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THE NATION | COLUMN ONE

Coming to an Army Near You

In Marina del Rey, the low-profile Institute for Creative Technology asks Hollywood types to concoct battle scenes to help the military train.

July 19, 2002|DANA CALVO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Three big-name Hollywood talents huddle around a conference table and let the ideas fly.

"Apocalypse Now" co-writer John Milius sketches a soldier of the future with a Transformer-like weapon that doubles as a vehicle part.

David Ayer, who wrote "Training Day," suggests building sensors that link every weapon system in the country.

Ron Cobb, the creature designer for "Star Wars," describes a personnel carrier with four independent steering wheels that could "whip around and is buffered with lots of shields."

This Hollywood brainstorming session will never produce something for the neighborhood megaplex. That's because it took place not on a studio lot but inside a nondescript Army think tank on a quiet street in Marina del Rey.

The Institute for Creative Technology is the country's only organization that draws on entertainment industry know-how to sharpen military training through futuristic games and simulation. The institute's Hollywood consultants also write story lines for virtual-reality military training videos--plots with swirling suspense and drama that aim to make a soldier's training more compelling.

Since it was founded in 1999, the institute has popped in and out of public view, vacillating between the military's need-to-know tradition of secrecy and Hollywood's need-to-dish culture. Most recently, it drew national notice when it asked screenwriters, producers and directors to generate terrorist scenarios in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Their ideas have been kept under wraps; one Army spokeswoman cited national security in declining to release them.

From the outside, the office building looks as forgettable as a 1970s bank. Inside is another story. The interiors were created by Paramount's Herman Zimmerman, who was in charge of production design for several "Star Trek" movies and TV series. The blond wood walls pitch toward the ceiling, a la the Starship Enterprise, and automatic pocket doors pull apart down the middle and close back up again with that unmistakable shush.

While the institute has Hollywood and military consultants on retainer, there are 45 full-time scientists, researchers and administrators who work in offices equipped with bunk beds.

"They bring in people with diverse backgrounds: artificial intelligence, video game people, social research people," Ayer said. "It's like the most amazing dinner party."

This "party" costs the Army $45 million in a five-year contract, and millions more come from other military branches. Hollywood consultants are paid anywhere from $500 to $1,000 a day, although most work only a few days a month.

"It's decent pay," Ayer said, "but it's not Hollywood scriptwriting pay."

In all, Ayer and his fellow out-of-the-box thinkers pull about $1 million a year from ICT's budget. But the money moves both ways between the Pentagon and Hollywood. Paramount pledged $600,000 for a virtual-reality theater called ALTSim (Advanced Leadership Training Simulation); the studio can repackage elements of the technology into commercial games. And the institute already has received most of the $3.3 million promised for a game project by game developer Pandemic Studios and Sony Pictures Imageworks, one of the leading digital labs in the country.

Ties to USC

and Hollywood

The institute is affiliated with USC, which has provided up to $2 million in graphics technology and dozens of student interns during the summer. The Army's other futuristic university-affiliated research center is the Institute for Advanced Technology, founded at the University of Texas at Austin in 1994 with a five-year contract to study lethality and weaponry. While the Texas institution relies on medical, science and arms experts, much of ICT's expertise comes straight from Hollywood.

"It says a lot about our military that they don't feel sufficiently comfortable thinking out of the box and they have to go outside of themselves for that advice," said Christopher Hellman, senior analyst at the Center for Defense Initiatives, a nonprofit, independent think tank in Washington, D.C. "They need someone without that baggage to think almost whimsically about their structure."

The premise for this type of collaboration is not new; the military and Hollywood have long helped each other, most recently with extensive technical support from the Pentagon on military-themed movies like "Black Hawk Down," "Behind Enemy Lines" and "The Sum of All Fears." And just last week, the head of research and development at Walt Disney Co. announced he was leaving to head all research at the Pentagon's National Security Agency.

The Army keeps tabs on ICT through daily e-mails with its executive staff and extensive monthly reports. Many of its Hollywood consultants say the institute provides welcome distance from the entertainment industry's relentless emphasis on generating commercial hits.

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