Architecture & Design, Manufacturing, and Technology

CGI firm tells product stories through animation

Much of the work is visuals for products that aren’t even created yet.

June 27, 2014
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CGI Furniture
When working with West Michigan furniture makers, Externa CGI often is called on to create visual marketing materials for products that are still in the design stages. Courtesy Externa CGI

Even West Michigan’s office furniture is getting a digital makeover these days.

Enter Externa CGI, a Wyoming-based company known for specializing in computer-generated animation marketing. Externa CGI, 2675 44th St. SW, creates computer-generated images, or CGI, and animated clips for companies to use for marketing means.

The process of creating entirely CGI-constructed shorts can be time consuming, taking anywhere from two weeks to six months, with costs ranging anywhere from $1,000 to $35,000 depending on the project, said Brian Knapp, Externa CGI’s founder and chief creative officer.

This expert work includes photography replacement for brochures. Externa CGI creates images of furniture and medical devices that look so realistically accurate, you’d think you were looking at a photo, Knapp said.

“It looks just like a photo, but it’s all created on CAD,” he said. “(We spend) a lot of time creating images for products that don’t exist yet.”

Most of the company’s work, about half of which is for Michigan clients, involves medical devices and furniture, although some of Externa CGI’s creations of which Knapp is most proud are its animations. The company uses 3D Studio Max — software used by video game designers and film special-effects wizards — to create animated shorts for clients. 

“We use all the same tech and software they use for (videogames and) movies, but we just do it with a lot less people and budgets. Instead of using it for movies, we’re doing it for advertising,” Knapp said.

One of those animated shorts was a Michigan Works Association training video, which follows the story of an unemployed worker named Pete. Everyone who goes through the workforce development association’s program, Knapp said, now watches that video.

Externa CGI also created a digitalized fly-over of a completely computerized downtown Grand Rapids, a project created in 2012 for The Right Place and Lormax Stern.

“It looks like a flyover in a helicopter, but it’s all digital. We used reference photos from Google Earth and Bing maps,” he said. “We built downtown Grand Rapids in a computer.”

Knapp was fortunate to take computer orientation and programming classes in early grade school, he said. He remembers being inspired with CGI storytelling after watching the first-ever feature-length CGI-animated film, “Toy Story,” which Walt Disney Pictures and Pixar Animation Studios released in 1995.

He earned a BFA in industrial design from Kendall College, where he also served as an adjunct professor of industrial design. He worked as a designer for Haworth and Steelcase before leaving to start Externa CGI out of his basement in 2000. The company now has its own headquarters and uses Ferris State University as its “farm school” for interns.

“I don’t ever want to get too big because then we’d have to create ‘blah’ projects just to turn them out. I want to take our time with projects and make the impressive,” he said. “I don’t ever want to get more than six guys in addition to myself, which I think we’ll hit in the next five years.”

The work Externa CGI creates sometimes looks like something out of a video game or Pixar film, but Knapp was adamant the “Hollywood product” isn’t for him.

“I really don’t want to do movies. We did a marketing piece for ‘Transformers 2’ and a flash piece for ‘Tropic Thunder.’ The entertainment industry is really different and not really my speed,” he said.

Movie magic can already be found in West Michigan, he said.

“There’s tons of products being created in West Michigan that have stories worth telling. We’ve got that Midwestern work ethic without charging Hollywood prices. … This kind of stuff can happen in our backyard.”

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