Inside a former Expo Center off of downtown's main drag, University of Central Florida students who aspire to be video gamers and filmmakers share a state-of-the-art motion-capture studio and soundstage with celebrity athletes like Tiger Woods as he films a national commercial.
They also help professional dancers perfect dance sequences for the latest Hannah Montana video game. And they work on the hip-hop feature film Just Another Day, starring Miami rapper Trick Daddy.
At Studio 500, part of UCF's Center for Emerging Media (cem.ucf.edu), students get to work with professionals from the fields in which they plan to chart their careers. And when those same professionals use the studio, UCF rakes in as much as $3,000 a day.
Administrators say this is the new model for public universities struggling from recent years of state funding cuts: education facilities doubling as potential commercial revenue sources.
"We've got to get the money somewhere," said UCF provost Terry Hickey. "Universities are going to have to look at a variety of revenue streams. If we just assume our only money is from the state and from tuition, we can have good universities. But we'll have difficulty building great universities."
In recent years, Florida public universities have looked for all sorts of creative ways to generate money. The University of Florida last year started charging students $10 for transcripts, a move that has raised over $1 million since February 2008. UCF even turned an old smokestack for a heating plant on campus into a cell tower, collecting $58,000 a year.
But Studio 500 represents a more ambitious and planned effort to build up both an academic program and the local economy. By building a studio that is up to commercial standards, the university attracts industry leaders who not only pay — but show students a thing or two about the real world of film and entertainment.
Today, Studio 500 is one of the largest such facilities on the East Coast and in the country, drawing business from feature film productions, national commercial campaigns and entertainment companies.
"You build cool stuff, and professional people and students will gravitate to it," said Ben Noel, executive director of UCF's video game design school.
The state's largest university embraces its Orlando location.
UCF administrators' investment in the hospitality program, for example, reflects an area filled with resort hotels, restaurants, theme parks and golf courses. The UCF engineering program benefits from the local presence of defense giant Lockheed Martin. And the college's emphasis on its video game and film program makes sense given that Orlando is an entertainment center that houses industry behemoths including Disney World and Electronic Arts, maker of video game hits including the Sims and Madden NFL Football.
So, a few years ago, when Vicon Entertainment's House of Moves went looking for an East Coast studio to film motion-capture sequences like the ones seen in the films 300, Titanic and Beowulf, executives approached UCF.
The university had just opened its video gaming program in 2005 in the former Expo Center, which sits in the section of downtown Orlando that Mayor Buddy Dyer envisions as a future hub for the arts. UCF set up the Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy with about $4 million from the state and the endorsement of then-Gov. Jeb Bush. Orlando donated the Expo Center and $4.4 million for renovations.
UCF still had ample space in the Expo Center when Vicon came knocking, and administrators knew their film and video game students could take advantage of the motion-capture technology. So after some negotiation, Vicon agreed to contribute $1 million worth of equipment to the studio. UCF and Orlando each put in $1 million to turn the cavernous Expo space into a 3,500-square-foot motion-capture studio with a sound stage next door.
Since opening in February 2008, Studio 500 has generated nearly $110,000 — surpassing UCF officials' goal of $50,000 a year.
"So, we have access to a $3 million facility and only had to put in $1 million," Hickey said. "UCF rents it out and gets revenue that we can put back into the program. That's going to be the model for the future."
UCF professor Ron Weaver helped choreograph and direct the dance sequences for the most recent Hannah Montana video game, released in April by Disney. And in March, golfer Tiger Woods met tennis player Roger Federer and baseball star Derek Jeter at the studio to film national commercials for Gillette.
"We don't want to be too commercial. We make enough money to be able to maintain it," Noel said. "We're not out to make big profit, but this allows us to continue to push the latest technology. As long as I'm there, we plan on moving with the world.
"And hey, $100,000 a year can buy a lot of innovations. You build cool stuff, and professional people and students will gravitate to it."
The latest game
Cross the video game hit Guitar Hero with Dance Dance Revolution, and you get Sultans of Scratch, the latest of many video games created by UCF students. The setting is urban, "street," reminiscent of the warehouse-style gathering spots where Eminem competed against fellow rappers in the gritty film 8 Mile.
In Sultans, one player takes on the persona of a hip-hop dancer, dancing on top of a small padded "stage." The other player is the DJ, scratching on a turntable to control the music. Then comes the danceoff.
Ryan Fernandez, 24, and Tom Galdi, 23, spent seven months creating Sultans.
They worked with a music producer to create original music, and they brought area dancers into the motion-capture studio to build the foundation for the video game's animated dancers. Fernandez, of New York, said he and Galdi might not have gotten so ambitious with the class assignment if not for the technology of Studio 500.
On a recent weekday, the students battled out a bout of Sultans in the student lounge at UCF's video game design school.
"This would have been impossible to create without the motion capture," Fernandez said.
And then he turned to the TV screen and resumed his dancing.
Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.