When Anchorage, Alaska-based Evergreen Films agreed to enter a strategic partnership with NANA Development Corp. in September 2010, the independent film production studio saw a strong financial supporter. As the business arm of NANA Regional Corp., one of Alaska’s 13 Regional Native Corporations, NANA represents more than 12,000 Iñupiat shareholders from northwest Alaska and employs more than 9,000 people around the world in industries including mining, oil and gas, engineering and construction, facilities management and logistics. NANA’s global reach, deep talent pool and Alaskan roots would help Evergreen develop a promising new industry in Anchorage.
But Evergreen also saw something else. Among the holdings of the Alaska investment company was WHPacific, a multidisciplinary firm with a quality reputation in engineering, land development, water resources and transportation. The firm also had expertise in surveying and laser scanning. For Evergreen, which had already invested more than $10 million in Alaska to develop a high-tech 3D production and post-production studio, this was an attractive prospect. “Some very innovative people at Evergreen saw an opportunity right off the bat,” says Clay Wygant, project manager of scanning services for WHPacific. “From then on, it’s just been a matter of matching what we know we can do with what they’re trying to achieve.”
The goal is an ever-higher level of realism in visual effects (VFX) and computer-generated imagery (CGI). It’s a target that surveyors with the right skill set can hit dead-on. “The film industry is looking for really detailed surface models,” Wygant says. “The animation gets so critical, and they constantly step up the pace. Things you could have gotten away with five years ago look hokey today. So they’re always trying to improve on the visual effects as they go through a movie. This creates all kinds of opportunities for people who understand where maps and data come from and how to collect data. There’s also a lot of site planning involved, and surveyors offer a tremendous amount of value as location experts.”
Wygant, who has been a surveyor and technology champion for more than two decades, has found a new challenge working in film. Extensive travel, long hours and grueling schedules are typical. Patience is essential; although the film industry is extraordinarily fast-paced, it can take months or even years of diligent effort to earn a place on the team. Communication with a very visual clientele requires a different approach, and the deliverables are much more detailed than what is typically required for design surveys. On the set, multitasking is mandatory; any surveys or scans have to take place quickly and stay tied together under less than ideal conditions.
It’s a challenge that Wygant faces with relish. “You get to work with so many different and interesting people way up at the top level of the project, and you become very integral to the project’s success early on. It has some really dynamic aspects to it,” he says.
Wygant has taken advantage of the opportunity to push technology to its limits. In a single day, his team has had their Optech Lynx Mobile Mapper on four different platforms—a boat, an ATV, a Hummer and a regular road vehicle. They have also taken their FARO Focus3D laser scanner into extreme environments ranging from 15 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit with impressive results. “There’s something to be said for the speed and ease of new technology in aiding this whole process,” Wygant says.
Ultimately, however, it’s about the people—building relationships, gaining trust, fostering a greater sense of understanding, and finding new paths to success. “It’s people thinking outside the box and working together to solve problems and create a more diverse set of work,” Wygant says. “That’s what this is all about.”