Digital Media Is On The Move

By the BF Staff
From the July/August 2015 Issue

Students wearing motion-capture suits connected to digital media software create custom animations. (Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development)

When it comes to “Student Emmy” awards from the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Foundation, there are few institutions that can match Brigham Young University (BYU). Students at the Provo, UT based school’s Center for Animation have won 14 awards since 2004.

And when it comes to video game development, the University of Utah (UofU) is a perennial powerhouse in the Princeton Review’s annual ranking of the best schools for game design. In March 2015, the UofU grabbed the #1 graduate school title—and its undergraduate program ranked #2 in the nation.

These and other programs at neighboring institutions are driving the emergence of Utah’s digital entertainment industry. From Disney Avalanche (Disney Infinity) to ChAIR Entertainment (Unreal Engine technology, Shadow Blade, Infinity Blade) to Wildworks (Animal Jam) to a healthy independent film scene anchored by the Sundance Film Festival, there’s a lot going on in the Beehive State.

“There’s an incredible talent base in Utah, specifically in the digital entertainment field,” says Donald Mustard, cofounder and creative director of ChAIR Entertainment. “A lot of that is the result of very forward looking programs that have emerged at BYU and the University of Utah, and followed quickly by Utah Valley University. All three of those schools have made great efforts to support this industry and have been doing so for a long time.”

A University of Utah student shows off the 3D-printed models of sculptures created by other students. (Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development)

Donald himself was a student at BYU in the late 90s. “With digital animation, web design, and courses in other emerging technologies, BYU was already ahead of that curve. The university reshaped existing programs and created new ones to support this field. We students benefited from access to the kind of computers, software and training we needed to develop a portfolio and pursue a career.”

The University of Utah has been at the forefront of digital 3D technology for decades, Mustard continues. “People like Nolan Bushnell of Atari, Ed Catmull of Pixar, and John Warnock of Adobe all have UofU ties. They were huge pioneers.”

As a result of this shared heritage, companies grow because they find there’s already talent here, Mustard says. “Electronic Arts, Sony, Microsoft…there’s a very lively game development community here due in large part to the universities.”

Utah’s Digital Entertainment Network: Voice For The Industry

University of Utah students plan the last additions to a medical game in the Therapeutic Games and Apps Lab. (Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development)

In January, business leaders came together to launch an industry association, the Utah Digital Entertainment Network (UDEN). “We seek to be a single voice for digital entertainment creators in Utah,” said association chairperson Jon Dean. “To put Utah on the global map, we need to share information, expertise and opportunities. It’s a long term vision to build a community.”

Dean points to this need for better communication and awareness when he speaks of Utah’s talent pool. “We need to be able to help our graduates live here and work here. Part of UDEN’s role is making sure graduates know of openings with local companies, and that companies know about talented graduates.”

UDEN did not arise by accident, rather it evolved by design. In 2011, state agencies convened a Utah Cluster Acceleration Partnership to examine digital entertainment. Collaboration from industry partners and higher education institutions identified a number of needs, and one such need called for an industry association to drive faster growth.

Further supporting the industry, the Utah Film Commission offers incentives for film and digital media production, as well as a range of producer services. “Film has changed. Today you can no longer talk about film without talking about digital production,” says Virginia Pearce, director of the Utah Film Commission. “The Film Commission is looking at ways to accelerate this convergence.”

While the universities and state support company formation and growth, Utah’s quality of life and cost of living are factors in keeping and attracting talent from both in-state and out-of-state.

“There were many opportunities for us to start our company in California, Washington or Texas, but we love the beauty of Utah, and the economic opportunities here,” Mustard says. “I love the proposition that we could form a company here, and pay our employees a wage competitive enough that they could have a house, a yard, and start a family. Given the cost of living elsewhere, that’s much harder in other states. A dollar goes further here.”

Dean concurs: “I had a choice of where I could work in this industry, and I thought I was going to work in San Francisco. When I got to Utah, I said ‘Wow the quality of life here is fabulous.’ That is a true selling point to creative people.”

“How do you sum up Utah’s advantages?” Dean asks. “The quality of life, quality of the universities, quality of the talent, and a state with a great business climate. All of these things together align really well.”

Digital Media Growing At Speed Of Light In New Mexico

The Sandia Science & Technology Park has been a consistent contributor to the Albuquerque economy for more than a decade. (Credit: Sandia Science & Technology Park)

Film production in New Mexico began in the 19th century when Thomas Edison made a film about gold mining in the Ortiz Mountains. Today, the state continues to be a destination for not only filmmakers, but game developers as well from all over the world. Film production has evolved into post-production services, animation graphics and other digital media applications supported by three national research laboratories, New Mexico State University, and the University of New Mexico (UNM), which is home to one of the top ten undergraduate schools for video game design. The state offers a 25 percent tax credit for film production, post-production, app and video game creation.

New Mexico’s access to ultra-high speed broadband connectivity—including the National Lambda Rail—exceptional research and education facilities, and very competitive electric power costs contribute to the growth and diversity of the industry here, which now includes gaming, DNA mapping software, health care information technology, flight simulation and more. Gaming is a $400 million industry in New Mexico, spread over 26 casinos located around the state.

Here are some of the advantages New Mexico offers to its growing digital media sector:

  • The digital industry in New Mexico includes gaming, DNA mapping software, health care information technology, “serious games”, flight simulation, entertainment, homeland security research and technology development, mobile application development, visualization, and more.
  • Advantages include access to ultra-high speed broadband connectivity, exceptional research and education facilities, and competitive electric power costs.
  • New Mexico broadband infrastructure includes competitive rates, system and path redundancy, secure high-speed data transport, 100% digitally switched networks, multiple DSL and ISP option, and areas with dark fiber network. Albuquerque also has a 10 Gigabit wave connection to One Wilshire in Los Angeles.
  • The National Lambda Rail (NLR), the 12,000 mile high-speed, fiber-optic network, travels through New Mexico from the Colorado border to El Paso, and west to Los Angeles. It provides a national scale optical network infrastructure for research and experimentation in networking technologies and applications.
  • Sandia National Laboratories conducts many areas of research that are impacting emerging media industries like its Computational Shock & Multi-physics Department, meshing digital images, seismic imaging, and high resolution 3D simulations.
  • Several technologies developed at Sandia National Laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratories, and UNM have evolved into start-up companies or opportunities for technology commercialization.
  • The University of New Mexico is home to one of the top ten undergraduate schools for video game design.
  • Four full-service film studios: Albuquerque Studios, I-25 Studios, Santa Fe Studios, and Garson Studios.
  • New Mexico has a 25-30 percent tax credit for film production, post-production, app and videogame creation.
  • The state offers a pre-employment training program that reimburses contractors related to below-the-line film and television job positions.