Long before Buzz Lightyear and Woody the Cowboy flew onto the movie screen in three dimensions “To Infinity and Beyond” in Disney/Pixar’s 1995 megahit “Toy Story”, and Canadian company Mainframe’s groundbreaking animated 1994 sci/fi adventure television series “Reboot” was giving computer generated images a regular fixture on weekdays, there was the eccentric multimillionaire founder of the New York Institute of Technology, Dr. Alexander Schure.
Schure, now operating as the Chancellor, true to the name of his college, was always quick to adapt to new types of technology and software. Especially computers, and the interesting ability to painstakingly form textures, shapes, and even, yes, animate moving figures.
Ed Catmull,a young student from the University of Utah, who along with fellow alumni had created an impressive grid mapping of Ed’s hand in 1972,
and recreation of the human face in 1974,
was recruited along with research scientist, Lance Williams, as well as Dick Lundin, Rebecca Allen, Carter Burwell, Tracey Peterson, and Pat Hanrahan set to work on an ambitious project Titled “The Works”. At first, the project was to have been a combination of hand drawn and computer generated elements.
The story (which all the details are still rather sparse) told the science fiction adventure tale of a future where the eponymous character, a master computer
inadvertently causes an atomic war that wipes out all human life on Earth. Realizing its error, the computer “replaces” the entire population with thousands of robotic beings in a grinding, industrial city where one worker robot in particular, the squat spider-like Ipso Facto,assigned to the construction labor task of operating a giant mechanical ant drone, along with his co-pilot, Clyde,finds the oppressive nature of his master too much to bear, and he decides to rebel against him.
Meanwhile, another android, an advanced female star pilot named T-Square,
who has features that resemble that of a human, sets off from the asteroid colony where the remainder of humanity exists, and travels to Earth to determine whether it would be safe for the humans to return and repopulate the planet.
However, the ambitious young android soon finds herself up against the many hostile robotic servants The Works puts against her,until she runs into Ipso, who becomes her ally as the two work together to battle the many obstacles in their path, including Ipso’s former construction ant vehicle, as they attempt to wrest control of Earth away from The Works, and back into the hands of humans.
However, there was already real trouble in paradise..
Schure had been sweating nervously over reports in the trades about Japanese tech giants Sony and Panasonic were going into the computer graphics business. Fearing a corporate takeover, Schure went into pure paranoid mode, monitoring faxes and e-mails coming in to the employees. After exploding at several of the workers, most of the disillusioned team decided they’d had enough.
By the early 80’s a young, entrepreneurial filmmaker named George Lucas,
whose 1977 mega-hit “Star Wars” had launched his new special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic into the stratosphere, was already looking for upcoming talented computer animators to join his staff in the building of his “Empire” (to pardon the pun). He’d been sending scouts to all of the local, well talked about companies for talent, and Catmull along with Smith were actually pretty eager to jump the now sinking ship at NYIT.
Realizing that Schure might sue them if they started leaving altogether, the crew decided to “launder themselves” as they put it, and defect in a piecemeal manner, gradually.
Production now shifted purely to computer animation, Schure’s former tennis pro son, Louis took over the division, and comic book artist and automobile designer Bill Maher, among others, now joined the troubled project.
Needless to say, it would take a large update of the technology of the time to bring Schure’s vision to the screen.
The lab’s DEC PDP‑11/34 and VAX 11/780 machines simply weren’t cutting it, and outboard units with double the processing speed had to be brought in.
Every minute detail, like body (or chassis) gloss were not overlooked. “It took us 12 design passes to design T-Square’s suit.” Maher explained.
“T-Square’s glove, for instance, was so complex as to be equal to creating a whole separate character. We wanted her hand and fingers to move like a human’s, a very complex job. We were after a feeling of fully‑articulated joints to express her full range of human emotions. You see, in the film, she has human emotions even though she is a robot.”
The crew even began experimenting with the concept of three dimensionally scanning actual physical props into the computer, rather than drawing or rendering them to make it easier on themselves.
The movie, while having its segments recorded on videotape, would have eventually been transferred to film for the release.
Williams went into detail. “With three‑dimensional video, the turnaround time is much quicker and the costs are much lower than using film. This affords us greater opportunity to experiment. We aren’t as limited in our trial‑and error process.”
“Sometimes the progress seems so slow.” He mused. “It just takes forever. But then I look back over the past few years and marvel at how far we’ve really come.”
But, sadly, it was not to be. Despite a demo film of Clyde operating the ant at a construction zone causing a smattering of interest at a production convention,
the thinning out of the crew, combined with the tense atmosphere, the high budget for technology, the project was ultimately cancelled.
Quickly not wanting all their work to go to waste, Maher, along with other animators, attempted to reformat the footage for a pilot called “User Friendly in 3DV”.
However, despite efforts to sell the program to premium outlets like HBO, confusion for the new technology led to it being rejected.
Eventually, artists like Catmull WOULD eventually help produce the first CGI animated feature, Toy Story, for Lucas’ former company, Pixar in 1995. Completing the legacy begun at NYIT years ago.
However, the remainder of the footage, however sparse it is, besides a promo trailer
and the aforementioned scene, have yet to be released to the general public.