the knowledge of how all the equipment works, but I also train the students so they can trouble-shoot almost all of the issues,” Kirkpatrick said when asked what it’s like to maintain all of these machines. The Maker’s Space can be utilized to create anything from movie props and costume pieces to action figures. There are plans to build it out with a VAC former and a paint booth. “This space is still a work in progress, but we’re definitely going to grow [it] into something more special than it already is,” added Kirkpatrick.
From Students to Visionaries
The talented and bright students seem to be taking to the multimedia interdisciplinary approach that the CMII space is facilitating. Most CMII students are Pell Grant recipients. “They’re first generation,” Dicker commented. “Their parents didn’t go to college so there are a lot of things that we have to do in preparing them that I think other universities don’t necessarily need to concentrate on nearly as much. It’s getting the soft skills, getting out there, and how to get work, how to conduct yourself in interviews, how to go in that direction. It’s yet another layer.”
“Lisa does workshops with the interns to teach them those things, but then it’s really tough for them to get internships because most of them are working,” said Algers. “It gets really complicated. When we are successful, when these students get hired into the industry, they at least double their A shot of Cirque du Soleil holding Atlanta auditions at CMII for their next show in 2020 CMII students engaging with motion VR technology CMII student engaging with motion capture technology family’s income, and they stay here and pay taxes. We’re not exporting them.”
"We want to make sure the students are on the story creating side,
because that's where we see the business going."
CMII’s core missions relate directly to each floor of the institute. Technology is the focus of the first mission, and CMII is bringing in the most advanced and up-to-date software available. They also make strides to fund an ever-evolving industry. They have the programming and professionals in place to train students to find their own pipelines in entertainment and information. Their second mission is to facilitate a space of innovation through the design of their labs, classrooms, and studios, giving students a place to pitch to potential investors. They have created a system to enlist countless success stories. Finally, CMII’s third mission that the institute focuses on is the collaboration of students and industry for the benefit of research and economy in the film and TV, music industry, and game design fronts.
“We have a great group of students. The grit that they have and determination has been fantastic,” remarked Dicker. The future of storytelling is in the heart of downtown Atlanta.