Classic Computer Magazine Archive START VOL. 2 NO. 3 / WINTER 1987


Hollywood discovers
your favorite computer

By Mike Perry

It's Tinseltown's newest star-the Atari ST! The ST is being used for everything from scriptwriting to storyboarding; film scoring to special visual effects. Find out how your favorite computer is faring amongst the klieg lights, greasepaint and the roar of the crowd.

Hollywood, California.

Lights, camera. . . Atari?!

The Atari ST is a sexy machine with a combination of power, versatility and good looks, and it's winning a variety of supporting roles in the motion picture and television production industry. Tinseltown has always loved a maverick, and the ST is considered a chic alternative to "Big Blue" - if it's cooler to be seen in a fast convertible than a "sensible" station wagon, it follows that it's more glamorous to have an Atari ST on your desk than an unassuming PC clone. And in Hollywood, glamour is good business.

The film industry is first and foremost a business, and most of the companies are small. The major studios, like Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox, have become primarily distributors of films, rather than production companies, and rely on small film producers to supply them with a steady diet of movies.

Often, a mini-corporation will be established for the production of single motion picture. "The Computer Zombies" (not a real movie-yet!) may be produced by "The Computer Zombies Company", which is disbanded after production is completed and the picture is sold. "The Computer Zombies Co." in turn, will subcontract most of the work out to dozens of small specialty companies - a lab, a music studio, an equipment rental house, a special effects company and so on. In addition, many of the hundreds of people who work on a picture will in turn have their own companies, for tax purposes. All these small businesses, with from one to fifty employees, are interested in A.) saving money, B.) saving time, and C.) doing things that no one else in their price range can. It's here, in the trenches of the film business, that the actual work is done, and where I found the Atari ST gaining some acceptance.

Although not a Hollywood-based company, San Rafael's Industrial Light and Magic is, nevertheless, the Hollywood special effects company. Founded by George Lucas to create the visual effects for his Star Wars films, ILM has now become an "effects company for hire" producing mind-blowing visuals for the Star Wars Trilogy, E.T., Cocoon, Star Trek II, III, IV, the opening two-hour pilot of Star Trek: The Next Generation and a host of other films. ILM was also responsible for Disneyland's "Star Tours", a thrill-a-minute ride based on the Star Wars films.

"Star Tours" is unlike any amusement park ride ever conceived, It's basically a live-action space flight simulator through the last five minutes of Return Of The Jedi, with powerhouse effects, both physical and visual. Essentially "Star Tours" is a movie theatre in which the whole theatre tilts and rocks with the high-power action shown on the movie screen. It's so popular that there's often a wait of two hours or more to get in. and the waiting area is designed like a futuristic spaceport. The people waiting for the ride can watch "robots" working in the spaceport, who use many colorful computer screens to help them in their "work."

And it was for the "Star Tours" waiting area that ILM found a use for the Atari ST. Dave Carson (Supervisor of Visual Effects, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Effects Art Director, The Witches Of Eastwick) owns a 520 ST, upgraded to one megabyte, with two disk drives (single- and double-sided) and an RGB monitor. He described the "Star Tours" challenge:

"Disney wanted to have a ten-minute sequence of generic diagnostic screens, that C-3PO [the droid from the Star Wars films, featured in the ride] was using in the futuristic spaceport. They gave us a small budget, the assumption being that we could get the screens from the old films. It turned out that we didn't have anything appropriate, so I suggested that I could do new screens on the ST. It seemed like that was the best way within the budget. We generated them on an ST, got hold of a Toys 'R Us model with the RF generator, tapped into the video signal before the image got modulated, and sent it directly to broadcast-quality videotape. The people at Disney took that tape and put it through video editing of their own, so some images are repeated and double-printed. The end product at the ride is coming off of videotape, although it was generated with an ST.

"About a third of the screens were done with NEOchrome, a third with N-Vision [now Paintworks], and a third were programmed with [Antic Software's] C.O.L.R. Object Editor and some C-code."

Storyboarding is used in Hollywood to see how a movie should look before the production company actually hires a crew and begins filming. A storyboard artist will draw cartoon-like panels, representing shots in the film, showing the composition of the scene, the location and arrows indicating movement. The director, producer, writer, and so on can get a good idea of what the film may look like from them. Many famous directors, from Alfred Hitchcock to Steven Spielberg, have used storyboards when directing. They are also commonly used by advertising agencies to plan shots for commercials.

Atari ST computer graphics are playing
on video monitors in the "Star Tours" waiting

Dave Carson said that he wants to try using CAD-3D 2.0 and his Atari ST for electronic storyboarding, so he can look at special effects before going to the expense of doing them on film. He's already used CAD-3D before (version 1.0) in doing wireframe graphics of the "Star Tours" shuttlecraft-designing it on computer before the fullsize prop was actually constructed. One advantage his Atari ST storyboards have over traditional storyboards - they can move! "The other day we had a client who needed a shot with a stadium." Carson noted. "I made up storyboards at work, first, but then that night, just out of curiosity I drew the stadium using CAD-3D and was able to look at it from a variety of angles and confirm that the shot was possible. If it turns out that it's possible to preview motions with the machine, I think the ST will turn out to be very handy."

Chris Many composes film music, and together with his partner Geoff Levin uses four STs in Chris's studio: Two 1040's and two 520s, unmodified, with the original disk drives. The team of Levin and Many has written more than 100 original scores in their studio, for commercials including Nike and Toyota television shows including "Valerie" and "Easy Street", and two films to be released this year, "Heart" and "Wipeout".

When I met Chris Many he was up against a typically short deadline composing a score of a film for the aviation giant Northrop about the F-18 Hornet fighter plane. His composition studio is tiny, and packed with three racks of state-of-the-art synthesizers, a video playback machine and monitor, and the two 1040's he uses, leaving just enough room for two humans.

Many believes that the main advantages of the ST in the film business are the flexibility and speed it gives a composer when he or she is working against incredible deadlines. "One time," he said, "We wrote a whole score, and it was really good, and we wrote it for the movie before they got their distributor. Don't tell the name of the movie!" He laughed, then added, "The score we had done was good. but it turned out that the director, and not the people on the crew with whom we'd been working, was the one calling the shots on the music, and we'd never talked to him! This director has very definite ideas of what he wanted, and where he wanted it, and the music we'd done wasn't acceptable to him. it wasn't that he thought it was bad, it just wasn't what he wanted to hear. So we had to re-write an entire score, from scratch, in about three days, and had to record it all in a week. With that kind of pressure, the ST can he invaluable."

The heart of Many's system is Hybrid Art's SMPTE Track software, which enables Many to "compose to picture." SMPTE stands for the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, and SMPTE Time Code is to film and video what ASCII is to computers-a standard that an entire industry can adhere to. SMPTE Time Code is the standard system that editors, broadcasters, composers and other craftsmen use when working with videotape. Television in America runs at 30 frames (images) per second, and SMPTE Time Code provides a method to assign a unique code number to each frame in a program, which is recorded on the videotape with the picture and sound. This is a bit of a simplification, but the point is that the time code is a method to keep the different elements- sound and picture - in perfect synchronization with each other.

When "composing to picture" for a television show, movie, or commercial, Many just puts a tape of the program into his videotape deck, watches the picture on a television screen and plays his synthesizer. The ST reads the SMPTE time code from the videotape and records what he plays, making note of the exact relationship between the picture and the music. Then, to watch what he's played so far, he rewinds the tape, and the ST reads the time code again, playing back his composition in exact frame-synchronization with the picture. He can then make adjustments as necessary. changing tempo, adding tracks and the like.

An example of where this capability became invaluable is the F-18 film Many is currently scoring. It incorporates a great deal of stunning air-to-air footage, much in the spirit of "Top Gun." In one sequence, the camera looks at the vast sky and then, out of the clouds, an F-18 rises dramatically and flies by. Many wanted to have a majestic musical theme and booming chord just when the F-18 came into view.

He put a tape of the film into the video tape deck, and played his theme on the synthesizer. Then, he re-wound the video and watched while the ST played back his composition in synch with the picture; he frowned when he realized he had played the chord a little too soon. Rather than re-playing everything, he was able to use the ST and SMPTE Track to make the chord come a little later. He played the tape again - this time, the music and airplane arrived together, and the effect was breathtaking.

The SMPTE Track system controls sixteen different instruments simultaneously. "For example, number 16 is drums," said Many, and when he played the keyboard a convincing "rump pump pump" came out. "Channel 2 is bass," he said. He clicked the mouse and played a rift in sync with the drums he'd just played and the picture; one that would make Bill Wyman jealous. "And channel 13 is strings," he said with a smile. He clicked the mouse, played the track and took another day of work away from the Los Angeles string players of the American Federation of Musicians.

"I just happen to have assigned these sounds to each of those numbers, but they could be anything. I then have sixty tracks, and each track can be played over any channel. For example, if I wanted to play a duet with piano sounds, I would pick a track, let's say. track 1, pick the channel that the piano sound is on, and play the first part. Then I would pick another track, track 2, play the second part, and the computer can play them both back together. And all sixty tracks will be in exact sync with the picture."

Chria Many
Film and television composer Chris Many in his recording studio.

Many then has two alternatives before recording the music: either record straight from the synthesizers. or write cue sheets out from the various tracks and record with real, human musicians. "I write the cue sheets out myself because there hasn't been a writing program out yet that I'm satisfied with. The cue sheets tend to be too literal; if I'm playing 64th notes and one comes out a little too long, there will be one 32nd note in the middle of all of the others and it won't make sense to the musician. We can use the synthesizer tracks as scratch tracks for the musicians to listen to, however."

I still hadn't learned what the second ST was used for. Many pointed to it and said, "Thats running Hybrid Arts' Analog Digital Audio Processor [DAP], a very high end sampler. Basically, I'm treating it like another instrument. We did sound for the electronic fireworks display at Siggraph with that. Some programmer had made computer-generated fireworks, and they wanted live, digital fireworks sounds to go along with the pictures.

"So we used the ADAP Sound Rack, and I sat down and sampled fireworks sounds, worked with the sequencer, and every time an explosion went off I jiggled it back and forth to hit exactly with the picture. As the video ran, our system read the time code, and it synchronized the explosions, so as you watched the fireworks, you could hear compact disc-quality fireworks sounds coming out live. We used three of these ADAP units: one for the main speakers, and two for the sides."

Gavin Doughtie directs music videos for Hollywood-based C.U. Productions and uses his ST for everything from writing proposals and scripts, to creating the video logo at the end of his demo reel.

"I think one of the most exciting developments for the ST is the animation scripting facility for CAD-3D 2.0. That program is fast becoming a professional computer graphics and animation tool. I definitely plan to incorporate CAD-3D graphics into a music video just as soon as I can, because the way to keep ahead in that field is to offer the most striking imagery possible for the budget. Until now, computer-generated video sequences were way too expensive and time-consuming for the average director to contemplate. The logo I created represents just a fraction of the ST's full animation capabilities. There's nothing quite like it on any other microcomputer. When I show the logo to people, they ask me what professional animation house did it, and how much it cost, and they're flabbergasted to learn I created it all myself on a system costing well under $1500, including software. That's how much they pay for one video effect!" Doughtie uses a one-megabyte 520 ST with RF modulator and a Practical Solutions' Monitor Master to output a composite signal for videotaping CAD-3D animations.

ST's are
finding homes in studios
and on movie sets.

Gavin Doughtie is also a screenwriter, and uses the ST program Flash and an Avatex modem in his work. "Because of the constant revision process in screen-writing, writers here were among the first to switch to word-processors. Many of them acquired modems and now there's a whole on-line community of screenwriters in Hollywood. My writing partner and I exchange script files through a local bulletin board. That's great, because we keep different hours, use different word processors, have different schedules and can't stand the sight of each other!"

Crager Couger is another screenwriter who uses an ST, but he likes it because it was inexpensive, simple to use and came complete. "I've been using 1ST Word since I got the machine," he said, 'and it does everything I need for screenwriting. Some of my friends have spent three or four times as much for systems that might save me an hour of time when doing a screenplay. But you put in hundreds of hours on a screenplay anyway, and what's one more hour? I'm not a computer guy, I'm a writer, and only want to use a computer as a tool. The ST has served me pretty well since I got it, and as more writers I know are getting them, we can swap work disks around arid use each others' printers."

In this fast-moving industry, the Atari ST's are finding homes in studios, post-production houses, business offices and on movie sets. Thanks to their low prices and versatility, the ST will continue to find a warm welcome, and the Mega ST's and beyond undoubtedly will find further uses in the City of Angels.

And maybe, if some future ST is as pretty as Kathleen Turner, or can shoot as well as Clint Eastwood, the Atari ST may even get its own star on Hollywood Boulevard!


ADAP Soundrack. Hybrid Arts, inc., 11920 West Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90064. (213) 826-3777. $1995.95

CAD-3D 2.0 (contained in The Cyber Studio). The Catalog, Antic Software, 544 Second Street, San Francisco, CA 94107. (800) 234-7001. $89.95

Monitor Master. Practical Solutions, 1930 E. Grant Road, Tucson, AZ 85719. (602) 884-9612. $49.95

Paintworks. Audio Light, distributed by Activision, P.O. Box 7287, Mountain View, CA 94039. (415) 940-6044. $39.95

SMPTE Track ST. Hybrid Arts, Inc., 11920 West Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90064. (213) 826-3777. $575.95