Remember the digital stunt double they did for Batman Forever? The skating penguins in Halls Cough Drops? The nuclear blast in Peacemaker? Pillsbury Doughboy? Yeah, Mr. Poppin' Fresh, that fat white piece of animated spokesdough. That PDI!
For a company that has a list of credits for some of the biggest TV advertisers, PDI has remained somewhat under the radar. That could be a result of the slightly anonymous work they do. "You want an invisible style," PDI founder Carl Rosendahl says. Over the years, the 18-year-old company has intentionally developed a broad range of styles, aiming at "absolute photorealistic integration of special effects with live action," says Rosendahl. "What is fun and challenging about this work is to try to hit the different styles and looks, instead of defining a PDI style."
Now the company that may be best known for bringing an all-digital Doughboy to roly-poly life is about to carve out a reputation as a major digital film animation house. Just wait for next year's Antz, a full-length, all computer-animated feature film showcasing the voice of Woody Allen as a neurotic, nonconformist ant.
Produced with partner DreamWorks SKG, Antz is gunning for the same success that Toy Story and its production studio Pixar and Disney found in 1995. But Antz is aimed at a different audience. The story is darker, the humor more sophisticated -- imagine Blade Runner populated by insects.
"We are making a film we want to see," Rosendahl explains. "Not a movie for our kids." The company has its future staked on the success of Antz. Of the 230 employees at PDI, 190 are working on the movie.
This filmic foray can be traced back to 1990, when PDI opened a division in Los Angeles. "We recognized the film side of visual effects and made the move from video," Rosendahl recalls. "We realized that if you weren't in L.A., you weren't going to get film work." But it was a different scene back then. "We went to all the studios and were met with blank stares," Rosendahl says. "Hollywood was petrified of digital technology. None of the studios believed people would sit through 90 minutes of computer animation. It was a huge conceptual hurdle." Then Pixar and Disney released Toy Story and changed everything. "The day after Toy Story came out," says Rosendahl, "our phone was ringing off the hook."
He doesn't look back on his pitch to DreamWorks too fondly. "It was the worst session we ever had. We thought they hated us," Rosendahl shudders. But Jeffrey Katzenberg, who masterminded Disney's hugely successful return to animation with The Little Mermaid, is one of the few people in Hollywood who "gets" animation. Today, PCI execs see Katzenberg about once a week. The company has entered into an exclusive relationship as a supplier of animation effects for DreamWorks, and in fact operates as a division of the company, with DreamWorks owning a 40 percent stake since 1996. With funding from DreamWorks driving PDI's growth, the company has tripled in size.
PDI's commercial production got a boost from the DreamWorks investment, and not just financially. "There are huge complimentary benefits to being in multiple businesses," Rosendahl points out. "Commercial production is a low-margin business and it's a high-churn business. But that provides the opportunity to experiment in a lot of different directions. We can push the technology and have huge payoffs that we can incorporate on the next project or on Antz."
Friday at noon, as they've done almost every Friday for the last 15 years, PDI staffers gather for a company barbecue. Tim Johnson, director of Antz, shows pictures from his vacation: a 3,500 mile jaunt to Aruba to photograph a total eclipse of the sun. It's high-tech chalk talk sprinkled with references to solar flares and corollas, but this audience oohs and ahs like kids at a magic show. Some wise guy up front shouts, "Tim, can't you do those in Photoshop?" Laughter erupts.
Will PDI will be getting more of the glamour commercials CGI jobs -- the ones that typically went to bigshots like ILM and Digital Domain? It will if it's up to senior producer Cindy Cosenzo, who was brought in to ramp up the commercials division. "Historically, we've been landing jobs on our reputation for high-end 3-D CG animation, for being nice people to work with, and for delivering on time and on budget," says the industry veteran, who's been at PDI for just over a year. "I want to emphasize our creative solutions. I think we can put design and creative first, to add creative value to everything we do. We've been building our story department and our art department so our pitches articulate our creative vision."
No one at PDI seems worried about doing battle with the big boys. Any challenges the company faces are, after all, futile next to the suffering of Woody Allen's animated ant, who can be heard to mutter, "It's tough to be the middle child in