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February 27, 1996

PERSONAL COMPUTERS / By STEPHEN MANES

Home Movie: Hooray for Hollywood!

Flash back to 1958: "That is always the central fact about the film maker as opposed to any other artist," Orson Welles writes in frustration. "He can never afford to own his own tools."

Jump cut to 1996: A $40 computer program for Windows and Macintosh offers the tools to make virtually anyone a screenwriter, producer and director without having to deal with ego-mad studio heads. It even throws in a dollop of virtual talent for those who come up short.

Hollywood, from Theatrix Interactive Inc., masquerades as a program for children 9 and up, but it is nothing short of the first movie processor. It should tickle just about anyone who has ever dreamed of creating the Great American Film.

Select an actor, type what you would like her to say, and she will speak your deathless lines with lip synchronization better than what you find in most multimedia productions. Ten endlessly patient players will take direction flawlessly, work long hours for no pay and never ask whiny questions about their motivation.

So what if the actors are anthropomorphic animated animals? Bugs Bunny won Oscars. So what if the computer-synthesized speech patterns include odd inflections? Arnold Schwarzenegger's fans never seemed to mind. So what if you are limited to a single setting? It worked for Samuel Beckett.

And Beckett never had the advantage of being able to write his lines and hear them spoken an instant later. Alfred Hitchcock believed actors should be treated like cattle, but he was never able to herd them around with a mouse. And who knows? Had he had the bourgeois luxury of testing the interplay of music, sound effects and dialogue in the privacy of his room, Bertolt Brecht might not have been so eager to alienate his audience.

The number for more information is (800)955-TRIX, or 8749.

Hollywood's interface is new but easy to grasp. First you choose a plain background or one of 20 settings, everything from a spaceship to a cafeteria. Enter a title, pick animated characters from among the Hollywood 10 (including a nerdy alligator and a feline policewoman), and you can begin developing your scene. Dialogue you write appears in the lower half of the screen; the drama evolves in a window above. Buttons and menus let you customize characters' names, voices, expressions and poses and add music and sound effects.

When you are finished, the actors will perform the entire scene in a "theater" where the dialogue appears as subtitles.

Making changes is as easy as it is with a word processor. If you dislike a character's expression or action, merely delete it from the script. You can take dialogue from one character and give it to another or have it read by an offscreen narrator.

Like most of the very best programs, Hollywood reveals more and more of itself the more you use it. To control spoken inflection, you can modify punctuation and spelling. If you copy a speech from your word processor to the clipboard and paste it into Hollywood's text area, a character can read it back to you.

Kids (and adults with severe writer's block) may enjoy the "idea machine." Once you have set the stage and cast the characters, the idea machine can spew out "story starters" to get things going, "plot twists" to keep them interesting and dialogue relevant to the situation. The suggestions can be so nonsensical that they virtually provoke the writer into trying to top them.

Other animation programs let users tweak their mini-productions in almost infinite ways, but they also reveal how difficult creating animation can be. Hollywood is not quite as flexible, but it handles the drudgery.

Students of the genre will recognize that the program takes its cues from the tradition of 1960's Hanna-Barbera fixtures like Yogi Bear or the more recent Beavis and Butt-head, with snappy dialogue compensating for limited animation. It is a trick that works.

Note to bluenoses: The text-to-speech converter is smart enough to know that "$250,000" should be pronounced "two hundred and fifty thousand dollars," so it can and will pronounce just about anything you can type on the screen. Even though kids and adults are bound to have a giggle when they figure this out, the morality of the nation does not seem to be in grave peril.

Just for fun, I used the diner setting to create a scene featuring an alligator named Jerry, an anteater named George and a narcissistic canine named Elaine bantering about their love lives and her hat. The popping theme music and the laugh track I punched in to punch up the punch lines made it a genuine must-see. Well, almost as good as reruns.

Hollywood provokes the same reaction that word processors did 15 years ago. You gasp at the concept and instantly think of dozens of possibilities and improvements. The text editor here, for example, should emulate modern word processors, complete with an undo function. Multiple camera angles and full-screen images would be welcome, as would the ability to make subtle changes in vocal tone. More characters are needed, as is a way to use them to liven up today's stultifying presentation software. Freely distributed player software should be made available to let you share your productions with people who do not happen to own the full program.

But for now, Hollywood should gain all kinds of fans, from amateurs learning theatrical basics to professionals using the program in lieu of storyboards. With luck, major improvements will come.

"If it wouldn't be too much trouble," the manual asks, "when you win your first Academy Award, could you remember to thank all the people at Theatrix Interactive for their support?"

PERSONAL COMPUTING is published weekly, on Tuesdays. Click here for links to other columns in this series.


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