Thursday, November 26, 2015

Kaypro's Odyssey Files

Telecommunications help bring 2010 to the silver screen. 

by Jessica Horsting

When MGM chief Frank Yablans first asked director Peter Hyams to head the filming of 2010, a sequel to the science fiction classic 2001, his immediate response was an emphatic "No way." His reaction was not unreasonable; many professional filmmakers felt 2001 was a definitive film—so complete that no sequel could do it justice. Filming 2010 implied a sacrilege akin to writing the Bible, Part II.

The original film was inspired by an Arthur C. Clarke short story "The Sentinel." Under the distinctive direction of Stanley Kubrick, and in collaboration with Clarke, the concept of the story was interpreted and expanded into the landmark, feature length space odyssey. Clarke subsequently wrote a novelization of that film, then followed up with a best-selling sequel, 2010. Both novels examine the consequences of man's first contact with an intelligent, alien life form.

Hyams appreciated both the artistry of the Kubrick film and the renown of writer Arthur C. Clarke. Hyams felt confident he could handle the project, having recently directed two feature films, Outland and The Star Chamber. But still, he was hesitant. He saw 2010 as "a frightening challenge . . .the first film was a classic."

Apparently, the challenge was irresistible. Hyams agreed to undertake the project.

His next worry involved faithfully translating Clarke's story to the screen. He had been asked not only to direct, but to produce the screenplay based on the best-selling book. His solution was simple and straightforward. Following Kubrick's lead, Hyams solicited the novelist's help: "I wanted Arthur not only to know everything I felt had to be done, I wanted his input — not only his blessings, but his ideas . . . ." Clarke in turn was delighted to assist, with the one stipulation: that he be permitted to work from his home.

In Sri Lanka.

Clarke at his Kaypro IIx.
A tiny island nation off the coast of India, Clarke's home was 14 time zones and almost 8000 miles from Los Angeles where the film was being made. Hyams thought they could work it out, though the question was how? The hoped-for simple solution to Hyams' scripting problems had gotten a teeny bit complicated.

The time differential made conventional telephoning extraordinarily inconvenient, requiring one or both of the men to stay up to ungodly hours in the morning to consult with one another. Using a mailing system would involve extensive, not to mention expensive, delays. The obvious alternative was a computer link. The only problem remaining was to select the hardware.

It was at this juncture that Destiny and the Kaypro Corporation conspired to provide a solution.

Two times 2

While Hyams and Clarke had yet to decide which microcomputer to employ, Kaypro Corporation had already contacted the Sri Lanka Foundation as part of their promotion agenda involving the donation of a Kaypro to the Third World Fundamental Studies Program. The Sri Lanka Foundation is an organization initiated in part by Clarke himself, and he remains an active participant. Clarke has been a long time user of small computers and is intimately familiar with the technology. He was naturally curious to take a first hand look at the gift Kaypro 2.

After inspecting the unit and discussing the virtues with director Hyams, the two men decided the Kaypro 2 would be ideal for their purposes. In exchange for a promotional screen credit, Kaypro agreed to provide twin units to Hyams and Clarke. The production company went one step further and purchased two additional units — one for the 2010 documentary team and one for Clarke's long-time associate Steve Jongeward, who acted as his Los Angeles liaison during production.

Having settled on the hardware, the next problem was a technical one of communications protocol. This was solved neatly by Clarke, Jongeward, and the good advice of Jim Swanner— Kaypro retailer and all-around nice guy.

Most communications programs available for the Kaypro 2 didn't provide the versatility that Clarke and Hyams felt was required. They needed a system that would allow each unit to send and receive lengthy messages with a minimum of time and error, a system that would deliver a missive which would patiently wait to be retrieved on demand, and above all, one that would perform dependably. Buzz words like "baud rate," "multifile capacity," "synchronous/asynchronous transmission," and "protocol accommodation" took on new significance for all involved.

But Clarke knew where to turn for help. At Clarke's suggestion, Jongeward contacted Jim Swanner. (Clarke knew of Swanner's expertise in telecommunications, and subsequently wrote the foreward for Swanner's book, Electronic Mail for Microcomputers.) Jongeward and Swanner investigated available software to find a program that would fit the bill. Swanner provided Mycroft Lab's MITE (Mycroft Intelligent Terminal Emulator), which features a multifile transfer protocol that was ideally suited to the filmmakers' requirements.

The Kaypros, fitted with Hayes Smartmodems and the MITE program, were installed: one at Clarke's home in Sri Lanka, one at Peter Hyams' office in Culver City.

Clarke and Hyams were ready to get down to business.

Their communications took the form of long, daily "letters" left on their respective machines; questions, solutions, and suggestions that could be thoughtfully laid out and considered — then sent or retrieved instantly. Starting in September of 1983, the two men communicated over aspects of the script for eight months. The result was a screenplay that strayed from the novel in certain respects, but with changes that were a cooperative compromise between the writer and the filmmaker — a rare, almost unique occurrence in novel-to-film translations.

Birth of a book 

Telecommunicating with Kaypros soon became a fact of life for the 2010 production team. The computer link proved so important that it became the focus of a one-hour documentary detailing the filming, "The Making of 2010." (Filmed with network presentation in mind, the documentary is scheduled to air in December as an adjunct to the release of the film.) It was not merely the mechanics of the link that warranted the attention, it was the special nature of the conversations.

The communiques between Clarke and Hyams encompassed more than simple problem solving. The daily "chats" became a chronicle of the evolution of the film. "The conversations are in themselves a documentary," said Jongeward. As an experiment, he began to collect and edit the disk-recorded dialogue. The conversations proved to be such a rich source of material that (with the blessing of Clarke and Hyams) Jongeward developed a book as a companion to the film.

Titled "The Odyssey Files," the volume is a compilation of the communications that took place between September of 1983 and February of 1984. Included in the book is an introduction by Clarke as well as an appendix, titled "MITE for Morons." Chagrined, Jongeward confessed, "Arthur wrote that last part for me." The book promises an unusual glimpse into the creative exchange that characterizes filmmaking. It should also provide a unique record that traces the ideas of the two men from conception to on-screen reality. (One small step for man; one giant leap for the inter-office memo.)

Jongeward admits that the communications link was not always flawless. Most of the difficulties were generated at Clarke's end of the world. Relying on cable-to-satellite-to-cable transmission, the weakest link in the chain was the primitive state of communications technology in Sri Lanka. Steve notes, "It seemed that, for days before or after a monsoon, you could count on cables being knocked down or washed away somewhere near Arthur's home."

Satellite transmissions occasionally posed a problem. "When it became overloaded, you didn't get cut off, you were down!" lamented Jongeward. But neither he nor anyone else complained about the performance of the Kaypros.

Clarke as seer

Clarke has legitimized his own prophecy.

The communications link between Hyams and Clarke has a significance beyond what has been reported above. At the risk of understating the case, what we have here is serendipity of cosmic proportions. By participating in the link, Clarke has, in a sense, legitimized his own prophecy.

A little background should make this clear.

Arthur Clarke is not a formally trained scientist, but he has gained tremendous respect from the scientific community for his innovative thinking about the applications of technology. He is no stranger to computers and telecommunications. In fact, he is credited with originating the concept of communications satellites.

In an article appearing in a 1945 issue of Wireless World (titled "Extraterrestrial Relays"), Clarke described his concept: three satellites orbiting 22,000 miles above the earth, parallel to the equator, relaying radio and television signals all over the world. Triangulated properly, they would allow radio signals to circumvent the obstacle posed to such signals, namely the curvature of the earth. The satellites would eliminate the need for signal repeaters which had long been used to get signals from hither to yon.

In hindsight, Clarke's solution seems elementary. But when his idea was accomplished a few years afterwards by the then fledgling NASA, Clarke was awarded the Franklin Institute's Gold Medal for his prediction.

It is the technological outgrowth of his 1945 idea which allowed Clarke to stay in his comfortable Sri Lanka surroundings while participating on a film being made halfway around the world.

Similar prophecy is also inherent in the Clarke-Kubrick collaboration, 2001. The events depicted in that film have been reproduced, bit by bit, in real life. The 1968 film preceded and accurately simulated such events as the space walk, the moon landing, Skylab, the shuttle program, and cooperative ventures in space. There were a score of tiny details theorized by the first film that have since been substantiated as fact with almost uncanny accuracy.

That sort of precision is Clarke's stated wish for 2010. His career as an author, inventor and technological seer is guided by his fervent commitment to scientific accuracy. In turn, director Hyams seems determined to faithfully translate Clarke's vision to the screen—with a little help from their Kaypros.

Copyright © 1984 by Jessica Horsting. All rights reserved.
Originally published October 25 1984 in Kaypro Users Magazine.
Images © 1984 Arthur C Clarke Foundation,  © 2015 MMXOA.