Augment Storyboards

1 November, 2010

A couple of posts ago, I presented an outline for the story of the rise and fall of Doug Engelbart. Since then, I've been working on how to translate that outline into something visual. The core of the challenge is: how do you condense a large amount of narrative material into a short series of sculptures/visual objects? How does each sculpture communicate the plot and character points necessary to convey that step in the story? Further, how do you get across the changes that the characters, places, and ideas involved in the story are undergoing across the pieces? Specifically in the case of the story of Engelbart and Augment, how do you show the transition from the military/engineering context to the countercultural one? How do you get across the tragic arc of the whole story through a series of static scenes?

To try to start answering these questions, I've been working on expanding the outline into a series of storyboards. In this post, I'll go through the storyboards for each of the acts and mention a few things that I learned while working on them.

Act 1:

Act 1 Scene List/Storyboard

As a reminder, here's the written outline for this act:

  • Engelbart ships out on VJ day. The end of the war is declared as his ship pulls away from the dock
  • Engelbart is bored in a grass hut in the Phillipines on radio duty. Someone drops off a copy of the Atlantic Monthly with Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think in it. He dreams of Memexes.
  • Engelbart, returned to California, happily married, and bored, pulls over on the side of the road suddenly and realizes he’s achieved all of his dreams. He has a vision of using computers to help people better understand their complex world.
  • Now, having finished grad school, and working as a junior researcher at the Stanford Research Institute, Engelbart meets Bill English, a well-liked fellow researcher who has a knack for actually implementing things and getting people to follow him. Doug tells Bill about his Augment dream.
  • Bob Taylor from NASA hears about Doug’s Augment idea and decides to support it with its first real funding.
  • Doug gets a lab for the first time.

Working on this act, I was surprised at which scenes were easy and which were difficult. For example, scene #5 here, Bob Taylor giving Engelbart his first federal funding seemed incredibly difficult and dry to me in theory but in the process of drawing it, something about having the Washington Monument out the window and figuring out Taylor's square military haircut as the core of his caricature really made it come together. Similarly, the moment of Engelbart and English meeting at SRI seemed overly abstract in spec, but was crystalized for me when I saw the photo on SRI's page about the history of its magnetic logic lab.

On the other hand, a scene which had been especially vivid in my imagination, Engelbart's vision by the side of the road, doesn't look like much when I draw it out. I'm going to have to think hard about how to bring that scene to life.

Act 2:

Act 2 Storyboard

  • Engelbart has 2 LSD experiences at the International Foundation for Advanced Study. In the first one he is by himself and stares catatonic at a wall for 8 hours. In the second one, he’s with other engineers and co-workers and has a vision of a “tinkle toy” for helping potty train young boys.
  • Engelbart and English build the first mouse prototype and it performs extremely well in early tests of input devices
  • Augment people visit the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Labratory and play Space War
  • Augment participates in sending the first ARPAnet communication to UCLA, the command “LOGIN”, which causes the system to crash after “LOG”
  • Stewart Brand helps Augment prepare the Mother of All Demos presentation, their public triumph

One of the challenges here is going to be to figure out how to bring out the counterculture thread that starts in this act. Opening it with Engelbart's LSD vision gets us off in the right direction (and I love the image of the toilet vision), but it's something of a challenge to keep that in focus in the other scenes. One important opportunity for that is going to be in the costume and set dressing of the scene at SAIL: the engineers are going to need to start looking scruffy and the environment should start having some psychedelic art/coloration going on. A key to this as well, I think, is going to be shifting the color palette away from the austere almost black-and-white of the 50s towards the washed out rich colors we associate with the 60s. That transition should start here and really reach completion in Act 3.

Also, the idea I came up with for how to tell the story of the first ARPAnet message — combining the UCLA and Augment sides of the scene so that they almost appear to be in the same room — will be a bit of a challenge to realize. How do you represent the lightning bolt/scene divide? Also who are the people on the UCLA side and how do we know they're not just some Augment extras we haven't encountered before?

Act 3:

Act 3 Storyboard

  • Stewart Brand brings Ken Kesey to the lab to use the Augment technology and he says “It’s the next thing after acid.”
  • Augment researchers visit Lama, a hippie commune in Taos, New Mexico with Brand and live temporarily amongst the Bucky domes and hippies.
  • Augment researchers become obsessed with Est, a pseudo-psychological cult of ‘interventions’; members of the lab are caught doing a drug-fueled, computer-enhanced encounter session while Engelbart is giving a tour to pentagon funders
  • Bob Taylor recruits Bill English away to Xerox PARC; he’s the first of many top Augment staff to leave.
  • JCR Licklider returns to ARPA and cuts off Augment’s funding
  • Engelbart is left alone, using NLS by himself in a closed-down Augment lab.

Now here we have lots of new elements: exterior sets for the first time with the Lama visit and English's recruitment at PARC. Also there are some interesting echoes of early scenes, for example the est intervention session makes an interesting parallel with the SAIL visit from Act 2. Also, and this was not something I realized until I drew the storyboard, the last two scenes of this act (Licklider cutting off Augment's funding and, Engelbart alone in a cleared-out Augment) echo the last two scenes of Act 1 in a way that I think is really satisfying. You kind of get the whole arc of the story right there: he's back where he started, but now the personal computer is a real thing sitting on his desk.

Another question for all of these acts is: what role can a moving camera play? If this was a traditional hollywood film, you'd want to vary the camera approach from scene to scene so that the film took on a more dynamic exciting feeling during important action sequences. What's the equivalent of that here? It seems important to use some motion to break up the static quality things could fall into, especially as the arc of the story moves from the 50s into the 60s countercultural parts, but how to do it?

One big positive thing that's come out of making these storyboards is that they've gotten me thinking about the kinds of things I'm going to have to build or represent in each scene. I've got the beginnings of a catalog of effects, props, people, and locations going in my head now.