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June 12
2017

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

THE LAWNMOWER MAN AT 25: THE GROUNDBREAKING VR FILM

By IAN FAILES

For 25 years the visual effects and animation imagery appearing in director Brett Leonard’s The Lawnmower Man has often accompanied editorial articles, TV news reports and trend pieces on the future of Virtual Reality. That says a lot about the influence of the film – which was only a moderate success at the time – but also about the influence of the imagery in it.

The Lawnmower Man, starring Jeff Fahey, Pierce Brosnan and Jenny Wright, is about a simple-minded gardener who is turned into a genius by a scientist who experiments on him with the application of computer science. It has gained a cult following.

In 1992, very few films were using computer-generated effects, and The Lawnmower Man featured some 23 minutes of CG animation, including a VR ‘game’, an intimate cybersex moment, and a fully CG human avatar. While it was certainly not intended to be photorealistic, the creation of that much imagery at the time was still an incredibly impressive feat, not only in terms of its generation, but also getting it onto physical film.

So, what did it take to make Lawnmower Man’s groundbreaking VR animation 25 years ago?

A good amount of the work came from Angel Studios and Xaos, Inc., which dabbled in new forms of performance capture, 3D animation and 2D animated effects to give the film its unique look.

“It was always intentional to make it seem like just a far-out psychedelic dream and made the VR look very different from reality, and that also helped cover up some of the limitations we had technically.”

—Mark Malmberg, former Art Director, Xaos, Inc.

FINDING THE RIGHT VENDORS

After conceiving the idea for a film about VR, and tapping into ideas in Stephen King’s The Lawnmower Man novel, Leonard set about finding some suitable effects and animation vendors. Mark Malmberg, then an art director at San Francisco-based Xaos, Inc., says his studio was brought on board for its proprietary approach to animation.

“We’d written all of our own software for image formats and object formats, and that enabled us to do very organic work, like particle systems, the likes of which nobody else was able to do at the time,” he says.

The trailer for The Lawnmower Man

That ensured Xaos would handle mostly the 2D side of effects requirements, while 3D animation was generally delivered by Angel Studios, then a small company based near San Diego, California. It had developed a reputation for convincing computer animation, including a widely lauded exploding volcano for a Church of Scientology commercial.

“Back then we were only about six or seven people, so The Lawnmower Man was a huge project that basically took over everything that we were doing,” says Michael Limber, Angel’s animation director on the film.

“For the sex scene, the idea was to make the backgrounds as psychedelic and as full of crazy fractals as we could do. We had all these effects where they kiss and their faces melt together to become this dragonfly. Brad Hunt did that with a lot of morphing.”

—Michael Limber, Animation Director, Angel Studios

CYBER WORLDS

One of the first sequences presented to Angel Studios was a gaming environment. “It was quite challenging,” recalls Limber, “because there was no game. We had to design it. We were trying to very much play with how the movie props were designed, where the actors were lying face down. I still think that would be an awesome arcade device where you basically lie down on a table and you put your face in a mask and then the whole table kind of tilts around your stomach, so it would be a pretty jarring effect.”

The opening VR game sequence

However, Angel’s most remembered work remains the cybersex sequence and the VR animation showcasing a CG version of the character Jobe Smith (Jeff Fahey). “For the sex scene, the idea was to make the backgrounds as psychedelic and as full of crazy fractals as we could,” explains Limber. “We had all these effects where they kiss and their faces melt together to become this dragonfly. Brad Hunt did that with a lot of morphing.

“The animation’s just key frame – done in Wavefront – but a lot of the undulating terrain is all sine wave animation,” adds Limber. “So it’s really simple by today’s standards, but I think people hadn’t seen it so candy-colored and so dynamic in a movie before.”

For Jobe’s CG avatar, Angel built the model from Jeff Fahey reference, beginning with drawing an eyeliner grid over the actor’s face and then photographing from front and side angles. “We had about 30 or 40 expressions we had gleaned would be needed from the script,” says Limber.

“We digitized that and then made a bunch of morph targets. Brad Hunt had created this whole scripting system so we could actually put the voice text in there and then the animator could set some easy key frames. When he gets sucked into the vortex, that was done with a distortion field. A lot of that tech was handmade for those days because there was nothing, no commercial products available.”

“We’d written all of our own software for image formats and object formats, and that enabled us to do very organic work, like particle systems, the likes of which nobody else was able to do at the time,”

—Mark Malmberg, former Art Director, Xaos, Inc.

XAOS THEORIES AND EFFECTS

Xaos, too, developed and capitalized on its own toolset for their effects assignments. These were largely surreal image manipulations, made possible via the studio’s warping software and particle-simulation tools. “Our in-house software was very intensely procedural, all keyboard driven,” remembers Malmberg. “Which is funny considering how artistic and organic our imagery ended up being.”

One example of this kind of imagery Xaos produced was for a scene of an idyllic, but also psychedelic cyber-garden setting in which Jobe is working. “For that,” outlines Malmberg, “we had a 2D particle system that we used with image-processing software that Michael Tolson had developed in-house. We could paint an image using brushes that were driven by particles, and they would pick up color from the image and stroke that across the image. Along with that we had the ability to control the particle movement including using images as forces. And we had filters from which we could derive slopes and the image to do that in a meaningful way.”

“Our in-house software was very intensely procedural, all keyboard driven. Which is funny considering how artistic and organic our imagery ended up being.”

—Mark Malmberg, former Art Director, Xaos, Inc.

Another scene featuring Xaos’s work involved a vortex effect as the characters are bathed in a golden light. That final look came out of original concept reference for the film motivated by sacred geometry and iconography. Based on examples, Malmberg “coded up a gizmo that would generate images that looked like those symbols so that we could have hundreds of them,” he says.

The gizmo ultimately had a very immediate and unexpected impact, as Malmberg relates. “When we were finishing that sequence and loading the frames onto the Abacus [a digital frame store], one of the artists, Hayden Landis, was watching the frames and saw (something) on frame 666. This sounds crazy, but one of the symbols he saw come up on that scroll, generated by my random generator, matched the symbol for the demon 666.”

One further memorable Xaos effect involved the popcorn-like disintegration of a bodyguard at the hands of an evil virtual Jobe. “Our artist Ken Pearce did that sequence which was really great. That was an effect I’d designed originally intending to use our image-processing particle software. But Ken wanted to do it in a more three-dimensional way, so he used our procedural 3D software.”

The disintegration scene.

THE LEGACY OF THE LAWNMOWER MAN

It might be remembered as being ‘the VR film’ (and will soon be realized in a VR-only experience being made as a series by Jaunt VR), but in visual effects terms, The Lawnmower Man was, of course, more of a CG animation project for its principal vendors. Still, notes Limber, the jumping off point was a nascent form of entertainment that audiences still related heavily to more dream-like states than anything of photoreal quality. “It was always intentional to make it seem like just a far-out psychedelic dream and made the VR look very different from reality, and that also helped cover up some of the limitations we had technically.

“The animation’s just key frame – done in Wavefront – but a lot of the undulating terrain is all sine wave animation. So it’s really simple by today’s standards, but I think people hadn’t seen it so candy-colored and so dynamic in a movie before.”

—Michael Limber, Animation Director, Angel Studios

“We were really proud of the work that we did,” adds Malmberg. “I think that really was largely responsible for the film having any box-office success at all, and certainly people remember that imagery very clearly. I still meet people now – it’s so funny – I meet younger artists who know the film and who are kind of geeked-out fans of it. They always say to me, ‘Oh wow, you worked on The Lawnmower Man!’ It’s like this funny little piece of computer animation history.”


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