It’s a common and frustrating blunder to drive off with your coffee cup on top of the car. David Tanaka of San Rafael found inspiration in that mistake, creating a three-minute film that snagged the top award in a national contest.

In July, Tanaka entered his humorous take on the perils of driving under the influence of caffeine in a competition sponsored by Fox network’s “On the Lot,” a prime-time reality show in which aspiring filmmakers vie for a contract.

He beat out more than 500 others with “T.O.T.M. Phenom: A Nation in Jitters,” which depicts in grainy fast motion what happens when people try to drive with coffee. One frantic mother, desperate to stop forgetting her cup on the roof, realizes she’s left the car seat (and baby) behind.

“Coffee drinking and car commuting just don’t seem to jibe,” said Tanaka, 41, who came up with the idea one morning when he saw four cars topped by forgotten cups.

Every week, “On the Lot” invited viewers to produce – in just five days – a film on a particular theme or genre, which were posted online for voting.

Tanaka’s film won a weekly challenge and earned him the grand prize: a trip to Burbank for the show’s finale, as well as camera and editing equipment valued at $11,000.

“T.O.T.M. Phenom” – which stands for Top of the Morning Phenomenon – was a family affair. The actors included his wife, Dorianne, and their sons, Mitchell, 7, and Benjamin, 4.

Tanaka said he has been a “filmmaking nut” since he saw “Jaws” at age 9.

Before joining Pixar as an editor two years ago, he was with Industrial Light & Magic, George Lucas’ special effects company. There, he worked on “Jurassic Park,” “Forrest Gump” and “Star Wars: Special Edition

He wasn’t sure how the coffee saga would strike audiences.

“At first I thought, ‘Is anyone going to get this short film idea?’” Tanaka said.

Judging from the “On the Lot” Web site, viewers not only got it, they loved it.

“This film is hilarious, ingenious and unfortunately describes me to a T,” reads one comment.

“We seem to have struck a little gold with comedy,” Tanaka said.

Looking ahead to his family’s next project, Tanaka has some ideas. They’re thinking about doing something with the deer that are constantly crossing the road near their Lucas Valley home.



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