Lawnmower Man is a low-budget (5M) independent film released in 1992. It was the top-grossing independent film that year, and the the first film that I know of to use full-frame 3D animation for key plot scenes.
It’s also the one motion picture I’ve worked on.
For Lawnmower Man, I managed a small team that designed and animated simulated (i.e. fake) user interface for the characters to interact with. This was a side project when I was still working at Apple, conducted in the evening and during strategically chosen vacation days.
My work got an unusual amount of “screen time” for a first effort, and the director shook his head as he told me what other directors were stuck with for their screen graphics. The Northern California interactive media boom had made a lot of new stuff possible: interactive 3D, 32-bit graphics, transparency, animation and compositing were way ahead of hollywood’s UI thinking. For many years after, movies were still cursed with command line UI and super-crude graphics. It was fun to solve the problems with real interaction design tools, even if the UI was completely made up.
In those days, directors didn’t want a computer anywhere near the rolling camera as a locked-up computer could hold up shooting, costing hundreds per minute. After animating all the user interface in advance, I used a special video recorder, controlled by computer, to record one frame at a time onto Betacam tape cassette. The result played back beautifully and smoothly – quite a treat for those of us used to the stutters of real-time animation in the 90s.
On camera, this tape was then played through the fake computer monitors while the actors pantomimed interaction with the user interface. The UI would move and change on its own; to appear to be using it, the actors (Pierce Brosnan and Jeff Fahey) memorized the timing and positions so they could move their hands correctly.
An interesting note: video (in the US) and film have different frame rates. Video is (around) 30 frames per second, and film is 24 frames per second. If you just point a film camera at a video monitor, the difference in frame rate will cause moving black bars to appear on the video screen, ruining the visuals. To fix this, they have special tape players that synchronize with the film’s shutter speed. There are companies that specialize in this, and you see them in the credits as “24 frame playback.”
For production, we used the 3D workhorse of the time for the Mac (the ‘040 era:) infini-D and everyone’s favorite animation and interactivity authoring tool, MacroMind Director. This was a time when the ability to composite images with an alpha channel (transparency) was somewhat new in the personal computer world – the first time where you could seamlessly blend output from 2D and 3D graphics programs, and Director was a great tool for this type of work.
It was a great experience visiting the set to do the final transfers; it was my first view into how large-scale creative endeavors can be organized to maximize creative freedom and personal expression while tightly controlling cost and delivering a compelling product. One “all nighter” as I recorded a few fixes to some of the animations, the set crew built an entire house – with paint and wiring – on the soundstage outside the art department. I was amazed at what this industry does on a daily basis. As the software industry becomes more design-driven, we are similarly challenged to be creative at scale – to maintain a coherent creative vision while coordinating the actions of thousands of individuals, many with their own creative sub-domains. But that’s another post.