Pinnacle Productions -- Seattle Move Helps Video Producer Reach New Heights

Pinnacle Productions

-- Employees: 45 -- Headquarters: Seattle -- Business: Pinnacle produces and films corporate and special-effects videos and provides facilities and expertise for post-production work for advertising, broadcasting and video clients. -- Top executive: Don Jensen, vice president and general manager -- Expected 1991 revenue: Over $5 million. -- Major customers: ABC Sports, Boeing, Cole & Weber, KOMO-TV, Microsoft, NBC News, Princess Tours. -- Major competitors: Telemation Inc., Alpha Cine, Digital Post & Graphics Inc. -- Strategy: Move company from Spokane to Seattle to attract new clients and rent use of otherwise idle post-production facilities.

Normally, the laws of physics dictate how fast and at what angle a pat of butter will melt on an ear of corn.

But at Pinnacle Productions Inc., a video-production company, artists, editors and film makers can make the melting butter behave in any way they like, through the use of sophisticated digital-editing equipment.

Next time you see a commercial for supermarket produce, the effects may look natural. But it's a good bet the melting butter and dancing vegetables were enhanced at a facility such as the one opened by Pinnacle in Seattle last fall after the company moved from Spokane.

Did the butter on film run off the corn too fast? No problem. Have the computer isolate the butter, get its angle and timing right, then "layer" it back into the original.

In industry jargon, this process is called post production. Pinnacle generates half its annual revenues of more than $5 million by renting out state-of-the art editing suites to let producers add audio, titles, animation and special effects to raw footage shot on film and videotape.

A few seconds of final video may take days or even weeks to perfect in Pinnacle's $6 million waterfront headquarters building.

Pinnacle is not the only company that offers post-production services. But its equipment is the most modern and the most expensive in Seattle.

Production in this industry means shooting the images. But such raw footage is rarely good enough to become a finished product, and that's where post production comes in.

"There had been a tradition in Seattle of taking a lot of this business to Los Angeles or to Vancouver," said Don Jensen, vice president and general manager, because of "a perceived lack of quality" in services provided in Seattle.

"We moved here specifically to seek post-production clients," Jensen said. Those clients include advertising and media companies, large corporations such as Boeing that have their own video departments and numerous film and production companies.

The clients often work for days in one of Pinnacle's three soundproof editing suites, each the size of a large motel room and complete with closets, couches, easy chairs, tables, desks, video monitors and editing equipment.

The suites rent for $175 to $650 an hour, depending on the equipment needs of each client.

In Spokane, where it was founded in 1974, Pinnacle first developed a niche in special effects, especially the electronic animation and "motion graphics" now widely used by television networks in sports and other broadcasts.

"The project that got the most attention, the one everybody remembers us for, was the opening for ABC's Monday Night Football," said Sandy Robinson, marketing and sales manager.

Produced in 1988 and used by the network for two seasons, the video clip showed a trip through a pinball game from the perspective of the pinball itself. Pinnacle Effects, a division of the company, designed and built the game.

Pinnacle does more mundane projects, too, including about a dozen films a year for Physio Control Corp. of Redmond, a medical electronics company, which uses them for product introductions, product training and in-house motivation workshops.

"A couple of projects they did for us won awards," said Doug Johnson, Physio's advertising and promotion manager. Last year, a Physio product introduction film won an award at the New York Film Festival for its dramatic treatment of what could have been merely a routine demonstration of an emergency lifesaving device.

Though Pinnacle has bought the most advanced equipment available for post-production editing, the company's move to Seattle was not a guaranteed success.

"The lead time on a place like this is several years, and the risk is high," said Jensen.

Because video and electronic technology is evolving rapidly, the company could have misjudged the equipment and services its customers would want several years in the future.

"This equipment is practically obsolete by the time you get it installed, and my gut feeling is that it should pay for itself in three years or you shouldn't get it, but as a corporation we take longer to to write it off on our books," he said. "With any luck, we can get five years out of it, and our competitors have the same two-year lead time for new equipment."

"The availability of moving images has exploded in the last 10 years," he said, with many households now having regular access to 30 or more television channels instead of the three or four that were common in the 1950s and 1960s. "Large companies can simply and easily afford to show their own story on video," he said.

"Given all that change, there is a strong business opportunity for anybody who can provide the facilities for producing moving video images on tape."

Pinnacle began as a production company. But it found that as technology advanced, it increasingly had to go to California for the post-production work needed to finish its projects.

And as Pinnacle - which was purchased by Spokane-based Cowles Publishing in 1983 - invested in the increasingly expensive equipment needed to do its special-effects work, "that equipment sat idle much of the time," said Jensen, a co-founder of the company.

In addition, the company's success in Spokane was limited to some extent by its out-of-the-way location, hardly the most convenient destination for corporate and media professionals from Southern California, Chicago, New York and Boston.

"We had a perception problem" being in Spokane, Jensen said.

Five years ago, Pinnacle decided to build a state-of-the-art facility in Seattle for outside clients as well as its own needs.

The company bought and remodeled a 26,000-square-foot building overlooking the waterfront at Elliott Avenue and Battery Street and four years ago bought a small Seattle production company named VCS and re-named it Pinnacle.

Last summer, Pinnacle's special-effects division moved from Spokane to Seattle, followed by the corporate staff from Spokane (where five employees remain to handle corporate production).

Now the company has three divisions:

-- Corporate production, which accounts for about 20 percent of sales, produces three- to five-minute videos for internal, training and marketing (but not broadcast) use by corporations such as Eldec, Physio Control, Microsoft and Nordstrom.

-- Special effects generates 30 percent of sales, primarily from out-of-town clients such as television networks and cable and television stations.

-- Post-production, which accounts for about half the company's staff and sales, offers rental facilities and staff expertise for clients who produce commercials and corporate productions.

The most expensive suite is the one with exclusively digital equipment, which lets an editor add "layers," as in placing an animated character into a scene shot with humans, almost indefinitely and in "real time," instead of frame-by-frame, said Craig Talbert, Pinnacle's facility manager.

"But technology does not necessarily get you anywhere unless you have the expertise to use it," Talbert said.

"This is a business where it is absolutely imperative to have exceptionally talented people," said Jensen.

Some local customers think Pinnacle has succeeded in providing that talent.

"Their equipment is second to none, and they have recruited the best talent in town," said a Seattle producer who makes commercials for local stations and national networks.

Jensen says Pinnacle's current strategy is "putting intense attention on quality and service. The issue is how we organize to provide a consistent level of quality."

Local customers like Pinnacle enough to bring it their repeat business, and the company is attracting customers from Portland and Vancouver, B.C., he said.