Founders Series: Richard Chuang PDI to Cloudpic

In 1987 (perhaps 1988), the Broadcast Designers Association (now Promax) awards and conference was held in Los Angeles. The best part about these shows was the lavish party schedule. Universal would shut down the theme park and bus attendees in, everyone had VIP suites, including Pacific Data Images (PDI). That year Die Hard, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Willow were the Oscar nominees for best visual effects. Digital was appearing in a few shots, such as in Willow, but film effects were not solved with 3D animation. The hub, the cente, the nexus of 3D rendering and animation excellence were TV Station IDs. Network promo teams had the budgets and the short frame count to make 3D animation viable, and no company was better at 3D logos than PDI.

As this author nervously entered what was therefore the coolest party at BDA – the PDI suite party on the 20th plus floor of the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown –  I found some of the world’s smartest and best 3D artists kicking back, drinking beer and talking in an animated fashion about … animation. Center to it all was Carl Rosendahl who, with a loan of $25,000 from his father just a few years before, had founded PDI. Carl Rosendahl was both the coolest guy in the industry and one of the most approachable, relaxed – in short – people just always liked him. He founded PDI with Glenn Entis and a young Richard Chuang. Together, Chuang and Entis wrote the foundation of the in-house computer animation software that was to be used for the next two decades. In fact, Chuang pointed out to fxguide, his renderer has only just been taken out of commission at PDI/Dreamworks. “It was only just retired, it is the longer running piece of software in our Industry, I think” he proudly told fxguide,”PDI only just retired it earlier this year”.

In these early years, companies popped up, burned brightly and then disappeared almost as quickly. Around this very time in 1986, Digital Productions was bought out by Omnibus Computer Graphics, who also took over Robert Abel and Associates and purchased Triple-I’s computer assets. None would survive. Some would become part of Rythm & Hues, Pixar had only the year before been born after splitting from Lucasfilm/ILM. Yet PDI continues to this day. It is now PDI/Dreamworks, but surely one of the greatest achievements of PDI is building a company that has been so successful, lasted and now spanned over 30+ years of great imagery and story telling.

Even when this author got to speak to Chuang and Rosendahl back at the Bonaventure, the aura of a company that had great management and knew technology had spread widely. Most of the companies in this period had rushed to bigger and bigger computers to achieve results that by today’s standards are trivial but back then were monumental. In particular, there was a rush to own the supposed Holy Grail – a CRAY SuperComputer. Digital Productions, the studio founded by John Whitney, Jr. and Gary Demos in 1982 (ex-Triple-I), famously bought a CRAY X-MP with financial support from CDC. Whitney and Demos felt that greater computer power was needed to produce effects such as those being made by Triple-I for Tron.  The company referred to its animation as “Digital Scene Simulation. “When news of this first hit PDI, the company was despondent, recalls Chuang, but then he went away and did some calculation, coming back declaring PDI would be fine even,…- in fact especially if they did not have a CRAY SuperComputer. “I will never forget the day Digital productions announced they had got a CRAY. Initially it was shocking, wow there goes the industry, – they can afford a CRAY – no one will be able to compete, but later that day – I will never forget-  Me, Carl and Glenn sat on the floor,.. discussing that we could never afford a CRAY to compete, but an hour later I did the maths and I came back and said ‘wait a minute – these guys will never last, they cant afford it – if you have any business sense you know the cost/value proposition -and you can calculate that. The return on investment on a CRAY doesnt justify the business we were in.” Of course, he was completely right. PDI’s investment in workstations would become the blueprint for all others to follow.

PDI’s original offices were in Sunnyvale, California in a garage owned by Rosendahl father. PDI moved to its first real offices in 1985. According to Wikipedia, “The growth of the company was financed solely through profit. The company was run as an open book, monthly financial reviews were shared with the entire company and a detailed monthly financial report was released. Money was never taken out of the company which maintained a 7% investment in R&D. PDI was debt-free when acquired by DreamWorks in 2000”, and as noted, this was quite an accomplishment for such a low margin service business as vfx and animation.

PDI would go on to continue to just run a really good company that grew and yet remained stable with a steady budget of R&D all with managed growth. “We are very proud of that,” comments Chuang, “we were not a flashy company by any means, but we nurtured a great group of talented people.” Chuang was very influential in this thinking inside PDI right up until he left DreamWorks. “I came from a family of entrepreneurs, my mum started a business very early on when I was a child and I learned from her this business is about people, forget the technology, forget everything else – if you don’t focus on valuing your people you are not going to be successful.” Chuang is known for his great technical contributions to our industry, but he actually started as an artist, as a painter. He has always therefore been a wonderful bridge between the technical and creative teams around him.

Richard Chuang (2010)

Today he is founder of Cloudpic, a collaborative creative web company based in Singapore. After 28 years working at PDI, Chuang ended up as a production executive at Dreamworks. Asia really appealed to Chuang. When it came time for Dreamworks to expand overseas to tap into a global talent pool, he convinced Jeffrey Katzenberg that Dreamworks should work in Asia, and do so by not exporting an American approach, not telling Asia how to function. He set up first an animation studio in Hong Kong.

At the time he left PDI/Dreamworks the company had grown to almost 2000 people. In 2007, Disney approached Chuang to help build ImageMovers Digital, but Chuang decided to not start down the path of building a new, second large studio. Instead he wanted to tap into the global talent pool he had globally started to discover and work with. Cloudpic is the start of that solution. Cloudpic tries to address many of the issues artists face today and is very much a growing concern. Right now it has a beta collaboration tool, somewhat like a “creative animation Dropbox” but makes most of its money from consulting. The first version of Cloudpic was trashed – after Chuang sat with artists testing the software and decided it was too hard to use and failed to have “a strong artist perspective”. Today they are well on the way to Cloudpic mark II –  which he wants to be free to many artists. Chaung will discuss Cloudpic and his views on the global market next month at SIGGRAPH Asia 2012 in Singapore.

The story of Richard Chuang is one of amazing dedication, technical excellence and the sort of deep rooted good management that surely we could all use more of in today’s tough environment.

One of the very first images Richard ever produced

Chuang was a microprocessor geek, by his own admission. He was there in Silicon Valley when Steve Jobs first showed the Apple II, he built his first computer in 1976 – he lived and to an extent still does as a microprocessor uber geek. But while others only saw computers as an end in themselves, he saw it as a way to tell stories and make art. Chuang got interested in computer graphics from Ed Catmull. In 1979 Chuang worked in the RF Lab at HP in Northern California. At that time HP had an education program that included a direct microwave feed of live lectures being given over at UC Berkley. Ed Catmull at that time taught at Berkley so Chuang got to watch him live while working in the RF lab as a hardware engineer. Catmull offered a solution to Chuang – who was also an artist but someone who is actually allergic to turpentine. Computer Graphics offered his art without the allergies and it combined so neatly with his love of microprocessors. Even though of course Catmull was completely unaware of who was watching at HP or of Chuang himself, Chuang got into computer graphics completely because of him. A few years later Chuang appeared at Siggraph with his first picture from his newly written render. When he saw Ed Catmull in the hotel lobby of the Boston Siggraph, “I’ll never forget this…I saw Ed Catmull in the hallway of the hotel, and I was a nobody back then, but I had written my first renderer and I brought my picture on a polaroid and stopped Ed, and he gave me half an hour of his time (on the one picture), giving me his critique!”, Chuang explains proudly. “That to me was the same philosophy that I carried forward my whole life, no matter what position I am at, it is always my job to help someone else get better at what they do. That Ed helped me is something that I will always remember”.

It was 1981 that Chuang first met Rosendahl. The year before in 1980 Chuang had become president of the IEEE Microprocessor user group, and as luck would have it Rosendahl became head of the special interest group on Graphics, “so once in a while we had these IEEE meetings where we would get everyone together and talk about the issues. And I met him and I was very intrigued that he had family money and he wanted to start a graphics business. And after taking that class from Ed, when Carl started to do his business he really needed to set up his equipment but he didn’t know how, so he asked me to help him,” recalls Chuang. “He wasn’t interested in hiring me at this point as I had no background in graphics but I said, ‘Hey I love to make pictures, and since you can afford to buy a framebuffer (something very expensive and rare back then) I will help you set up the equipment in exchange for time on your equipment so I can make some pictures”.

From bartering his time for machine time Chuang would go on to become a foundering member of PDI and one of the most influential technology CTO’s of our industry. It is hard today to understand how rare and how hard it was to even have access to machines to make graphics. As fxguide reported in our other Founders series articles, access to a framebuffer at this time drove the careers of many of the industry greats, such as Jim Blinn, Alvy Ray Smith and others. Chuang was no different, the chance to use Rosendahl’s hardware was so incredible he dropped out of university to take take advantage of the opportunity.  At university it took Chuang “15 minutes to transpose a 256×256 pixel image – something that you don’t even think about today, back then was painfully slow. So when I got involved with Carl and got my hands on a real 24bit framebuffer, it was a dream come true – I could make suddenly full color images!”. The two became good friends.

Glenn Entis joined next, he came with a paint background from AMPEX (which had one of the first and only commercial paint systems with the AVA). He then went to HP working on Graphics. “He came from a very strong graphics background, he also had a Master degree in Philosophy, but he had a very strong graphics experience, in many ways the three of us complemented each other very well. I had no ability to promote anything – I was a backroom guy working my buns off making pictures, and Carl was excellent in presenting a clear vision to the world and Glenn had great graphics experience”.

The original 3 founders – Carl, Richard & Glenn with the PDP-11

PDI would start with a PDP-11 Unix, 16 bit machine, it would soon move to workstations and general purpose workstations hardware. A really key move – completely influenced by Chuang’s microprocessor love. He knew that this style of computer would work best for our industry, a point that remained true until today and perhaps the birth of cloud computing. But as stated earlier loads of smaller microprocessor machines – workstations – was not the completely obvious solution it seems today, back then microprocessors were not taken seriously and not unlike the Rebel Mac unit later at ILM – people who suggested going with off the self hardware on every artist’s desk were the exception not the rule.

And so PDI would grow in size, influence and creative reach. First came a domination of computer graphics with On Air Promos. “Most of us were single at that point – so we used to like to go into bars on Monday night at 9pm and impress all the girls! Because exactly at 9pm we could say that our work was on. It was on exactly at 9pm on ABC, CBS, NBC, HBO, VHS1, MTV, Cinemax across the board our graphics were on every major cable station and broadcast network”. While the company was hugely successful, the team decided to step away from Station IDs, something Chuang sees now a defining decision, “the reason we lasted so long was that we were not afraid to give up a successful business and move on to something new”.

After that they moved to TVC commercials, and music videos. The team broke new ground after new ground, their Michael Jackson “Black or White” morphing video had a huge impact, almost seismic impact on the advertising effects market. “That was a very fun time, a lot of the technique for that came out when we were bidding on the original Abyss project. We did not get that – they studio thought if this thing fails – then PDI can not afford to cover their arse vs ILM had George (Lucas) behind them. So we ended up taking a lot of the stuff from that and using it on the Michael Jackson project. They were fun. I think Michael had a very open mind to new ideas and new visions and our team really came through, some of that work even stands up very well today”, he recalls. “I remember the team that worked on that – and they were so keen to work on it and their passion clearly shows in the result”.

They were one of the first to move into character animation, as a deliberate step towards being able to tell longer stories. Their work with the commercials on the first Pillsbury Doughboy created in CG lifted the bar again on what was understood to be possible with computer graphics.  Pillsbury was the first company to move an established icon to CG. Before this, all previous animated commercials were done with stop-motion. “That was the first time a major icon was switched to computer graphics and it was a very difficult process to be honest, they were not sure it was even possible, they had these amazing hand crafted models – in key poses,  the guys almost came in with a lock box of these key poses. If we did not meet or exceed their expectations we would not have gotten that job”.

The team pushed the technological envelope as much as the creative, they produced the world’s first Global Illumination commercial for a product in Japan. “We did this dinosaur skeleton which goes to sleep in a Museum – one of our animators just said – ‘hey this sounds cool’ and he just tried it. He just wrote it up himself and we said ‘ok let’s try it’ – risk taking that is the fun part of the job”.

As time went on the company did a huge range of television such as the CG Homer and Bart Simpson for the 1995 The Simpsons Halloween episode “Homer3”, (complete with a host of 3D gags and insider nods to the Siggraph community). “That was trilling, so many of us at that time were fans of Homer Simpson, we were like a bunch of kids, a chance to do a digital Homer- we just happened to be in the right place at the right time”.

The Early PDI team in California, (Richard Chaung Top centre)

Before fully animated features, PDI spent “many years just trying to convince people” to digitize film for digital film effects. It took “many years to convince people it was OK to put a film onto a digital format and then back on film, so we ended up building our own film scanner – most people don’t remember that. We built our own film scanner to convince people early on”. (PDI would later win a SciTech Oscar for this work). PDI tried to make all their visual effects and the fully CG character animation work support and help each other with mutual R&D. “I was supervising all the early work we did with digital humans. I think I did, from what I can tell, some of the earliest digital human work done in Hollywood, in some of the early Batman work, they were challenging problems and we learnt a lot”.

While the company did visual effects, it was fully animated films that seemed the final direction for the company. In fact, PDI very nearly beat Pixar to the cinema with a full animated feature with an animated film for Jim Henson. “If Jim had not passed away we probably would’ve beaten Pixar out with a CG film – by quite some time”. But in the end PDI connected with DreamWorks SKG and in 1995 made the movie Antz. At this time DreamWorks purchased a 40% share of PDI. “We did not have the funding that Steve (Jobs) gave the Pixar group but we were leading the charge on character animation”, he recalls. Chuang knew Jobs well – he was on the NeXT computer advisory board – even while he was at PDI. Around the time Antz came out, Pixar had their second feature A Bugs Life with a similar ant sized subject matter. “Steve invited me to the premiere of A Bugs Life and he still wasn’t happy, and he was very vocal about it, and after I learnt about all the politics of it, well we did the best we could, and we were proud of what we accomplished”.

Chuang’s role in the new PDI/Dreamworks was quite separate from the Dreamworks side of the company. “It was all very exciting but also very scary, I still remember the day when Production Management came to my office and said ‘Hey Richard I think we all realize we have no idea how this (a fully animated feature) will be done!”, he laughingly recalls, “We stopped work and went in a room and said – look none of us have ever done this before but this is how we are going to do it and a lot of the producers still remember the day I walked everyone in that room through the steps. Start here – end here – we are going to make it – now go back to work! I don’t think anyone will forget that experience – it was a learning experience and a shared experience for all of us”.

Glenn Entis left PDI for the game industry in 1995, first joining DreamWorks Interactive as CEO. When Electronic Arts purchased DreamWorks Interactive, he moved to their Vancouver office to set up their next-generation games research group. Carl Rosendahl sold his shares in PDI and is now an Associate Professor, Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University, and still involved in the industry through the VES, Siggraph and other bodies. On Thursday, September 27th, 2012, he received the Visual Effects Society’s Founders Award. (Rosendahl was a founding board member of the VES in 1995 and served as the Chair of the Society’s Board of Directors from 2004 through 2006).

Shrek would follow and Dreamworks PDI would become one of the most successful 3D animation studios in the world.  PDI/DreamWorks has produced many box-office hits with Antz (1998), Shrek (2001), Shrek 2 (2004), Madagascar (2005), Shrek the Third (2007) and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa (2008) and more. With about US$445 million in box-office ticket sales, Shrek 2 is currently the second highest grossing animated film of all time and the highest grossing animated films of all-time in the USA. PDI won their first Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film for Shrek in 2002. Technically PDI/DreamWorks has won four Scientific and Technical Academy Awards. The first was awarded to Les Dittert, along with others, in 1994 for work in the area of film scanning. The second was awarded to Carl Rosendahl, Richard Chuang and Glenn Entis in 1997 for the concept and architecture of the PDI animation system. This award in particular recognized their pioneering work in computer animation dating back to the founding of PDI all those years earlier.

Richard today

Chaung is now running Cloudpic but he remains perhaps most proud of the amazing talent PDI fostered and the huge success the various team members of PDI have gone on to achieve both inside Dreamworks and outside.


To hear more about Richard’s thoughts on success today, VFX and on the Net – plus more on his family history that got him to where he is today – listen to our fxpodcast here at fxguide.