SAN LEANDRO -- Tracy McSheery is hatching a plan to turn Hollywood upside-down from a warren of rooms tucked away on the second story of what was once a hulking Chrysler plant off Interstate 880.
It's an odd setting for an even stranger narrative. McSheery says he can make feature films for pennies on the dollar by creating digital prototypes of films and aggressively crowd sourcing them before spending the big bucks on big-name actors and fancy sets and locations. And he is going to prove the concept with the release next year of a $2 million feature-length animated film, "Tower of the Dragon."
"In any other industry," McSheery says, you have this exact same process: Plan, plan, plan. Prototype. Revise. Execute. This is not brain surgery."
McSheery, a 53-year-old mechanical engineer and physicist, has some strong feelings about movies and those who make them. But what drew me to his PhaseSpace studio -- which sits in a retail, office and R&D complex featuring a Home Depot, a Walmart and a Sports Authority -- wasn't so much his specific plan, but his general idea of using technology to change the way business is done.
McSheery and people who think like him are the reason so many in Silicon Valley kill themselves every day to get the next new thing out the door. He's the user for which the newest interface is designed. He's the early adopter who is going to put engineers' work to the test while spotting both the brilliance and the flaws in the design.
To understand what I mean, take a little tour with McSheery of the studio he uses to create the motion-capture videos that are key to his new movie and his prototyping philosophy. Yes, he talks with passion about his movie's story: reading and books in a medieval village have been outlawed and it's up to a child to change the law. There is plenty of singing and dancing and a fire-breathing dragon.
But where McSheery really lights up is when he talks about the technology that makes even considering his scheme possible. First there is the elaborate motion-capture camera system that his company sells and that he uses to record real people running, jumping, fighting, dancing, talking, etc., from multiple angles simultaneously. Those images are translated into realistic, raw computer images, which are then transformed by digital artists into characters of any shape or size. (Even dragons.)
The process is fueled by high-speed graphics chips from Nvidia and sophisticated design software from Autodesk. He works with a director from Massachusetts, a choreographer from New York and a music composer from Los Angeles. All of them frequently visit San Leandro via a Beam telepresence robot, conferring with actors and production workers.
He's planning to improve the Beam experience and considerably upgrade his ability to share video with far-flung partners when San Leandro's fiber-optic broadband project is up and running in PhaseSpace's neighborhood in the next month or so. (Fiber provider Lit San Leandro says its fiber is capable of moving data at up to 2,000 times faster than the average Internet connection.)
McSheery even turned to crowd funding site Kickstarter to raise some of his seed money before he decided that the upside (he was trying to raise $50,000) wasn't worth the work cultivating the Kickstarter community and giving Kickstarter its cut of the money raised. Kickstarter takes 5 percent of the total and Amazon charges 3 to 5 percent more to process payments.
So, McSheery killed his Kickstarter campaign in favor of a variation. He's going to ask Silicon Valley companies to sponsor a piece of the project in return for a mention in the film's credits. (Hey, if you're going to try something new, you might as well go all out.)
"All these things are done," McSheery says, "to show we can do the impossible."
Particularly, they're done to show Hollywood what can be accomplished, McSheery says. If the big studios followed his lead, he says, they could prototype big budget films before laying out the big bucks. First, hire a few low-budget actors to run through scenes while being recorded with his motion-capture system. Digital artists could create computer replicas of sets and locations. The B-list actors' motion-capture work could be inserted into the digital scenes and directors and producers could try out dialogue, gags, even lighting, to decide what works and what doesn't. No need to have marque actors who make 10 times as much work through all the preliminaries while renting expensive locations or building expensive sets. Once the prototype film looks good, then bring in the blockbuster actors, McSheery says, and pay them for far fewer days' work.
The point here is not whether McSheery's strategy would work. It's that the possibility for him to try it exists. His experiment is the classic example of disruption -- the kind of disruption that technology has accelerated in ways that previous generations couldn't even imagine. It's the kind of disruption that is not confined to moviemaking, but which applies to almost any business in any industry. If there is a set way of doing things, chances are there is a whole new way of doing them better or cheaper.
And chances are there is someone like McSheery sitting somewhere right now trying to figure it out.