If you were online in June 2000, here’s what you might have seen: pages of GIFs, Homestar Runner, and a three-minute clip of a commercial airliner making an emergency landing on top of an SUV in the middle of a deserted Los Angeles freeway.
That clip was “405,” a bite-sized, pre-YouTube short largely credited with creating the viral video and modeling its potential to set creators on an accelerated track toward mainstream legitimacy. Conceived of and executed by two VFX artists who just wanted to tell stories, the film’s success would go on to revolutionize the way we watch and distribute video content, foreshadow computer graphics’ impact on low-budget film, and inspire a handful of Hollywood’s top creators.
Five years before YouTube was born, Bruce Branit and Jeremy Hunt were two Hollywood VFX artists working at a boutique company and churning out effects for The X-Files and Star Trek shows like Voyager and Deep Space Nine. At the ages of 30 and 26, respectively, they weren’t quite Hollywood hayseeds, but they still felt constrained by the limitations of their position.
“We felt that we had an amazing skill set that most filmmakers didn’t have access to without a huge budget,” Hunt told The A.V. Club in an email. “So we started trying to come up with ideas.”
They brainstormed for months, but nothing stuck. Then one day, acting on a hunch, Branit took his digital camera, stuck it out of the sunroof of his Jeep, and captured stills of the 405 during his commute home. He wanted to see how hard it would be to empty the freeway using CG geometry. Not very, it turned out.
Branit showed Hunt the test he made on a Thursday morning. Within hours they had their premise and by Saturday, production was underway on what would become their magnum opus: an action comedy starring two non-actors, filmed using consumer camera gear, and edited on two underpowered home computers.
The bit was simple. A driver—portrayed by Hunt after Branit refused to appear on screen—zooms down an empty freeway, unaware of the wide-body jet airliner struggling to maintain altitude overhead. Through his rearview mirror, the driver watches in horror as the plane descends, landing atop his Jeep, thrusting it forward, and threatening to flatten the only other driver on the road: an oblivious old lady. The SUV skids to a stop having narrowly avoided the other car and the old lady rolls up, flips off the Jeep and continues on her way. A tight three acts in a mere 150 seconds.
They filmed the movie over the weekend on a microscopic budget of $300, nearly half of which went toward paying off two traffic tickets issued by the California Highway Patrol for walking on the shoulder during production. A great-aunt of Hunt’s then-girlfriend was cast as the old lady who drives past and flips him off, a challenge since she had never driven a car before and her fingers were too arthritic to assume the traditional middle-finger position.
They completed post-production over the next three months, working at home on nights and weekends to build the computer-generated environment where the airplane would land. Determined to keep the project from languishing in editing, Branit sent out a mass email, setting a premiere date for June 5, 2000.
Expectations were low—all they really wanted was to entertain their friends and maybe rustle up some freelance work. “I can’t say we expected it to blow up like it did, since nothing really had in this way,” Branit said during a Zoom chat. “But there was definitely a hope and a feeling that we were onto something special.”
Here’s how you went “viral” in the late ’90s: you put your work on VHS tapes and made copies. Lots of copies. With a little luck, people might duplicate them and pass them along. With a bit more luck, a tape might land on the right industry desk where it could change your life. Hey, it worked for South Park.
But now the ’90s were over, broadband was creeping into America’s offices and Al Gore’s internet loomed, vast and unexplored. Branit and Hunt decided to forgo physical tapes in favor of housing their film on a website hosted by an internet friend. “We loved everything about the internet,” Hunt says. “The internet to us was like, this is the future. A lot of people were saying it at the time, but we really were involved deeply in what the internet could mean.”
With their self-imposed deadline fast approaching, it was time to upload the film. Hunt says “I have a very specific memory of the night before or the day of, encoding it to test it and going ‘Oh my god. We’re screwed, we’re done, this isn’t going to work.’”
The problem was the film’s file size. Without the benefits of streaming, the filmmakers had to compress the video to a size small enough to download to a computer, without compromising its quality or visibility. Unwilling to post a pint-size version of the film, the filmmakers were on the verge of scrapping the project altogether when a friend steered them towards their solution. An encoder called DivX solved the file size issue, but created another hurdle. In order to watch the film, viewers would have to download the corresponding decoder.
Even back in 2000 when dial-up speeds demanded next-level patience, asking people to complete a two-step process to consume content was a gamble. The crazier part, Hunt says, is that it worked. “Thousands of people downloaded software just to watch our film,” he says. “That’s how viral it went.”
Branit and Hunt uploaded the video on a Monday and e-mailed the link to 50 of their friends with a note explaining, “This is why we haven’t had time to have a beer for the last three months.” The first day, the film garnered a couple hundred views. The next day it hit 500. By Wednesday, it had surpassed 2,000 views and agencies began reaching out. By the time Friday rolled around, they had received requests for industry partnerships, a phone call from the mayor of Los Angeles, and almost 100,000 downloads. Branit remembers, “Within a week or two it was at a few million, and we were fielding offers to host it from iFilm and flying to New York for the Today Show going, ‘What the fuck is going on?’”
During production on the film, Branit and Hunt were both nominated for two Emmys for their work on Star Trek: Voyager, but it was “405” that opened industry doors for them. They met with A-list directors and producers who couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of a low-budget film using computer graphics to build an entirely new world. Industry veterans theorized about how they cleared off the freeway, perhaps editing footage from the O.J. Simpson chase, or dumping a dummy off an overpass to create a break in traffic. According to the filmmakers, they never guessed right.
“[Independence Day writer] Dean Devlin was blown away because [that film] spent millions of dollars clearing off the Brooklyn Bridge to traffic and we essentially did the same thing with a camera and a couple computers,” Hunt remembers.
Among the high points of the film’s success was when Roger Ebert featured it on his weekly review show, Ebert Presents: At The Movies. Hunt says, “He was so complimentary, and it was validation that everything we were trying to do was resonating at the highest levels.”
But buried underneath all the accolades, resentment simmered. Later that year, Branit and Hunt were hanging out when a call came in. It was Ebert and he was concerned. He had received a letter from a source alleging that the pair had misrepresented their work on the film. The source claimed that, contrary to what Branit and Hunt were telling the media, the film’s construction relied heavily on professional equipment housed at the VFX studio where Branit and Hunt both worked.
Branit was flummoxed. “My call with him was half, ‘You’re not really Roger Ebert,’ and the second half, ‘Holy shit! Someone we work with actually went to the trouble to embellish a story about us to Roger fucking Ebert.’”
The story fed to Ebert was only partly true. The June 5 premiere date that Branit selected helped propel the project over the finish line, but the day before their deadline, they found themselves two shots short of a completed film. Branit explains, “We weren’t going to finish rendering on our home computers in time.” They had spent three months purposefully sequestered, battling against exhausted processors in order to prove their authorship. Now it all seemed for naught. “So,” Branit says, “I broke quarantine and took those two shots into the facility where we worked and processed them on faster machines.”
These two shots—plus a consumer-grade digital camera they borrowed from their boss, with his permission, for use on the film—comprised the total extent of the “cheating” that occurred. But by the time the accusations reached Ebert’s ears, the implication was that the film had been created by a team of artists and relied predominantly on expensive software and equipment.
The accusations, made by people the filmmakers believed to be friends, were among the more “sobering lessons” of the film, Branit says. And they stung at the time, even after Ebert published a follow-up article professing his belief in the filmmakers. Branit and Hunt say there were other contributing factors—a “perceived slight” over an Emmy nomination and the media’s incorrect assessment of them as novice whiz-kids—but these were outside of their control. “Now,” Hunt says, “I just chuckle because the motivation is so transparent.”
In the twenty years since its release, “405” has found a place in cinematic history. Countless film schools have requested permission to use it as a reference when teaching three-act writing structure. J.J. Abrams even cited it as an inspiration during his 2007 Ted Talk.
Everything about the internet has changed since the turn of the century except this: There will always be content creators with big dreams, small budgets and specific skill sets striving to make the next viral video to help crack the Hollywood code.
Branit and Hunt are proof that the model they inadvertently built works. After “405” exploded, they secured representation, left their day jobs, and started a production and VFX company together. They’ve enjoyed long careers, having worked together and separately on blockbuster movies (King Kong, 300), prestige television (Westworld, Breaking Bad, Pushing Daisies, Better Call Saul), and, when time permits, their own projects. Between them, the pair boast 10 Emmy nominations.
In celebration of the short’s 20th birthday, they plan on relaunching the website with a remastered copy of the film. They’re also mulling over a feature-length documentary about the short’s production and legacy. But while it’s fun to revisit the past, the pair have big plans for the future. “We haven’t gotten to direct that theatrically released feature we wanted to do,” says Hunt. “Yet.”