Have you shipped your old PC to Robert England yet? What are you waiting for??? (Oh, you don’t have an old PC lying around that no one is using? Well, do you know somebody who might have one?) Read on, my friends..
Last week on Fan Film Friday, we met the amazing Robert England, a computer wiz who broke the unbreakable code from the 1993 DOS computer game Star Trek: Judgment Rites and downloaded all the dialog from the original TOS cast members into a giant metadata database. Then he added to that compilation with samples of words and phrases from anything else he could find featuring those actors and their characters’ voices.
Robert now has a collection of hundreds of thousands of words and phrases said by each of the original TOS characters—Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty, Sulu, Uhura, and Chekov—and he’s used that resource to create an entirely new Star Trek episode titled Beyond Antares.
This amazing “lost episode” isn’t just a computer game. It’s an entirely new adventure featuring computer animations of the crew and ship. Robert says it’s only a “proof of concept” using a very simple 3D animation program rendered on his one humble computer. With more computers networked together doing the rendering, along with more powerful 3D software, Robert can make his next episode look much more photo realistic. And so he’s asking fans with extra computers that might be sitting in the back of the closet collecting dust, to please consider sending them to him.
Usually in my interviews, I start out with a little background about the person. But in part 1, I was so eager to find out how Robert created this incredible “lost episode,” I forgot to ask him anything biographical! So let’s take a moment to get to know Robert a little better before diving back into his mind-blowing project…
JONATHAN: So, Robert, what do you do for a living?
ROBERT: I work in video editing, compositing, and visual effects with a particular interest and specialization in stereoscopic editing. I am also an animator who works in all facets of 3D development (but particularly in 3D environment design and character animation).
I am involved heavily in game and app development. The ability to create my own graphic source material and even orchestral music for any apps I make is a plus. I’m like a small team and, when matched with a single programmer, a small development studio!
JONATHAN: It sounds like you have quite a wide variety of skills! What do you most enjoy doing?
ROBERT: I consider myself an animator first and foremost. I am also a musician and love to create (with the help of my computer and VST, or Virtual Studio Technology) dynamic and realistic-sounding orchestral scores…along with alternative rock/pop and, of course, new age.
JONATHAN: So where did you grow up, and when did you develop all these creative skills?
ROBERT: Well, that’s actually a pretty long and intense story. Are you sure you wanna know?
JONATHAN: If you want to tell me…
ROBERT: I was born in Nashua, New Hampshire to much older parents (my mother was 48 when she had me and called me her “miracle surprise!”). I was the last of seven children, all the rest of whom had moved out and on before I was born in 1969. Three of my grandparents too, were gone by that time, having passed on before my birth. The last (whose name I was given as my middle: Chester) died when I was only 3 months old.
I lived with my parents until age 9, when they gave me to the local “boys home” because I was “too creative and active” for them to handle (or afford, very likely). I have never resented this (well I have tried not to anyway). But on my 10th birthday, when most children are celebrating, I had already essentially lost a dozen people in my life, whether by circumstance or their actual choice. So needless to say, abandonment issues were cropping up.
JONATHAN: I can’t even imagine such a thing! Didn’t your parents at least come to visit you?
ROBERT: I lost both parents soon after I was moved into the children’s group home. My mom died of breast cancer, and a year later, my father died of esophageal cancer. So as I entered my very early teens I was suddenly one of the orphans like everyone else in the group home.
Ironically that made things easier. Being the only kid in a group home for orphans with two living parents is torture. Even the NICE kids sang things like, “Your parents didn’t love you! Your parents didn’t want you!” After I was an official orphan, I didn’t hear any more about not being wanted. Misery loves company, I suppose.
Fortunately, at that particular time, a place for what they called “special children” (not THAT kind of special…at least I don’t think!) came into my life and requested that I alone (of the 30-odd children at the Nashua Group Home) come live at their facility up north, on Stinson Lake in Rumney, New Hampshire. So it happened that I left the city kids behind, going with these new people to a place in the mountains on a lake.
So even with my tragic first nine years in the “big city,” I finished growing up on a farm in northern New Hampshire making maple syrup and tending horses. It was a naturalistic-communal group home for what they called “gifted kids.” There was no TV, no refined sugar, no MEAT. But there was lots of natural food, fun adventures, hiking, learning, and exploring. It was a bucolic time I feel lucky to have experienced. It affects my views, my creativity, and my aspirations to this day…to have had that “second start.”
JONATHAN: Wow, that’s an amazing story, Robert. Thank you so much for sharing.
ROBERT: Well, you asked!
(We both laugh.)
JONATHAN: So where did you go to college, and what did you study?
ROBERT: I have been to no less than six different colleges, universities, and community colleges for various subjects in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and California. But I always considered school as more about the information that I glean than the piece of paper at the end. I never even kept track of credits, preferring to take individual relevant courses then use that info to get back to work creating and developing.
I had always planned to eventually get a B.S. in Computer Science, but have again changed that to more esoteric studies like Geology and Engineering. I have a broad interest base and tend to go in many directions at once!
I was always about the technical when I was younger. I studied computers and the technology behind both electronic music and computer animation before coming into an interest in creating, rather than programming and software development. Now I can do BOTH as I develop these new Star Trek adventures into 3D and virtual reality HOLODECK adventures.
JONATHAN: Um, excuse me…did you just say “holodeck”???
ROBERT: This is really the most exciting thing (at least to me) that I’m planning! Here, take a look at this (and remember to click on the gear button at the lower right and set it to HD quality):
As you watch the video, click and drag your mouse around. Even though the camera is “walking” around the TOS bridge, you can turn your “head” any way you want—left, right, forward, backward, up, or down—at every point thorough the entire video.
JONATHAN (doing it as we’re talking): Wow…that is SO COOL! I love it! (I could probably play with that all day!)
ROBERT: Now imagine watching one of my new Star Trek episodes like that.
ROBERT: I want to make the first real VR (virtual reality) series for Star Trek. Granted, only people with Google Cardboard, Oculus, or a GearVR helmet would opt for the VR version of each episode. But they could literally “walk through” an episode as it was happening! And the VR episode would also be in stereoscopic 3D, so they will perceive natural depth in all the scenes!
JONATHAN: And what about the rest of us who just have a computer and watch YouTube the “old fashioned” way on a flat screen? Will we be able to view your future episodes, too?
ROBERT: Of course! The VR version will be a special option available to those with the proper equipment. For the rest, there will be a normal 2D version where I set the camera angles and pans and zooms, and you can just watch it like any other video.
In addition I will also output a stereoscopic 3D version you can watch in the usual way, just with 3D Glasses. I rendered 10 minutes of Beyond Antares in full stereoscopic 3D as a test that you can view here (3D glasses required, of course!):
So you can enjoy the episodes any way you wish! I have already fully developed a proprietary method of using the same rendered footage for all three episodic presentation formats: standard 2D, stereoscopic 3D, or immersive VR (also in 3D)!
JONATHAN: That’s astounding…and it could change the entire way people watch fan films. Now, I know you said it’s proprietary, but could you pull back the curtain just a little to tell us how the virtual reality would work? I mean, if Kirk and McCoy are having a conversation in Sickbay, can I walk out into the corridor and head over to Engineering or the Transporter Room? Can I beam down???
ROBERT: Not quite. You do have to remain “in the scene.” Think of it like this: the camera starts by pointing at the action in the scene, like any normal production. Even in VR, you begin by seeing what the director intended…no confusion about where you should be looking. BUT!!! You can turn your head (with a VR helmet on) and experience the rest of the environment.
So imagine this: you’re watching Captain Kirk talk to Mr. Spock in the mess hall. You suddenly hear walking coming up on your right side, getting louder (a sound cue I’d be sure to add). Now, you might turn right to see an attractive young yeoman coming up to speak to the Captain. Had you not turned your head and instead just continued to watch Kirk and Spock, she would have entered the scene anyway from off-screen “stage right.” But now you can actually watch her enter the mess hall and walk over to Kirk!
Another example might be you’re watching a scene on the bridge and suddenly everyone turns to look at something off screen (off screen for you) to your left. Wanna see what they’re all staring at? Just turn to look to see what’s coming! Maybe it’s behind you or even above you!
Understand, though, that I don’t plan to just throw an episode into VR and leave it as nothing more than a 2D episode where you can spin around. That’s just a gimmick, and I don’t like gimmicks. I am a master editor of two decades and a professional virtual cameraman. I will fully make use of the immersive VR environment. I’ve been planning and brainstorming for years how to direct and edit specifically for virtual reality episodes.
JONATHAN: That sounds like a lot of work—making three different versions of each episode…
ROBERT: Not really. There’s work in planning out and setting up the VR version of the episode. But with my proprietary process of handling the camera work and the editing, it will be no more work to use the same rendered footage for all three versions.
JONATHAN: How long does it take you to make an episode?
ROBERT: Doing part one of Beyond Antares was the main focus of my life for about five months. During that time, in addition to assembling the script, I was also building the 3D models for the entire ship (inside and out!), along with all the sets and props, the alien dimension (both the rift in space and the place they visit). Then I began to work on the 3D characters, trying to mold the CGI heads to be as representative of the original actors as possible. And of course, I still needed to wait months for each segment of the episode to render on my one, lone computer!
I uploaded part 1 three years ago without much fanfare, but it was still very primitive. Based on comments from viewers, I completely re-did part 1 with updated characters and clothes, hair changes, and MANY new scenes (like corridors). I made a lot of improvements and re-uploaded part 1 along with part 2 in May of 2014. I added a partial update of part 3 earlier this year. But it’s been a painfully slow process, working on it in my spare time with outdated software and a single computer.
JONATHAN: How much faster would things go if a few of our readers donated computers to you?
ROBERT: A lot faster! But it’s not just more computers I need. In a few more months, I’m also planning to do a crowdfunding campaign to try to raise money to upgrade my software, as well. Even three years ago when I started, there were expensive software tools (that I couldn’t afford) that would have made a 3-month job into a 3-day job for me! And that was three years ago!! CGI Time is fast forward. The tools available today would allow me to recreate the crew PHOTO-REALISTICALLY. I could even create reusable libraries of the actors’ signature movements when speaking dialog or laughing or being upset, etc.
And because I’ve already put so much work into organizing and developing assets at this point, the next episodes will go exponentially faster. I have largely built up timelines, and I just need to do scoring, character and camera placement, and sound effects. Also, computers have gotten much, MUCH faster, cheaper AND with any modest level of funding, I will be able to commit 100% of my time to this project.
So the answer is—amazingly faster!
And you want to hear the coolest thing?
JONATHAN: Cooler than what you’ve already told me? I doubt that’s possible! But please tell me.
ROBERT: My next episodes are going to be MOVIE-ERA Trek!
JONATHAN: With the refit Enterprise and the monster maroon uniforms???
ROBERT: Well, I’m actually going to start with those funky pastel uniforms from Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Then, after I do a few episodes in those, I’m planning an episode or vignette where Starfleet introduces the maroon uniforms we see in Trek II. We’ll get to find out what the crew thinks of the old “pajama” uniforms and the new ones…trying to figure out the new rank pins, where to put the pips and squeaks on the arm bands, etc. It’ll be fun. But first we need to have a few episodes in the TMP pastel uniforms. However, in both cases, I can essentially re-use the same CGI models of the starship interiors.
JONATHAN: Okay, you win. That is totally cool! What made you decide to do movie-era?
ROBERT: Well, originally I was planning for my episodes to be years four and five of the original mission. But to be honest, with the excellent offerings from New Voyages and Star Trek Continues, along with the IDW comic book, those years and missions are getting pretty filled up.
Then a friend suggested that I fast-forward to the next five-year mission that the crew had after TMP. There aren’t many fan films in that era because the sets are more complicated to construct and the uniforms more expensive and complex. But in CGI, I don’t have those problems. Also, a lot of my dialog was recorded in 1991 when the actors were a little older, and you can hear that in some of their voices…especially Nichelle’s. Movie-era just seemed like the perfect solution.
JONATHAN: So what are you going to call this new movie-era series?
ROBERT: Star Trek: The Next 5-Year Mission.
ROBERT: I just bought StarTrekNext5.com and StarTrekNextFive.com, and I’ll be putting up a website before launching the crowdfunding campaign. I’m really excited!
JONATHAN: Me, too. In the meantime, you still need those computers, right?
ROBERT: Yep. Even if I raise tens of thousands of dollars (I can only hope!), you can never have too many computers to share the rendering chores. So yes, if anyone has a PC that’s no more than 10 years old and still in good, working condition (particularly laptops and notebooks with 8GB or more of RAM), please e-mail me at Robert (at) StarFleet (dot) com, and I can give you my shipping address. Then all you need to do is go to any UPS Store, and they’ll wrap it so it’s safe for shipping. Unfortunately, I can’t afford at the moment to reimburse shipping costs, so you can send it via the cheapest method…I don’t care how it gets here.
Can I tell you one more really cool thing???
JONATHAN: You’ve already blown my mind multiple times during this interview…what’s one more? Go for it…
ROBERT: When I finish Beyond Antares (almost done!) and go on to the next five-year mission, my first episode is either going to feature Trelane; the Klingons Kor, Kang, and Koloth; or Harry Mudd…using the voices of the original actors! Fans contributing to the crowdfunding campaign will be able to vote on which one I do first.
JONATHAN: My brain…BOOOM! Good luck, Robert—and please let us know when your crowdfunding campaign goes live.
ROBERT: Will do!
JONATHAN: Thanks for a spectacular interview.
ROBERT: Thanks for contacting me!