What happens when the creative teams behind “Finding Nemo,” “Lara Croft Tomb Raider” and “Dragon Ball” close shop for the day? Real estate developers sneak in and pilfer their software.

Well, not really. But the fact is, the same tools that have taken animated movies and computer games to adventurous new heights have found their way into the commercial real estate industry, where they promise to revolutionize many elements of the development process.

Thanks to recent advances in technology, 3-D animation has made it possible for developers to create strikingly accurate three-dimensional renderings of proposed projects, place them in videos of an existing environment, then allow viewers to “move” in, on, around and through virtual models of the projects as if they were in the actual buildings. And all before a spade has touched the ground.

“3-D animation is the missing tool developers have been looking for,” says John Barden, senior vice president of Company 39 Inc., a Denver-based visual communications and information technology firm. “It's a way to get their vision of a project out there for people to see in a way they can really understand. It's the perfect tool to overcome the skeptics and get things done faster.,”

The company recently completed an animation video for Denver-based Continuum Partners LLC. The video depicts the planned transformation of a shopping center in Lakewood, Colo., into Belmar, a mixed-use development that will serve as the city's downtown. Opening in 2004, the 22-block project eventually will have 1,300 homes, 1 million sq. ft. of retail, 850,000 sq. ft. of offices, a 250-room hotel and 9 acres of parks and plazas.

Whether it's winning neighborhood support, obtaining planning approvals, lining up financing, making preconstruction sales, landing tenants or completing designs, proponents say 3-D animation can accomplish the task in less time.

“It's a fascinating time for this market because the software is readily available to do so many things we could barely conceive of a decade ago. Eventually it will completely change the way things are done,” Barden says.

Reaping the Rewards of 3-D

Milwaukee advertising firm Mervis, Bratz & Koziol commissioned a 3.5-minute animation video of a proposed timeshare resort being developed by its parent company, Zilber Ltd., in Coco Beach, Fla.

According to MB&K partner Michael Mervis, the lender set a benchmark of 250 presales to disburse the funding, but the video proved so successful at attracting buyers that 500 timeshare weeks sold in the time it would typically take to sell one-fifth that number. Hitting the benchmark early enabled Zilber to negotiate favorable loan changes and advance more quickly to construction, shaving several million dollars off the cost of development.

Developer Joe Cassidy, president of Joe Cassidy Construction in San Francisco, effusively praises the role an animated video played in helping him find investors and financing and obtain approvals for 555 Fourth St., a 330-unit condominium building now rising in San Francisco's South-of-Market district. With the use of the video, he obtained preliminary planning department approvals in 45 days and lined up financing in only 90 days.

Though it took another year to get final approval from the Board of Supervisors (the local equivalent of a city council), the board ultimately voted 10-0 in favor of the project, a rare occurrence in a city known for its combative politics. Cassidy says the video, produced by Company 39 for $35,000, convinced supervisors the project would not loom over the surrounding neighborhood as its opponents contended.

Recorded on CD, the video shows a model of both the building and its surroundings, complete with whizzing cars, ambling pedestrians and even passing clouds. Viewers see the structure take shape before their eyes, with the frame rising from the vacant lot, exterior cladding applied and finishing touches added, until the image looks more like a photograph than an artist's rendering.

According to Barden, the average person has difficulty translating an ordinary drawing to the real world. But by placing an animated model of a proposed project over live footage of the actual construction site, viewers are better able to visualize the completed project and evaluate its true impact. This, he adds, gives people without design training the sense they are not being fooled by technical drawings they don't understand.

It works the same way with investors and lenders, notes Cassidy. “It's hard for [lenders] to visualize a project without actually seeing it. So when you can show them something like this, they're a lot more receptive.”

Weighing The Costs

The total price tag for an animated package varies widely, depending on such factors as complexity of design, degree of detail and the level of realism. The decision to incorporate real-world footage or add music, background sounds and narration adds further expense.

According to Charles Gaushell, co-founder of Paradigm Productions in Memphis, Tenn., most presentations will likely cost $1,800 to $4,800 per building for 3-D illustrations and anywhere from $5,500 to $30,000 to animate them, though prices can go much higher.

“A warehouse that's just a plain box is fairly simple to do, while something with multiple planes, shifting angles, several different claddings and a lot of ornamentation will cost considerably more,” he explains

While many developers consider such productions too expensive, Gaushell argues that a 3-D rendering on its own is ultimately cheaper than a traditional non-animated rendering, which costs about $4,500 for one view. “Ours might cost a bit more, but we can do a second view for $500, while the traditional guy will charge another $4,500,” he says.

Gaushell adds that costs can also be spread out over several uses. “Once you have the digital files, they can be reused for investors, approvals, financing, marketing, whatever. You can get three or four uses out of these things,” he says, pointing to his firm's reuse of a virtual tour of the proposed Town Center at Palm Coast in Palm Coast, Fla., as the base model for a study on the siting for a new Palm Coast City Hall.

Though a specific plan for the full 114-acre project is not complete, Paradigm turned conceptual sketches of combined retail/residential communities, office complexes and public buildings into a seemingly real environment.

Of course, more elaborate productions can prove quite expensive. For a proposed Florida condominium complex, Alpha Vision Inc., a computer illustration company with offices in Miami, Montreal and Scottsdale, Ariz., created a lengthy exterior and interior tracking shot with life-like detailing, down to Andy Warhol prints on the wall, a working television and personal toiletries in the bathroom. The package cost about $75,000.

Alpha Vision President Marc Lamoureux says his firm produced an animation video of a proposed golf course subdivision on Long Island that ended up costing the developer $250,000. It showed interiors and exteriors of 15 model homes and three clubhouses along with a variety of streetscapes and views.

Most presentations are not nearly so complex, however. In any case, Barden predicts costs will fall as competition increases and equipment and software prices drop. Already, off-the-shelf software originally created for computer game designers and filmmakers has largely replaced proprietary programs.

For most of its work Paradigm uses LightWave, the same software behind the special effects in Star Trek and The Titanic and the animation of Johnny Neutron. A complete LightWave 3-D 7 package runs about $1,500. A competing product, Discreet's 3-D Studio MAX, costs less than $500, while ULead COOL 3-D, which lacks some of the more sophisticated applications but can create a simple 3-D renderings, is available under $50.

According to Barden, the biggest expense comes from labor and the high-end computers needed to run the programs efficiently. He budgets $8,000 to $10,000 per workstation each year (above purchase, administration and operations costs) just to keep the hardware and software current.

And because the work demands a very unique skill set, animators command extremely high salaries. Since few developers or architects have sufficient animation volume to make the investment worthwhile, most jobs must be outsourced to companies that specialize in the field.

Use of Animation Growing

It's difficult to measure developer acceptance of animated renderings, but Barden, Gaushell and Lamoureux all report a steady rise in business. “Initially almost all our clients were from Memphis,” says Gaushell. “Now we work from coast to coast and 50% of our business is from outside the area.”

Mervis says Zilber Ltd. now uses 3-D animation for most of its developments, and Cassidy plans to use it on all future projects. On the other hand, Robert Londeree, a planning and design consultant in Windermere, Fla., who worked on Town Center at Palm Coast, maintains its use is confined mostly to large-scale developments.

“It has to be a fairly good-sized project to justify the upfront expense, though I can't imagine it's not going to become more common. Like all of technology, if there's a high-tech solution, it seems inevitable it will be adopted,” he says.

Bruce Edward Clement, president of Architectural Imaging in San Francisco, also believes the technology has not earned widespread acceptance. Clement, who has worked on projects that range from a freestanding California Pizza Kitchen to a USDA Research Center, says that the majority of clients need only photo-realistic still images. “Most clients want something they can put on a board or in a newsletter. I haven't seen a great demand for animation,” he says.

If there's resistance to 3-D animation, says Barden, it comes largely from architects. “Some architects have completely adopted it, but others see it as something that takes away from their mystique,” he says. “They also don't want to give away fees. Having to farm out project presentation work out means less money for their own firm.”

Issues of self-interest could become a moot point. Barden believes government agencies will soon force developers to adopt 3-D animations because the presentations make it so much easier for ordinary citizens to understand the scope and impact of the project.

“We've been doing animation for transportation engineering for about 12 years,” Barden says. “For the first five years, planners just thought it was cute. Now most public transportation agencies require it. I think the same thing will happen in real estate.”

Proponents acknowledge that certain improvements are needed to make the technology more attractive to developers even without government prodding. Lamoureux, for example, sees a need for greater integration of online resources, especially streaming video, to supplement or replace today's CD presentations.

“The future has to be more portable, more flexible,” agrees Barden. “Instead of coming to our office or waiting for a CD, you'll be able to click on our site and pull up an animation presentation no matter where you are.”

But even without the improvements, developers who have used the technology already are true believers in its value. “It's the best product I've seen in a long time from a communications standpoint,” Cassidy declares. “It can change the whole world of finance for you when people can see exactly what they're getting. I only wish it had been available when I first started developing.”

John McCloud is a San Francisco-based writer.