Classic Computer Magazine Archive CREATIVE COMPUTING VOL. 11, NO. 9 / SEPTEMBER 1985 / PAGE 84

Computers in Hollywood. (Business) Ken Uston.

Computers--mainframes, minis, and micros--have touched and changed the nature of show business as they have changed just about every other kind of business being conducted in the U.S. today.

To make movies, TV shows, and commercials, Hollywood is using everything from the low end Commodore 64 (for scoring music) to the ultra high end $12 million Cray X-MP (for graphics and animation). The machines are involved in all three phases of the filmmaking process:

* Pre-production, which consists of such tasks as getting the script in shape; hiring the director, film crew, stars, actors, and extras; getting the props built; and selecting locations for the filming.

* Production, which consists of the "shoot" or actual filming--on a studio lot, in a rented studio, or on location.

* Post-production, which includes such apres-shoot activities as editing, sound dubbing, and superimposition of music.

Growing Computer Literacy

In addition to the appearance of computers in studios, there are other indications that Hollywood has joined the computer revolution. Just last year, for example, The Micro Show, a microcomputer conference for the entertainment industry, premiered. More than 50 computer companies exhibited hardware, software, and other high tech products. Specialists discussed the use of personal computers in all three phases of the film-making process.

The show was so well attended that this year it will be expanded to include more topics of interest to show business people. It has been renamed ShowBiz Expo '85 and shows signs of becoming an annual event.

Not to be outdone, the National Association of Broadcasters this year included myriad exhibitors of electronic and high tech products for the film and TV industry (video monitors, editing systems, electronic cameras, etc.) at its 62nd annual convention. The show reminded me of our industry's Consumer Electronics Show; in fact, many names familiar to CES goers were prominent at the NAB convention--Sony, Thorn/EMI, Toshiba, and Yamaha, to name a few.

To help people keep up with advances in the computer field, Lawrence Saltzman, a writer, teacher, and computer consultant, organized the Association of Entertainment Industry Computer Professionals. "I formed the group because things were disorganized. People in the entertainment industry needed to talk to each other about computers--to find out what was going on. End users were in the dark; people were buying computers without having the foggiest idea what to do with them," says Saltzman, who is also president of Entertainment Computer Systems, a computer consulting firm which caters to the needs of the entertainment industry.

In a more specific move, the Directors' Guild of America (DGA) has instituted a program to teach Hollywood directors how to use computers for such specific tasks as word processing and making spreadsheets. Also available through DGA are industry-specific sessions that teach the use of computers for production scheduling, budgeting, and accounting.

Show Biz Mainframes

The large movie and TV companies, like Universal, MGM/UA, and Disney, use mainframes just as any large business would for day-to-day data processing and corporate accounting, but the big machines are used in a variety of show biz applications as well.

Robert Oleesky, manager of corporate data processing for MCA, Inc. (which owns Universal Studios), says "Since the late 70's, we have branched out into entertainment applications. One of the first was putting the names of hundreds of extras into computer files. We record physical characteristics and other attributes--7' tall, owns motorcycle--for casting purposes.

"Then we built a film transportation program. If a producer says, 'I need a jeep,' the program can list for him all jeeps, their drivers, union seniority of the rivers, availability, and so on.

"We also do studio call sheets on the mainframe. For each TV and feature film, we list all the stars, stuntmen, extras, caterers, and others who are to work on it. The program produces a printout that we can distribute each day to tell everyone where he must be the following day.

Universal's mainframe is an IBM 3081. Across town in Beautiful Downtown Burbank, Disney Productions uses a 9080 series Sperry with series 1100 Univacs. The Disney mainframe keeps track of TV and movie distribution (appropriate markets, location of prints, etc.), rights (home video, pay TV, foreign exhibitors, etc.), and production costs.

Disney management, recognizing the increasing importance of computers of all sizes, recently appointed Bob Gordon to the position of MIS Liaison. His job is to determine whether and how each problem is best solved, using a mainframe, a mini, or a micro.

At Disney, as elsewhere in Hollywood, personal computers are very much in evidence--scattered around studio lots, carried on location, and relied upon in countless small production houses, by producers, directors, and screenwriters.


The first word processing program for a personal computer, Electric Pencil, was written in 1978 by a screenwriter, Michael Shrayer. Since then, screenwriters have embraced the concept wholeheartedly, appreciating especially the ability of the programs to handle the complex formating requirements of movie and TV scripts. "By and large," says Universal's Oleesky, "the entire Hollywood script writing community has settled on WordStar and Microsoft Word." The Writers' Guild recommends both programs.

The list of off-the-shelf software that has become popular in Hollywood holds no surprises. Lotus 1-2-3 is widely used to control production budgets, and dBase II and Microplan help organize data and formulate projections.

The Bottom Line of Pelham, NY, markets a series of Lotus 1-2-3 templates designed specifically for the entertainment industry. They can be used to keep track of production costs, assign and sort camera shots, and create efficient shooting schedules by shuffling actors, scenes, and locations. A payroll template compares actual to budgeted figures for shooting crew salaries.

Prolific songwriter and TV personality Steve Allen keeps a Kaypro 2 busy at his Hollywood offices. He uses Perfect Filer, a CP/M database management program, to maintain the records for the more than 4000 songs he has composed.

Another Kaypro is at work in the Colman Group, a Hollywood production company. It is used to maintain a mailing list of 5100 advertising agencies, a catalog of the company's VCR movie library, a restaurant guide, and, most important, an inventory of owner/director Joel Colman's electric train collection.

Both Universal and Disney use IBM PCs on location to upload financial data via modem to the headquarters mainframe to keep track of daily production costs. For example, two PCs accompany Tom Selleck on location in Hawaii for the filming of "Magnum P.I." There they record incidental expenses and handle accounts payable and payroll. Universal's "Miami Vice" also uses a PC on location.

Oleesky notes that perhaps the most important role of PCs on location involves daily script revisions. "The changes are sent instantaneously to the executive producer in here at Universal. In the old days, we had to send script revisions in pouches on airplanes. An artistic argument could cost us $50,000 a day, because people are paid whether you shoot or not."

Vertical Software

While off-the-shelf software serves well in general applications, many computer users in the entertainment industry are finding that their problems can be solved only by software created specifically for their needs. Dotzero, Inc. and Quantum Films are two companies that were started almost by accident when their founders saw such a need and filled it.

A few years ago, Jack C. Smith was a movie production manager. Wanting to automate, he went shopping for software and found nothing that could help him, so he started Dotzero, which today serves many clients, including MGM/UA and 20th Century Fox in Hollywood and Pinewood Studios in England. Smith attributes his success in the vertical software market to the experience of the company in both entertainment and computing. Dotzero's best-selling programs are:

* Scheduling, a program that keeps track of all the scenes in a movie and how they finally fit together. "Scenes are not shot in the order you see them on the screen," explains Smith. "They are all jumbled up during shooting."

* Accounting, a program designed to keep production costs within budget (which may mean $1 million per week). The Dotzero accounting program records costs and provides the producer with up-to-date financial information.

* Budgeting, a program to help the producer create a budget--a difficult task because of the thousands of expense items often associated with a single movie.

Emil Safter, founder of Quantum Films, was a nuclear physicist before he became involved in the entertainment industry. He says "I fell into entertainment software backwards. When I was involved in movie production, I thought I had put my science hat away, but when I began making budgets and schedules, it became clear that a computer could do the job much better--that was back in the early days of the Apple.

"I computerized the breakdown of the script and scheduling and soon found that friends to whom I had given the programs were excited about them. Eventually, I had so many requests that I had to start charging."

Quantum's first product, called Datamogul Budget, has been on the market for about a year. Safter says, "The average feature film budget can easily be 100 pages long--we're talking about accounting for $10 million and 15 different unions, each of which has different rules and pay codes." Datamogul Budget can handle a 22,000-line budget on a single IBM or Apple II disk.

Datamogul Script Breakdown allows the assistant director to analyze the script and prepare a production schedule and cast list--a list of what days which actors are working. This list, called "day-out-of-days," is very important in cost control. Safter explains: "If an actor works on Monday and on Friday, he must be paid for the intervening days. Poor scheduling, which causes actors to be paid for many days that they don't work, can be very costly."

Another program, Datamogul Report, is about to be released. It generates the many reports required by the Screen Actors' Guild and the studio.

Computer Graphics

Computers are revolutionizing other areas of film production as well. As the Lucasfilms "Star Wars" trilogy attests, enormous advances have been and are being made in the use of computer-generated effects and animation for the Big Screen.

One company, Digital Productions Inc., uses a Cray X-MP supercomputer to create state-of-the-art digital animation. Included in its protfolio are 300 scenes for the film "The Last Starfighter" and the planet system for "2010," all of which were created without building a single model or miniature. Everything was done with digital animation.

Cranston/Csuri Productionss uses large DEC computers (VAX 11/780 and 11/750) to generate convincing simulated three-dimensional effects on film; their clients include CBS, ABC, NBC, and HBO.

The Future of Computers in


There are still many areas in which computer applications can be developed for the entertainment industry. The editing of most film (as opposed to videotape) is largely a manual process; nearly all feature films are still edited mechanically. New laser videodisc editing techniques, which will revolutionize the editing process are currently under development by Lucasfilms and others.

Another area in which computer technology has not yet been exploited fully is the preparation of storyboards, the graphic outline of a commercial, TV show, or movie. According to Universal's Oleesky, "We're looking for a good storyboard program. Very few producers can draw well; we need a program with cartoon figures, trees, cars, furniture, etc. stored on disk. And Because very few producers are experienced computer users, the program must be easy to use, requiring very little hand-eye coordination."

Composers also have a great deal to look forward to. Consultant Saltzman suggests that "computers could keep precise counts to help the composer work out tempos and discover where music has to hit to tie in with the film. This is a natural use for computers, because it is simply number crunching.

"And while we are dreaming . . . computers could help in set design, which is a combination of architecture and interior design, by preparing designs, drawings, and blueprints.

"Another area in which we could use help is props. The major studios have huge inventories of props. A database program would be of enormous help in keeping track of props and matching the inventory with the items needed for a given production."

The first major public access electronic database for the entertainment industry was established by Baseline, a New York City company. Its files include credit lists that detail all the parts played by any given actor or actress. According to Salzman, "There's lots more to be done here--keeping track of key technicians, union rates in different cities, and all kinds of things."

But let's take a look at the big picture. What would an overall dream system for a Hollywood producer include? According to Bob Lasiewicz, who operates ShowBiz Expo '85, "People are looking for a more integrated system to handle a variety of production problems in a multi-user environment." Such a system would allow script writers, schedulers, and others to share a single system--a system that would allow more than one person to input data, so one could enter budget information while others dealt with, say, payroll or accounts receivable data. Says Lasiewicz, "Companies run into bottlenecks when they rely on just one machine."

The real problem in the industry seems to be the difficulty novices have just using computers. "It's one thing for a guy to buy his own computer and learn how to use it; it's much more complicated when you have one computer operated by many semi-skilled users. In a business, you have turnover and severe training problems. And a real common complaint around here is that 'computers are hard to use.'"

As computer manufacturers learn that their products are being used more and more frequently by non-technically-oriented people, we hope that this complaint will disappear. When that happens, Hollywood, like the rest of our society will be ready to put even more of its faith in computer technology.

Confides another film expert who asked to remain anonymous, "I'll tell you one thing that will never be computerized, though--let's call it 'Hollywood's creative financial secrets.'"