Posts Tagged ‘computers’

And what a time it was

 “Once you get a disk drive, you’ll see the difference. You won’t go back.”

TRS-80 model 1 computer

TRS-80 model 1 computer

It was about 1980. An industry colleague had just graduated to an Apple IIc computer. It included a built in floppy disk drive with a dizzying capacity of 760Kb of data. Enough for programs, heaps of documents, spreadsheets and who knows what else.

But I was still working with my Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80. As it was my employer’s money, I’d chosen the bigger one – it had 16Kb of RAM, instead of the standard 4Kb. I supposed the extra would probably come in handy, though I wasn’t sure how, at first.

Ah yes, the old Trash-80. It hooked up to a conventional portable audio cassette recorder to save data, which it did at a speed that would have earned derision from a competent Morse code operator. My friend with the Apple offered kindly sympathy, but I was stuck with the cassette recorder. Still, if you wrote a program (in BASIC), you could save that on the cassette, provided you allowed enough time. At first, there were very few programs around – games, text editors – mainly for sale at weekend flea markets: but if you wanted to do anything else, you wrote your own software.

I wrote a computer game for it.

You must understand that there were effectively no graphics on the black and green display, and text appeared on the screen at about the speed you could type. So it was a very particular sort of game.

I called it “Fame and Fortune in the Film Industry”.

The year was 1979, and the company I worked for had booked a stand at a film and television technology exhibition. Whatever the rest of our stand showed – our services – got some attention, but I took along the computer – and it turned out to be the big crowd-puller. Almost no-one else had one on their stand, and certainly no-one else had anything so unusual as a computer game.

The program set you up as a film producer, and presented you with a series of obstacles in your project of getting a feature film made and distributed. (There were plenty.) Every decision you made would earn you fame points and fortune points, until you either made a million dollars or went bankrupt.

The challenges were all drawn from real incidents. We were in the exciting first flush of the Australian film renaissance, making period dramas like My Brilliant Career, the Australian Identity ones like Newsfront, the Not Quite Hollywood ones like The Man from Hong Kong and Patrick; and a whole lot in between: The Irishman; Mad Dog Morgan and Mad Max, to name just a few.

Films of 1979-81

We were the lab that processed the rushes for most of these films, so we got to witness all the upsets, the disruptions, the calamities and the miracles. With names changed (to avoid being sued) these incidents made great material for my game. For example:

  • The star of your action drama breaks his leg three weeks into the shoot. Do you (a) re-cast and start again; (b) use a double for the wide shots, and just do the static close-ups with the real actor; or (c) rework the script to explain the leg plaster and crutches?
  • There’s an emulsion-side camera scratch on the exploding helicopter shot. Do you (a) get another helicopter and reshoot; (b) use the takes from the B and C units (if you were thorough enough to have had B & C units); get the lab to rotoscope out the scratch on the master shot, frame by frame (it’ll take a month)?

Your decision had a certain effect on your costs, and on the box-office takings and critical success of the film, which added to (or took away from) your fame and fortune scores.

The program had been simple enough to write, and after the popular success at the trade show, I carried on adding more incidents to the library in the program, to add to the variety. The program effectively shuffled a pack of cards at the start of every game, so that the incidents came up in a random order: but it needed quite a few to ensure that players didn’t become familiar with them all after only a few sessions.

At first it would take something like five minutes for the program to load – and a little longer to save it each time after I’d added new material. Before long it had blown out to ten or twelve minutes. But it was becoming a rich vein of drama, suspense and agonising decision-making.

Then one day I set the tape to load, and after about ten minutes, the computer announced that the program was too big to load.

Computer wizards may assure me that it would have been simple to buy extra RAM for the machine: but at the time that didn’t seem possible, nor could I justify it. The computer was really for managing the sensitometric control of the film processing systems in the lab, and the programs I’d written to do that seemed to manage quite happily with the existing memory. So I was stuck, with, it seemed, no way of recovering the program.

I never saw it again. Those same computer wizards may now point me to TRS-80 emulators that will run in a microscopic portion of a modern computer, and some device that would remodulate the morse-code-like signal from a cassette player and pump it into a USB port.

But it’s all too late. I kept the cassette for some years, but where? I think it finally got trashed as a lost cause. I suspect the data would be corrupt by now even if I could track it down.

A few months ago I was interviewed in an oral history project about the film industry, and especially those magical times, when it seemed we had the world at our feet. I could remember so much, but so little. I wished I still had the tape: it’s probably a unique archive of some of those stories. Wouldn’t I have printed the program out from time to time (an even longer process than saving it on tape)? Yes, undoubtedly: but I recall that the printouts were on a strange-looking strip of heat-sensitive metallic paper, about as wide as a toilet roll. Even if I’d kept them, they would have faded many years ago.

Perhaps if I’d got an Apple and a disk drive at the time, I’d have had a better chance of recovering everything. But hindsight, the antithesis of memory, comes too late – and memories, however they are saved, go too soon.

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you

(Simon & Garfunkel, 1967)