Daemen, Empire Visual Effects gain Grammy exposure

January 29, 2014 Updated Jan 29, 2014 at 3:34 PM EDT

By Dan Miner, Reporter- Business First

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Daemen, Empire Visual Effects gain Grammy exposure

January 29, 2014 Updated Jan 29, 2014 at 3:34 PM EDT

Millions of people across the world watched the 56th Grammy Awards on Sunday, including a nearly two-minute Pepsi "halftime show" commercial featuring CBS football personalities.

They didn't know that "crowd" in the commercial, which appeared to fill a stadium as the personalities performed various musical numbers, was only about 150 extras. The "performances" from Deion Sanders, Terry Bradshaw, Shannon Sharpe and Mike Ditka were done in front of green screens.

And the people charged with taking that disparate, raw footage and making it look like a major stadium concert were headquartered at the Tri-Main Center building in Buffalo. The first wave of employees at Empire Visual Effects, a company created with the help of a $2.5 million New York state grant and a collaboration with Daemen College, duplicated the extras to make them look like a huge crowd and then performed the highly technical process of making the footage look consistent and authentic. For instance, when flames were shot from the stage, the burst of light had to be reflected in the crowd and the performers.

The final product was delivered only a few days before the Grammy's.

It was a big win for the fledgling visual effects project in Buffalo. The first of many, according to Ben Porcari, an Empire Visual Effects managing partner.

"From our initial staff we've brought on, they've basically been 100 percent booked since they came on board," Porcari said. "What we need to do is build and grow intelligently so that we can make sure we deliver the absolute highest-quality product, because that is essential."

See the commercial here. The Empire Visual Effects-Daemen initiative was announced by Gov. Andrew Cuomo in July 2013. Both the Rochester Institute of Technology and Cornell University were approached about the program, but Daemen's International Center for Excellence in Animation and previously announced visual effects certificate program won the state's support.

The idea: people with some experience or education in visual effects are recruited into the four-month training program, which costs a total of $5,250, and given training specific to the needs of Empire Visual Effects. Daemen received $1.9 million to build out its space at the Tri-Main Center as part of the project.

The goal is to create a visual effects industry in Buffalo, where the tax burden is cheaper than California, the real estate more affordable than New York City, and the logistical concerns far less of a concern than outsourced shops in places like India.

Thus far, Empire Visual Effects has hired four full-time employees from the Daemen program, while three others worked as freelancers from the Grammy's commercial. Laura Sommer, director of the college's Visual & Performing Arts Program, said interest in the certificate program is growing as Daemen networks with community colleges across the state.

Currently, Empire Visual Effects has a few desks in the IBC Digital offices at the Tri-Main building, but its state grant is tied to the Empire Visual Effects creation of 150 jobs, and Procari said they are setting the stage for a much bigger presence in Tri-Main.

"Our first projects, we've been looking at a lot of proof of concept and taking a look at the quality of graduates we've gotten out of Daemen," he said. "What we've seen is that they've been phenomenal."

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