Walking, talking, and looking pretty is a tall enough order for most actors. The last thing they need to worry about is how to operate a computer when they’re on camera. And let’s face it — that white-knuckle scene where our hero hacks into a computer network might not be so thrilling if the actor hits the wrong key and inadvertently launches Sim City.
Cue Bob Self. The longtime Mac enthusiast writes mini-applications to run on the computers that appear in movies and on TV. Self’s work gives audiences the illusion of a working computer while eliminating the possibility that an actor might click on the wrong button in a critical scene.
Although he started out as a writer, Self enjoyed playing with graphics programs like Canvas on his PowerBook. A cousin who worked on the TV series Get Real told him about television’s need for special computer graphics work, and a career was born. Self’s work has appeared on Gilmore Girls, Ally McBeal, and most notably, Boston Public — Self supplies the show’s teacher-mocking, Macromedia Flash-like animations that appear on a fictional student Web site.
Self begins his Boston Public work after receiving a script from series creator David E. Kelley. Like human actors, the computer needs to follow the script exactly. Self makes a first pass on a blue-and-white 350MHz Power Mac G3 with 900MB of RAM, using Adobe Photoshop and After Effects. Kelley and the show’s other producers take a look at the first draft and make suggestions.
Unless the producers have a license from the software manufacturer, Self captures a program screen shot and uses Photoshop to tweak the interface. For example, by changing copyrighted icons or erasing a few menu bars, he can create a Web browser that looks almost — but not quite — like Microsoft Internet Explorer.
Self imports his Photoshop files into Macromedia Director to create sequences in which a mouse click opens other Photoshop images, mimicking a working computer. If the script requires the actors to type, Self creates animations that display one correct letter for each keystroke — no matter which key the actor hits. The final product goes on a CD, which is actually what’s running whenever actors use a computer in front of the camera.
But you can’t just point a camera at a CRT and film away. The monitor’s refresh rate must be synched up with the 24-frames-per-second shooting speed of a film camera — even when the computer screen is just in the background.
“Working with David E. Kelley is a high-profile job,” Self says. “Lots of other programs have a paint-by-numbers style, but all of his shows demand a very high quality of production.”
Fortunately, Self never has to worry that any of his computers will throw a star tantrum — unless he programs them to.
Photograph by Jeff Vacirca