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Milkshake Media Puts the Brain in The Cell

By Sarah Hepola

AUGUST 21, 2000:  It was like a first date. The same nervousness, the same silent judgment, the same forced conversations -- David Fincher and Katherine Jones were meeting for the first time. Introduced by a mutual friend, the pair were there to decide whether or not they wanted to work together on Fincher's follow-up to the phenomenally successful Se7en. Although she had already enjoyed an impressive career in technology (including a job as senior VP of creative development at Austin's Girl Games), Jones was trained at Johns Hopkins in medical illustration -- that marriage of art and science dedicated to "helping people understand what's going on inside your body," as she puts it. It is medical illustrators who contribute those nifty pictures to textbooks, atlases, and pamphlets -- but as technology expands, so does the profession. As Jones says, "All this new media is making a big impact on how we understand the living body." Which is good. Because David Fincher was looking for a medical illustration that no one had ever seen.

Fincher was starting production on his upcoming movie -- an adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk's bleak satire of modern male soulsickness, Fight Club -- and he was talking about that film's opening sequence. His idea was to follow a thought from its origin in the brain of the protagonist, an unnamed narrator played by Edward Norton, to its manifestation outside the body. Only problem -- neither he nor his bleeding-edge production designers knew what that might look like. Which is where Katherine came in.

"I want it to be like a night dive," Fincher explained.

"I want it to feel like this." And with that, he cranked up Prodigy.

"And he has nice stereo," Jones remembers, "so it was really loud."

The resulting sequence, lasting almost exactly 90 seconds, took over six months to create. Exactly how the brain functions remains one of the great mysteries, so Jones spent a lot of that half-year researching how a thought travels through the mind, storyboarding it, and e-mailing sketches, ideas, and paintings from Austin. "My scanner was covered with paint," she says.

Although Fight Club's gristle and sneering left critics divided, few contested Fincher's bold vision or the originality of the opening sequence (animated by Digital Domain and backed not by Prodigy but by their electronica brethren, The Dust Brothers). It is a scene that could not have been created 10 years ago -- and for that matter, Fincher and Jones' working relationship might not have existed 10 years ago, before e-mail and scanning and posting to Web sites had made a collaboration between L.A. and Austin as easy as getting money after the banks close. The fact that Jones was 3,000 miles away from the action was far less compelling than her ability to render something artistic and accurate. So while Fincher and his production team became the Hollywood hotshots with the "new look," Katherine Jones -- medical illustrator, tech geek -- had one foot firmly in Hollywood's door.

After her work on Fight Club, Jones founded Milkshake Media, a year-old creative agency currently located on West Sixth and decorated with just as many sock monkeys as computers. The company specializes in the kind of disparate projects Jones thrives on, what she calls "strategic creative and design" -- including "user experience design, front-end Web site, branding and identity," and, of course, the occasional film. After collaborating with production designer Alex McDowd and visual effects supervisor Kevin Haug on Fight Club (Haug was the mutual friend who introduced Fincher and Jones), Milkshake was pulled onboard for each one's follow-up project (respectively): Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, starring Tom Cruise and based on a short story by science fiction virtuoso Philip K. Dick; and The Cell, which is poised to be the summer blockbuster we've all given up waiting for and is almost certain to have a phenomenal opening weekend at the box office.

For The Cell, Milkshake was contracted to design screens which would illustrate complex medical procedures for the audience and fit in with the film's flashy pseudoscience. For all its strengths, The Cell's storyline (written by Mark Protosevich) sounds like a lot of Hollywood hooha: Gifted child psychologist (Jennifer Lopez) enters the mind of comatose serial killer (Vincent D'Onofrio) through a controversial "transcendental science." Milkshake's challenge was to imagine how this made-up procedure might function and then give it an interface -- to make it look real, but almost as important, to make it look good. "It was an interesting process for us to realize that consciously we had to design an interface that wasn't going to be used by anyone," explains Jones, who admits their first design was sent back with the instruction to just "make it cool." They did, although not without research and meandering debates about what brain maps and mind maps might actually look like. The result?

"No medical monitor would look like that," says designer Brad Phillips.

True. But it's also true that -- fabricated though they are -- the screens Milkshake created may be the most believable things in the film. India-born director Tarsem, who helmed REM's "Losing My Religion" video and various high-profile commercials, is riffing here, using the virtual reality scenario to create a twisted mindscape full of grisly Hieronymous Bosch-type visuals never before seen in a mainstream film. Although Milkshake's contribution is relatively small, it's crucial to them that it maintained its own medical integrity even with its flourishes of hospital chic. "I'd love for anyone who had any medical background to be like, 'Yeah that's actually right,' or 'That's actually possible,'" Jones says. "I know I hate it when I go to a movie and stuff is just wrong." Examples? "Mission: Impossible 2," she says, without a pause.

"What's that Will Smith film?" asks Phillips. "Enemy of the State!" He then launches into a gripe about one particular technological cheat in that Information Age thriller. Of course, the same dissection could -- and most likely will -- be applied to The Cell, but Milkshake only has to answer for the medical screens they contributed. All that eye candy is the business of Tarsem and production designer Tom Foden.

Spielberg's Minority Report, on the other hand, presents Milkshake with a project grounded in what's medically -- rather than what's visually -- possible. Even before the script for Minority Report was finished, Jones explains, "There was a whole production department put together to work on what the look and feel of that movie was going to be." In addition, "They had this incredible think tank of scientists and architects and writers and artists" -- all put together by Stewart Brand 's Global Business Network to talk about what the world will be like in 2080, when the film takes place.

Minority Report is temporarily on hold while Spielberg tackles A.I., another science fiction drama starring Jude Law and Haley Joel Osment, but Milkshake is keeping busy in Hollywood. After meeting New Line Cinema's VP of marketing at last year's SXSW, they started designing Web sites for the movie company. "The problem with film sites is that they're all alike. They're like an online brochure," explains Jann Baskett, who worked as promotion director at Details and creative services director at Mademoiselle before moving to Austin. "But what The Blair Witch Project did was to make learning about the movie an experience rather than a reference." Following in those footsteps, Milkshake has conceived Web sites for New Line's Town and Country, a satire pairing Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton and written by Buck Henry (To Die For) whose site will launch nearer the film's spring release, and Adam Sandler's Little Nicky, opening this November (www.littlenicky.com). So far, New Line seems pretty happy with the upstarts from Austin. When Milkshake turned in their concept for the Little Nicky site -- a kind of "heavy metal Ouija board" -- New Line's response was: "This is funny, funny, funny."

"I get the feeling that being in Austin is one of the cool things that we bring to this, a kind of freshness," explains Jones. Unlike some L.A. firms for whom creating film sites is their bread and butter, "We're not burned out on making them."

With their still-intimate, 10-person team, Milkshake is keeping their number of projects down, although they are in the fortunate position of choosing what those projects are. Not just that, they get to work in Hollywood -- and live in Austin. Of her unexpected career move, Jones comments, "You always hear there's no money in art, there's no money for people who do creative work, but movies do allow opportunities for people to do really creative things. It's amazing to me that America has created this industry that actually is a really great place for creatives. This industry is paying artists, paying architects, paying people with a vision." For now, at least, Katherine Jones gets to be one of them.

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