BIS: The Final Frontier

The Saga

This video was created while I was working for CCH (Commerce Clearing House, now Wolters-Kluwer) in Chicago, IL as a computer programmer.

We had a new VP of Technology and he thought it would be a great idea to have each department under him create a 5 minute video that showed everyone in their department.

This video was to be shown in the background at an award ceremony for members of the departments.

Since this was going to be a background image, the video was to be silent.

My manager in a department I had just transferred to came to me and said, "I hear you're one of the spacier guys here."

I leaned back in my chair and let my fingers brush the Star Trek communicator badge on my cube wall and said, "What gave you that idea?"

I was then asked to create a department video based on the Star Trek episode The Trouble with Tribbles.

After he left, I thought whoever came up with the idea of that episode had no idea of the memorable phrases from it and how they could be badly adapted for CCH.

"The Technology VP is a swaggering tin plated dictator with delusions of godhood!"?

Just then, my programming buddy, Ken Picha (we met at Micro Lab in the early 80's and this was the 3rd place we had worked together) came around the corner saying, "CCH is NOT a garbage scow, it should be hauled away AS garbage!"

"They asked you too, eh?"

Quickly discarding the Trouble with Tribbles episode, we started thinking of a replacement.   As well as how were we going to show everyone in the department in only five minutes?   They were flying people in from California for this event as well.

Shortly before, there had been a layoff of 10 programmers that maintained the programs that comprised the core of our business accounting that ran on this ancient Honeywell DPS-7.

The latest owners manuals for the Honeywell DPS-7 were dated 1969 and this was '93.

Honeywell engineers had said if the hardware ever failed again, there was no guarantee they could bring it up again since the parts bin had been depleted. (We could however sleep soundly at night knowing the only other working DSP-7 was in use at NORAD in the Colorado Mountain.)

However, management had to bring one of those 10 programmers back because he was the only one who knew how to run this one critical report program. Finagle would have been a better description, because he had to run the program multiple times to jiggle the input data until it produced the correct result.

So we quickly zeroed in on the A Taste of Armageddon episode. There was an evil computer to destroy and disintegration booths. So we thought we could have everyone in the department in a line that would shuffle ahead every once in a while and as we moved to the head of the line, we'd see the programmer who had been brought back, cut to a scene from the episode where someone walked into the disintegration booth and then we'd switch to a placard saying "These layoffs will continue until the evil computer is destroyed."

Management liked the evil computer bit but thought the layoffs was a little too close to home.

So we substituted a desktop computer that would be used to select the person who would be responsible for destroying the computer, using more stolen footage, with an homage to the Save the Whales Star Trek movie (AKA The Voyage Home).

Ken had a hi-def 8mm camera and CCH had a video editing bay. So we went to it and asked if we could use the equipment. They said yes, and so we set off to film the video in true Hollywood fashion, i.e., out of sequence.

We borrowed an 8mm portable deck with built-in monitor, drew a horizontal line for the eyes and a vertical line for the nose and videoed a few seconds of everyone in the department sitting in a chair.   We tested several monitors before We found a monitor we could video without scan lines appearing on the recorded images and made placards.

Management decided afterwards that we had to change the background color of the placards, as well as the wording on one of them. So we had to edit and re-film them. Since we couldn't view the entire placard on the screen when we edited them, we had to shift the images right/left and up/down to repaint them. The paint bucket function did not function except on the visible portion of the image and so we missed repainting a section on one of the placards. If you watch carefully, you'll see an early placard with the original color in one of the corners.

We didn't know how silent the video had to be, we knew there was to be no speech, but since it was Star Trek, there was a lot of music we could draw on.

So I put together a cut list in Excel and started matching the cuts to the music. I found a few scenes it was better to extend them to make the music match and a few to shorten. I came away with the feeling that this was something I could have gotten into if I wasn't programming.

So we went to the video editing bay and were told we could not use it. Another department had shown up totally unprepared with 40 minutes of raw footage and no plan. It had taken them 4+ hours to edit 6 cuts.

And there I stood with a sheet with 120 cuts planned on it.

Our manager asked if we couldn't just do it by hand with two VCRs. We tried, but our resolution was about 2 seconds and many of the cuts were scheduled to be 2 seconds in duration.

Then they suggested taking it to an outside professional editing studio, but we figured it was going to take 3 hours to edit. And using an outside professional studio had been declared a no-no. So Ken and I talked them into buying a computer controlled editor that would connect directly to his camera for source deck control and use IR for the output deck that cost $120. (And we'd keep the hardware)

So Ken and I got together at his house and true to our estimate, it took us 3 hours to edit the video portion.   It took us another 2 hours to edit the audio and get it to sync properly.

So we came away with the rule of thumb that it takes 60 minutes of editing for each minute of final product.

Oh yeah, the credits. We had gotten hold of some morphing software. Our plan was to morph the credits through transitions, but it was too labor intensive, so we opted to have the text crunch down to a ball.   It took over 120 MB of disk space to edit the credits together when the most common drive we would have access to was 120 MB. So we borrowed a system with a 500 MB drive on it.

We ran the morphing to generate individual frames from credits to crunched. Then we assembled a script for another program that would generate an AVI file that ran the images from crunched to credit to crunched for each set of credits.

Our plan was to make it a bit like the credits from Bambi vs Godzilla, which is minutes of the same names over and over again in different roles before Bambi is crushed by Godzilla's foot (in case you never saw Bambi vs Godzilla).

Funny thing, when we tried to video it, the camera would be confused by the crunch sequence and think it had to refocus. We finally figured out how to turn autofocus off and made the clip.

The end result was that we handed in the only department video within the 5 minute time limit. Our video clocked in at 4:57, 3 seconds short of the 5 minute limit, while everyone else handed in longer ones. One was 40+ minutes as they recreated the Wizard of Oz for their department.

So the next year, they assigned me to edit all the company videos from the different departments for the award ceremony. Those videos where limited to 3 minutes with audio.

But that's another saga.


A few notes:

That "wall of yarn" in the BIS Planning segment was NOT a prop, it was the actual map that had been assembled to understand the relationship between the DPS-7 and the other computer systems.

The guy mocking Pete as he ran down the hall was a spontaneous event. It was not scripted.

The video is the 12th Anniversary edition that I re-created with my digital video editing system from the original analog source. Aside from the text overlays, sound effects, and fancy transition effect (the original was just a jump cut), it is essentially the same video, but with more precise edits.

BIS - Business Information Systems. Where careers go to die.


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E-mail curt@rostenbach.com