Here's something from the archives: this is the first and so far only piece of writing I ever sent out to a real publisher. It was rejected, of course, as Interzone are not idiots, but the form letter I got back (with the 'does not meet our requirements at this time' box ticked) had a few encouraging notes scribbled at the bottom by an actual human. Apparently this is a sign of High Favour in rejection letter circles.

The story itself, now nearly ten years old, has dated horribly, as well as being rather poorly written. The entire plot revolves around a technical issue which Pixar blew out of the water in 2001 when they released Monsters, Inc. Still, someone might enjoy it...


Special Effect
David Given
v2 1999-10-30


When she dialled Roland's number, an alien answered the phone.

Roland had, of course, a videophone, and Lucy studied the alien's head in the small screen for several secondsone eye, flat skulled, long neck with no shoulders visible, rubbery knobs around loose lipsbefore speaking.

"Nice one, Roland. But shouldn't there be two heads?"

The alien blinked, and spoke in a fluting, melodic voice. "You recognised it! Superb!"

She laughed. "You haven't got the voice right, though."

The alien, having no visible shoulders, couldn't shrug, but it dipped its head in a reasonably effective equivalent. "I'd need to find a suitable actress and record her voice. Take too long, cost too much. Couldn't be bothered. This is my own voice, heavily processed."

Lucy laughed again, and shook her head. "Besides, you're not interested in sound, only vision, right? How many processors is doing that, anyway?"

The alien blinked again. "Four."

She whistled briefly. "Only four? And it's doing that in real time? I think you've got something here, Roland."

The alien --- Roland --- shook its head. "Only useful under very limited circumstances, I'm afraid. The head's in a very simple environment. Add more objects and solving the lighting, shading, diffusion problems becomes extremely non-trivial. It's a party trick."

Lucy nodded. "Impressive, though. How many more video processors would you need if you wanted more objects on the scene?"

The alien put its head to one side as Roland thought. "Well... the number would go up with the square of the number of objects... but complex scenery would drive the number up even faster. Lots? The rendering algorithm's only efficient under simplified conditions."

"Sounds like it," Lucy agreed. "Anyway, the real reason I called, apart from to marvel at your latest video wizardry, is..."

She held up a DVD disc in front of the camera, and grinned evilly. "On this disc, there is something you'd give your left eye... well, your left head to see."

Roland raised his eyebrow. "Well?"

"This is a highly illegal, bootleg copy of some of the CGI footage of a certain film you're interested in."

The alien's neck suddenly stiffened, raising its head about ten centimetres, and its single eye opened very wide. "Folks Like Us? You haven't!"

Lucy's grin got wider. "I have. Want to see?"

Roland glanced off-screen. "Uh... yes? I don't have any appointments I couldn't not show up for..."

She laughed. ""I'll be over in about ten minutes. See you."

Folks Like Us was the brainchild of Larry Sadler, special effects wizard extraordinaire. He had inherited the mantle worn by Spielberg and Lucas, and had taken his special effects company to even greater heights than they had. But now, the rumours went, he was working on a film that was beyond anything ever done before.

The plot of Folks Like Us was fairly simple. A copy of the script had been smuggled out a few weeks after Light Fantastic had announced they were starting filming, despite their efforts to keep it under wraps. It was a relatively straightforward light comedy about a group of alien visitors to Earth who had made the mistake of landing in Hollywood and had found themselves starring in a film before they quite realised what was going on.

The thing that made Folks Like Us special, however, were the aliens, the herchati, themselves. No men in rubber suits, these; real, non-humanoid aliens, interacting fully with the actors, with a full range of facial expressions... that couldn't be done with animatronics. That meant CGI, and from what Roland had heard about the aliens, he couldn't see how CGI could do it.

Or rather, that was the thing that was supposed to make Folks Like Us special. Light Fantastic had kept the special effects side of the film completely secret. No PR releases of clips of footage, no photos, nothing. Nobody even knew exactly what the hertachi were supposed to look like. It had been driving Roland and the rest of the computer graphics world mad.

The disc contained fifteen minutes of assorted clips. The longest was five minutes; the rest were thirty seconds to a minute long. They were completely unconnected and had had no audio processing, so the soundtrack was full of director's orders and strange creaking noises as the cameras moved on their dollies. The video processing, however, was excellent.

Roland watched the contents of the disc three times, muttering to himself and making notes as he did so. Lucy, who had seen it before, sat on the other end of his cluttered sofa and kept one eye on Roland and the other on the forty-inch wall screen.

Roland in the flesh, unprocessed by his latest image processing software, was an unprepossessing man. He was currently wearing jeans and a Jurassic Park T-shirt, both crumpled, and was unshaven. This was not so much sloppiness as not having any concentration to spare on mundane things. An MIT hacker from the 1970's would have recognised him instantly.

The resemblance was not complete, however. A hacker used computers because he like using computers. Roland used computers as a means to an end; he lived for only one thing, image processing. CGI --- Computer Graphics Imaging. Ray tracing. Rendering.

His chaotically untidy flat was decorated with glossy prints that he had made himself (he had an extremely expensive wax transfer colour printer he used for this sort of thing). They were of simple scenes; landscapes, forest scenes, crowd pictures. None of them were real. They were all pictures of imaginary places, painstakingly modelled by Roland and rendered on a network of sixteen of his powerful video processors.

Single scenes were one thing. Some of these pictures had taken him over two days to render. His real passion was real time image processing, where you had less than a twentieth of a second to generate each frame because you had to start work on the next one.

Finally, after the third repetition, Roland stabbed the STOP button on the remote control, sat back on the sofa, and stared at the ceiling.

"What do you think?" Lucy asked.

Without looking away from the ceiling, Roland said, "They can't do that. It's impossible."

"Oh?"

He suddenly burst into motion, tapping numbers into the remote control. "Look at this."

The scene that appeared on the monitor was of the interior of the hertachi mother ship. Lucy was quite impressed with the interior design of the ship; the set designers had made it strange without making it grotesque. Two hertachi --- the Captain and the First Officer --- were floating in free fall, and were discussing landing sites.

Roland stabbed a finger at the First Officer. "Look. Fur. You know how hard it is to do realistic looking fur? There are some algorithms that work in simplified situations, but..."

The image changed. This scene was from much later on in the film. Lucy recognised it from the script; during a break in the filming, the director's wife had taken the Captain off on a drive. She had developed a crush on the hertachi Captain; he, being firmly married and non-human, was made extremely uncomfortable by this, but was too polite to risk offending her. At every possible opportunity she tried to get him alone somewhere. This provided many opportunities for funny dialogue.

The alien was quadrapedal and very large, looking somewhat like a brown and white polar bear. He would not fit in one of the car's seats, so he was sprawled over both the front and back seats on the passenger side while the director's wife drove.

"Do you see the way that its fur is blowing in the wind? No way. Take days to render each frame and they just haven't had enough time. Besides, modelling the movement of the fur is really hard, have to use a physical model tracking each hair, and adding wind effects makes it horrific. It gets worse."

Earlier in the film, the director had invited some of the hertachi crew to his Hollywood mansion in order to try and persuade them to appear in his film. One of the junior navigators, a young female, was swimming in his pool. She was swimming near the bottom, moving gracefully and surprisingly fast. As she reached the edge of the pool, she surfaced and surged out of the pool onto the grass, where she shook herself in a huge spray of water. A friend looked on with interest.

"Fur and water effects and refraction and interaction with the environment… look at the ripples, for God's sake!"

He paused the playback at a frame showing a swirl of water droplets flying up from the creature's long mane, and sat back on the sofa, staring at the picture.

"With hardware on the same order of magnitude as mine, you can't do that. It's just not possible. It's not animatronics --- look at the way that thing was moving --- and it's certainly not a trained polar bear. It has to be CGI, and you just can't do that."

Lucy sat back and watched with fascination. The man's sheer single-mindedness was one of the things that attracted her. "So, how are they doing it, then?"

He shook his head. "I don't know, I really don't know... either they've got some fabulous new rendering algorithm... I don't think anyone's won the Nobel prize in mathematics recently... or they have something way out of the ordinary in terms of hardware."

"Like what?"

He looked at her grimly. "I haven't a clue. I wouldn't have thought even the military had anything that could do that."

"What about just masses of ordinary video processors?"

He snorted. "Can't hook more than thirty-two of 'em together efficiently. Overheads in task management wipe out any increase in speed from the increased parallelism."

"What's so hard about fur, anyway?" she asked.

He laughed. "Real complex surface. It's easy to render smooth surfaces... metal, plastic, dinosaur skin" --- he tapped the Jurassic Park logo on his T-shirt --- "but it's really hard to render rough surfaces, like cloth, grass, and fur. There's a good reason why Toy Story was a film about plastic toys. Plastic's easy to render. Fur's the hardest of the lot, or possibly grass." He shook his head again. "I have got to see how they did that."

"Do you think it's hardware or software?" she said, smiling.

"Both, probably. They might have some tricky system for pre-rendering the fur." He frowned. "No, that wouldn't work, too complex... wait a minute."

He eyed her intently. "Where did you get that disc, anyway?"

She tried to look enigmatic, but couldn't stop laughing. "I have my ways."

He leaned forward. "Could you get me in there?"

She stopped laughing abruptly.


The best sort of security is not the sort that stops people getting in, but the one that makes people not want to get in. As far as everyone thought, this particular sound stage was mostly used for storing props. Unfortunately for Larry Sadler, everyone excluded Roland, Lucy, and Lucy's friend that provided the DVD disc.

"I don't know how I let myself get talked into this," Lucy muttered, very quietly, as she lay on her back in the roof space over the sound stage. Roland was hunched over a pile of cables trying to outwit the security system.

They had sneaked in in best action movie style, with surprising ease; luckily for them, Sadler obviously didn't want to give away the fact that there was something important here by having too large a security presence. Inside, however, the place was bristling with PIR sensors, microphones, and video cameras.

Rather than try to disable each one, Roland had simply clamped an inductive coupler over one of the security computer's data lines and had persuaded it that people were supposed to be in the building, so it shouldn't sound the alarm. Lucy wondered where he had picked up all this esoteric knowledge. His past must have been more chequered than she thought.

The next problem was that the room they were looking for had a self-contained security system that was combined with the lighting circuits. If it sensed someone in the room, it turned the lights on. That simple. Unfortunately, Props Storage 3 had outside windows and people were bound to notice that the room was lit up at three in the morning.

The system was also home-grown, which meant it was... strange.

Finally Roland sat back, took off his data goggles, and sighed loudly. Lucy winced.

"No problem," he said at normal volume. "Neat system, though."

The alarm didn't go off. The lights didn't go on.

He lifted a ceiling tile and stuck his head through. "All clear," came his voice from below.

They dropped down into the room proper, and Roland indicated one of the corners of the room. "Camera up there," he said with enthusiasm, "that watches the room. There's a microphone, as well. If they sense movement or sound, on go the lights. But, do you see that clock over there?"

She looked round and saw an unobtrusive clock mounted on the opposite wall, with faintly luminous hands. "The computer can see that clock, and watches for the second hand. Listens for the tick, too. If either of them stop, it doesn't just turn the lights on, it sounds a siren. So you can't just fake the input with a still picture."

"What did you do, then?" she asked quietly.

He shrugged. "Wrote some code to simulate a clock face, and spliced that on top of a still picture. Left a video processor hooked up, have to remember to collect it when we leave. It's making regular tick noises into the audio feed, too. You know how difficult it is to type in surgical gloves?"

"Now. What have we got?" He turned on a torch and began rummaging around.

"Roland, do you know how dangerous this is?" Lucy said urgently. "If they catch us, we're going to go to prison, Roland."

"Mmm. Hey, what's this?"

He held up a vaguely glove-shaped object, strangely shaped and far too large.

"It's a space suit glove... an alien space suit glove!"

It was immensely thick and incredibly unwieldy. It would be terribly hard to move your fingers in it, but then, it was only a prop and wouldn't be worn.

Lucy sighed. When he was in this mood, there was no getting him back down to earth without quite a lot of vodka and, preferably, a bucket of ice water. She never believed that they were actually going to break in. She started desultorily poking about, looking for anything vaguely computer-shaped. The sooner they were out of here, the better.

"Hey, listen to this." Roland handed her some earphones that were connected to a nearby tape deck.

"What?"

When he just grinned at her, she put them on, and heard voices.

"...don't move so fast. Slowly. You don't want to startle her, remember?"

"Bhut haven't I alreadhy wet her?" The second voice was higher-pitched and slightly whistling, with weak labial consonants. She recognised it from the disc as being one of the hertachi.

"Didn't you check today's script revisions?"

"What scrit revvisions?"

"Oh, hell. Dean! We cut that scene, we wanted to expand the landing... Dean. Could you get a copy of the latest script revisions, please?"

She took the earphones off. "Good voice."

"Isn't it? Not what we want, though."

They kept looking. Lucy found a neatly folded-up pile of thick leather strips, intricately ornamented and fastened together in odd ways. "What's this?"

She held it up and let it hang from her hands. There were several buckles, and a whole set of pouches.

Roland looked puzzled for a moment, and then snapped his fingers. "Hertachi body harness, one of the clips showed one wearing one." He turned away.

"How is a CGI alien going to wear this?"

"Probably to hang on a wall," he said, without turning around.

She put it back, and then looked at her white surgical gloves. There were some course brown hairs stuck to the rubber, and when she sniffed them, an odd smell.

They kept looking. Eventually, Roland put down a pile of papers he had been flipping though, frowned, and said, "There's nothing here. Are you sure this is the right room?"

"This is the room he said, yes."

"What exactly did he say was in here, again?"

Lucy shrugged. "He said that this room had masses of computer equipment in it. Nothing like he'd ever seen before. He said."

Roland shook his head. "Well, there's nothing like that now."

"They must have moved it."

"Yes... damn! Not even a floppy disk left." He smacked his fist into the palm of his other hand. The noise was echoed by a footstep outside. They froze.

Another footstep crunched into the gravel outside the sound stage's side door. Lucy looked round quickly and pointed at a cupboard in the corner of the room. The chances were whoever it was wouldn't come into the props room, but...

Crowding into the cupboard, they heard the outside door open and the footsteps of two people as they walked in. They heard the noises of some boxes being moved. The footsteps sounded again.

Lucy and Roland held absolutely still in the cupboard. Roland was breathing through his open mouth, trying to avoid making excess noise. Lucy was barely breathing at all. The two people on the sound stage, still without speaking, walked slowly around; she had the impression of them wandering around, trying to find something. Then they came purposefully towards the props room door. She shrunk back into the corner of the cupboard, certain that they were going to be found. Images of trials and prisons appeared in her mind.

The props room door opened and the footsteps, louder this time, came two paces into the room and stopped abruptly.

The lights hadn't come on.

Roland, in absolute silence, slowly raised on hand and, placing it over his face, winced.

They heard some shuffling and then there was a click and the rapid flutter of the fluorescent lights coming on, operated by the manual switch. There was some heavy breathing, and then, still in silence, they walked into the centre of the room and stopped.

The cupboard door didn't quite seal properly at the edges and light came in. If she bent her head, Lucy could put her eye to the crack, but could only see an unhelpful beige wall.

The footsteps slowly came towards their cupboard, and stopped. The light through the crack darkened. There was some more heavy breathing, almost sniffing. Then there was a pause.

The the cupboard door flew open, and they found themselves blinking in the light at a large, puzzled, and very real brown-and-white hertachi.


Lucy and Roland sat on two chairs in the middle of the sound stage. They weren't bound, but they didn't need to be; three extremely large hertachi sat nearby, studying them with interest. A handful of humans were there, as well, with expressions ranging from annoyance to amusement.

Larry Sadler himself walked up and down in front of them, thinking hard, and glancing with irritation at Roland, who was in hysterics.

"Special effects! CGI!" he managed to get through the laughter. "Oh, god, no wonder I thought it couldn't be done!"

Sadler ignored him, and spoke to Lucy. "If only it hadn't been Lachatanec who had found you, it wouldn't be so bad. There wasn't anything important in there. Why were you poking around in a props room, anyway?"

Lucy barely heard him. She was staring at one of the hertachi; the one who had found her, in fact. The huge creature stared back with equal interest. Even seen on Roland's massive wall screen, they were still far more imposing in the flesh.

Sadler placed himself in her line of sight, and demanded, "Who are you, anyway?"

When she didn't reply, he went on: "Oh, come on, it's not as if you've got anything to lose. You're well in the middle of it now."

Roland wheezed, "The big rendering engine in the sky is still the best CGI system around!" and broke up again. Sadler shook his head in disgust, and turned to the hertachi.

"Why were you in there, anyway? You know how risky it is being outside the compound."

The hertachi glanced at him, and said, "I hadh the cloak, andh therre wasn't anyvody aroundh."

"What were you looking for?"

Lachatemec looked slightly sheepish, and admitted in a thick accent that he was trying to find his harness that he had lost during filming several days earlier. He thought that it might have been mistaken for a prop. Sadler threw up his hands in disgust.

"The biggest secret of the twenty-first century let out because of a piece of ornamented leather! Oh, god."

One of the other hertachi, a bigger one, said: "What iss the provlem? Iff you dhon't want weowle to learn awout us, dhon't release then."

Sadler shook his head. "This whole affair has to be scrupulously legal, you know that. We can't hold these two against their will. We can inform the authorities, who will take them off our hands, but we can't stop them from talking."

Lucy found her voice. Roland was still giggling. "Wh...what are these?"

Sadler barely glanced at her. "You've read the script, haven't you? It's all more or less true." He looked back to the second hertachi. "If we're going to press charges, we have to inform the police as soon as possible. If we're not, we can't keep them incommunicado. It's a mess."

Lachatanec put in: "We can't keef then against their will, you ssay. Wersuade then to stay of their own ffree will, then."

Sadler opened his mouth to reply, and stopped. He looked thoughtful. He asked Lucy, "Why are you here? What do you want?"

Unexpectedly, Roland replied. "Got a clip of the filming. Wanted to find out how you did... them." He jabbed a thumb at the hertachi and manfully managed to avoid breaking up again.

Sadler studied him for several moments. "Roland Archer, right? I should have known no-one else would risk breaking and entering for the sake of some software."

"Yeah, we heard there was masses of really out-of-this-world computer hardware in there," Roland replied. "What happened? Where did we go wrong?"

Sadler regarded him evenly. "It's a props room. They were props. Made out of cardboard."

He briefly looked back to Lachatanec. "It's an idea."

He leaned forward. "Right, to hell with being subtle: how would you like an awful lot of money?"

"Wait a minute." Lucy tried to get her bearings. "These are aliens? Real aliens? And you want them to make a film?"

Sadler looked tired. "Can you think of a better way of getting masses of favourable publicity? We got some good scriptwriters, it should do well. Everyone will be familiar with what they look like, how they speak, how they act. When we announce that the hertachi are real and are here, there should be almost no panic."

Lucy looked at Lachatanec. "How did you get here? You've got a ship?"

"Yess," he said. "Geosstationarry orrvit. Cloaked."

"Cloaked?"

He nodded, and used one front paw/hand to touch a button on a thick metal bracelet around the other. As he did so, he rippled and faded, and Lucy was staring at the wall of the sound stage through some slight distortion. After a few seconds he reappeared, taking his hand away from the bracelet. "Cloaked."

"An FTL ship?"

He nodded again. "Yess."

She looked back at Sadler. "They're peaceful?"

He snorted. "They're traders."

"And you want to make a film?" she asked Lachatanec.

The hertachi nodded, and said, "It iss very exciting. We havve never done anything likhe thiss vefore."

She stared at the two of them, one human with arms folded and a worried expression, and one hertachi sitting primly with forepaws on the ground, and then started to feel laughter bubble up.

"Well," she said. "Far be it from me to hinder the interstellar peace process. Count me in."

Roland nodded. "Me too. And I'd like to have a word with some of your CGI staff..."


Folks Like Us came out three months later. It made a reasonable showing at the box office, and eventually won two Oscars, the Pulitzer, the Hugo, and the Nobel Peace Prize. It was also the only film ever to get a special showing in the United Nations building.

The Oscars were for the script and the acting. It didn't win anything for the special effects. There weren't any.