The first feature length CGI film could have come out in the 1980s, a decade before Pixar hit big with the first Toy Story movie.
Toy Story is the film that introduced 3D animation to the world in full-length feature form. But as it turns out, a very different film could have revolutionised the industry almost ten years before. The Works was developed by The Computer Graphics Lab of the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) from 1979-1986. If it had been finished it could have become the first ever feature-length 3D computer animated movie.
The story goes back to Dr Alexander Schure, a wealthy entrepreneur with a great love of animation. He set up The Computer Graphics lab of NYIT in 1974 because he wanted to push the animation industry forward. Schure had been working on his own 2D animated film Tubby The Tuba, yet he found the entire process extremely laborious and wanted to find a way to speed it up. Thus, he bought the latest and most powerful technology available for his new lab. This included a superminicomputer, a computer with high processing speed that took up the space of a few 19 inch cabinets rather than a whole room like a computer mainframe. Schure also hired many of the most promising computer graphic experts and artists. His facility soon became the most advanced CGI lab in the country.
But before they all could even think about making a 3D animated film, like The Works, the computer graphics team had to consider the hardware and software it required. Lance Williams was one of the lead research scientists at the lab. In an interview with Computer Pictures in 1983, he explained the lengths they had to go to.
“We started absolutely from scratch…we had to design all the programs and determine the hardware that would make the characters move and enable us to manipulate them.”
Software created at the lab enabled them to create characters that could move smoothly and in a realistic manner. Creating the images themselves took a lot of time and involved a number of different processes. Animators often drew onto electric tablets so that their marks could be instantly transmitted onto computer monitors. They could even produce motion simply by drawing the first position a character was in and the last position they moved to. The computer would fill in the stages in between.
The team also used three-dimensional geometric models to create the characters. Many different types of geometric shapes were stored in the computer’s memory as a baseline. The computer graphic designers could then mould these shapes into the forms they wanted.
Schure hired a few film industry professionals but the vast majority of the team was made up of technology experts. Graphics Designer Lance Williams even wrote the sci-fi based story.
“I think it’s an interesting genre to work in,” Williams told Computer Pictures. “It’s more playful than other forms. In some respects it is the most modern literature.” Writing a sci-fi based story also enabled the team to create a futuristic fantasy world.
The title of The Works comes from ‘robota,’ a Czech word meaning work. The story is set in the aftermath of a war that wiped out all human life on earth. The planet is now populated entirely by robots, and at the centre of the story are two rebel androids: T-Square, a robot who feels human emotions, and the charismatic elliptical robot, Ipso Facto. Together they try to defeat the computer network that controls every single part of their world.
T-Square’s design was particularly difficult. It ended up taking over ten attempts to make her metallic suit. The artists wanted to make sure that her joints could move in a realistic way so that she could move like a human and show her capacity to express human emotions.
In 1982 the team was ready to show the world some of their efforts. A trailer (above) was released at SIGGRAPH (Special Interest Group on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques), one of the biggest computer graphics conferences. It showed the villainous dictatorial computer network as a red, glaring mask, the many intricately designed robots, and a battle that extended beyond earth and into space. There were even hints of a human pilot coming back to earth to help the robots battling against the seemingly all powerful computer.
Audiences were hugely impressed with the film’s cutting edge graphics. This was the first time anyone had released film clips that showcased texture mapping, environment mapping and 3D character animation for an extensive amount of time.
But progress was not getting any quicker. Development costs rose up to millions of dollars and kept escalating. Many key members started leaving Schure’s CGI lab for Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), the seemingly more promising computer graphics division of LucasFilm. Lucas, after all, was a known name and had a lot more movie professionals in his team.
The biggest issue – and ultimately, the roadblock – was the technology available. Computers at the time were slow and simply didn’t have the processing power required to create the number of images they needed for a 90 minute film. Computer animator Ned Green worked out that it would take several more years to complete The Works on top of the time they’d already spent on the project. In the end, Schure decided to abandon the film in 1986.
However, The Works left behind an enduring legacy. Many of Schure’s team went on to become pivotal figures at Pixar. The computer graphics lab at NYIT pioneered a lot of the software that allowed CGI to develop. Who knows, without The Works we might have waited even longer to get the first ever CGI film…
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