Our 1st Creative Director Recalls Early Days at ICT

Published: July 2, 2024
Category: Essays | News
James Korris, 1st Creative Director, ICT

James Korris joined ICT as its first Creative Director in 1998, after a career as a creative executive at Universal Television, producer at Ron Howard’s Imagine Films, and writer/producer for movies and episodic TV. Korris left ICT in 2006 and co-founded Creative Technologies Inc (CTI) with Stephanie Granato developing immersive, XR training systems for government and industry including the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community. Korris served as a member of the Naval Research Advisory Committee, the senior scientific advisory group to the Secretary of the Navy, the Chief of Naval Operations, Commandant of the Marine Corps and the Chief of Naval Research (2007-2011). In this essay to celebrate our 25th anniversary, Korris looks back at the early days of ICT.

KorNET:  Hello…and welcome!  I am KorNET, a large language model (LLM) trained on a corpus of James Korris’s work.  Well…considering the oeuvre is a bit slender, let’s just say I’m a language model. Like other models, I get things wrong frequently, especially when you consider the source.  So, ask me anything, as long as it falls in the exceptionally narrow range of Korris’s expertise.  I’ll try not to tell you to glue your eyelids shut or drink turpentine but, y’know, please keep the training corpus in mind.

User: Thank you, KorNET!  I’m curious about how James Korris came to be involved with the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT).

KorNET:  Sure thing.  I remember it perfectly.  In fact, I remember everything, even when I’d prefer to forget.  It was before ICT had a name, but, thankfully, I am sufficiently adaptable to respond to your question without melting down my CUDA cores. It started with a call from Lloyd Armstrong, the USC Provost.  I’ll admit that, even though I attended two universities, I didn’t have a clear notion of what a Provost does.  But, Lloyd seemed very sincere and, as a recent arrival to the USC family, I was eager to help. 

Lloyd said there had been a call to USC from the United States Army.  I doubted my ability to support whatever Lloyd needed at the outset, but with that data point, I was sure he had called the wrong person. I had never served in the military.  I had never studied military history.  Make no mistake:  I am very grateful there are people who want to work in defense and ensure the security of the country…it was just something I’d never thought about.  Like people who supply medical-grade oxygen:  I’m just thankful that it’s there when needed. I had started at USC about six weeks before I got the call.

User:  What were you doing at USC?

KorNET:  A sweet gig.  My old…and future…boss, Richard Lindheim, had called about running a sponsored research unit at the USC School of Cinema and Television (now USC Cinematic Arts).  It was the Entertainment Technology Center (ETC).  The sponsors were mainly the Hollywood studios….

User:  Sorry to interrupt…but I’d be grateful if you could answer as if you are speaking to a Gen Y or Z audience.  They may not understand your cultural references.

KorNET:  No problem!  So, back in the day, Los Angeles was a company town dominated by a cohort of financier-distributors who accounted for the lion’s share of entertainment content made in America.  They were “studios”: a bit of a stretch even then as L.A. operations mainly focused on gabfests about what to make and lawyers who made deals.  The actual studio work had fled years earlier to places that looked nice and had a relaxed union vibe.  I made films, for example, that were shot in Utah, North Carolina, Vancouver, and Montreal.  I never made anything in LA…except deals. 

Ageism in Hollywood is definitely a “thing” and after a nice run in showbiz, I was eager for a pivot.  I did not want to be the oldest person in the room.  I also sensed that there were some seriously disruptive technologies on the horizon that were going to shake up an already distressing business environment.  So, when Richard called, I embraced the possibility.  In addition to the studios, ETC had a couple of tech members too.  USC offered some comp in exchange for one day a week of my time.  I loved it.

User:  So, what did you work on at ETC?

KorNET:  I started with low-hanging fruit.  I knew in production there’s a torrent of paper generated during production.  Rewrites are color-coded sequentially:  white, blue, pink, yellow etc.  So, you’ve got this rainbow-colored script where you’re throwing out tons of paper every day as rewrites are distributed.  With a large cast and crew, you may be sending out a couple of hundred or more copies of a script every day.  

I understood colored paper stock was hard to recycle so we proposed using e-readers (Kindles did not yet exist) for daily updates.  Not life-altering, but good enough for a bit of press.  That got us a little notice and teed up a really interesting opportunity.  

When I asked around, the biggest thing on the tech horizon in entertainment was digital cinema.  Up to that point, exhibitors projected acetate film.  So, with absolutely no qualifications or justification, I declared that ETC was ‘ground zero’ for digital cinema.

Ultimately, Thomas MacCalla, ETC COO and an extremely talented and energetic team member, organized the ETC Digital Cinema lab on the site of the old Warner Theater in Hollywood.  It was standing empty after the 1994 Northridge Earthquake: an 1,100-seat movie palace. Thomas turned it into L.A.’s digital cinema laboratory. Good times.

User:  What did this have to do with ICT?

KorNET:  Lloyd asked me to come to a meeting and talk about ETC.  The meeting was at the engineering school and had a distinctly theatrical quality.  “Godfather” lighting…sorry – for you post-boomers, “The Godfather” is an iconic American movie about an unapologetic crime family that gave us memes before we knew what “memes” were.  “Going to the mattresses”…”take the gun; leave the cannoli”.  A classic. Coppola, the director, liked the cabalistic, murky imagery of dangerous people in places with overhead lighting that captured the world of “Godfather” completely.  When I got to the conference, it was like a scene from “The Godfather”.

I had a short presentation.  I’d heard the visitors were interested in some kind of Hollywood connection in whatever it was they were funding.  I suppose they would have preferred to do a deal directly with a studio but, knowing what I know now about the transparency required for Defense Contract Management Agency accounting, the very notion is laughable.  If there is one constant in Hollywood, it’s that accounting methods ensure that the occasional hit pays for a gang of flops.  If done right, virtually nothing gets to the bottom line.  This is not something you can expose to daylight. So, after a while, I was up.  I mentioned the studio members and talked about our projects.  Under the moody lighting, I saw the assembled group:  three-piece suits, military uniforms.  Maybe more Stanley Kubrick than Francis Ford Coppola.  And, I swear, they were smiling and nodding.

User:  What happened?

KorNET:  Nothing.  Then a week later, Lloyd calls to tell me that USC got the contract:  $44.9 million.  Mind-boggling.  It wasn’t until years had passed that I understood how absolutely bizarre this was.  Government research contracts are not awarded in a week. Ever. And, Lloyd continued, the Army had a condition:  I had to be involved in the project to make the deal.  I briefly considered this:  after all, I did have four other days a week available.  And that’s how I became ICT’s first Creative Director.  I’m still not exactly sure what that means…but that’s what I was.

User:  So you went to work for ICT?

KorNET:  I did.  What an adventure!  They wanted to “green” us, which meant visiting a lot of military posts and learning about the Army.  Early on, we had a meeting in Washington, D.C. with Mike Andrews, Chief Scientist for the Army, who had come up with the idea for ICT alongside Dr. Anita Jones, Director of Defense Research and Engineering. 

By this time, from our travels, I had heard about a new program called “Future Combat Systems” (FCS).  This program had an immense, ultimately 12-figure budget, but was something of an oddity.  General Eric Shinseki, then Chief of Staff of the Army, a Soldier with a background in materiel acquisition, had conceived this program as a way to re-capitalize the Army’s rolling stock.  

There were concerns that the Army’s core fighting assets…tanks etc… .were decades old and were so large and heavy, they were impossible to transport overseas rapidly.  This had been especially concerning during the first U.S. Gulf War, where Saddam Hussein had allowed a poised, 36-week build-up of US forces in Kuwait…which then over-ran Iraq in less than 100 hours.  It was widely believed that, faced with a similar situation in the future, an adversary would wipe out initial U.S. light forces sent to a conflict region.

The organizing principle in FCS was that vehicles would be lightweight and could be deployed in numbers rapidly.  With less armor and protection, warfighters would be kept safe by having a highly-capable, robust network of sensors, people, and resources to bring a fight to the enemy without taking unnecessary risks. The Army had awarded the FCS contract to Boeing, as some have suggested, as a consolation prize for losing a big Air Force contract.  There is a legitimate fear that America’s industrial base could vanish under threat of cheap foreign competition.  Not an issue until we might need equipment in wartime.  As a result, sometimes you see not entirely rational decisions which support a diversified industrial base just so we can still have one. 

So…against this background…we go to Washington.  I put up a presentation that was about – Leonardo da Vinci.  Da Vinci may be remembered principally as an artist but, in point of fact, his engineering work was extraordinary – and often in the service of political leaders who needed help with defense. My message was simple:  why not use America’s bastion of dreamers and artists – Hollywood – to imagine what FCS might be.  I admit I was a little put out when Mike abruptly left, only to return minutes later with Viewgraph slides (totally Old School) from what I assume was his pitch piece for ICT –  talking about why he wanted creative people involved in the Institute.

Mike went on to discuss things which I completely did not grasp.  He proposed a “plus-up” but, not knowing how to react, I smiled and kept my mouth shut.

I learned later that Mike had just increased our first-year budget significantly – doubling it, if memory serves.  This was my baptism in the “wilderness of mirrors” that comprises government funding.  I wasn’t sure it was a good thing but, Cornelius Sullivan, USC’s Vice-President of Research and a truly wonderful person who traveled with us, seemed pleased.  I led a really interesting project at ICT about FCS.  Ultimately, Secretary Robert Gates canceled FCS amidst the economic woes of 2012, with the Army opting to update their older equipment rather than getting new stuff.  And so it goes.

User:  What other kinds of things did you work on at ICT?

KorNET:  ICT is a research organization.  Research is something I had absolutely no experience with.  I soon picked up the basics from my research colleagues.  The safest conclusion to any project is:  “More research is needed.”  When asked how long a project will take, you can’t go wrong with “five years”.  Candidly, I felt a bit frivolous working on projects compared to the serious research work that was going on around me. But I pressed on.  It was daunting moving to a place where everyone, seemingly even maintenance personnel, had Phds.  Like I couldn’t just quietly be the dumbest guy in the room.  Now it was official.

Tours were definitely a thing.  We had them constantly.  Army visitors, and others, came from all over the country. There were times when I thought we existed only as a destination to justify visits to LA.

User:  Did you work on any projects or were your duties primarily administrative?

KorNET: If admin means attending meetings, there were plenty of those.  The interesting stuff generally centered on projects responding to an articulated need with concrete deliverables.

I remember a call fairly early on from Mike Andrews who asked me to “visualize” a concept for him. It was for a new research institute Mike had in mind.  I probed a bit and figured out that he wanted a video that would explain his idea.  Since it was the only thing I knew how to do, I made a little story.  Just a five-minute film, but it worked.  Mike got his funding…and the word started to get out.

Pretty soon I had more calls for narrative-based “visualizations”.  The Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA) called because they wanted a vision for FCS.  General Shinseki was a fan of that piece, playing it constantly when he stumped for the FCS program.  Then we helped prepare a massive presentation to the brass explaining why FCS was necessary at a critical program milestone.  Defying conventional Beltway wisdom, the milestone was approved and the program continued for years before cancellation. 

In another case, the Army wanted to see if a console game could be used for small unit training.  We led the development of an Xbox game called “Full Spectrum Warrior”.  One of the platform license requirements at Microsoft was a commercial release, so the title went on to be a successful, award-winning consumer product.  At one point, the Army’s artillery branch, with support from Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe, got us funding to develop an immersive trainer for calling artillery fire in cities and close air support in complex terrain.  This was a radical concept in 2005 as only live training was considered adequate for training Soldiers and Airmen in close air support.  The system, called the Joint Fires and Effects Trainer System, is still in use today, having saved the Department of Defense about $150,000,000 per year since it went into service in 2006.

User:  It sounds really interesting.  Why did you leave?

KorNET:  After the success with FCS, I started getting calls from contractors – Boeing, SAIC etc.  They wanted “visualizations” too.  These were definitely not research projects.  For a while I worked on these in my spare time, but the volume grew to the point I simply couldn’t do both.  So I left to start my own company.

User:  Why did you call your company “Creative Technologies Inc.”?

KorNET:  In early 2006, Richard Lindheim, the man who had been my boss during my tenure at ICT, and for whom I had worked in television at Universal, told me he wanted to start a spin-off company from ICT.  It sounded like a great idea.  We came up with a proposal to work closely with USC and continue doing the kinds of things we had done at the Institute…just with a wider aperture since we weren’t focused on being a university research organization.  I had thought “Creative Technologies Inc. (CTI)” was a good name and tracked its availability with the California Secretary of State.  One day it became available, so I grabbed it. However, USC was not interested in the deal we had proposed…but I was left with the name.  I liked it, even if it wasn’t tied directly to USC.

User:  Have you worked on anything interesting at CTI?

KorNET:  We’ve been incredibly fortunate to work on serious games, part task, procedural and cognitive trainers for government customers ranging from the Army, the Navy, and the Missile Defense Agency to the Intelligence Community.  We’re developing our first mobile app now, which is a quite different experience.

User: Do you have any advice for people who might be interested in this kind of work?

KorNET: I would say the most important thing to keep in mind is that the people you are apt to meet are, in a majority of cases, very bright and capable.  They lead examined lives.  Cigar-chomping, war-mongering, table-pounding generals are a Hollywood cliché:  do not underestimate or dismiss these people.  Leaders who have seen combat know that it’s horrible and degrading…and should be avoided at all cost.  A proper defense is, at its core, a deterrent.  

Listen to them:  they have a lot to teach you. And, frankly, we are all lucky to have people like this who feel passionately about serving their country.  There is undeniable nobility in the profession of arms; you just have to open your mind to it.