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.