Black-and-white photos above Kate Ertmann’s desk at Animation Dynamics show her mom and dad laboring over ancient TV equipment. The elder Ertmanns had long careers behind the scenes at CBS, and the shots capture the Mad Men-–sharp clothes and smoldering on-the-job cigarettes of the era.

At first glance, the company Ertmann owns and leads is a different professional cosmos. A friendly greyhound wanders vaulted, postindustrial offices in Northwest Portland. The 41-year-old Ertmann asks her 10 employees to be present between 10:30 and 2:30 (“core time”); otherwise they can operate as “creative” personalities dictate. 

Those vintage scenes of hands-on media production, however, do testify to Ertmann’s roots in video and her fascination with how technology can help us see the world and tell stories differently. “I’m interested in how we make animation not just beautiful and fun, but useful,” Ertmann says. 

Animation Dynamics, or ADi, creates animated clips that help clients, often major high-tech and manufacturing companies, figure out products they’re developing. The firm takes the real-world research that goes into any major commercial product—focus groups, field studies on consumer behavior, and the like—and translates it into dramatized animated scenarios. 

The results tend to look a little like cartoons and a lot like video games. ADi has animated products for clients such as 3M, McDonald’s, Visa, and Oregon Lottery. One example Ertmann recently posted to the company website shows a faceless woman repeatedly turning on a vacuum cleaner. “We animate the human experience of a design,” Ertmann says. “It’s the same technology that goes into a Pixar movie, but with real physics, engineering, and research built into it.”

“We play in the space where science meets storytelling.”
-Kate Ertmann

Such clips help clients refine designs before they produce a million units. “Where should the ‘on’ button go?” Ertmann says. “Can a typical woman’s hand fit around it?” ADi’s animations, she adds, create a “live” simulation without the distraction of human actors and real-world settings. “It cuts through the noise to focus on the product,” she says.

Ertmann worked as a child actor (on All My Children, among other gigs) and says she was always as interested in the gear as in her own acting. Today, she embodies her era just as surely as her parents embodied theirs, with a wrist sporting a chunky metallic watch set several minutes ahead and an arm of tattooed mathematical symbols signifying motion, plus the word “GO.” 

“That’s the most empowering word,” she says. “It projects movement and action.”