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A just machine to make big decisions, Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision. - Donald Fagen, "I.G.Y. (International Geophysical Year)"
(Everything you are about to read actually happened exactly as I describe it. I wish it hadn't. Nothing, right down to the smallest detail, is made up. All names have been changed to protect the guilty.)
Before they became a large 3D graphics company with five owners and dozens of employees doing violent computer games for dishonest Japanese corporations, Devil Studios was just Raul Aligeno the fat Colombian owner, Steve his slow-witted sales guy, me, Cam, his fresh-faced 3D graphics programmer, and my even less experienced assistant, Duane. Four guys in a rented room. One SGI computer, the model nicknamed "The Snail" by everyone at Alias Software, where Raul had bought the 3D animation software on time payments he was forever paying late.
We did a few good productions, mostly to 3/4" tape, an almost-professional video standard. The coffee pot was in place, everyone knew how to lock the doors, and Steve was even taking weekends off to nurse his sporty young alcoholic look. I was just beginning to feel competent with The Snail's quirks, when in came THE CALL.
It was from Univision, the national Latino Cable Station no one has ever heard of unless you enjoy watching loud cheap Mexican soap operas or extremely loud kids' shows staring purple-dressed buxom blondes in white go-go boots. Univision was looking for a new logo treatment to float over a full, 30-second animated tour of downtown LA. Could we do it, please, for less than $40,000?
"Yeah, let me give you Raul, the owner."
Raul's eyes bulged out as I whispered the news, my hand over the phone receiver. "Hold on a meenit." he said sweetly. SLAM! His door shut instantly to shelter us from the suavely whispered, quick Spanish of a guy finally dealing in his native language, rather than the broken, intentionally comic English he used with us. A few minutes, some silence, and he emerged from his office triumphant.
"We have a JOB! Eet's a GOOD ONE!" Pleased as a new daddy.
"Uh, what is it?"
"It's a Beeg Job. No more dis leettle car ad crap. We're de Big Boys! Dey want us to do their LOGO!" Raul's mind was already counting out the overdue Alias Software bills, and adding up the remaining profit, still smiling.
"What's the deadline?"
"Plenty time... January 1st!" It was now December 7th. That should be enough time, I thought, but no slack if anything screws up.
"Uh, what do I have to do? They said something about L.A. to me before you took the call."
"You just have to model downtown L.A. Great beeg blue 'U' floats around up in the sky. Piece of cake, right Camarone?" Camarone with the accent on the rone was his nickname for me. Steve always said that if Raul wanted to owe you money, he'd give you a nickname. Everybody I knew had one of Raul's nicknames. Of course, camarone is Spanish for shrimp.
"Well, yeah... as long as I can stylize the city a bit."
"What you mean, Sti-lize" he looked at me suspiciously. I had obviously thrown a new word at him and he didn't like it.
"Like, um, you know, make the city look glossy and colorful, rather than totally realistic." I hoped he got my vision of a pink and purple sunset city with glowing office windows and shining streets.
"What you mean, not realistic?" Raul looked concerned.
"Well, you know, we can't do a city right down to the bricks and mailboxes. We can't do people walking around on the street, and cars at every intersection. You don't want to do that. Just do a real nice stylizing of a city."
"Camarone, this sti-lizing. I don't like eet."
Univision sent around an art director the next weekend to oversee everything. A part-time programmer and I had been modeling downtown L.A. frantically round the clock, using maps and tourist guides. Garcia, the Univision art director, had arrived with his girlfriend and her sister for a fun weekend, and was plopped down in a big beanbag chair behind me. He loved our work. It was the sister who didn't.
"It looks too, ah, I don't know." she said, squinting at the computer monitor sideways.
"Bright?" I suggested.
"No, I like that."
"Too reflective?" I glanced at Garcia, my eyes imploring him to SAY SOMETHING.
"No, that looks good. There's just something about it..." She was still squinting. Maybe it'd look good if you opened your eyes, dammit. I was running out of suggestions.
"Is it too purple?"
"Yeah- That's it! It's too PURPLE! Can you change that?" She was excited at her discovery. I had lit the whole scene with two opposing colored lights; one a light peach, the other a sunrise purple. They gave it a warm dawn coloring that I loved.
"Sure, I can change that." Happy with my answer, they all filed out of he room, and we didn't see them for the next two days. It was actually pretty painless compared to a lot of art director meetings, and the programmer guy and I were making jokes about it pretty soon.
"Is it too BRIGHT?" I said, smiling like a car salesman.
"No, I like that." He screwed around his head upside down, staring up at the ceiling.
"Maybe it's too DARK, FUCKHEAD!" I adjusted the brightness control on the monitor so it went black.
"Yeah, that's IT!" he screamed, jumping up and down like a cheerleader.
The art director popped his sleepy head in Sunday night, after an obviously exhausting weekend of laying pipe. There were still pillow crease marks softly indented into his cheek. He sheepishly asked how it was all going.
"Great. It's really going to look good." I was getting pretty confident of the whole job, and was just finishing up doing a great swirling camera move that took in the whole city. Frame drawing times were down to 20 minutes per, which would take the computer just long enough to give me a nice little Christmas vacation.
"There's just one more thing- I'd like you to make the Univision logo transparent. I saw a transparent CNN logo this weekend that looked great. Can you do that?"
"Oh, yeah, sure. No problem"
"Just Fed Ex the rushes to me in L.A. Thanks, Cam." Zip - and he was gone.
The logo was a series of thin blue-green overlapping strips a la AT&T, currently solid, hovering over the city at all times. I adjusted the transparency setting on the logo carefully, and set it drawing a typical frame as a test. It was getting late, so I got up and started closing down the office; shutting off the coffee maker, turning out lights. When I came back the computer hadn't finished. It was still drawing the test. That was funny. I brought up the picture to see what had been done so far. It had gotten to the logo and only drawn TWO SCAN LINES in 15 MINUTES. It had about 200 TO GO. I stopped it and checked all of my settings. It was the transparency of the logo, of course.
The next morning I got on the phone to Alias 3D Software, telling one of their programmers about the abnormally long draw times for this logo.
"Oh, yes. Transparency takes quite a long time." he chuckled.
"Why?" I asked.
"Well, it has to draw each consecutive surface. Every surface it sees is a new computation, and doubles the draw time. How many surfaces are you looking through?"
"It's a logo built out of slats. Every slat is transparent. There are about twelve slats, and a back to each slat, and sides. That's about forty-eight surfaces."
There was a blank pause at the Alias end of the line. I waited, assuming the guy had gone somewhere. Then I got a creepy feeling that he was still there.
"Are you still there?" I asked gently.
"Yeah. Um, this logo is going to take a long time to draw."
Raul finally solved the problem by talking to one of the owners at Alias and explaining that we must get this job finished, or he'd never be able to pay his monthly installments three weeks late again. After a lot of coaxing and talking about what an enormous, great looking primo animation this would be, and good for everyone associated with the project, especially the Alias company demo tape, the Alias owner was talked into running the whole thing for us, free. On the fastest computers available to them; which just happened to be a bank of UNIX monsters at the Jet Propulsion Laboratories in Pasadena.
"Eets OK, Camarone. Don't you worry. Weel jus run it over der. Bang, Pop! Eets done! All you have to do is go to Pasadena and give them the tape with the job on it! They do all the work for US!" Raul gloated. It was getting closer to Christmas, and he was looking more like a calculating, greedy Santa every day.
Work progressed for the next week, me not worrying about the huge drawing times. It really did look great, one of our first full-quality broadcast jobs. The time came, and I drove up to Pasadena in my Jeep, straight to JPL. The parking lot was small but filled with BMWs and Mercs - the grounds I noticed were vast and well-gardened. These guys were not hurting for cash. Probably 20 million in property right here. What does JPL do, anyway? Process NASA data, I guess...
"My name is Cam MacMillan. I'm here to see George Molley." The receptionist was a deceptively kind old lady who was pretty sharp at sizing me up. I looked around, and noticed that everyone in the outer hall was eccentric looking. The guy nearest me was talking in Lithuanian, was bald, solidly built, dressed all in black with a turtle-neck sweater, and had a huge gold medallion around his neck. He looked like a rich ex-boxer from Brooklyn.
I looked up, startled. George was standing in front of me.
After filling out a questionnaire including the question, "Have you ever plotted political action against the government of the United States?" and being rewarded with a ID clip-on, we walked through about a mile of corridors and three miles of even more extensive grassy lawns connecting the different buildings. Most of JPL is grass lawns. It looks cool in a 1960's Modesty Blaise think tank sort of way. George, it turns out, was the graphics/Alias visualization guy there, and was new to the job. He seemed to be a little unsure of his job title there, which was the first forewarning of possible troubles ahead. Inside, we walked down an endless hallway. We managed to reach a computer terminal at last, next to a glassed-off pulsating computer room filled with top of the line networked DEC mainframes, cooled by screaming air conditioners the size of army tanks. We slipped my job tape cartridge with all the data needed to do the entire 30-second job on it into the nearest machine.
"OK," said George, "What do we do now?"
"Uh, we de archive it, George, and run the job."
He looked up furtively, glancing up and down the hall, then back at me.
"How long will this take?" George asked. Something was wrong. Something was deeply wrong. He looked kind of... scared.
"I don't know how long. You tell me. I've never run anything on a network of DEC's. I have no idea." Actually, this was a lie, but why tell this guy anything? He just didn't look trustworthy. So we transferred the information off the tape to their computers, me taking over more of the work now as I realized that George didn't quite grasp the concept of job sub-directories fully, which was causing me to be more and more queasy. Finally the job was actually running, clicking off frames at about five minutes per. No problem. The whole thing should be done in the morning. I looked back up to George after typing in the final RUN command. He had a strange hunted look, like a stray dog in a cage.
"So ah... what do you guys do on these computers?" I asked, hoping to loosen him up and get some top-secret information at the same time.
"Just simple stuff.. um, planet graphics." Jesus Christ, I flashed, I've seen the JPL 'Planet Graphics' and they're not simple.
"Can I look at some?" The computers are chugging away. "We haven't got anything else to do. Do you have any video tape or anything? Y'know, what the heck?"
George looked really concerned now. What was going on? Had they discovered extraterrestrial life and were worried I'd blab? Or does this George not really work here - maybe he's just the visiting son of the department manager?
"Oh, sure. I can show you our tape. We don't have much to show." We went into another room with a pro video deck sitting under a TV. IT looked like a high school AV department setup. George popped a tape in, and for the next ten minutes I watched the worst, most depressingly boring and elementary 3D graphics I've ever seen. All the planets were depicted as the same color; vivid orange.
"Gee, George, that's pretty good seeing you're new to this. You did all this here?" I tried to be appreciative.
"Yeah," George was dropping his voice again, even though we were in a room alone, with the door shut. He glanced up at the door, like someone was going to walk in any minute and yell at him. " We do everything right here."
I decided that whatever this guy's problem was, I really didn't want to know anything more. He was making my flesh crawl. There was absolutely no time left on this job. It was Thursday. Four days from now, 10:00 am Monday, this was due to be edited and aired nationally. No extension was available on this deadline, because it was all being done for New Years Day, which was Tuesday morning.
We shook hands, smiled gamely, I packed up my things and left by the front door. The last time I saw George that day, he was waving good-bye to me next to the receptionist, his crooked smile melting back into the preoccupied blank stare of a disturbed man.
Old hotels are great. "Psycho" has given them all a bad rep, but I love them, one inch soaps, bad paintings, Thousand Fingers coin operated beds and everything. The great beat-up little hotel I checked into was run by an old Pakistani man and his wife, who gave me at least as distrusting a look-over as I had just given George.
"You want only one night?" he glared.
"Yeah, I'm doing some work over at JPL." I mumbled, fishing around in my wallet.
"Oh, JPL! No problem." His mood had changed in a wink. I got a clean room with a genuine color TV in it, just like in the neon sign outside, and fell asleep going over scenarios of how to ask my boss for a pay raise after this was all over.
"Hello?" I picked up my phone, 8:00 am, groggy.
"Is this Cameron?"
"Uh, yeah." Who the heck was this? Only my boss and girlfriend knew where I was, and this was neither.
"It's George. Listen, the whole job was wrecked last night."
"WHAT?" I was totally 400% awake.
"It was wrecked. We didn't render anything."
"But why? I SAW IT RUNNING." This was impossible. George was wrong. I told him to sit tight, threw my clothes on and in by overnight bag, and jumped in the car.
George was waiting by the receptionist again. We passed up to the machine room, almost running, George explaining that People Didn't Like Him at JPL. He thought that these scientists believed he was unneeded. He believed these people had become Angry, and had Sabotaged the Job, because it had been taking up Valuable Computer Time. I wasn't making him any less paranoid by glancing at my watch every two minutes. When we finally sat down at the computer console, the whole job was a mess. Either George's Sabotage theory was right, or Alias Software simply can't run on a network. We had done the whole job, but only every other frame was intact. I was screwed.
"GET ME A CALCULATOR!" I tried to not yell.
"Uh, there's a calculator program on the computer..." George tried to be helpful.
"NO. GET ME A LITTLE HAND HELD CALCULATOR."
George scurried away, and I frantically made a list of OK frames. We had done 461 of 600. With George's calculator, as I copied the correct pictures on the computer, I figured it would take 52 hours to do the rest on our "Snail". That would be Sunday, 5:00 pm. I grabbed the backup tapes, and searched for the proper parting words to George as we jogged back down the hallways. Actually, rather than give him a happy 'you did the best anybody could', I was so angry, I really wanted to make him more psychotic.
"I think you should watch it, George. This is just the beginning of it with those scientists. Once they start, they don't let up until they get somebody... fired. And you know what it's like when you're fired in this business. Everybody knows. You never get hired again."
That did it. As I ran to the car, George's body finally sagged into the doomed man he always had known he was.
Eighty five miles an hour to San Diego for two hundred twenty miles is about three hours transit, I thought, pushing the gas to the floor. Lower Los Angeles blurred past. Sunday, 3:00 pm earliest after rendering, 7:00 pm latest. Six hundred frames compositing at 1 minute each is ten extra hours. That would be 3:00 am. The frames record at 10 seconds per frame to 1" video tape. At that rate, to do two recordings only, add three hours twenty minutes. That would make it 6:30 am, Monday morning. Three hours transit back to Los Angeles, morning traffic, ah, 9:30 am.
Capistrano passes by. Forty-five minutes to San Diego. Delivery of the product has to be by 10:00 am Monday, so I have half an hour pad time. If one of the recordings screws up, or if I need extra time, doing only one recording will buy me two hours extra, total.
Ten minutes to San Diego. I still have a quarter tank of gas left. If the compositing takes more than a minute each, I'm dead. If something screws up with recording, I'm dead. Hopefully, Raul asked for part payment in advance, which means the client legally must accept a late project, if by just a few hours. That would give me six hours extra, if needed, maximum.
I take the offramp to our studio, and drive right through the red lights. The car lurches to a stop right in front of the first floor entry doors, and I jump out, running. The door is unlocked. I run into the computer room, passing Raul, who looks up with a patient smile.
"Camarone, is evrytheen Hokay?" he says to my retreating, now sweating rear end. No time to talk. Plenty of time to explain after the job is running. I sit down at the computer and frantically enter the job directory, and begin editing a command file for the remaining frames, reading from my crumpled list drawn up at JPL. Raul has by now entered the room, and is standing behind me with a worried look on his face. I've edited the first 25 frames, and send them rendering. Plenty of time later to edit the rest of the 600.
"We're screwed." I tell Raul, turning around in the chair. Every ounce of his red-nosed Christmas jolliness is gone, and by his eyes I can see that very little of anything rational is left. "JPL sabotaged the job because they don't want commercial jobs eating their precious CPU time. I can just barely get the animation done, but it will take until Monday morning at 6:30 am. OK?"
"Uh, can we get it done?" Raul looks even worse now.
"Maybe. I'm not saying yes. I'm going to try to get it done. It will be right to the wire. Let me ask you - did you get part payment on this job?"
"Uh, you mean, money?"
"No Camarone. They pay cash on delivery."
"Next time, Raul, don't do that. I gotta go park the car."
The next two days were a sleepless set of even more intense hours spent trying to shave every minute from the rendering length. It finally got down to doing only one recording to tape, and I still would be assembling the frames up until early Monday morning. There was no way to check the animation as a preliminary test. If anything had been done slightly wrong, or if I had composited ONE frame inaccurately, we'd be way over deadline.
We also didn't have a 1" tape recorder. Usually Raul rented one from a seriously troubled (marriage problems) video engineer with who lived minutes away, but this was a weekend, and the engineer had been impossible to reach. While I was sweating over a hot keyboard for the last two days, Raul had been calling Video Rental Agencies all over California. At the last possible minute, Sunday at 8:00 pm, Raul had arranged for Burke Rental to send us a foam-packed Sony $85,000.00, one-inch pro standard recorder which I had to pick up at the airport as a counter-to-counter freight pack. Rental cost; $800.00 per day, paid on Raul's Visa Card, of course. On the way to the airport, my assistant animator in the Jeep seat beside me kept getting more and more pessimistic about the whole thing. He had gone from being occasionally reliable to downright in the way of progress.
"This is the slow way to the Airport." Duane said.
"No it isn't. It's the direct way." There's only one way, as a matter of fact, I thought. Does he know a short route but isn't telling me?
"How can we get there faster?" I asked, concerned and extremely tired. Duane then explained how we could go ten miles back the way we had come, then six miles back the highway to a previous exit, then approach by surface streets.
"But that would add an hour to us getting there! It's only ten minutes from here!" I yelled maybe a bit too loud..
"Alright," he said with a devious, sneaky little smile, "Fine. Go this way. But when General Dynamics gets out of work on the second shift, it's going to get really crowded on this road."
I looked up at the rows of aircraft - hanger buildings housing General Dynamics. They stretched miles into the distance.
"They don't get out now. They get out at four!" I was really mad now. The terminal exit was only a quarter of a mile up the road. Why was he telling me to turn around?
"Look, just keep your driving ideas to yourself. It's my car."
We got to the package terminal, signed a release, and loaded the box into the Jeep, with Duane sitting on the front end to keep it from falling out. Eight forty-five, we're back at the studio. Raul is very nervous. He keeps shaking, has a white skin color, and is sweating a lot in strange places; his elbows, his ears. Obviously he's promised the money from this job to a lot more people than just Alias Software.
The recording deck is checked as Raul sets up a sleeping bag beside it. Everyone intends to stay up for the last night together, as a group boost thing, to make sure of success. The late hours pass quietly, with me testing a few video frames once an hour to ready the final record. At about 5:00 am all is ready. Raul has got no sleep, and is beginning to break down physically as well as mentally now. My assistant hasn't been seen since 1:00 am - he's sleeping in another room, we suppose. I start the recording now, the 600 frames clicking one by one, six per minute. Raul disappears. Maybe he went to the bathroom. The first 100 frames look fine. I'm beginning to relax now, because the most complex animation is over and recorded. Raul reappears, tottering on his feet behind me. I look up and his beard is dotted with vomit. It seems he's been throwing up for the last half hour, cursing his deciding to be in this business.
"Raul, are you OK?"
"You know, Camarone..." he whispers, forcing a weak smile through his chunk strewn mustache.
"Production is brutal."
That's it. His haiku to 3D graphics. Poetry from pain. No one has ever said it better, before or since. Not the poor fuck at Cranston/Csuri who spent six months revising a Sony TV ad which was never shown, not the cocaine-pumped 3D designer who committed suicide by symbolically but efficiently hanging himself with an electric cord suspended over his desk because of the deadline pressures at a certain L.A. animation shop. Computer graphics bring out the best and worst in us all. It's no place for the hesitant. It's a terrible job. The few people who get paid a lot to cut through its thick jungles always emerge with their shirts in tatters, scratched and bloody, covered in leeches. Because? Production... is brutal.
We spent the next hour staring at the TV screen, our smiles getting slowly larger as the final minutes ticked off. It looked good. The logo was great. It was going to be a terrific looking animation. No mistakes.
Finally, the last frame clicked off. I rewound it, played it only once to avoid damaging the tape stock, and the whole thing was just perfect.
"Give them the whole reel," I said, handing Raul the final tape. "I don't want to cut it. And get them to make a dupe right away for protection."
"What do you mean, Camarone?"
"You know, when you give them the reel at the edit house."
"But I'm not geeving them the reel. I can' drive up L.A. Ah've stayed up all night"
"Well I can't do it either! I haven't got any sleep for the last two nights! Were you expecting me to drive it up there! I can't even stand up!" We sat there, slouching on the carpet glaring at each other, Raul looking defensive and ashamed, me boiling mad. Then the front door of the studio opened. In walks our smiling, refreshed sales guy, Steve. He's wearing a neatly pressed pale blue shirt, and has just combed his perfect gladhand-style greasy blond hair.
"STEVE!!!" we both scream, crawling towards him. "Come HERE!!!" I shove the tape at him, shakily wrapping it in tinfoil as a last safety measure, while Raul explains the situation.
"You gotta go. Get goin'." Raul orders him, pointing in the general direction of L.A. We both smile. Situation solved.
"But Raul," Steve says slowly, "I don't have a car."
That stops us. Just for a second.
"TAKE MINE!" I yell, stringing the car key away from the rest on my keychain, and pressing it into his hand. "Raul will take me home!"
Steve nods uneasily, and walks to the door. He starts walking faster in the parking lot, and finally screeches out of the drive in my car, the full force of the moment finally hitting him. I fall into the beanbag chair, and go happily comatose. Raul lies down on the sleeping bag. We're just watching the sun peak over the trees outside the window an hour later, congratulating ourselves, complimenting each other, when the phone rings.
"Hello, Cam? This is Steve."
"Yeah? So? Is everything all right?"
"Uh, Cam, your car needs gas."
"So put some gas in it."
"Cam, I need the key. The gas cap key."
Steve was right, I slowly realized. I had given him the car key, but there was a separate key for the gas cap. It was in my pocket.
"Steve, are you at a gas station?" I said carefully.
"Steve, just Rip It OFF. Just wrench the cap off. Use some wire cutters or something. Just rip it right off the car. Got it?" I was yelling into the phone, over the noise of the freeway traffic Steve was next to.
"Well, yeah. All right." Steve sounded unsure again, but he knew what he had to do.
We got the final phone call later that day. Steve had got the cap off, gassed it up, shoved a rag into the gas spout, and had gotten to the edit place just in time. Then he had to make sure that they were giving him the check for total payment - a battle in itself, apparently, but as Steve had craftily held onto the videotape until the check was cut and signed, he had the check - the little slip of paper, three inches by six, with $38,000.00 written in the middle, in his pocket for Raul when he arrived back later that afternoon.
Although I'd like to forget it, Steve, Raul and everything else comes back every time I go to a gas station to fill up the tank. My Jeep has a new keyless gas cap, which never fits right onto the slightly bent, scratched up, gas nozzle whose one accusing eye looks at me every time I fill'er up.
Copyright ©1998, Cameron James MacMillan
To contact Mr. MacMillan: firstname.lastname@example.org
You've read about it, now see it. Animated vomit!
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