800 Bond now post-production studio Digital Design Village

September 13, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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Digital Design Village has opened at 800 Bond St. NW as a digital imaging studio to serve the rapidly growing filmmaking industry in Michigan, according to its CEO and founder, Arnie Jones.

Jones has signed a partnership agreement with the San Rafael, Calif.-based Kerner Group to offer local resources for film production, special practical effects production and post production, using the Kerner Group’s expertise and technologies.

The Kerner Group, according to Jones, was formerly the physical effects division of Industrial Light and Magic, a special effects firm owned by moviemaker George Lucas. Kerner specializes in special practical effects and 3D technologies.

Jones has worked in Grand Rapids for 25 years, providing video and still photography images to clients ranging from local corporations to nonprofit organizations such as Grand Rapids Public Museum.

Digital Design Village will be housed in the historic electricity substation building. Along with digital post production and media services, the new company, in affiliation with The Kerner Group, will offer the same degree of special effects “magic” as ILM, according to Jones.

The Kerner Group has contributed to such movies as "Avatar,” "Jurassic Park,” "Transformers II,” "Star Trek,” "Indiana Jones,” "Pirates of the Caribbean” and others, including the original "Star Wars” trilogy, according to a press release from Jones.

Digital Design Village will employ a core staff of digital and effects producers to work directly with the California-based Kerner team. In addition, it will collaborate with local businesses, universities and colleges to develop a local work force and infrastructure to meet the creative standards set by the motion picture industry

"It has long been known that Michigan needed a more prominent film infrastructure," said Jones. “Our formation, and our agreement with The Kerner Group, will set the stage not only for this helpful infrastructure for filmmakers, but also for our team to work with the legendary staff at Kerner."

“I’ve been in the market for a long time and I know the talent base here,” said Jones.

Jones said that after the passage of movie industry incentives in Michigan in April 2008, he began to develop a film industry service that didn’t currently exist in the state. He also decided to seek a partnership with a well-known film industry company to help attract clients from among the producers coming to Michigan in response to the incentives.

“I saw so many opportunities that I decided to take a look and dig into it,” said Jones.

Jones said the formation of Digital Design Village began in earnest about a year ago. The skill sets he sought to incorporate fall into three technical categories: optical technology, practical special effects and digital effects.

Regarding optical technology, Jones said Kerner is “a world-class expert on 3D filmmaking. They developed the cameras for Star Wars.” He said Kerner has its own 3D digital cameras, which he jokingly described with Hollywood flair as “big medicine.”

Practical special effects involve intricate miniatures and models of buildings and other things that typically end up being destroyed on screen. However, there are other applications for practical special effects outside of the movie industry, noted Jones, such as government uses for miniatures/models in planning and research.

Digital effects are the computerized images that are a mainstay of films such as “Avatar.” The actors wore high-tech suits with “data points” that enabled a computer program to track every movement of the actors and “re-skin them with alien bodies.”

Jones said the team working out of Digital Design Village would include local technicians and artists, where possible, with supplemental staff from elsewhere as needed.

Although it will be several weeks before the Bond Street facility is fully prepared, he indicated one potential film production is in the pipeline.

The movie industry incentives have been the focus of controversy in Michigan politics, with some opponents claiming they are too generous. Up to 42 percent of some production costs can be rebated in the form of refundable Michigan business tax credits. Jones said he knows that the movie industry incentives in Michigan will end some day.

“Am I worried about the incentives? Of course. Am I worried about dying? Of course. It’s going to happen sooner or later. But meanwhile, there’s a really nice opportunity, and producers are here and they’re working, and I think that will be the case for the foreseeable future,” said Jones.

Jones said there are no plans on his part at this time to apply for the state’s movie industry infrastructure investment tax credit.

Jones noted that Vancouver, B.C., “enjoys a $1.6 billion motion picture industry, and that was built partly because the (province) supported the film industry — gave it a good toehold and let it develop.”

Louisiana, he added, is three or four years ahead of Michigan in movie-making, because it began its incentives earlier. That state’s “thriving motion picture industry” has resulted in production of such high-tech films as “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” he said, “because the industry there had developed to the point where it could support lots of special effects.”

Corporate video productions began to decline in West Michigan as the state’s economy began noticeably slowing down around 2001. Jones confirmed that his business was one of those that experienced a decline in assignments from office furniture companies in the region over the last several years.

“I think that comes and goes,” he said, adding that even now, there is still some corporate work circulating in the region.

However, Jones said he believes there are new opportunities on the horizon for studios in the region that develop expertise working with the feature film industry. He said some of the technologies being developed now, such as 3D imaging, “have applications in the medical world.”

The new film technologies could be an important tool for most types of business, he said, although he feels that “it’s not fully understood by manufacturing folks,” compared to management in other fields.

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