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Millennium Bug: A Far Cry From a Y2K Disaster

PDI's Lee Lanier, director of Millennium Bug, describes how he took black and white photographs and turned them into a moving, satirical peak at the future.

lanierbug01.jpgMillenium Bug. © Pacific Data Images. If you have the view a clip from this film.

Millennium Bug is a tongue-in-cheek Surrealist peek at the future of urban sprawl. As a computer animator at PDI (and modeler/lighter on Antz), I was able to develop a "quick and dirty" digital technique that gave this short film a unique and gritty look.

Millennium Bug started life as a series of black-and-white photographs snapped along the San Francisco waterfront. Ten of these photos were printed as 5x7s, scanned onto a Silicon Graphics O2 workstation, and doctored with Adobe Photoshop for UNIX. The resulting images became backgrounds -- "virtual sets" if you will -- for the piece.

Bringing Stills to Life 3D elements were modeled, textured, lit and key-frame animated in Alias PowerAnimator. Set-ups were kept simple -- joint rotations and limited skeletal deformations were favored over complex inverse-kinematics systems. Textures were often culled from the black-and-white photos themselves. Procedural shaders, often employing noise functions, were also used to great extent. Backgrounds were loaded into the Alias image plane, allowing the virtual camera to be matched to its real-world counterpart (which happened to be a 35mm still camera with a 50mm lens). Similarly, the backgrounds served as a guide for match lighting. Ultimately, the animations were rendered at 1K with motion blur.

Rendered animations were integrated "into" the prepared backgrounds via Matte, a compositing program proprietary to PDI. Realism was maintained through careful foreground to background layering and the consistent use of shadow masks. Additional 2D tricks were utilized to create the illusion that Millennium Bug was actually shot on old motion picture stock; this included the creation of artificial grain, splices, scratches, dust, 3D parallax, and "handheld" camera moves. Various background components, such as automobiles, were brought to life through 2D key-frame animation. The final composites served as the film's sole shots.

The Final Touches

Millennium Bug required no editing. The length of each shot was carefully calculated on paper. Final frames were renamed and numbered from "1" to "2016," then sent to a PDI film recorder in a single batch. Sound effects were captured with a cheap portable cassette recorder and omni-directional microphone; the recordings were dumped straight onto a PC laptop and saved as .wav files. Various Windows shareware programs were used to create original MIDI instruments, compose music, and create the final mix, which consisted of two tracks. Sync was maintained by referring to a compressed .avi movie file created with SGI media tools. A Zip drive was used for backups and to transport files between the UNIX and PC systems. In the end, the piece was simultaneously mastered on D1 video and 1.66 ratio 35mm film.

Millennium Bug is two minutes long. Yet, as a solo undertaking, it took nine months to complete. Based on the positive festival response, however, it has proved well worth every strange and unusual moment.

Lee Lanier was born one fine spring day. In school, he enjoyed making dioramas. He left Ohio for Hollywood, becoming a Script Supervisor. He later chucked reality and joined Disney as a computer animator. Eventually, he went to PDI to toil on Antz where he made Millennium Bug on the sly.

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