Hollywood Goes Cyberpunk

by Artie Romero  

ARG! YouTube channel
The ARG! Studio


In the gritty, overpopulated future of William Gibson's vision, Johnny is a smuggler. His contraband is illicit data, stashed in an area of his brain by use of a chip implant. But now, Johnny is in trouble. He has overloaded his storage capacity, and the data he carries is the property of a murderous organization. In the ensuing battle, one of the encryption images--necessary for Johnny to upload the data--is destroyed. In the climax of the story, Johnny must "hack his own brain;" virtually enter cyberspace to smash through Black Ice and upload the explosive data. I refer, of course, to 1995's Tri-Star Pictures release, Johnny Mnemonic. The production stars Keanu Reeves, Takeshi, Ice-T, Dolph Lundgren, Dina Meyer, and Henry Rollins.

Naturally, the depiction of cyberspace was a key element. Sony Pictures Imageworks and Braid Media Arts were the animation firms selected for the job of animating cyberspace. Sony was charged with visualizing Johnny's phone interface sequences, and overviews of the Internet. The "can-opener" sequence and the final cyberspace encounter were Braid's tasks, totaling almost two minutes of screen time.

Digital artists Darrel Anderson of Colorado Springs and Rick Berry of Boston had worked with Gibson on other projects. Berry did cover art for several of Gibson's books, including Neuromancer and the short story collection Burning Chrome. The latter contains the short story on which Johnny Mnemonic is based. Anderson had created package illustrations for the Neuromancer computer game. Gene Bodio of Milford, Massachusetts, was recruited for the project, bringing extensive experience on the software of choice, Alias Research's PowerAnimator V5.0 for SGI computers. I was brought in to create 2D animated bitmaps which could be applied to various 3D objects, and for other 2D manipulations.

To help with character animation, Braid used the Flock of Birds motion-capture system from Ascension Technology Corp., which provides magnetic tracking of up to 29 key body points. Berry performed Johnny's movements, which were recorded as motion curves. Unfortunately, the computer recording the data was hooked into a quirky Ethernet system, resulting in occasional gaps in the data stream. Normally, the curves provided by Flock of Birds need to be edited for smoother animation, but this glitch added to the workload.

Alias brought a number of useful tools and effects to the production, including explosions, fog, light beams, and object glow. At film resolution, the frames had to be rendered at least 1230 X 680. Many shots included elaborate textures, such as moving water, and some frames took up to 5 hours to render on a typical 150mhz Indigo2. For some of these scenes, Braid utilized Alias Research's large SGI rendering farm. An SGI Black Onyx supercomputer was also employed.

Although most of Braid's work on the film was done in Alias, a couple of shots were animated in 3D Studio on a Pentium to utilize some of Studio's unique plug-in effects. For instance, there is a key scene in which Johnny arrives on his virtual brain plates, which resemble a stack of phosphorescent MRI images on glass. Johnny emerges out of a beam of light in a combination implosion/explosion animated by Darrel Anderson, utilizing his own software creation, the "Explode" plug-in from IPAS Package #4 from the Yost Group. Working with two separate 3D animation systems presented some special challenges for Anderson, who had to perfectly match the lighting, colors, and camera angles.

Working on a variety of Macintoshes, I used Photoshop and MetaFlo' to create animated maps and textures. DeBabelizer was used to convert my PICTs and TIFFs to SGI format. All the computers at Braid were networked, and I used the FTP utility Fetch to easily send converted bitmaps from Macs to SGI Indigo2s for test rendering.

The original textures for the encryption chip in Johnny's brain were created by Rick Berry. Typically, Berry paints in oil, then scans his painting and re-works it extensively on his Macintosh. The chip had several LED-type displays which I animated in Photoshop. I took Berry's original TIFF files and created a series of moving displays by cutting and pasting the text into different arrangements. I used Photoshop's airbrush tool to soften the edges of my clips and to add a few mysterious flashes of light.

To view my animations, I used Boris Tsikanovsky's proprietary tool RealTime, which offers smoother playback and fewer blocky artifacts than Apple's QuickTime. Setting RealTime's RAM allotment at 8 megs produced almost flawless playback, even in large windows.

The Valis Group's MetaFlo' was important to my work. For a scene in which "black ice" attacks Johnny, I used MetaFlo' to bring Rick Berry's original bitmap of the virus to life. MetaFlo' lets you stretch, expand, shrink and twist areas of a painting as if it were on a rubber canvas. At any point in the distortion, you can catalog a keyframe which will ultimately be inbetweened seamlessly by the software.

MetaFlo' has very good previewing, and excellent speed for final rendering. On a 40mhz Quadra, a 5-second sequence at film resolution in 24-bit color took less than 90 minutes to render. The most amazing feature of MetaFlo' is the smoothness of its rendered distortions. No matter how much an image is stretched or twisted, no "jaggies" ever appear.

Since Cyberspace is a strange place, we endeavored to give it a weird look, with objects materializing and dematerializing somewhat randomly. Our goal was to avoid realism. To animate Johnny shouting, for instance, we ran expanding visual distortions out from Johnnys mouth, around the surface of his head. My first attempt at animating these sound waves used the Pond Ripples filter in Photoshop to distort Berry's original map of Johnny's face. This was rejected as being too analogous to the real world. Berry suggested using triangle-shaped waves.

To make this idea work, I animated the expanding triangles as monochrome TIFF files, and these were used as successive displacement maps on Johnny's face. It was necessary to blur all the images to give the waves rounded edges, so PhotoMatic was used to batch-process the images. The final result passed the weirdness test.

Even today, seeing this elaborate computer animation on DVD is a thrill. Johnny Mnemonic allowed a few of us computer cowboys to actually visualize cyberspace as a real place. Check it out!

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