The Works
June 10, 2010 7:25 PM   Subscribe

The Works was a production of the Computer Graphics Lab at the New York Institute of Technology, and (had it ever been finished) would have been the first all 3D CGI feature film. Here are some stills and here's a short clip. [via PopCrunch]
posted by brundlefly (17 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Five years of my life. Nothing capturing that adventure will fit easily into a comment, it was epic. Wanna give it a try hexatron? Any other Works veterans on here?
posted by StickyCarpet at 8:31 PM on June 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

Whoa. StickyCarpet, tell us more!
posted by dunkadunc at 8:37 PM on June 10, 2010

(What sort of software/OS/hardware was used for doing the animation, anyway? Unix workstations?)
posted by dunkadunc at 8:39 PM on June 10, 2010

Wow, NYIT graphics folks on here? And even more than one?! I don't go *that* far back, but Pat Hanrahan was my graduate advisor so I picked up a lot of the NYIT history. Great stuff, guys.
posted by madmethods at 9:08 PM on June 10, 2010

Originally Bell Labs Unux, switched to BDS. Running 8 DEC VAXen, (nerds. thats what they call more than one Vax.) The really tricked out ones had two meg of RAM memory. It came in 2 foot square sagging and warped circuit board, hand wire-wrapped with multicolored weave an inch deep. Each of those boards held 8K of memory, and cost $4000. So hundreds were sid in side by side in outboard memory enclosures, making them about the size of a small minivan, or very large freezer. That was about the size of the CPU, too. Running joke, DEC is in he sheet metal business, the rest is for show. Removable disk drives were 300 meg each, and about the size of a very large birthday platter cake, that got locked with a twist of the wrist by the latchcing handle into washing machine sized driveboxes. There were slow 512 x 480 color frame-buffers, and small CRT green on black alphanumerical terminals.

ALL of the software was done in house. So that part was nice, you puzzle at Tom Duff's oracular poetry, or take comfort in Paul Heckbert's four-square flying machines. Program didn't work exactly like you wanted, copy source, and hack away. With no version control, finding the version the would work for you was like trying to track down a lost vintage.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:15 PM on June 10, 2010 [11 favorites]

My main experience with NYIT was driving past/through the Central Islip campus so thinking of NYIT as anything other than a run-down re-purposed mental health facility with very low standards is kind of weird.
But from looking at that clip and reading the Wikipedia it looks like they could have seriously benefited from some actual artist-types on the project. It makes you wonder at how much progress gets held up by egos and short-sightedness.
posted by amethysts at 9:16 PM on June 10, 2010

Holy shit, only on Metafilter will you first find a FPP about the world's first 3D CGI movie that never was, and then get comments from someone who worked on it. I'm slightly in awe.

Oh, and the clips shows it being suprisingly advanced. You can tell the rendering engine is a bit limited, but I'm surprised at how good and detailed the animation is, considering this was (I assume) coded and animated basically by hand, or by handwritten code.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:30 PM on June 10, 2010

Central Islip campus so thinking of NYIT as anything other than a run-down re-purposed mental health facility

That came much later, none of senior scientist (heh) ever made it out there, to Islip, a ...ehem... service community. In the "stills" link you see a pink building up on a small hill. That's the lab surrounded by 50 acres of Dogwood and Tulip trees, terraced in what was once a formal garden, birds, geese, foxes were ever present on the grounds.

The Old Westbury campus, that's on the "gold coast" on the North Shore, proximate of the Great Gatsaby. It had fifty acre zoning, as did all our huge mansion neighbors.
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:30 PM on June 10, 2010

that was berkley bsd unix
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:35 PM on June 10, 2010

Oh, now here we go.

Hearing about The Works when I was a teenager blew my mind. I heard this computer generated movie was going to come out, and it became a bit of an obsession. I considered, beyond all realistic ideas, to maybe go down to NYIT and help them finish it. Never mind I had no knowledge, no ideas, no concept of anything related to it.

I started called a ton of things I had under my control "The Works". When I was collecting files off of BBSes, I called them "The Works" on the label, in anticipation of my forthcoming BBS which I would call The Works. 3-4 years later, I started a BBS, and it became The Works BBS. The Works BBS ran for something like ten years, during which I owned the domain, which I still do.

It was from The Works BBS that I collected all these textfiles and created Throughout that thing are collections of files referencing The Works BBS.

It was all about this movie.

Of course, eventually I learned the hard way it was vaporware - the movie was not coming out, wasn't going to be a reality. Then I switched from ill-informed fanboy to ill-informed savior. I considered using my funds and time and helping to get the movie done, under any sort of circumstance.

When Slashdot did a story on The Works, I talked to some of the people associated with The Works. One was the author of the script, who told me that the ideas had been well explored in plenty of movies since the early 1980s, and another who told me it was best to drop it. So I instead used my film degree to make computer documentaries. But I was ready, at any time, to go into The Works if needed. Which I haven't been.

So let's just say... it's had a bit of an influence on my life.
posted by jscott at 12:09 AM on June 11, 2010 [5 favorites]

This is extremely impressive for the time. I wonder how long it would take for someone using modern technology (but keeping the same rendering quality) to (re-)create it from scratch. Is a full script available somewhere?
posted by elgilito at 12:51 AM on June 11, 2010

How does this compare to that Toy Story film I've heard so much about?
posted by disillusioned at 2:32 AM on June 11, 2010

Holy Nerdgasm! I read about this movie probably in the late 70's early 80's, and have been forever haunted by that one single image of the ant-thing staring at me from a page, dreaming, dreaming that one day this movie would finally be realised.

Every animated CGI production I see now reminds me of it, wondering whatever happened to it, and knowing that it was like an early Columbus setting off in a giant bus with a cup full of fuel.

Maybe John Lasseter was another who had that same glimpse, and ran with it.
posted by arzakh at 3:57 AM on June 11, 2010

Wow, that's pretty good CGI for today, it must have been mind-blowing in 1984.
posted by DU at 6:17 AM on June 11, 2010

an early Columbus setting off in a giant bus with a cup full of fuel.

Actually, there was plenty of fuel, there was just no bus. For the first half of the project, GPUs did not exist, and the highest resolution possible was 640 x 480. Theatrical screenings of test footage were done, where everyone tried to convince themselves that one-foot-square pixels would be alright. Then, there was a hardware initiative to develop high res GPUs in house, which eventually centered on the purchase of a company called Ikonas that had a huge wire-wrapped 1280 x 1024 accelerated graphics box. Some of the most talented people, who like jscott, were full of enthusiasm for the film project, found themselves looking at years of microcoding one-of-a-kind hardware boxes.

Those VAXes, fully loaded, cost over $250,000, and had the processing power of today's wristwatches. That trailer with the giant metal ant? We watched those frames render one pixel at a time, dink-dink-dink-dink, across and the screen columns, then down to the next row.

That wasn't the only problem, but it was sufficiently limiting to doom any hope for a foreseeable future.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:24 AM on June 11, 2010

How does this compare to that Toy Story film I've heard so much about?

Ed Catmull, currently President of Pixar, headed the NYIT Computer Graphics Lab during the initial stages. Toy Story (released 1995) came out fully a decade later than the originally projected completion date for The Works.

At that time (1982) everyone, include Catmull, was saying, "this might take a little longer than we expected, this may even go into 1984, or 1985."
posted by StickyCarpet at 9:46 AM on June 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

I remember back in a large Dallas TV station in 1985 that they had some really cool color magazines that were dedicated to computer graphics. They covered things like Tron, the Money for Nothing video, Max Headroom, CGI commercials, promo graphics (practically worshipping some of those flashy TV identification cards), and so on. There was a lot of stuff in there about the Quantel Paintbox, Scanimate, Chyron, etc, etc. Anyone remember the name of that magazine? It might be cool to see if there's any copies on eBay and relive the old years.
posted by crapmatic at 10:11 AM on June 11, 2010

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