How Disney Was Hustled into Making the Trippiest Movie About Computers Ever
"Computers are People, Too!" is the defining artifact of the 80s CGI era.
When you think about the early 80s, a few things probably come to mind: gauzy impressions of synthesizers, Hollywood blockbusters, and computers, all filtered through the saturated lens of degraded VHS tape. Computers are People, Too!, a Disney documentary about computer art released in 1982, might just be the defining artifact of this period. At the very least, it's certainly the strangest.
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?
I was the publicist for Tron, so I bit off as much as I could chew off that project. I wrote the book The Art of Tron, and I got the green light to make a TV show about computers that would have a significant chunk of Tron in it. That was the justification: marketing for Tron. I was just playing along. I had the opportunity, like a lot of young people did, to get a budget for this sort of thing. And once you got a budget, you could play; nobody was watching out for what you did. You could do what you wanted. That's how we made Computers are People Too!
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.
Why the title? Declaring that computers are people seems like a bold move.
Jim Fanning gave it its name. He was an intern. There was a show called Kids are People, Too!on at the time, and Jim came into my office and said, "Mike, I have the name of the movie. Computers are People, Too!" And I said, yeah, that sounds good.
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?
It's all John Henry versus the Inky-Poo when you talk about technology. I associate more with John Henry than with the Inky-Poo. We were looking into the machine for our humanity, and now—progress lurches, it's not a smooth curve—this wave has washed up on top of us now, and we're trying to maintain our humanity in the midst of it all. That's the fresh challenge.
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.
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?
Right. Let's look at Gideon Ariel; he's got these wireframe figures of dancers and athletes, and it was wonderful. There was no downside to it. Now, you look at the same thing and think, wow, every baseball pitcher is going to pitch exactly the same way.
The challenge is, can any athlete look idiosyncratic at this point? Because they're all inside the mind of the machine now, and the machine is telling them what to do and making the adjustments, and the machine is mathematically perfect. Is that the only option we have? Mathematical perfection? This, to me, is the flip side of where we were when we made Computers and People, Too!
What was the biggest challenge in producing the documentary?
You had to find where all the computer graphics were in the world. Computers are People, Too! is probably one of the best compilations of CG; better than Siggraph at that stage. I had to go to Denver to see Lee Harrison, who was one of the analog pioneers. Harrison literally had computers that were built of blocks of wood and nails and copper wires, and he'd made this Mr. Noise thing.
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.
What's your favourite segment in the documentary?
My favourite segment is the compilation of the CG of the era. People were telling me that people were playing that sequence in gay clubs in LA. Almost before the show was out, I was hearing, 'Yeah, I saw that thing from your show. It was in this club I was at last night!'
Really? That's wild.
Yeah. That's when I thought, okay, there's something to this.
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?
We all got swept up in the Iceberg thing. We were all fascinated. He travelled around in a bus, he had a really fun crew, he had a super attractive wife, and he'd come up out of this pyramid. There was a whole mini Iceberg frenzy during production when we saw this guy.
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?
We were like Mickey at the beginning of The Sorcerer's Apprentice—we had some magic. That was the Tron era. Now, we're swimming in it. The pages of the magic are being swept away, and the magic is out of control. it's really going to take a new kind of ethos almost; a new kind of understanding with how we engage with each other.
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.