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Video Display Graphics on 24

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Jack Bauer is in trouble. But after a handful of key clicks, Chloe O’Brian quickly zooms in on him from her desktop workstation at CTU, advising him of the three bad guys behind him. Alas, it was not O’Brian’s handiwork that saved the hero of Fox’s 24, but a small group of graphics professionals who were already hard at work on the problem.24’s fictional Counter-Terrorist Unit (CTU) headquarters is loaded with computer monitors and plasma screens, each displaying unique and fascinating graphic material, from satellite imagery to building schematics, data tables, video feeds and more. Amazingly, all of those graphics are created for each episode by a single designer, Olivier Benamou, under direction of the show’s production designer Joseph Hodges.“We try to make them as real as possible,” Hodges says. “Because there are so many, and they’re so integral to the set; it becomes a look, it becomes wallpaper.”The process begins with a concept meeting for the pair of episodes being prepped (24 shoots two at a time), followed by a video graphics meeting with Hodges, Benamou, the director, and UPM Michael Klick. “At the concept meeting, we’ll go through the script and determine what’s needed and whether it’s doable or not,” Benamou says. “Then Joseph and I meet, and he gives me an idea of the way he sees things happening.”“I art-direct it the way I would a set,” says Hodges. “I tell Olivier what I need to see happen: ‘Okay, we start with this screen. She hits a couple of keys, and this window appears. Then this window slides over.’” For complicated sequences, Hodges will draft a storyboard to assist in the design. “If I’m lucky, they’ll shoot the scene before I have to build the animation, giving me a point of reference,” says Benamou. “But if it has to be photographed before the scene is shot, I’ll go to the director or to Joseph and say, ‘How do you see this happening?’ and he’ll draw it for me.”Working in the Chatsworth, California office and studio complex where the show is shot, Benamou builds each graphics file using a handful of software packages, including Adobe Photoshop, Adobe After Effects, Autodesk’s 3D Studio Max and Macromedia Director. “We have basically two kinds of graphics: the ‘background package,’ which you see on the plasma screens and on computer monitors in the background, and ‘hero’ graphics, which are specific to the scene and is what you see on Chloe’s or another actor’s screen.” Benamou will rotate out the “nondescript,” or ND, background material with new content every four or five episodes, sometimes making use of graphics built for scenes never filmed.For the “hero” content, such as satellite photos, floor plans or electrical schematics, Benamou will use whatever miscellaneous graphics are available (taking advantage of the production’s relationships with Apple and Microsoft, who provide some such material), or build it himself.For satellite or aerial imagery, Hodges prefers to see footage shot specifically for the scene, sometimes taking a camera up in a Cessna and shooting 2nd unit himself. “I’ve started having Olivier add in clouds to the foreground, to give the satellite images some depth,” he says.When creating a graphic showing, say, Bauer being tracked as he moves through a building, Hodges and Benamou agreed to keep it simple, using plain symbols and shapes to depict people, rather than human figures. In one scene in this year’s second episode, there were 127 agents surrounding Bauer. “It can get a little complicated.”Once the graphics files are completed, they’re handed off to video playback operators Dan Murbarger and Tim Whittet, located in a hot, cramped 8 ft. by 15 ft. playback area loaded with computers behind a portion of the set.A total of 16 computers run up to 50 screens at a time: 10 for the ND background content (output at 30 fps), two faster 30 fps units to handle the more complicated “hero” files, and four 48 Hz computers that output at the rate needed for the plasma monitors so they won’t produce a visible pulse in the image.The team also uses a Folsom Research Screen Pro scaler/switcher. “That allows us to mix video and computer file content on one screen,” explains Murbarger, for scenes where, for example, a “live” video conference-call image can be placed on a plasma screen amid other graphics. Additionally, Schindler standard converters are used to convert 30 fps material to 24 fps, as needed.Benamou provides executable Macromedia Projector files, eliminating the need for installation of the Director program on each playback computer. The files are triggered on cue by Murbarger and Whittet. “We prep by watching the rehearsals, but also do as much as possible ahead of time, studying the script, etc.” says Murbarger. “The director also will give us cue points. And we have video assist monitors, as well as com from the sound department, to listen to the dialogue. So as the actors type, we do our bit.” Their “bit” can be fairly challenging, particularly when 40 monitors are running at once. “They’ll be pressing keys with their hands and feet to make it work,” says Benamou.The results are impressive, with believable graphics keeping viewers enthralled in the story. “If the audience thinks it looks real,” says Hodges, “then I’ve done my job.”

Written by Matt Hurwitz

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