Millennium Man

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Earlier this year, Robert Greenberg saw his life flash before his eyes - for an entire month. From September through October, New York's Art Directors Club hosted a 23-year retrospective of the work created by his history-making R/GA, a New York company that has made a sizable creative dent in the entire media spectrum: broadcast, commercials, film, interactive and broadband. The show, "Transformation," depicted the evolution of R/GA and how its work has influenced the convergence of film, video and computer technology. It also gave credence to why founder Greenberg has been given various lofty titles like "visionary," "pioneer," and "innovator," and why the 51-year-old media maven sits on the advisory boards of distinguished art-tech institutions like the Parsons School of Design, NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. As flattering as the show's fanfare was, however, the mellow Greenberg says that seeing himself go down in history wasn't a completely pleasant experience. "I was glad when it came down," he offers quietly. "It was OK when it first opened, but I couldn't wait for it to close. It's very strange; you feel a bit older and when you see a whole history of work that goes back 23 years, it's sort of frightening."

Perhaps such feelings about the past are natural for someone who's always had his sights set on the future. In its more than two decades, R/GA has consistently sought the cutting edge. Formed in 1977 by Greenberg and his brother, Richard, the company first made its name in the '80s as a hothouse of state-of-the-art visual effects. R/GA was behind the charming but unlikely living-dead pairings between Paula Abdul and Gene Kelly, and Elton John and Louis Armstrong in those notorious Diet Coke spots; the shop was also responsible for the memorable flying title sequences from Superman, as well as effects for Predator and Zelig. Besides Gold Clios and Cannes Gold Lions, the shop won an Academy Award for creating a special optical printer that made many of its visual masterpieces possible.

"Much of what I was doing in the early '80s was developing the future of digital production, since nobody had a lock on how to do the work," Greenberg reminisces. "We were all inventing as we were going along." But today, the technology has become democratized, and the area isn't as exciting as it used to be, so Greenberg's decided to move on. With about 400 feature films and more than 4,000 commercials under its belt, R/GA's postproduction and effects gig is truly history, as far as Greenberg is concerned. In 1997, he sold off R/GA's feature unit, RGA/LA, to Imaginary Forces, and in 1999 he shut down the broadcast unit, R. Greenberg Associates. "It was no longer an adventure for me," he explains.

Over the years, Greenberg says R/GA made the transition from "black box to gray box to white box." In other words, it moved from using compositing equipment like Harry, to more programmable, flexible equipment like Flame or Avid, and finally it's "white box," operating solely on a PC interface.

With the new tech comes a new stomping ground, this time in the uncharted territories of new media. "The third big project for myself and our company is to do the convergence between narrowband, broadband and wireless," says Greenberg. "My priority was to move out of doing any broadcast work, eventually becoming a full interactive company. First and foremost, it's a better business to be in." But there's another reason for the change. "The other thing is, though many don't think so, it's very creative," he enthuses.

The current incarnation of Greenberg's company is R/GA Digital. It boasts an impressive list of clients, or "partners" as Greenberg prefers to call them. Some of these include e-business bigshots like IBM, Intel, Bed, Bath & Beyond and AT&T. R/GA recently was involved in the strategic redesign of IBM.com, which hosts about 4.5 million pages and reaches more than 70 countries in 16 languages. Last September, it was the only site to receive a perfect score in Advertising Age's BtoB Netmarketing report, which judged about 700 business websites on visual design, content planning and strategy.

On an artsier front, R/GA has developed designs for a number of creative institutions, including The Ross School, Art-

museum.net's Van Gogh Museum, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music (bam.org). Most recently, R/GA finished the redesign for the Rhode Island School of Design website (risd.edu). Greenberg likens the RISD site to a film project, Anima Mundi, which he worked on with director Godfrey Reggio. Much of the movie used pre-existing footage, and Greenberg's task was to repurpose the film into something compelling. "A lot of it was stock footage, which generally doesn't that look good, but when we repositioned it, blew it up and panned and scanned the images so they were more focused or more abstract, it became really beautiful," Greenberg says. The RISD site does the same for constantly changing pictures from the school's events that by themselves might look monotonous and amateurish. It contains templates that give an aesthetically sound frame for the images; and again it involved "panning, scanning, repositioning - fitting into a format where newly created or existing photography can also look good," he notes.

Repurposing also figured in R/GA's broadband companion piece to a Ken Burns PBS documentary on Frank Lloyd Wright. The 1998 enhanced TV project created a "museum in motion" and allowed viewers with specially equipped PCs to view the documentary and then access an interactive follow-up to the broadcast, which provided additional footage, allowing viewers to get closeups and roam through Wright buildings like the Guggenheim Museum. A shopping area, which Greenberg calls a "metaphor for Fallingwater," Wright's best-known residential project, was also part of the DTV broadcast. In it, items from the museum shop stream down along consecutive vertical strips that mimic the architecture of Wright's design. Gliding the mouse over the digital falls speeds up or slows down their movement, allowing a shopper to take a closer look at the merchandise. After clicking on an item, visitors can drag it into a shopping cart and then zoom right to the PBS site to complete the purchase.

The documentary hints at the possibilities of broadband's future, but Greenberg confesses that he, along with other new-media players, can't clearly foretell tomorrow's content. "Everybody's thinking about it, but nobody knows quite what it will be," he admits. "We know what it will be like to produce it - use the pre-existing assets and most likely create the new assets very inexpensively, with no film involved, unless it's a repurposed piece. But to go out with an Arri or a Panaflex to shoot some interactive thing, that's not going to happen."

The point is, when formats change, design perspectives must change with them. "You remember the old album cover?" Greenberg asks. "You were working with something big, and as soon as it went to being very small with CDs, there was a different group that actually excelled in the design, people like Stefan Sagmeister. Many that were doing LP covers never made that transition simply because of the new size. It became a different animal, and to a large degree new people sprung up who just did it better. When you're doing a website and maybe a wireless device, when you're working with an area that's tiny, it's a question of how you cross it over - it's a design problem as well as a technology problem. There are those who still feel that people aren't going to be using the computer for getting emotional content because movie theaters and television are much better experiences. But I was on a flight recently and I heard some guy crying; I looked over and he was watching a very small screen. Size doesn't matter if the content is there, and I guarantee you that this guy got past the small screen and was into the movie. An interesting, immersive experience can still be even smaller."

In the meantime, Greenberg says R/GA is fully geared up to tackle the larger challenges that will surface with the convergence of narrowband, broadband and wireless. Just a few blocks over from its space in the Meat Packing District, the company is opening a new facility to accommodate an expected doubling of the staff over the next year to about 300. It also continues to add big-name partners to its roster. R/GA recently opened an office in Stockholm, so that it can work closely with its newest collaborator, Ericsson. "I'm really trying to focus on moving this ball forward," Greenberg enthuses. "You know, I saw a long time ago that this would be similar to what I was feeling in the mid-'80s. I've never looked back at it thinking maybe I'd made a mistake. It's just a different industry. We're in the same exact spot as we were back then."

And with his range of experience, perhaps he has a reason to sit back and enjoy the ride. "The future is going to incorporate broadcast, motion graphics, computer gra-phics, music, live action, full motion video - in addition to the whole interactive aspect," Greenberg believes. "From a creative standpoint, this is interesting in terms of the architecture. When you put it all together, it's going to be much more challenging, and it will continue to get even more challenging."

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