Bee Movie creates telepresence buzz

When the animated film “Bee Movie” opens Nov. 2, those who stick around for the credits will see HP’s name scroll past following star Jerry Seinfeld’s.

DreamWorks Animation used an HP Halo high-end video system to produce the movie on two coasts simultaneously without anyone ever having to get on a plane.

A telepresence system, such as those available from HP, Cisco, Polycom and other companies, sends a high-definition video signal across a network between two locations that are miles, or even hemispheres, apart. Screens on each end show a life-size sharp image of the participants at the other location, making it look as though everyone is in the same room.

With DreamWorks in Glendale, Calif., but director, producer and star Seinfeld preferring to stay in New York City, the decision was made to give telepresence a role in the picture, says Manny Francisco, director of virtual studio collaboration and the Halo program at DreamWorks.

Clips of the film were played on the system so Seinfeld and others could critique the animation, the gestures and facial expressions of characters and other factors. Seinfeld also delivered the lines of his character, Barry B. Benson, via telepresence.

“The only reason we can get Jerry to make a movie here in Glendale, when in reality he lives in New York, is through a conferencing system such as this,” Francisco says. DreamWorks co-developed the Halo system with HP when the film “Shrek 2” was being made and DreamWorks wanted to gather animators and others from Glendale and Redwood City, Calif., and Bristol, England. Telepresence makes better use of workers’ time because they travel less, he says. “They get part of their lives back.”

Although they are expensive, one of the chief selling points of telepresence systems is that they reduce the cost and hassle of traveling great distances just to attend a meeting, says Nora Freedman, an analyst at IDC.

“You don’t arrive at the meeting, tired, frustrated or jet-lagged,” Freedman says.

It also helps DreamWorks meet its goal of releasing two animated films a year. “Now we have more time to perfect the movie that we want to create,” Francisco says.

HP introduced Halo in December 2005 and this week unveiled upgrades aimed at making the technology more accessible to corporate customers.

The original Halo system calls for a US$349,000 telepresence studio at one location and another $349,000 studio elsewhere that looks like a mirror image of the first. A proprietary network for sending the video signal is $18,000 per month, per studio.

The more modest version HP unveiled this week provides high-quality video but makes it work in existing offices or conference rooms, rather than a specially made studio, for $249,000 per system.