Computers are People, Too! was initially released as a TV movie in the months leading up to the theatrical release of Tron, Hollywood’s first major foray into computer animation. Part compendium of early computer art from analog pioneers like Lee Harrison and John Whitney, part treatise on the immense promise of digital technology, and part Hollywood marketing stunt, the documentary captures the enthusiasm of an age gone by in an ecstatic kaleidoscope of vintage graphics and buckets of camp.
Everyone was experimenting. It was a celebration. Computers were part of that
The set-up revolves around actress Elaine Joyce, who asks if she’s going to be replaced by machines. An artificially intelligent supercomputer from the future proceeds to demonstrate why she’s wrong with a hallucinogenic display of computer art from the past, as well as the cutting edge of 1982. The computer intones, in the voice of Hollywood veteran Joseph Campanella, “We are on the verge of a beautiful partnership.”
Now forgotten to all but a few die-hard fans, Computers are People, Too! has been given a second life online. The documentary has been uploaded to YouTube, and has garnered over two thousand views. A website with the URL computersarepeopletoo.com plays the movie on a loop.
To find out more about how the hell such a bizarre document was made, I called up Mike Bonifer, who co-wrote and produced the documentary while working as a publicist for Tron in the early 80s. He now runs a business consulting firm based in Los Angeles.
As Bonifer tells it, the story of Computers are People, Too! is one of unbridled enthusiasm in an age of technological promise, crushing disillusionment, and the carnival of youth.
Motherboard: Tell me a little bit about the history of Computers are People, Too!—why did Disney want to produce it?
Michael Bonifer: There was a wave of interest at Disney in computers that was spurred by Tron. Once Tron hit the lot, it was this computer hysteria that was going on. All the young people at the studio at the time were super hungry to find out about computers.
What was interesting about that time at Disney was that the senior management was occupied with EPCOT. There was this sense of young people running amok in a creative, good way. You got to do things that you wouldn’t normally have gotten to do if senior management had been back in Burbank, minding every little thing that happened. Everyone was experimenting. It was a celebration. Computers were part of that.
He was on the wrong path. He was analog
You were the publicist for Tron, and Computers are People, Too! was somewhat of a tie-in, right?
It was playful. Everybody wanted to play with computers. Everybody was looking at each other’s machines. it must’ve been like what cars were like when everyone started getting cars. Checking them out, rigging them, and fixing them. You could talk to people in accounting and they’d be talking about the modems that were going into the New York office. It was company-wide, but it was also worldwide at that point. Tron was the lightning rod. It was a beautiful game. And Disney, at the time, was at the epicenter of it.
Elaine Joyce, the show’s host, tries to show up her computer counterpart by dancing like a total maniac.
Why the title? Declaring that computers are people seems like a bold move.
We never looked beyond that or had to think about it. Something intuitively told me that Jim was right. It was how our humanity is reflected in computers that would be most interesting, and it was aligned with the theme of Tron, and it was something we could explore in the TV show, too.
How do you think humanity is reflected in computers?
All the young people at the studio at the time were super hungry to find out about computers
The next wave is going to be how we make our peace with it. At the beginning, it was all celebration and light—bringing things to light. Now, it’s keeping things light and not having the darkness overwhelm us. The darkness of the surveillance state.
Gideon Ariel used primitive motion capture technology to digitize the movements of athletes (pictured: a shot putter) and analyze them.
So the documentary came from a place of immense enthusiasm, and now you think we’ve had a few decades to see the darker side of computers?
What was the biggest challenge in producing the documentary?
Lee Harrison’s Mr. Noise used analog circuits to produce sound-activated graphics.
He was so emotional, and I didn’t know what to say to him. He took me out for drinks, and he really thought this was his moment. Disney had come calling. And I was just a frickin’ publicist who had swung this gig to produce a TV show. He started crying, and I started crying. It was so emotional, and I felt so deeply for him. I loved everything about him, but I wasn’t the guy from Disney that was going to elevate him to the pantheon. He was on the wrong path. He was analog. And I knew, even at that time, that everything was going to be digital.
What was once seen as playful is now seen as pervasive and threatening
And then there was Art Swerdloff, our editor. His mentor was Slavko Vorkapić, who basically invented the montage. We were editing this show, and Art would stop for two hours and talk about the history of an edit, and Slavko Vorkapić, and the birth of montage editing, and how to do the Crimean war in five minutes. It was the least efficient way you could ever make a movie. We bought our own equipment because there was no editing bay in town with the newest equipment, so we were all learning how to edit, too. We were all like kids together.
Art was a wonderful man, and he became a friend for the rest of his life. If we were ever to re-release Computers are People, Too!, I would make sure it was dedicated to Art Swerdloff, because he was a really cool guy.
An early demo of a computer-generated character, referred to in the documentary as “mathematical plastic surgery.”
What’s your favourite segment in the documentary?
Really? That’s wild.
Michael Iceberg, a Disney performer who played frenetic synth compositions from inside a giant pyramid, is featured prominently in the documentary. Without context, it’s completely bizarre. Why?
It was a lot to take in. Art got swept away and was obsessed with the guy. Even though he was terrible with music, he was convinced that Iceberg was somehow a totem for the show. I don’t think it was filler, I just think we got carried away with this carnival quality of the thing. We were like kids at a carnival, and it was our carnival music.
Is that the only option we have? Mathematical perfection?
How do you think attitudes about technology have changed since 1982?
Look at the Sony hack. At Disney, when computers were first coming in, we were saying, "Yes! More computers!" I’m sure Sony people are saying, "I will not put anything on email, I’m going to do everything on parchment. Give me some quills!" That’s the real difference: Disney then and Sony today.
What was once seen as play is now seen as pervasive and threatening. We have to find out what the new line is. It can’t just run everywhere like water, like it did in the beginning. But I’m not some prophet of gloom. It’s just a different kind of excitement, and we need to be attentive to what we’re doing now like we did back then. There’s still plenty to celebrate, it’s just a different kind of struggle.
Michael Iceberg plays synthesizers inside a giant pyramid. The former Disney performer fascinated the documentary’s producers.