A picture's worth 10³ words

Portland's ADi ...

by Peggy Aycinena

Is there such a thing as enjoying your work too much? If so, Kate Ertmann may be the worst offender. Not only does she love her work – she’s President of Portland-based ADi – but the stuff her company produces is way too cool to describe in words. So before you read on, check out the ADi website, in particular the Case Studies link ...


Okay. Did you check it out? I’m particularly partial to The Snow Globe, Epic Imaging, and the ADi 2009 New Year Project, a hauntingly abstract journey through the clouds. Clearly ADi is populated by some pretty creative people with superb technical skills.

Ertmann told me, when we spoke recently by phone, “ADi does any type of animation, but we excel in that creative space between story telling and technology – creative but still based on physics and math. We love using animation to explain new technology, demonstrating a concept visually that would otherwise be so much harder to grasp.”

If the folks at ADi like physics and math so much, I asked Kate if her company develops the fundamental algorithms that drive the animations, or if they get them from customers. She said, “We can do both. We can create the geometry of a model based on the data provided and then we apply the shading algorithms to that model or our customers can give us their CAD data – something we call the ‘heavy model’ – and we can lighten it up to more easily move it around in a 3D space.”

Given the complexity of the 3D animation and images produced by the company, it’s not surprising that ADi has a huge render farm. They also have huge range of customers, everyone from Intel to eco-friendly enterprises based locally in Oregon.

“We work with a lot of different types of industries,” Kate said. “We do a ton of work with Intel, for instance. We’ve been helping them for 10 years now, to visualize new processes for their employees or new products for their customers. We can create animations for technologists to communicate with other technologists, or for tech folks to help their sales and marketing people reach a wider audience.

“But we work for other types of industries, as well. For example, attorneys working on patent disputes will hire us to create animated tutorials to help illustrate a technology for a judge or jury. It serves as a way to demonstrate to a layman what people are talking about in a complicated patent case.”

It’s clear why a patent attorney might come to ADi for help, but I didn’t understand why a huge organization like Intel wouldn’t have their own internal capability for producing instructional animations. Kate said, “Yes, it’s more the norm for big companies like Intel to take this work in house. But at ADi, we’re taking the marketing angle on a new product, and narrowing it down to a concise 2-to-3 minute story. It‘s our creative spin, which when added to our technical skills, differentiates us from our customers’ in-house efforts.”

Animating EDA ...

Given her company‘s track record in high-tech, I asked Kate if she could envision a way ADi might provide animation services to the EDA industry. “Absolutely,” she said. “There’s been a lot of work done lately looking at the human factor in technology, particularly how people learn to use technology.

“At ADi, we can take a photo of a real device, or the user interface for a software application, and render it into something that’s far more stylized and far more [appealing and interesting]. We can create an animation of an object or idea, which then serves as a great way for people to learn how to use a technology.

“In fact, now we can take the anthropological and ethnographic research that our client provides to us from their studies in the field, and from that produce an animation that shows not just what the technology is, but the habits and preferences of the users in how they interact with the technology.”

Could ADi produce an animation demonstrating how to use an EDA tool, or a detailed voyage ‘through’ an IC designed with that tool? Again Kate said, “Absolutely, that‘s exactly what we do. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an animation is worth even more. When people learn this way, so much time is saved.”

Kate Ertmann’s been with ADi since the company was founded 14 years, and became President and Executive Producer 10 years ago. She laughed when I asked her what‘s changed in that time: “For starters, one seat of [rendering software] today costs only 25 percent of what it cost us 10 years ago, tools like Maya and 3D Studio Max from Autodesk. Plus, there are so many more people schooled in the technology today. In the early days, we were a small company and everyone did everything. Now we have different groups and distinct skill sets in the company.

“Of course, everybody still knows the process of animation, which is where things start, but writing the script [for a project] is now a very focused skillset. The character animators know how to build the rig [the graphic ‘skeleton’ of a character], and how far to take it depending on the needs of the story. There’s the technical director, the last person to actually ’touch’ the animation with putting the text ures and the lighting in the scene. There are people skilled in hard-surface modeling, and the camera animators who know how to move the camera around in a 3D space.”

Did Kate have all of these skills when she first started with the company? She said no: “I came from film production, but knew there was this whole cool world of animation out there. I thought I could help build a company around it, and timing being everything, it worked! Knock on wood, but things are really going well for us today. We’re branching out nationally – not just working in high-tech, but for an oil company in Atlanta, a creamery in Vermont, a local clean-water initiative here in Oregon.”

Given her enthusiasm and the creativity of the company’s product, don’t be surprised if Kate Ertmann and ADi add EDA to that list someday soon.

June 17, 2009


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