Tribal Knowledge

Rapid advances in 3-D technology and the willingness of automakers to share coveted designs of future models has been a boon to Detroit’s advertising and creative community
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Hollywood animators don’t often look to Detroit’s creative community for employment, especially someone with film credits that include Godzilla, Minority Report, Charlie’s Angels, and Starship Troopers. But Eric Bruneau never second-guessed trading the back lots of Hollywood for the front lines of automotive advertising.

With the rapid advancement of computer technology in recent years, Armstrong White, a 3-D digital studio in Bloomfield Township, recently tapped Bruneau to direct the company’s motion media business, much of which caters to the auto industry. “The ongoing digital revolution, along with the auto industry’s willingness to share its CAD data of future models, has been a boon to Detroit designers,” says Bruneau, executive vice president and creative director of Armstrong White.

Four years ago, Bruneau, who’s been nominated for four Academy Awards, would never have considered working in Detroit. Armstrong White, at the time, was best-known for retouching photos of new models shot on location in alluring locations — like a Jeep Grand Cherokee climbing the side of a snow-capped mountain. But given the intense competition within the auto industry, the creative side of the business has undergone a seismic shift in recent years.

“Because we can take the CAD data and meld it with any exotic setting a client wants, computer design has largely supplemented traditional photo shoots,” says Chuck White, founder and president of Armstrong White. “And that’s been a [blessing] for the Detroit creative community. We have the tribal knowledge of automotive design, and there’s been a huge demand for 3-D content creation.”

To be sure, in 2005 Armstrong White had 18 employees and posted revenue of $5.5 million. Last year, the company had 45 workers and revenue of $8 million. The firm expects to grow another 15 percent this year. “We walked away from $5 million in business last year,” White says, “because we couldn’t find enough computer animators and designers.” He adds that there’s a shortage of talent in Detroit.

White estimates more and more automotive creative content today — TV commercials, print campaigns, and Web content — is being generated on computers using CAD data. “We spent $750,000 on new technology last year because we needed to keep pace with the newest technology,” White says. “We’re bringing new business into Detroit, and so are our competitors.”

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