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Biz boots up with a PC maverick

Compaq woos H'wood in tech trenches

Against such heavyweights as Sun Microsystems and Silcon Graphics, Houston-based Compaq may not look like much of a Hollywood player. But the computer maker is on a stealth mission to elbow aside its ensconced rivals for a bigger piece of the showbiz pie.

Evidence of that was abundant at last week’s Siggraph, the computer graphics industry’s annual confab.

The manufacturer, known largely for its low-cost consumer and business computers, had only a tiny booth on the L.A. Convention Center floor, overshadowed by mammoth displays for Avid editing machines, Barco projectors, Discreet Logic f/x software and nearly every special f/x house in the biz. But that’s the way Compaq likes it — after all, its battlefield is in Hollywood’s post-production and f/x suites, away from the spotlight.

“We call what we’ve done guerrilla marketing,” says Steve Briggs, who oversees high-performance computing for Compaq in the entertainment industry. “Hollywood is about relationships. It’s about making yourself credible. If you do people wrong, they remember. If you do people right, they remember that, too. After all, this is a good-ol’-boy network. Everyone knows everyone.”

So far the strategy is paying off.

From its handheld iPaq to its room-filling supercomputers, Compaq has become a major supplier of hardware for everyone from small software makers to post-production houses and even the desktops of the major studios.

But its road to power player began along an unlikely path: It gave its hardware away, loaning equipment to f/x facilities such as Mass.Illusion (which evolved into Manex), Santa Barbara Studios and Blue Sky Studios to create and render sequences for films including “An American Werewolf in Paris,” “Spawn” and the animated short “Bunny.”

“But that’s where we learned if you loan it, you get your name in the credits,” Briggs says. “Getting credits at the end of a movie means you gave something away for free. … We’ll take the sales over the blah blah blah.”

Those sales came as word of mouth spread over the capabilities of Compaq’s fast AlphaServers, which render computer-generated sequences three times faster than rival computers and reduce production costs.

F/x powerhouse Digital Domain became Compaq’s proving ground, using Compaq systems to create hundreds of f/x shots for “Titanic,” including all of its digital water renderings.

Since then, Compaq has inked major partnerships with the American Film Institute, Yahoo and Walt Disney World.

Last year, it inked a three-year alliance with the Walt Disney Internet Group that named Compaq as the preferred technology prover for the Mouse House’s family of Web sites, including Disney.com, ESPN.com and ABC.com and ABCNews.com, among others.

It most recently inked an $11.5 million deal to provide the computing power to create Blue Sky Studios and Fox’s upcoming computer-animated feature “Ice Age.” This past spring, InternetStudios used Compaq’s iPAQ Pocket PCs to show movie trailers and other promo material to distributors and producers at the Cannes Intl. Film Festival.

And, too, Compaq views Hollywood as a cutting-edge test range.

“Hollywood doesn’t respect itself enough,” Briggs says. “Effects houses are three to five years ahead of our other customers. They’ve had the problems of media asset management for decades. They crank out huge quantities of data. (Hollywood) machines run all day, everyday for years at a time.

“If you’re going to do images, you’re going to have processing flow problems. You have to understand the issues you’re going face. Hollywood provides that for us. It’s like we get to see the future and whether it works. It gives you a leg up on your competitors.”

Briggs says that with pics like “Shrek” scoring big B.O. and “Final Fantasy” generating buzz among the digerati, the demand for more powerful machines to generate realistic computer-generated hair, fur, smoke, cloth, fire and water will only increase.

“Hollywood keeps raising the bar, and we keep being forced to improve our technology to meet that bar,” Briggs says.

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