The Works (film)

"The Works" was to be the first entirely 3D computer animated film, created by the Computer Graphics Lab, but it was never completed. The name was inspired by the original meaning of the word "robot", which means "work" in many Slavic languages. It was started in either 1978 or 1979, and was worked on until 1986. It was originally intended to be around 90 minutes long, but only a few minutes were ever produced. However, these film sequences were very impressive considering the state of the technology at the time. A trailer of the movie was shown on SIGGRAPH in 1982. The project also resulted in famous computer animations such as "3DV", "Sunstone", "Inside a Quark" and some segments of the short movie "The Magic Egg" from 1984.


The story, written by Lance Williams, was never clearly defined but centered around "Clyde", a robot drone. A female robot called "T-Square" was meant to be the heroine of the story and Dick Lundin's famous giant Ant was supposed to be one of the villains. It was planned to use around 25 robots in total. The story was set somewhere in the future where a last World War had led to an advanced computer network which now controlled the world.


The founder of NYIT (New York Institute of Technology), the entrepreneur and eccentric millionaire Dr. Alexander Schure, had long had a big interest in animation. He was a great admirer of Walt Disney and had a dream of making animated features like those made in the glory days of Disney. He already had a traditional animation facility at NYIT when he established the new Computer Graphics Lab. CGL (Computer Graphics Lab) at NYIT soon hired the biggest talents in the computer graphics field. After visiting the University of Utah and seeing the potential of the computer technology there, such as the computer program named Sketchpad created by Ivan Sutherland, he told his people to get him one of everything they had in the research center for computer graphics at Utah. At first, one of CGL's main goals was to produce 2D animation and invent tools to assist the animators in their work. Schure hoped it would be possible to develop computer technology that would make the animation process cheaper and faster. An early version of the CAPS system later used by Disney animators were among the tools they created. Soon the main focus became 3D computer graphics, and when Lance Williams presented his story and his idea of making it as a 3D computer animated feature, Schure was interested and accepted the proposal (probably because he too dreamt of a computer animated feature and had this in mind when he created CGL). This movie project became the main center of attention at NYIT. For many of the individuals involved, it became a primary and personal goal to create a CGL feature.

While creating a film in a method that had never been done before was exciting enough, the primary reason for this project was to demonstrate what computer animation could accomplish for the entertainment industry. The project's success could have led to very significant improvements in visual effects and the editing process in film and television, in terms of speed, cost and quality compared to more conventional techniques. It would even have created a new animation genre.

In a sense, the project was handicapped by the complete absence of movie-making technologies capable of producing what they intended to do. However, Schure was well aware of this challenge going into the project, and provided very extensive resources into the research and development of the necessary technologies. There were never any budgetary restraints or a release date.

Production difficulties

While progress on "The Works" did manage to advance the level of computer animation technology significantly, the film was in development for nearly a decade and was eventually abandoned for several reasons. First off, the staff was composed almost entirely of technical experts, such as engineers and programmers, with directors and editors considered unnecessary. When NYIT, with Schure as a director, produced a 2D feature known as "Tubby the Tuba", the end product was so bad that it shook their confidence in their ability to produce a film that would succeed critically or financially.

Second, Schure believed that his staff would work best if they were constantly being supplied with the latest computer technology, and during the time spent on the movie, computer technology changed dramatically. This meant that with each new advance in the field, his staff would have to start from scratch, learning to use the new machines just as they had gotten a grip on the old ones. These constant upgrades actually delayed production significantly, and Schure kept himself isolated from the complaints of his staff.

Third, CGL was not working in a field without competition. George Lucas also realized the potential gains from computer animation, and in 1979 he created a new department of Lucasfilm which had the same goals as CGL, but allowed movie industry professionals to have a hand in production. As Lucasfilm began headhunting for the best talent in the industry, many individuals struggling on "The Works" felt that Lucasfilm was a company more likely to succeed and abandoned NYIT. The Cornell University was another competitor, and NYIT lost many of its best people during the following years.

Losing interest

Another major problem was in the computers themselves. They were among the best and most powerful of their kind, but compared to the modern computers of today they were rather slow and weak. Similarly, the progress of "The Works" was just as slow and seemed to take forever, even if the computers became faster and better for each new year. They were good enough to create visual effects in movies, but making a whole movie in only CGI was something else. As time went by some people became so tired about the slow progress that they left the project. The technology needed to make the movie had come a very long way since the start in its early days, but the movie itself was still in a very early stage. Even if Computer Graphics Lab had more than 60 employees at its most, this number was falling as many of them fled to other studios. Not only did a relatively small computer team have to do the time-consuming animation on the outdated computers themselves, they also had to continue to do all the other work that was included and necessary in the development too. The fact that they hadn't the capacity to create film on machines back then, forcing them to make all the preliminaries on video tape, didn't exactly help to speed up the process either.

In the end it became clear the movie would never see the light of day, and the project was abandoned. Many of those who had been working on it were hired by others interested in CGI-animated movies, and the crew took their ideas, inventions and whatever else they had developed to new places, where the technology continued to evolve in relation to other projects.

Even though the movie itself was never completed and millions of dollars invested in it, it was clearly not a waste of time and money, at least not if looked at objectively. The people involved in the project were as mentioned among the top computer graphics researchers and developers in the world, and they are still some of the biggest names around.

If the project had received the time and resources needed, it probably would have become finished sooner or later. A source of debate, however, is if it would have been a success or a failure. However, there is no doubt that all the experience and discoveries, technology, software and hardware and so on created during the project made the work on "The Works" worth it. The ground for CGI was built during this time and made it possible for others to continue to built upon. When the first computer animated feature was finally released in the form of "Toy Story", one of the main individuals involved was Ed Catmull, who had a history from the Computer Graphics Lab.

Partial credits

*Lance Williams
*Paul Heckbert
*Dick Lundin
*Christie Barton

ee also

* Sunstone (computer animation)
* Inside a Quark

External links

* [ The Works]
* [ Pictures from "The Works" Film Project]
* [ Slide Show]

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