Kim Knode's 1st place prize winning article in the writing contest:


The Computer Set Meets the Jet Set on the Movie Set


Stretch limos that squeak with polish, five-star hotels with a fawning staff attending to every request, reclining first class seats and gourmet fare served by attractive flight attendants, chasing highballs with movie stars who flash their pearly whites as you expound upon your knowledge of computers. Does this sound like a fantasy? A figment of a writer’s imagination? Think again.

Movie studios hire and jet-set David Watkinson all across the USA and Canada because they need his multimedia computer expertise and experience. Watkinson is consistently paid a high premium for his work. However, his title varies from job to job. "When I’m creating the animation, I’m usually called a computer programmer, because the title animator was already assigned to people who do the traditional Disney form of animation and to the post production people, who do the Industrial Light and Magic type of computer animation."

"My animations are different. They’re created for computer screens and video screens that will play in scenes that are filmed during principle photography. As a result, I frequently find myself on the set working with directors and actors as they shoot the scenes that feature my animations. When I’m doing that kind of work on the set, I’m called a computer playback operator."

Remember the scenes in MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE when Robyn Wright-Penn is frantically flipping through and scanning files on her PC to find the author of the passionate letter. Recall THE STORY OF US with Bruce Willis typing away on his novel. Watkinson’s team takes care of providing the computers and what appears on them, so that actors can easily interact with the machines and concentrate on obtaining an Oscar.

Leaning back in his ergonomic chair in his Santa Monica office he explains, "There is no reason to burden the talent [Hollywood speak for "actor"] with trying to accurately type something. It’s just much easier to let them bang away on the keyboard and program it so that any key will trigger the correct image, letter, word, database records, etc. to appear on the screen at the right time."

Those are the easy jobs. "A big part of what I do is create computer interfaces for programs that don’t exist. For example, I did BATMAN III and IV and MEN IN BLACK. In BATMAN IV, the Bat Computer monitor was 12 feet wide and involved a virtual Alfred talking and interacting with Batman. I was behind the screen sitting at my computer listening to George Cloony give his lines and making a digital Alfred respond to them. The abilities of the programs that appeared were totally made up. Just like Tommy Lee Jones using a satellite to zoom in on his old love in her garden in MEN IN BLACK was made up."

Watkinson clearly enjoys his career. His blue eyes dance with delight when he talks about the challenge of the projections and graphic animations needed for the giant screens in NASA’s Houston Control in both APOLLO 13 and SPACE COWBOYS. 

"In APOLLO 13 , I was simulating what was done at NASA in the 70's, which involved a strange hybrid of video and slides. For SPACE COWBOYS, because we were portraying the modern Mission Control, we took the opportunity to be the first to do HDTV (high definition television) projection in a feature and I was able to create more sophisticated graphics."

Watkinson used both 2-D (the shuttle landings and crashes) and 3-D programs (the projection in the NASA briefing room where the assembly sees an image of the out-of-control Russian satellite going around the earth.)

A grin appears on his boyish face when he describes the pleasure of days on the set with Robert Cabana, NASA’s Chief Astronaut, who served as the consultant for Clint Eastwood’s SPACE COWBOYS. Cabana or "Space Bob" as he was known by the computer and video playback team, inundated Watkinson with information on orbital mechanics and space shuttle technology "so that the computer screens would be accurate in all of the shuttle scenes with Tommy or Clint at the controls."

Another plus of working with the SPACE COWBOYS was that, "I usually have to have an audio hook-up to the actors’ microphones so that I can hear them and take my cues from their dialogue to coordinate computer screens with their activities. The actors' microphones are not turned off while they’re wearing them, and I usually don’t take off my earphones between every take. As a result, on SPACE COWBOYS, I ended up spending a lot of time, in essence, eavesdropping on the private conversations of Clint Eastwood, James Garner, Tommy Lee Jones and Donald Sutherland. It was a lot of fun. They tend to entertain each other with raunchy jokes and great anecdotes." 

Watkinson takes a sip of organic lemonade and smiles as he remembers, "Actually, I felt quite privileged because some of Clint and James Garner’s stories about their experiences as young men in the military made me realize they aren’t phoney Hollywood tough guys - they’re for real."

Watkinson sites SPACE COWBOYS as his most enjoyable on-set experience. Apparently, everybody loves working for "The Boss"- the crew's affectionate nickname for Clint Eastwood. When asked which of his animations he most enjoyed seeing on the screen, he replies, "I got a kick from seeing MEN IN BLACK when Tommy Lee Jones erases Will Smith’s identity. I felt proud of how I constructed that animation, how it built to his being assigned his new identity. And I was particularly amused by the erasing of his birth certificate with his baby footprints disappearing, because they were my footprints that I scanned in." The single Watkinson chuckles, "They were the handiest baby feet I could find."

I mention that the absence of family photos in his office seems to have been filled with a proliferation of Macintosh computers, a few Linux boxes and one big black cat named Howard. Watkinson nods and says that he is a cross-platform man, but usually finds himself on a Macintosh for multimedia. "The Macs were designed from the beginning to be a graphic multi-media machine and the PCs were not. Although Windows has caught up, I expect that the new Mac OSX, a true Unix Operating System, will allow Macs to make another giant leap ahead."

So what kind of software does Watkinson advocate? "The artwork for the most part is done in Photoshop, then I take it into Director - Macromedia Director has a very sophisticated scripting language I use to create the inter-activity for the animations" explains Watkinson, a former American Film Institute instructor. "For example, in ANTITRUST (a new film starring Tim Robbins) the computers appear to be running the Linux operating system, but the actual "playback" computers were running either the Mac OS or Windows 98. We just created the illusion of running Linux by animating screen shots in Director."

When Watkinson refers to "we" in speaking about the movie ANTITRUST, he’s talking about a team of six animator/programmers that worked under his supervision — an all-time high number for Watkinson. Is his goal to continue to grow his team? "Although I’m about to do my fourth Schwarzenegger film [COLLATERAL DAMAGE], I’m actually going to phase out of the movies as my primary focus and into the Internet full time."

Sitting up in his seat, he enthusiastically explains, "I formed a company with an expert on smart cards and other technologies to implement a very unique business plan. Part of the plan involves broadband media-rich distance learning [both Watkinson and his partner were Professors — Watkinson at UCLA Graduate School of Film and his partner at Santa Monica College] and another part of the plan involves enabling ecommerce sites to accept smart card payments. I can’t talk about the biggest part of the plan right now, but I’m really excited about it!"

Will he miss the sparkle of tinsel town? Watkinson admits, "I’m going to miss being on the set, but part of our Internet business will involve Hollywood. Besides, what I consider to be my life’s work I can only do on the Internet. Ever since it came along, I knew that’s where I would eventually end up."

And clearly this man who has worked with the masters of imagination has no illusions about his tomorrow that is whisking him away into a first-class future.