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Saturday, August 16, 2003
Vancouver's Richard Trus's new computer program is going to revolutionize how movies get made, and make him a very rich man in the process, MICHAEL POSNER reports
MICHAEL POSNER
Richard Trus carries an Oscar on his arm. Not the golden statuette, but a tattoo in blue. He had it done 10 years ago, a totem of his ambition. He wants to win an Academy Award for technical achievement. The achievement? A piece of software he designed and personally wrote -- all eight million lines of code -- that may be the holy grail for a film and television industry in crisis.

A 34-year-old native of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., now a resident of Vancouver, Trus extravagantly claims his program, dubbed Studio Pipelines, will shave 30 to 50 per cent off current, below-the-line costs of production. Below-the-line means, essentially, discretionary spending: sets, catering, film stock, processing, wardrobe, publicity and post-production improvements Even if he's half right, Trus will not only earn his Oscar; he'll revolutionize the industry and probably make himself a billionaire.

If you think that sounds far-fetched, think again. He's already been told by the Academy that the software is being considered for an Oscar nomination next spring.

For years, studio executives have dreamed of finding a computer-based program that could help them exercise more control over runaway costs. Other software companies have marketed programs that handle various elements of production, but no one has yet been able to integrate them all in one seamless whole.

The task, Trus concedes, was monumental. Investing $2-million of his own money and sleeping an average of three hours a night (often on a friend's sofa), he has created software that, for the first time, links 181 separate modules, from budgeting, scheduling and storyboarding to dailies and post-production.

How badly does the industry need something like this? Badly. Costs of production have become so high that studios and networks are cutting back.

The problem, says Trus, "is that there has never been a relationship between these various modules. Now, when you take a scene out of the script, you'll instantly see the effect it has on the schedule and on the budget."

Trus says he's done demos of the program for four major Hollywood studios and already had three offers to be bought out -- he owns 98 per cent of the company; family and friends own the remainder.

The full-court demo takes two weeks to walk through. The typical response he says, is "oh my God," followed a day or so later by "do you realize how big this is?" The entire program is downloadable to a Palm Pilot, so that a producer on set can see instantly the cost effect of any change.

At the click of a mouse, for example, producers and directors can break down a shooting script scene by scene, shot by shot, seeing exactly what props will be required, what actors, what extras, as well as sound and lighting requirements. "We have 512 camera set-ups to choose from," Trus explains. "You see them 3-D, so you can select the camera set-up you want and storyboard it out. The advantage is the producer sees immediately what the shot is going to look like and what it's going to cost."

And, he claims, the cost savings are leveraged exponentially: "One dollar saved here becomes $100 there." Trus says he can dramatically cut the volume of film footage used, reduce the number of shooting days, and the costs of transfer to video.

He expects the Studio Pipelines software to manage $1.2-billion in film production over the next 18 months in British Columbia alone. He says provincial officials told him that if he were to take his company elsewhere, it would be the equivalent of Microsoft leaving Seattle.

Rob Egan, president and CEO of BC Film, the film-financing arm of the provincial government, says he attended a one-hour demo of Trus's software and came away "impressed. On the face of it, there would seem to be a wide range of potential uses. I'm not an expert in technology, but it would seem to be exciting."

So is the potential money. Trus says he wants to become a partner in productions using the software. Thus, in an $80-million production, for example, he'd be taking three to five per cent of the projected cost savings -- or between $2.4 and $4-million.

A graduate in computer science, business administration and communications from Brock University, Trus has always evinced a precocious aptitude for high tech and a can-do attitude. He says his outlook was shaped largely by his father, a 35-year employee of General Motors. "He got a gold watch on retirement and he gave it to me. I carry it with me. Like, 'this is what I did. Do something else.' "

His father also taught him another lesson: that nothing is impossible. You just have to act.

"I don't wait," says Trus. "I go. People who wait in life are waiters."

As early as 1985, says Trus, he won a high-school science fair for creating an email system -- long before the term was even in common use. But he knew what he really wanted to do even before that, when he saw Star Wars in 1977.

With a home 8-mm movie camera, he started directing neighbourhood kids in short movies. At university, he turned in videos instead of written essays and created 39 episodes of Brock TV, a show about campus life.

Since graduating, he's lived in Toronto, New York and Los Angeles, produced and directed animation and live action, written 13 feature films, and a 65-episode sitcom called Hickory TV, that is now in pre-production. He's also spent eight years doing stand-up comedy.

Meanwhile, his company has grown to 16 employees, among them Fred Fuchs, president of Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope for eight years and producer of Tucker, The Rainmaker and Bram Stoker's Dracula. Fuchs will executive produce Hickory TV, which Trus describes as "Northern Exposure meets SCTV." He predicts it's going to be the next Seinfeld.

Trus believes his module-driven software has applications even beyond film and TV. For example, furniture dealers like Ikea could use it to demonstrate to consumers three-dimensional images of various room plans, with different chairs, sofas, etc. Restaurants and caterers could use it to get a better handle on supply management.

Why was Richard Trus able to do, apparently, what many others before him have tried and failed to do? "Time, dedication, persistence, will," he says. "But this is fun for me. This is my bliss. I've known for a long time that this program is my lottery ticket and the only question was when would I cash it in."

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