Johnny Mnemonic: Behind the Scenes at Sony Pictures Imageworks!

“…Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”


   This is lifted entirely from the now-defunct Sony website, circa 1995. I present it here simply for the sake of completeness and ease of access, and do not claim any authorship or rights whatsoever. I have tried to maintain the original formatting wherever possible. I have also taken the liberty of inserting extra images and captions to provide more information.


   “A graphical representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”
   – Cyberspace as defined by William Gibson in his award-winning 1984 novel, Neuromancer.


For artists in the visual effects industry, film adaptations of William Gibson’s books are the Holy Grail. No other writer captures the high tech future as imaginatively, as vividly nor as cinematically. So it was with enormous enthusiasm that visual effects producer George Merkert of Sony Pictures Imageworks seized the opportunity to produce Gibson’s cyberspace for Tri-Star’s new release, Johnny Mnemonic.

Merkert (Total Recall, In the Line of Fire) has been captivated by Gibson’s work for years. Since producing a test visualization of cyberspace in 1990 for director James Cameron, Merkert sought the chance to bring Gibson’s majestic idea to the screen. In early 1994, Johnny Mnemonic became that opportunity.

Sony Pictures Imageworks enlisted visual effects supervisor John Nelson to head the production. Nelson, an Industrial Light & Magic veteran, is best known for his stunning work on Cameron’s Terminator 2, specifically the scene where the T-1000’s head splits open and rejoins in one smooth, jaw-dropping effect.

Nelson and Merkert began the long process of conceptualizing cyberspace with intense discussions between Johnny Mnemonic‘s director Robert Longo and William Gibson. Collaborating closely, the four used color rendered paintings created by artist Jamie Rama as a vehicle for their design dialogue.

Cyberspace Concept Art

Concept art of cyberspace by Rama. Note that much of the graphic design work (logos, banner ads) is already done and will remain unchanged in the final film. Note also the nearly invisible ‘real’ ads: Keds (children’s shoes) in the bottom center, and Sony on the bottom right.

Like a method actor, Nelson immersed himself fully in his material–the near future. At Gibson’s suggestion, he flew to New Leaf Technologies in Silicon Valley to get first hand knowledge of the world of virtual reality. While at New Leaf, Nelson experienced several VR applications including a virtual gall bladder operation. The biggest impact on Nelson’s thinking, though, came from a comment made by the VR researchers at New Leaf. They said he should forget about where VR is right now and visualize it as a rich, high-resolution, super-fast medium. They said the technology will follow fiction, and as VR is perceived on film, so may it very well come to be.

The Animation Process

At SPI, as at most other high-end visual effects houses, much of the computer graphics work for feature films is created on powerful Silicon Graphics workstations. Time and budget constraints for the production of the Cyberspace Sequences in Johnny Mnemonic, however, precluded the use of a high-end solution for the execution. Nelson and Merkert had to create a lower cost answer to give Gibson and Longo their cyberspace.

The production team turned to Frank Foster and Sony Pictures Imageworks’ Previsualization and Multimedia Department. Foster has long been an advocate of PC-based feature film production. His department pioneered the use of computers in the electronic storyboarding of feature films.

“We have always had a great PC department,” said Nelson. “And this was the perfect project for them. We were able to provide our client with twice the shots for the same cost, and we knew the look Longo was after could be achieved with this approach.”

“As a full service production company, we had a wide range of options for solving the cyberspace problem. Though they are not the appropriate platform for all computer graphic productions, PCs were the best solution for this particular production problem.”

Foster assigned 10 of his best animators to create a series of tests on the PCs. The resulting 45 minute video tape was sent to the vacationing Nelson in Hawaii.

Cyberspace Previs Video

Cyberspace pre-vis video frame. Note the exacting recreation of the concept art, down to the odd shape with a bulge and cut corner in the upper right. Note the addition of the PharmaKom banner in the upper left. Note also the rudimentary textures of the background shapes. These will become more complicated in geometry and texture later.

“It was immediately clear that Frank’s group was totally inspired to do their best work,” recalled Nelson. “The very day I got back, we started a schedule of daily meetings and screenings with videotapes sent to Longo and Gibson.”

George Merkert concentrated on production concerns. He questioned Foster and Nelson about their chosen production pipeline. Could the PC handle the resolution? What about the color and lighting? Would it be up to feature film quality? Merkert’s biggest concern was the VR data glove animation since it needed to perfectly match the movements in the live action Keanu Reeves shots with which the computer graphics created shots were to be intercut.

“John used the idea of the data gloves brilliantly,” said Merkert. “Since our visualization of it is pretty abstract, we needed to give the audience a way to access cyberspace along with the Johnny Mnemonic character. Nelson hit upon the idea of using the data gloves as a continuity device to carry the audience over the live action footage into the computer generated world. Therefore, believable animation of the data gloves was extraordinarily important.”


Foster asked for one week to do an animation test of the data gloves. If Merkert wasn’t convinced of the technical approach, they would revert to more traditional animation techniques. The responsibility for this test was given to veteran effects animator Glenn Campbell. After seeing his test, Merkert became a believer.


Pre-vis video frame with data gloves. Though some arrangement and geometry remains exactly the same (PharmaKom banner, “bb” banner, box-with-bulge in the upper right), note the addition along the left side of the ‘centipede’ or ‘ladder’ structure which would be used to populate the distant reaches of cyberspace in the final film.

“I was very impressed with Glenn’s talent. It’s hard to believe that he animated the gloves without using inverse kinematics or motion capture – he keyframed entirely by hand,” said Merkert.

To translate Jamie Rama’s concept paintings into fully colored and lit 3D computer graphics, SPI turned to world-renowned digital artist Brummbaer. Brummbaer, a long-time collaborator of Gibson protege Timothy Leary, textured detail to the building designs. “Brummbaer gave the show that detailed, edgy look we were looking for,” said Nelson. “We all tapped into this vision of cyberspace as a gritty but ornate, future urban environment. Once the rules of that space were defined, cyberspace began to mesh visually and conceptually.” Matt Hausle and David Worman, experienced SPI animators, led the production charge supervising animators and doing shots themselves.

Brummbaer period sample gallery. Note the use of Gibson’s creations in the center pic, the terraced ‘ziggurat’ structure in the foreground of the left pic, and the tiled circuit pattern in pics 2 and 3. All will be reflected or replicated in the final JM CGI.

A day before screening the first Cyberspace Sequence shots for the film’s producer, Peter Hoffman, Merkert received a concerned phone call. Hoffman wanted to know why the crucial cyberspace shots were being created on PCs and not on more powerful machines. Was it possible that SPI had misjudged the PC as a production platform?

The next day, SPI screened the footage for Hoffman. As he walked out of the screening room he said, “Whatever John Nelson is doing, he is doing it right. I couldn’t be happier with the way it looks.”

The First Preview

The first Cyberspace Sequence, called the “Telephone Call,” scored very high with preview audiences – high enough that director Longo came back to SPI to create another Cyberspace Sequence. He wanted his movie to begin on the Internet of the future. A digital wake up call – transmitted through several exquisite reaches of cyberspace – would arouse Johnny Mnemonic in his hotel room and give audiences their first clue as to the protagonist’s character. Gibson also wrote a prologue to set up the story which Longo wanted stylized with digital animation. Again, Nelson, Merkert, Foster, and the Sony Pictures Imageworks crew seized the opportunity – even adding a main title treatment to this opening sequence of the film.


Opening sequence ‘set’ fly-through still from the Movie Magic episode. Discernable in this shot are the red “Height” kanji (, center) and the ‘volcanoes’ on the center left.


From left, John Nelson, George Merkert and Frank Foster

For many of the artists at SPI, being the first to bring Cyberspace to screen is more than a career highlight. Concluded Nelson, “If it’s true that future technologies will be influenced by today’s filmed images, what a thrill to be designing what it might look like.”

Johnny Mnemonic on the Internet

During the time that Imageworks had been working on Johnny Mnemonic, Sony had been developing its WWW site. Under the direction of Matt Rothman, Sony On-line became the company’s presence that would link all the sister companies under one site. Coordinating for Sony Pictures was Richard Glosser who also brought the design of the Sony Pictures Entertainment home page to Frank Foster’s PC design department. The page was art directed by Jamie Rama who also did the cyberspace sequences.

(Editor’s note: the following section refers to a now-defunct scavenger hunt of some sort. I have been able to discover no other details about this. If you have information or images from this ‘nethunt’, please contact me. Here are the references I can gather: Nathan, Bloggle, Google Books )

The special internet promotion found on this Website is a collaboration between all the Sony divisions, and the interactive game grid was custom-rendered from the same 3D graphic database that was created for Johnny Mnemonic. This grid consists of over 6000 images that were rendered at 600 x 600 and output in both GIF and JPEG formats. This is a lot of graphic data. With a concern about how to avoid as much as possible slow downloads off the server, especially with the amount of traffic that was expected for the site, Sony went to Digital Equipment Corporation, a leader in web site server technology. The interactive game grid is running off a DEC Alpha server on a T1 line.

Additional HTML programming for the game grid was provided by vivid studios. The game grid was sponsored by Autodesk Inc. and Digital Equipment Corp. – the same software and hardware companies whose products were used to create the cyberspace sequences in the film and the only non-fictional corporations that actually appear in those shots (Emphasis mine – Ed.).

Another exciting attraction on the Johnny Mnemonic home page is the Virtual Reality download. Imageworks took the same cyberspace database used in the opening of the movie and simplified it to render in real-time using Autodesk’s Cyberspace Developers Kit. Software engineers Brian Blau (Autodesk) and Joe Munkeby (Imageworks) created this VR player and data as a free downloadable package.

Rama on Left Brummbaer on Right

Jamie Rama, Art Director
Rachel Nicoll, Title Designer
World-Renowned Artist, Brummbaer

Author: Staff Writer

Thirty-something graphic designer trapped in a boring part of Florida.

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