Source: Baton Rouge Business Report
When DreamWorks Animation SKG created the 2001 movie Shrek, it took the computing power of 300 processors. In other words, it took a supercomputer. Computers large enough, powerful enough and expensive enough to produce that kind of film are usually located where these feats of digital magic are made, like in Silicon Valley, in Orlando and in Baton Rouge.
No, really. In Baton Rouge.
The Capitol Region’s supercomputer is actually more powerful than the massive processors used to power the creation behind the giant green ogre that captivated children across the world—it is comprised of 1,000 processors. Yet, SuperMike, as the computer is so dubbed, isn’t just sitting on LSU’s campus taking up space. It is a part of a burgeoning digital media initiative that is serving as a catalyst to drive economic development in the Capital Region.
The task of bringing digital media companies such as EA Sports, which in August announced it would open a quality-assurance testing facility in Baton Rouge, has been under way for several years. EA Sports is merely a fraction of what is still to come, according to the Baton Rouge Area Digital Industries Consortium. The goal is much larger: It is the creation of a “digital city.”
In order to bring the picture into focus, it helps to look at Baton Rouge’s digital history. Most of the state’s technology ambitions were driven by former Gov. Mike Foster’s administration from 1996-2004. Early on, Foster commissioned a study to determine the driving factors of economic development of the state’s future. One of the things the administration identified was the need to infuse the state’s educational institutions with technologies funding.
Mark Drennen, Foster’s appointee to Commissioner of Administration, explains that “you’ve got to know where you want to be and you’ve got to measure your progress along the way.” In order to do that, the Vision 2020 plan [drafted from the study’s results] identified where funding would be needed and how it should be allocated. “In 1999, the official document was adopted by the Legislature and we, the administration, used that to guide our budgeting of core initiatives, research, biosciences and IT,” says Drennen, now vice president of Cornerstone Government Affairs.
Interest and funding for technology advancement at the state level continued into Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s administration with a $40 million commitment over a 10-year period for a fiber-optic network to connect supercomputers throughout the state, the Louisiana Optical Network Initiative.
Each of the long-term investments made by Foster and Blanco gave a boost to the state’s—and particularly Baton Rouge’s—capacity for advanced technology growth. Neither members of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s staff nor Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret’s office responded to interview requests.
What really set the stage for digital media growth in Baton Rouge was the initiation by CCT staff member Stacey Simmons of the Red Stick Animation Festival. “We started the animation festival with the intention of it being an economic development engine,” Simmons says.
Simmons and others involved in the animation festival took their cues from a similar festival in Middlesbrough, England. “When we got this all started,” Simmons says, “we went looking for someone to emulate. But there weren’t any animation festivals to speak of in the United States. So we found the one in England that was doing everything we wanted to do.” That example was the University of Teesside in Middlesbrough and its Animex International Festival of Animation & Computer Games.
“It had the model we wanted to emulate, which was a small town, university town, trying to do economic development for their area. And when we got there it was really weird, because not only was it the same as we were trying to do, but the town itself was so similar,” Simmons says with an air of amazement.
“You get off the plane, drive into Middlesbrough, across a bridge over a river and it is all petrochemical. And you think to yourself, I’ve traveled for 22 hours to be in exactly the same place I left. Now you’ve got my attention.”
Simmons and the CCT team worked together to draw lessons from Middlesbrough, the university and Animex. The similarities are undeniable between the two cities and their digital media ventures. The University of Teesside also has a CCT, and its economic development project also is called the DigitalCity Initiative.
Chris Williams of Animex explains the driving factors for the festival’s creation and the DigitalCity initiative in terms that translate well to Baton Rouge’s current economic state.
“With the decline of the traditional industries in our region, there was a view that if we could retain our graduates and at the same time attract key businesses into the region, we could perhaps create a new identity for the town and the region as a whole,” Williams says, echoing sentiments often heard in Baton Rouge.
There can be no doubt that LSU’s commitment to the digital media industry and the economic development goals of Baton Rouge are a catalyst for growth of the region and the newfound relationship between the city and EA Sports.
Brooks Keel, vice chancellor for research and economic development at LSU, is energized by the future of digital media growth in Baton Rouge. He says the university’s new hiring initiative, AVATAR [Arts, Visualization, Advanced Technologies and Research], will take Baton Rouge to the next level of “cutting edge.” The multidisciplinary hiring initiative focuses on bringing in industry leaders to teach and guide a program, which will focus on computer graphics, interactive systems, digital art and design and computer music.
“It’s a really exciting program,” Keel says. “Essentially, a student comes in. He or she will take a core group of classes, some art, some computer and some music. After a while, you can go in a number of different directions. But when these folks graduate, they’ll have the basic skills that EA Sports wants and more area-specific skills.”
LSU knows that EA Sports will want these kinds of graduates, because EA and other industry leaders like DreamWorks SKG helped the LSU faculty, Simmons, Keel and CCT perfect the curricula at the Digital Media Education Forum last fall. “We had the opportunity to talk to some global leaders,” Simmons says. “They looked at our proposed curricula and said, ‘Yeah, we’ll give it our blessing.’”
The program is another similarity to the University of Teesside. It will serve as a breeding ground for digital media professionals. And LSU is already working the phones to attract some of the biggest names in the industry. “We are really sitting back, looking to the country to say, ‘Who is the absolute best?’” Keel says. “If money was no option, whom could we plug into LSU? And we’re calling those people just trying to get them to come visit.”
Building a city
All of these efforts are being organized, in large part, by the Baton Rouge Area Digital Industries Consortium [BRADIC]. Keel, Mayor-President Kip Holden, Baton Rouge Area Foundation President/CEO John Davies and BRAF Executive Vice President John Spain are involved with the consortium. Simmons serves as its executive director. And other big names from the Capitol Region are involved, including Moret and BRAC President Adam Knapp.
A massive effort has been undertaken by city and university leadership to push through economic incentives and individual relationships with digital media companies in order to sweeten the deal for digital industry business in Baton Rouge.
But EA Sports is not the end goal for BRADIC. The big picture is the creation of what Keel calls a “Center for Digital Innovation.”
The idea centers around utilizing the empty space left on LSU’s South Campus [formerly occupied by Albemarle] to build a professional campus. At the present time, EA Sports is slated to occupy the space, but not for long if Keel has his way. “My vision of this is what I’m calling the Center for Digital Innovation. It has one building in which you have all of computer science. You have all of electrical engineering, CCT and the AVATAR initiative. And then, right in the middle, you have a Starbucks,” he says. “That’s probably the most important part. And I’m as serious as a heart attack.”
The concept is simple: gather together all of the LSU educational programs that will produce students to work in the digital industry, house their classes right next to EA Sports and other video game, advanced technologies and industry companies and let the two sectors work together to produce the next generation of technology and digital humanities.
Decoding the project
At its very core, the digital-industry growth pattern occurring in Baton Rouge is that of an industry cluster. Numerous examples can be found throughout North America. The most prominent of those is Research Triangle Park between Durham and Raleigh, N.C. RTP established the primary facets of industry-cluster development from a primarily research and biomedical standpoint. It draws on the student production from the University of North Carolina, Duke University and North Carolina State University, all within a short drive.
Major companies have “campuses” comprised of not only their headquarters, but facilities that help support their endeavors. Infamous for fostering the growth of industry leaders such as IBM, Research Triangle Park is the classic example of an industry cluster.
The digital-industry cluster as envisioned by LSU, Baton Rouge and BRADIC has one primary difference: It is a part of technology sector that moves at much faster rate. “Originally, we were thinking a five-year timeline,” Keel says, “not a five-month horizon” for landing EA Sports. “Now we have to reassess our whole timeline.”
It is a digital industry development schedule that has a large impact on how quickly decisions are made and ultimately how quickly a digital media cluster could develop in Baton Rouge. A production cycle for something such as a video game is two years. That includes concept, creation and testing.
But no matter how quickly the industry works, the sheer organization and cooperation throughout all levels of government and nongovernment participation could be the real reason for such rapid success. “I really believe it is the alignment of the stars,” Keel says. “I have never seen a chamber of commerce more active. I guess we all drank the Kool-Aid. So as much as there are stumbling blocks, we’ve all worked together.”
That sentiment is echoed by Simmons. “LSU, the mayor’s office and the chamber—those three groups are so visionary and progressive,” she says. “I was completely floored and so impressed with the get-it-done attitude. It has been so encouraging and inspiring. It may have been my vision, but they made it happen.”
The real test for Simmons, Keel and BRADIC will be whether EA Sports was the beginning or the end of major digital media companies setting up shop in Baton Rouge. Simmons and others are incredibly confident that more is to come.
“In five years’ time, we’ll have a number of players here,” she says. “They won’t just be legitimate players, but critical players, whether they have developers’ studios here or quality assurance. These guys are fully committed. They have the vision to make sure this happens. So we’re pushing the envelope on what people think is possible.”
Holden is equally encouraging. “I would venture to say that you will see a number of major transitions in regards to the whole process within the next three years.”