Hey, listen up! You remember when you upgraded to a new computer and never got rid of the old one? It still works, right? You just never use it. Well, imagine it working on a farm…a computer “render” farm! Imagine your forgotten PC laptop or desktop computer helping to render animated scenes of an entirely original, never-before-seen Star Trek episode starring the actual voices of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, Deforest Kelley, James Doohan, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, and Walter Koenig!
Impossible, you say? Then you’ve never seen Star Trek: Beyond Antares!
I’m one of those fans who’s seen every episode of every Trek series dozens of times. I sometimes dream that I’m watching a “lost episode” of Star Trek (usually the original series) that I’ve never seen before. But I wake up knowing that’s not possible.
Then I discovered a digitally-animated, CGI version of TOS on YouTube. I heard the voices, and they were unmistakably Shatner, Nimoy, Kelley, and the rest. These weren’t impersonators.
At first, I figured it was just someone taking one of the animated episodes and trying to do it in 3D (an idea that has floated around fandom for years). But as I listened to the dialog, this wasn’t one of the Filmation Trek cartoons from the 1970s. I thought that maybe it was a rendering of some obscure Star Trek computer game, but there was too much story, too much detail. And besides, no Trek video game had ever been presented as a straight episode. There was always some “choose your path” stopping point that interrupted the flow. This had none of that. It was just a…well, it was a lost episode!
How was this even possible??? Was this like when those two never-before released Beatles songs were discovered and released decades later? Maybe the cast had made an audio adventure at some point? A quick search through Google didn’t turn up anything other than some story records from the 70s, and those didn’t even use the original actors. Beyond Antares also wasn’t listed on any of the actors’ IMDb pages or anywhere else for that matter…only this unexplained but quite elaborate (and very professionally-looking) production on YouTube. What the heck was going on????
This lost episode deserved to be featured on Fan Film Friday, but first I needed to solve the mystery. And to do that, I would need to track down the person who produced it: Robert England. I caught up to Robert (or “Woody,” his ZBT fraternity nickname) just as he was settling in after recently moving to Concord, California, and Robert was only to happy to answer all my questions…
JONATHAN: Okay, Robert, I have to know: who made Beyond Antares?
ROBERT: I did.
JONATHAN: You mean you did the computer animation, right? But who recorded the voices of the original cast? I can’t find a reference to it anywhere.
ROBERT: That’s because I did all the voices—I did all the audio; I laid in the sound effects and the music, too.
JONATHAN: You did the voices??? That’s a pretty amazing gift for doing impressions!
ROBERT: (Laughs…) No, I didn’t do the voices myself. Those really are the original cast members speaking. They’re just saying a lot of things they never actually said.
JONATHAN: Okay, now I’m REALLY confused.
ROBERT: Don’t be. It’ll all make sense after I tell you a little story that started way back in 1992. There was a DOS-only computer game for PC computerss called Star Trek 25th Anniversary from Interplay Games. The original actors did all the voices, but not many copies sold…maybe less than 100,000. A year later, Interplay came out with a sequel game called Star Trek: Judgment Rites. Again, not many sold.
They were regular old-style computer games where you just play through and try to make the right decisions from multiple choices. For each of a thousand questions in the adventures, there are typically between 3 and 5 responses to choose from, allowing nearly endless alternate paths for the story to take, and with every word of the dialog spoken by the original cast members in character. Along the way, there are many wrong, “bad,” or out-of-character choices, each of which leads down a different branching pathway. You could play the game for a decade straight and never hear every combination of every response!
I purchased both games in the first week after they were released. I loved them! I played backwards and forwards, each time making different choices to see what would happen. In this way, I familiarized myself over the course of many years (decades now!) with the tens of thousands (maybe even close to a hundred thousand) lines of fresh and clever dialog that had never been spoken before in any Star Trek episode or film. You can watch some of it online, but even this two-and-a-half hour video of gameplay doesn’t even show a tenth of all that’s available.
And all the while I was playing, I was thinking, “I could use that! I could build around that!”
JONATHAN: So Beyond Antares is just the dialog from a computer game?
ROBERT: Hardly! You will never find all the dialog for a fully fleshed-out “episode” Beyond Antares in any computer game. It is SO MUCH MORE than that!
JONATHAN: Then color me even more intrigued! What happened next, Robert?
ROBERT: Well, first, you need to understand what a mess it would have been to simply have taken the dialog directly out of these games. As great as it was to hear the original cast, they’re not really acting so much as reading dialog. The timing is off, especially when the characters speak to each other. It’s not terribly dramatic. Plus there’s almost constant clicks and beep noises from the mouse, cheesy and non-canon sound effects, simplified synthesizer music, and the stories themselves are woefully incomplete. It was great for a computer game, but it wouldn’t have worked as a dramatic episode of the Star Trek series…and that’s what I wanted to do!
The trick was to somehow get only the dialog itself off of the game disks and reorder it by editing and assembling words and phrases into a brand new episode. Truth be told, it was pretty easy to “liberate” the dialog from the first game, the 25th Anniversary. But the acting on that one was kinda sub-par, and Chekov was completely absent! The acting was much better in the second game, Judgment Rites, and Chekov was included. But the darn game was ENCRYPTED! That wonderful dialog couldn’t be separated from all those clicks and beeps and ambient noises and bad music unless you could break into the computer scripts themselves and somehow decrypt the “unbreakable” code.
JONATHAN: Those bastards!
ROBERT: Tell me about it! So my dream remained just a dream to somehow use all this wonderful material that so few had ever even played in DOS. But it was just not possible until many years later when I was confident enough in my computer skills to go take programming classes and familiarize myself with the C/C++ scripting, DOS, and Linux type tools they had to work with at the time.
About four years ago, after much effort, I finally found a way to make it happen and got every bit of audio dialog, as clean and clear as it was when it was recorded on the day they were in the sound-proof booths!
JONATHAN: Wow! You broke the unbreakable code!
ROBERT: (Laughing…) I guess I did! I think they knew that someone was going to finally do that one day—little did they know it would be almost two decades later!–because when I got the dialog cleared, I found a bunch of what you’d call “Easter eggs”—out takes of them joking around with each other throughout the long days of recording, stuff that is NOT in the game but gives me really useful stuff to use, like the actors laughing.
JONATHAN: That’s so cool! Do you have any examples of out-of-character stuff they said that you could tell me?
ROBERT: Believe it or not, I still haven’t heard them all myself yet! There are many, and they are funny and wonderfully casual. There’s one where McCoy says, “I haven’t had lines like that since Star Trek One! You can hear that one at the very end of this vignette I posted about creating the transporter effect:
JONATHAN: Okay, so you got all this amazing voice content in 2012…and what happened next?
ROBERT: Well, as great as all this audio was, I still needed to get it all organized, and that took a LOT of work! In order to make this massive collection of dialog reusable, I created a Star Trek TOS dialog database of the thousands upon thousands of usable words and sentences spoken by each of the characters throughout their early and mid careers. Then I meta-tagged all the dialog. This allows me to edit a fair amount of the actual audio dialog in a text format. The text helps the computer lay out the actual audio dialog on the timeline in the same order. It does so with no timing, effects, or voice inflections, but it certainly helps as a starting point. The tedious, old-fashioned way requires listening to all the sound files before placing them where you want them to go.
Since I also tend to catalog multiple inflections of the same word, it gives me a wider choice when I need to grab something like, say, “Lieutenant” (which sounds different if Kirk is giving an order like, “Lieutenant, please report!” versus using it with a name afterward like, “This is my helm officer, Lieutenant Sulu.”).
And I didn’t stop with just those two video games! I’ve collected everything I can find with the characters’ voices, including all of their TV and movie appearances, audiobook readings, etc.—it’s been a hobby of mine for years, and I add more new things as I find them. Of course, in the episodes and movies, I can’t necessarily use everything. If there is excessive background noise or music under a piece of dialog, it doesn’t go in. Only clean words and phrases make it into the database.
So after years and years of meticulous sourcing, sorting, and tagging, I have what I believe is the only massive database in the world using metadata for the original Star Trek cast members saying an amazing wealth of words and sentences. I can search for and find multiple versions of just about any sentence or word (well, not “any,” but you’d be surprised how much I have to work with!) and find the correct inflection and tone.
And if I don’t have the correct inflection, I can make it. In addition to 3D graphics and computer scripting, I’ve been doing sound editing for almost 25 years. Using my pro audio tools, I can literally turn a statement into a question just by digitally tweaking the inflection that ends the sentence. Using professional tools like Antares AutoTune (it’s really called that!!!), I can make the dialog seem to have a myriad of different feelings and intentions simply by changing where and how the voices raise and lower in both pitch and intensity.
And I’m pretty much a perfectionist when it comes to making the dialog flow smoothly. I work to excruciating detail to adjust timing, adding or subtracting pauses, connecting and bridging sentences to create new dialog…until it flows naturally, and even I can no longer hear the transition or discern that the sentence didn’t always exist in Trek canon.
And in that way, I can create entirely new adventures of the original crew!
ROBERT: Not just Beyond Antares. That’s just a proof-of-concept…a first-run, working out the bugs, if you will. I actually have 18 full-length episodes, each with original stories and different dialog, ready to go!
JONATHAN: They’re ready to animate?
ROBERT: Somewhat. Let me explain the process. Once I had my metadata database up and running, I immediately started to type out everything I thought I needed for Beyond Antares, linking to the audio metadata to save a small step while editing. I listened over and over and over while building segments, and as I did this, I was also making note of hundreds of potentially useful tidbits along the way…adding in stage directions and internal notes about what dialog samples to use for certain bridges.
Whenever I came across any dialog I thought might be useful for the next episodes, I would log that away, too. So I have a huge head start on the next 18 episodes, with large timelines built and just waiting for tweaking, music, and sound effects. I use the original TOS music that was re-orchestrated by the Royal Philharmonic (recorded in stereo at the famous Abbey Road Studios, I might add) plus authentic sound effects from the classic series.
And the great thing is, I can always make even MORE of them. I’ve got 18 episodes mapped out so far, but who knows how many more I could do? The Enterprise could have another five-year mission!
JONATHAN: Now, Beyond Antares still isn’t finished yet…even though you posted the first 13-minute segment way back in October of 2012. There’s been two additional segments posted since then, but it still isn’t complete. What’s taking so long???
ROBERT: I’m glad you asked! You see, I need your help, and your readers’ help, to finish faster….MUCH faster.
JONATHAN: How can we help?
ROBERT: I need your old computers! Anything that’s sitting around (that isn’t gargantuan) waiting to be thrown out or donated, send it to me…PLEASE!
JONATHAN: Just how old is your computer???
ROBERT: It’s not that I have an old computer; it’s that I have only one computer, and I can’t afford to buy more. You see, in Hollywood, when they do CGI, they have MANY computers sitting around just rendering frame after frame of complex animations. It’s like a factory. And while all those computers are sharing the workload rendering out scenes, other computers are free for the animators to work on setting up and fine-tuning new animations which will, in turn, be rendered, as well. Studios usually have access to dozens, even hundreds of computers.
I have one computer.
JONATHAN: Oh, dear…
ROBERT: Yep. Beyond Antares could actually look EXPONENTIALLY better than it does because I’ve had to use some very basic 3D techniques that don’t take as long to render. I could make Kirk look exactly like William Shatner—I could have Pixar quality!—but it would take my lone computer months just to render a few seconds worth of animation! As it is, a full scene can sometimes take my computer days to render. I’ll work for a day setting up a scene in wireframe mode and then wait another three days—tearing my hair out—while my computer renders it as an animation. All the while, I can’t do any other work on the episode until the computer finished rendering. It’s amazing I’ve gotten this much done…almost a miracle!
Now, if just one person were to ship me their old laptop or desktop computer that matched my specs, it would literally double my output speed…or more! I could work on one machine while the other rendered. If five people donated their old computers, my efficiency would increase 500%. With funding, I would even be able to upgrade to better software and make my next episode look almost photo-realistic like Arnold in Terminator: Genisys!
JONATHAN: Will any old computer do, or is there some kind of minimum system requirement? Can you only use PCs, or can you take Macs, too?
ROBERT: Optimally, I need a PC that’s no more than 10 years old with minimum of 8GB of RAM. Although, for a laptop or desktop with good specs, I would buy extra RAM for it myself. I just need computers…lots of computers…but even just one would make a huge difference!
JONATHAN: So let’s say someone who’s reading this blog wants to donate their old PC to you…what should they do?
ROBERT: If they e-mail me at Robert (at) StarFleet (dot) com, I can give them my shipping address. Then all they need to do is go to any UPS Store, and they’ll wrap it so it’s safe for shipping. They can send it ground if that’s the most someone can afford…I don’t care how it gets here. I wish I could reimburse shipping costs, but I am legally disabled at the moment and live on a meager income. However, if someone’s willing to donate $25 to a Kickstarter, then paying the same amount to ship an old computer is kinda similar.
Next week on Fan Film Friday: We learn a little about the personal background of the impressive Mr. Robert England (he had a difficult but fascinating childhood!). Plus, we get a tantalizing tease about the future of Robert’s Star Trek offerings (think: Holodeck!). Also, whoever said his future episodes had to take place during Kirk’s first five-year-mission? And finally, will Robert be asking for money, too, or just computers?