World class in Dunedin
With the support of a farsighted bank manager and the extraordinary talents of Computer Science whizz kids from the University of Otago, alumnus Ian Taylor has created an internationally acclaimed computer animation business that has, among other things, transformed televised sport around the globe. It has also enabled him to achieve his primary goal of living and working in Dunedin.
Ian Taylor’s decision 25 years ago that his place in the world is Dunedin has not prevented him from creating a world-class computer animation business that foots it on the international stage.
Born in Kaeo in the far north, Taylor grew up in the small East Coast town of Raupunga. His Māori mother and Pākehā father were schoolteachers. He can still vividly recall the day electricity arrived and a single bulb lit up the room. “It had a huge impact on me. At eight years of age, I figured that if you could do that by flicking a switch, you could do anything.”
Taylor first visited Dunedin as the lead singer with the popular Kiwi band, Kal-Q-Lated Risk. He had dropped out of a business degree course at Victoria University in 1968 to join the band, “because it seemed like more fun”.
After four years with the band and a stint of compulsory military training in the army, the homeless and jobless Taylor was drawn back to Dunedin. “When I had been in the Risk, we had travelled all over the country and the best place we had played was in Dunedin – the Ag Hall, the Beach Hotel.”
Ian Taylor explains his passion for living and working in Dunedin
Taylor worked in the bottling plant at Speight’s Brewery for a year, during which he sang in a University of Otago Capping Concert. “I had a ball, it was just great fun, and while I was doing that I thought I better get serious as well and go back to university.”
He completed a law degree at Otago while still working part-time at the brewery. During his final year, the former pop star worked part-time as a presenter on the children’s television programme, Play School. Set to embark on a career as a lawyer, he was offered a full-time job as a presenter on the children’s magazine programme, Spot On. He then worked as a television presenter, writer, director and producer.
In 1989, Taylor accepted a job in television current affairs in Wellington, but could not bring himself to leave Dunedin. “I was due to start the following Monday and I was sitting in our house in Ann Street and I thought, ‘Actually, I’m not going. This is too good. This is where I want to live.’”
Instead, he formed Taylormade Productions, with modest beginnings making regional television commercials and corporate videos. Initially the productions were literally Taylor made, by Ian Taylor alone working from home.
When Television New Zealand closed its Dunedin studios, Taylor convinced a Dunedin bank manager to lend him half a million dollars and bought the studios.
“We went for a long walk, I told him what I wanted to do and he said, ‘You’ve got the money’. At that stage, I probably had about a thousand dollars in the bank. It would never have happened anywhere else.”
Taylormade was best known for its children’s television show, Tiki Tiki Forest Gang, in which a TV studio was run by animals and a rogue computer; Squirt, featuring New Zealand’s first motion-captured co-host, Spike the Penguin; and a live interactive show, Studio 2.
Taylormade was in its infancy when Taylor heard about Dr Geoff Wyvill and the graphics research magic that he and his students were conjuring up in the computer graphics laboratory Wyvill had set up three years earlier in the University of Otago’s Department of Computer Science.
“I walked in and thought, ‘This is incredible’."
"It was clear to me that if you were going to run a business from the bottom of the world, you had to find something that was world class. That stuff I found at the University was world class. You could see straight away that if we put that together with what we did, we could build a business here that we could take to the world.”
Taylor was no less impressed with Wyvill, then a senior lecturer and now emeritus professor. “Geoff is an absolute genius. He is the most unassuming, honest, incredible man I know.”
Taylomade Productions and the Computer Science Department set up Animation Research Limited (ARL) as a joint venture. “It was probably one of the first attempts to take university academic IP and do something else with it. And we did it on a handshake.”
Three of Wyvill’s students – Craig McNaughton, Paul Sharp and Stu Smith – were among the first people ARL employed. McNaughton and Sharp were members of the University of Otago team (along with physics students John Gee and Bruce Warrington) that had just become the first non-United States university team to win the International Collegiate Programming Contest, an annual computer programming “Olympic Games” for students.
Taylormade soon acquired the University’s shares in Animation Research, but four of the five members of the original joint venture – Taylor, Wyvill, Sharp and Smith – remain as shareholders and Sharp, Smith and McNaughton still work with Taylor at ARL.
Taylor notes that staff turnover is very low, but the company has routinely taken on new recruits from Wyvill’s computer whizz-kid factory. “Geoff sends us these really good guys. We don’t necessarily have jobs for them, but they end up staying here.”
ARL’s first 3D production was a title sequence for a Television New Zealand series, University Challenge, the first of many productions for TVNZ. The company went on to create classic television advertising images: the waterskiing penguin, seagulls on a Cook Strait fast ferry and gannets forming a koru.
The first commercial was for Chicago-based United Airlines. The computer-generated images featured a United 747 flying over Paris, the Grand Canyon, Rio de Janeiro and Hawai’i. The commercial won awards around the world.
Animation Research Limited achieved further international acclaim for virtually revolutionising the way people view televised sport. Working with Television New Zealand, ARL developed the world’s first live 3D animated graphics sports coverage, for the America’s Cup yacht racing in San Diego in 1992.
Since then it has enriched viewers’ entertainment and understanding by providing real-time Virtual Eye animation graphics for other sports too, notably cricket, golf and Formula One motor racing. The company’s ball-tracking technology has helped take a little of the frustration out of televised cricket by taking some of the guesswork away from umpires.
ARL’s other varied work has included building an air traffic control simulator for Airways New Zealand for its training facility in Christchurch. Taylor takes particular pride in the simulator project. ARL had never built one before.
Taylor and ARL staff travel the world with their computer wizardry. It’s a part of ARL folklore that in one six-week period, Taylor flew the equivalent of a quarter of the way to the moon.
Watching TV at home one night, he had the satisfaction of flicking through the sports channels and finding ARL’s involvement in coverage of cricket in New Zealand, Formula One racing in Melbourne, Volvo ocean racing in China and golf in Spain.
“All done from Dunedin,” Taylor enthuses on behalf of company and city.
Ironically, Taylor is a self-confessed technophobe. “I say it all the time. I don’t understand any of this stuff. I have been privileged to have ended up here in Dunedin, meeting people at the University and working with some really talented people with world-class skills.”
The accolades keep coming for the 64 year old and his company. Taylor was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to television and business, in 2012. ARL won a Sports Emmy this year (in the Outstanding New Approaches – Sports Event Coverage category) for its official America’s Cup mobile phone app. Typically, it was the company’s first attempt at creating a mobile phone app. The company was also recently awarded the first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award in the 2014 New Zealand Hi Tech Awards.
Taylor’s greatest pride is in his family. He married Dunedin lawyer, Liz Grieve, who now works alongside him at ARL. “I have always said that she is the one who has had the real job and I just played.” The couple, who met while studying law at Otago, have two sons: Sam is a doctor and Ben runs ARL’s European operations. The couple still live in their first house, in the hill suburb of Roslyn.
“I wouldn’t swap this for anything. I get to travel the world and come back to Dunedin and to Central Otago [where the family has a holiday home] and I know for certain there is no place on the planet I would swap it for.”