In the perpetual dusk of their high-tech production studios here, the graphics wizards of URS Corp., a giant engineering company, go about their work of making hospitals rise, airports expand and interstates magically widen in full-motion, computer animation presentations.
Like the Disney Imagineers and Pixar magicians who bring animated cartoons to life, employees in URS' Creative Imaging Group construct a three-dimensional world from blueprints, photos and architectural renderings. The work may not be as glamorous or widely appreciated as talking Nemos or monster Hulks. But it makes use of the same cutting-edge computer technology. And these digital creations, which can cost from $5,000 to $500,000 to produce, pay off by helping URS win multimillion-dollar contracts. The videos also are often used to woo the public, winning support for projects through PowerPoint presentations, Web sites or giveaway of mini-CDs.
One of URS' current offerings for the Florida Department of Transportation illustrates the construction under way at "malfunction junction" (I-275 and I-4) in Tampa. Using overhead views, as well as ramp-level shots, the video shows roadway improvements spreading like a magic carpet over the existing interstate, minus the dirt, noise and traffic jams.
URS, headquartered in San Francisco, builds everything from schools to bridges to automobile factories to wastewater plants. The company has 300 offices, 25,000 employees and operations in more than 20 countries. Revenues last year were $2.4-billion.
URS' Tampa office is a legacy of its acquisition of Grenier Engineering in 1996. Housed in an office tower on Rocky Point, the local operations have 500 employees. A dozen of those workers are part of the Creative Imaging Group, which was started about 14 years ago by Jeff Coleman and provides the graphic presentations for URS operations worldwide.
Coleman, 45, trained as a draftsman and was an early user of computer modeling. "The last chapter in the manual was about drafting in 3-D and that was a lot more fun than drawing blueprints," Coleman said. "But it took a while before it turned into a profitable business."
In the early days, Coleman often would wait till his co-workers left for the weekend, then network all the department's computers together for added processing power. "Computers were expensive, the images didn't look good and the clients didn't get a lot of value for their money," he admits of his early efforts.
About five years ago, that changed. Computer and software prices plummeted. Processing power exploded, dramatically reducing the time it took to create complex animations. Suddenly Coleman's hard-earned expertise, coaxing blueprints into 3-D models that could be simulated, spun and sliced on screen, paid off.
Today, Coleman's team uses a wide assortment of computer hardware and software, with workstations costing about $25,000 each and replaced every two years. AutoCad software is used to build the computer models that resemble wire frames; 3D Studio Max creates the final 3-D animated movies. A $100,000 "render farm" of about 20 networked computers processes the frames round-the-clock. The upshot: Work that used to take weeks now takes hours.
Equipped with state-of-the-art digital editing suites, URS has been building its creative staff in Tampa. About a year ago, Coleman hired Bob Singerman, a veteran commercial producer, to spread the word about the group's expertise throughout the vast URS system. "I love being the evangelist and making the company aware of the tools we have here," Singerman said. "And I've learned about engineering disciplines I didn't even know existed."
Though Singerman said he's only made it to about five URS offices to tout the group's work, the response has been strong. Last year, the Creative Group handled 100 projects; halfway through 2003, it has completed 75.
Among the projects: illustrating a proposed expansion of the traffic circle at the entrance to the Holland Tunnel in New York City; preparing videos warning about unexploded bombs on former Naval sites; and visualizing traffic and landscape improvements proposed for Peachtree Street in Atlanta.
Coleman said it's easy to sell the appeal of computer animation to engineers and lay people alike. "Everybody understands what we do because they've seen it on TV and in the movies," he said. "Where it used to be rare to use animation on a proposal, now every construction project wants it. We can't meet the demand."
The group's work has won recognition in unlikely circles. Two years ago, its productions for a new airport in Guangzhou, China, and construction on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge in Washington, were honored at the computer graphic industry's annual Siggraph (Special Interest Group Graphics) convention. Other titles recognized at the 2001 meeting, which attracted more than 34,000 people, included 102 Dalmatians and scenes from O Brother Where Art Thou?
Coleman said it was the first time videos on public works projects had been among those honored at Siggraph.
With plenty of demands on his group, Coleman gives priority to major URS proposals that have a better-than-average chance of winning approval. He said 60 to 80 percent of the engineering projects he's involved in move forward, compared with a 33 percent average for the industry.
On a typical workday in late July, Coleman was rushed as usual. His team was wrapping up a video presentation illustrating the ongoing $1.8-billion expansion of the terminal at Baltimore/Washington International Airport. One of URS' engineers had a question via speakerphone about the accuracy of the video's mezzanine view.
"This is a project that's going to take a few years and will affect everybody," Coleman said of the video, which will cost about $200,000 to produce. "The rental car people want to know where they're going to go, passengers want to know how they'll get to the gates. This video will explain exactly what's going to happen and how it's going to look."
The group had a similar goal when it prepared a PowerPoint presentation in mid July to accompany URS' construction bid on a $300-million hospital project in California. Pomerado Hospital and Palomar Medical Center, both in the San Diego area, want to complete major construction and demolition projects without disrupting medical service. Coleman's team put together a video showing how that might happen.
The project started with two of Coleman's staffers spending several days in California, taking digital photos of the existing buildings. These photos were used to build a 3-D computer model of the proposed architecture. Animation was added to show the construction process.
After about 400 manhours of work, photos, site plans and blueprints had been transformed into a fast-moving, full-motion video. The selection committee saw garages, office buildings and hospital towers rising, existing buildings being dissected and dismantled, traffic being rerouted. A URS representative narrated the video.
"Our job was to explain the construction process in an easy-to-understand format and nontechnical terms," said Coleman, who attended the presentation. "If anybody asks a question, we didn't do our job."
While there has been no shortage of projects, Coleman has found suitable employees in short supply. His expanding group is inundated with applicants. But most schools that teach animation have a focus on entertainment, not engineering. Computer geeks who want to do cartoons seldom have the interest or ability to read engineering plans.
Among Coleman's recruits: Heath Burr, director of multimedia, had developed a virtual reality training tool for the Federal Emergency Management Administration. Bobby Valentine, a manager who works out of Colorado Springs, Colo., has 14 years' experience in computer modeling and a degree in city planning from California Polytechnic State University. Singerman, the group's business development manager, worked in television production for 25 years.
Though the group gets to work with cutting-edge tech toys, the hours are not particularly attractive. By necessity, the creative group gets involved in the project after URS architects, engineers and planners have completed, or nearly completed, their work. Often the turnaround time on videos that bring those plans to life is short.
"We work nights and weekends all the time," said Coleman, who spends precious free time playing guitar with Singerman in the local classic rock band, Bobby and the Rockets.
"We practice whenever our wives let us," Coleman said.
But he thinks the payoff for his work at URS is worth it.
Recalling the California hospital presentation, he said, "That job took us two weeks for a video that ran 15 minutes. But if URS wins the job, it means 50 people will be employed for five years."
_ Kris Hundley can be reached at hundleysptimes.com or (727)892-2996.
FIXING MALFUNCTION JUNCTION MAGICALLY
For a sample of the computer animation produced by the URS Group's Tampa design office, go to www.mytbi.com, a Web site that tracks work on Tampa Bay area interstates. It's one of about two dozen Internet sites hosted by the engineering giant.
To see a simulation of repair work on the malfunction junction interchange of I-4 and I-275, click on the symbol at the top of the page that shows road signs for those two highways together. Next click on the link under "Active Projects." Then scroll down and click on the link under "Videos."
Another video sampler of the URS Group's work is available at http://www.sptimes.com/visions/.
A photo, left, shows "malfunction junction," the interchange between Interstate 4 and Interstate 275 in Tampa. Above, URS' Creative Imaging Group's computer-generated vision of the reconstructed interchange.