The Men Behind '405,' the Web's Most Popular Short Film
I suffer from "bad flier syndrome." A lot of people do. Cottonmouth, anxiety, the twitchies. Every time I take a commercial airliner flight, my body kick-starts a host of nervous ailments. I hate this, but there's nothing I can do about it. Don't blame me -- blame the bossa nova.
I drive a lot -- much more than I fly -- on and around the dreaded I-35 collision corridor. Nerve-racking on the best of days, the rampant tailgaters and speed-crazed lunatics that miraculously pass endless streams of DPS paperwork to obtain their precious license-to-almost-kill offer an equally hellish version of terra firma transport. Forget the trains; the planes and the automobiles are screwing me up enough, thank you very much.
Which brings me to "405," a short (less than three minutes) digital film by Jeremy Hunt and Bruce Branit. If you haven't seen it yet, go -- right now! -- to www.405themovie.com and check it out before reading on. Combining an earthbound DC-10 and a Jeep Grand Cherokee meeting unexpectedly on Los Angeles' sprawling 405 highway, the film has created the kind of Web-based stir that most filmmakers (online or otherwise) can only dream about. After a million-plus hits on their own Web site, the duo uploaded the film to Internet movie venue iFilm.com, and that's when things really took off.
Until recently, Hunt and Branit were a couple of lower-echelon effects artists toiling away on the background starfields of television shows like Star Trek: Voyager and The X-Files while working at effects house Digital Muse. Not much glamour, but they were doing well enough. Still, the niggling feeling that they could be doing so much more created a bond, the two partnered up, and, brainstorming, came up with "405."
From concept to final cut, the entire affair took three and a half months and includes a grand total of 62 shots, 42 of which are digitally rendered. Nineteen of those shots are entirely digital in origin. All of this with off-the-shelf software, a consumer DV cam (the Canon Optura), and a desktop computer. Simple. A guy, a car, a little old lady, and a plane doesn't sound like all that much on paper, but the film's spectacular editing, dynamic soundtrack, and wry humor make the short more than the sum of its parts. Watching it is like watching a clip from some new Jan de Bont or James Cameron action extravaganza. It's that good.
Since the film's Web debut June 5, Hunt and Branit have seen their lives turned upside down by literally overnight success. They've been wooed (and signed) by talent agents CAA, toasted by the digerati, and offered directing deals. The short is even available for purchase on Amazon.com. It doesn't get any sweeter than this, and all from a brief little film that plays off my two most annoying phobias. In anticipation of the duo's appearance at SXSW Interactive, I spoke with the pair on the phone from California, where they're currently parlaying their success story into a too-cool-for-words career move. Here's what they had to say.
Austin Chronicle: You went from doing effects work on Star Trek: Voyager and The X-Files to being the dynamic duo of the online filmmaking community and fielding calls from CAA. What's that been like?
Bruce Branit: Early on, we made a very good decision. We realized that we were on a ride, a roller coaster, and we knew that within the first week of having put the film online. It suddenly started having a life of its own, and we agreed that no matter what happens, this sort of situation doesn't occur too often so let's have fun with it. Let's not worry about things we can't control.
Jeremy Hunt: As far as our day-to-day life changing, we're now in a position to do things that excite us, for ourselves, and not just pushing buttons for someone else.
BB: We quit our jobs almost immediately. We had both been doing visual effects work for a small company called Digital Muse.
JH: Any time you saw the Enterprise or some sort of effect along those lines, that was our work.
AC: What kind of software were you using on that?
BB: Lightwave 3D, which is the same thing we used to create "405."
AC: How did the two of you get involved in using Lightwave, and how did you end up doing visual effects work in the first place?
BB: I picked it up while working at an ad agency and really took to it right off the bat. It was a way to make movies without having to know that much more about film itself. You could do it all within this one box. That led me to wanting to pursue a career in visual effects, which in turn brought me out to L.A.
JH: I went to film school at Long Beach State, and it got me into the digital aspect of moviemaking, specifically editing. That was the first time I was presented with the fact that I could do digital special effects. I was fascinated by it. So I went to Digital Muse and begged for a job, got an internship for six months, and ended up working there for three years. All of this with no previous knowledge of 3D software or special effects at all. I just learned on the job and grew to be very passionate about it. I was really drawn to it because you can essentially be a one-person studio, which was kind of our mantra for "405" -- we wanted to be able to do it all, and the tools enabled us to do that.
AC: How did the idea of "405" come up?
JH: When I began working at Digital Muse, I recognized Bruce immediately as the guy to know because 1) I was reading the manuals and realized he had written one of them, and 2) he was obviously a guy who knew what he was doing. He ended up being sort of my mentor as far as special effects and software and the industry went. And then it turned out that we had a lot of common interests, and we became very good friends over the years. Around the last year of our employment at Digital Muse, we were both really frustrated with our creative output. We loved what we were doing, but at the same time, we were doing things for other people. We were fulfilling other people's visions, and we had little or no say in the final outlook of the show. We could come up with what we thought was the greatest thing in the world, but 10 guys up the level might think that it should be purple instead of red. So we were looking for a project that we could do ourselves.
AC: Tell me about the decision to do virtually everything on the film CGI. Things that you would think may have been easier to accomplish with live-action are actually done entirely in the box in "405." How come?
JH: There's a couple of reasons for that. First off, we knew what we were capable of doing in the amount of time we had with the resources we had. And then, shooting a car on the freeway sounds easy, but it's impossible, or at least it would have been for us. There's no way the elderly actress we used for the woman in the car could have gotten in the car and on the freeway because 1) we didn't have permits, energy, or money enough to set that production up, and 2) she couldn't drive a car. Mostly we chose to do it the way we did because it was the easiest and cheapest way to do it. For us, because we knew the digital tools, doing it the easiest way meant filming it now and worrying about adding the CG backgrounds and the plane later.
AC: Whose idea was it originally?
BB: I had done a shot of a plane landing on a freeway, just as proof-of-concept. A close variation of it is in "405," and that's the shot that started the ball rolling. We kind of looked at each other and said we should do the most killer sequence of action and whatnot and just knock people's socks off. And, of course, we needed a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In talking over the course of two or three hours, we came up with what we wanted to do and we were shooting it two days later.
AC: Tell me a little about the initial reaction after it went online.
BB: It was funny, because to finish the movie we spent about 48 straight hours awake mixing the audio and doing final tweaks on the last visuals. So at about two in the morning on a Monday we uploaded the final cut to our site, and we sent a few e-mails out saying "Here it is," and then crashed out after our long last push. Monday morning we went to work and all of a sudden had a whole bunch of e-mails, the general gist of which were, "Oh, man, this is awesome -- I'm sending it out to everyone I know." That first week, every day was on an exponential curve of how ridiculous can this get. Each day had its own sort of "this is too bizarre" moment, and the next day would be even more bizarre. By that Friday, we had to take a day off work to go meet the mayor of L.A., who was dedicating the building at iFilm.com. It was just amazing.
JH: We were shocked more than anything that people were finding it on their own. Our intent has always been to go to an outlet like iFilm or Atom Films or MediaTrip to kind of broaden our exposure, but we never got a chance to contact them because we put it up on our site on Monday and by Wednesday iFilm had already asked us if we were interested in putting it on their site. And then the next week was even crazier, because CAA [Creative Artists Agency] was calling us, and people were asking for interviews. It was nuts.
AC: What kind of role did iFilm play in getting this film out to the masses? Do you think as many people would have found it without iFilm's input?
BB: If you look at the first, early part of June, when the film was released, we estimate that we generated a million hits off of our site alone. But iFilm came along at just the right time, because the way the bandwidth was growing, we were searching for mirror sites and whatnot to kind of spread it out. We were just getting pummeled. We were worried that it would get so popular that no one was ever going to see it.
iFilm actually called us on the second day -- on Tuesday -- and asked us to come in and get it up on their site.
JH: And it worked well for them, too, as an opportunity to publicize their site. Our ultimate goal was to just get eyes watching "405." We thought that might be a couple thousand. It turned out to be a few million, which is awesome. So iFilm, to that end, did a really good job of throwing their whole PR department at the mix and getting us interviews and setting up TV shows and all kinds of stuff.
AC: Could this sort of Web-film-as-Web-event have been done even a year ago?
BB: I don't think so. I don't think the bandwidth was fast enough. Even now it's a struggle to download it with a 56K modem. We really couldn't have picked a better time for it, because the Internet is still young enough that the cool factor of finding something new like "405" is there, but it's widespread enough so that enough people have access to the Internet and are interested in it that they'll seek stuff like this out. Two years ago I doubt we would have had nearly the audience that we do now.
AC: Obviously not every digital filmmaker who puts his stuff online can expect the sort of reaction you've received. That said, how important is the role that online film outlets such as iFilm play in generating buzz and generally assisting filmmakers?
JH: It's a huge deal, definitely. Before the Internet and places like iFilm and Atom Films and outlets like that, there was no outlet. It was like, spend a lot of money making your film, spend a lot of money trying to get it entered in festivals (and at $50 a pop sometimes that's just not practical), and hope someone sees it. I'm sure there's been a lot of really quality films that nobody has ever seen and that nobody probably ever will see simply because those outlets weren't available. The Internet provides that, though. It's kind of the democracy of entertainment.
BB: The Internet really has a viral effect. Things worth watching, things that connect, people will find on their own, wherever it may be. One of the interesting dilemmas with the Internet is that it's such a free exchange of information that people have to get comfortable with the idea that they can't control the spread of their movies. I think there's a tendency to want to hold on to things because you've worked very hard on it and you don't want it to just be copied and duplicated and sent everywhere. Initially our plan was not to make any money off of this movie, because we knew the harder we tried to do that the less people might get to see it. And for us it was all about "Let's let people see this and the reward will come later." And that's what happened.
Bruce Branit and Jeremy Hunt will lead a panel at SXSW Interactive called "Case Study: '405' the Movie" Sunday, March 11, at 1:30pm.