Saturday, 16 March 2013

Max Headroom and the strange world of pseudo-CGI

I've come across people who believe that Max Headroom, the Channel 4 character from the eighties, was computer animated. But although it was the animators Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel who brought him to life, Max himself was the actor Matt Frewer placed into latex makeup and a shiny costume and set amidst a range of technological tricks.

"Channel 4's greatest animated hit turned out not to be animated at all", commented Clare Kitson in her book British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor. But as she went on to argue, perhaps it is time for a reappraisal:

I wonder if we might indeed classify those sequences as animation nowadays. With the plethora of different technologies now employed, the previous narrow definition (which insisted that the movement itself must be created by the animator) seems a bit old-fashioned. These days anything that appears on a screen and moves but is not a record of real life - including creatures moved by motion capture - tends to fall under the animation umbrella.

Max Headroom was indeed a live actor... [but he] was shot against a blue screen with light sources to simulate the computer-generated images of the period, and the blue screen was replaced in post-production with an animated, computer-generated moving background grid; every other frame was removed, and the remaining frames doubled, to simulate the effect when animators 'shot on doubles'; and finally, various frames were repeated to simulate faults. The current popular synonym for animation, 'manipulated moving image', seems to be made for Max.

Max Headroom was created at a time when 3D CGI animation was desirable, but not always affordable; if budget did not allow it, then producers had to fake computer animation in front of the camera - a process which seems somewhat surreal today in our brave new world of Xtranormal and Blender. Perhaps the most famous instance of this is Disney's Tron, from 1982, which contained genuine CGI animation backed up with large amounts of compositing tricks based around matte effects and backlighting to make the live action footage look as though it was digitally processed.

Another example is the opening sequence to the 1981 American film Escape from New York, which shows what appears to be a wireframe model of Manhattan. In actual fact, it's a physical model, with ultraviolet light and reflective tape combining to emulate primitive CGI.

You could also point to Rod Lord's animation work on the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy television series from 1981. Designed to suggest digital graphics, the sequences were actually created using litho film and coloured gels.

Primitive computer graphics have had something of a resurgence across the past decade or so, to the point in which pastiches of 8-bit pixel graphics have found their way into mainstream productions such as Wreck-It Ralph. Perhaps it's time today's animators rediscovered the lesser-known cousin of this aesthetic...

Well, just so long as they put it to better use than this fellow.


  1. Well, this brings to mind a fracas that ensued at Animation City in the early eighties when we were working for MPC on a commercial for a toothbrush. The whole thing had been sold to the client as a computer animation job and the bit where the toothbrush was created in glowing lines before mixing through to live action of the actual brush was indeed done in the computer. However, the main part of the ad was a man made of glowing green lines, picking up a real toothbrush and cleaning his teeth, and CG was not advanced enough to do anything like that at the time, so we were drafted in to do it. An actor, with shaved head, was covered in felt tip pen lines, filmed doing the action and then we rotoscoped the lines, the toothbrush and the inside of his mouth, We then made mattes for the brush and his mouth and kodaliths for the lines and married it all together on the aerial-image camera. Everybody was happy – until we mentioned it to a journalist from Campaign who was doing a piece on us. The journalist didn't really believe it, since that was the time they all thought computers were going to make animators redundant, but printed the claim anyway and all hell broke lose because the client had got the impression that it was all done inside the magic box. We were told in no uncertain terms that, if we wanted to continue to do work for MPC, we wouldn't tell anybody that we were pretending to be computers. We protested, but we needed the work, so we said OK, as long as they they didn't try to pass off our work as anything other than what it was. Which didn't stop me getting kicked under the table when brought in to discuss a pop video that was to be made "on the computer". Soon after that computing power got better and the glowing green lines were actually being made on the computer, and we stopped getting the work. After that we started taking work to MPC and getting them to do stuff for us and they have done VFX for two feature films for me so no harm done, and there seem to be lots of animators still around the place.
    Have trade journalists learned not to take things at face value? You may have your own opinion...

  2. Thanks for the story - I'd be quite interested to see that ad!

  3. I'll see if I can find it. It may be on an obscure tape somewhere that I can no longer view. Luckily the BFI has asked for my old films and tapes and they are going to let me have copies on disc of anything I don't already have so I may eventually have it again. I'll keep you posted.