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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 a genuine piece of computer animation. But although he was conceived by the animators Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (of Cucumber Films fame) Max himself was portrayed by actor Matt Frewer, placed into latex makeup and a shiny costume and set amidst a range of technological tricks.

Half of the frames from the footage used in Max Headroom were removed in production, resulting in a juddery look to suggest animation shot on twos, and Frewer was bluescreened in front of a basic digital backdrop. The crew even added deliberate faults to the “animation” – such as the stammer which became Max’s trademark – to complete the effect.

This process seems somewhat surreal today, in our brave new world of Maya, Xtranormal and Blender. Max Headroom was created at a time when 3D CGI animation was desirable, but not always affordable; if the budget did not allow it, then the crew had to fake computer animation in front of the camera.

Another good example of this can be found in the 1981 film Escape from New York. Early on in the movie we see what appears to be a wireframe model of Manhattan; in actual fact, a physical model was built for this sequence, with reflective tape placed along the edges of the buildings. Shot under ultraviolet light, this recreated the luminescent green-on-black effect of primitive CGI.

There has even been an incident in which a budget imitation of CGI itself received a budget imitation. In 1987 an unidentified signal hacker managed to replace two television broadcasts with a mildly disturbing video of a home-made Max Headroom show. In this improvised effort Max was portrayed by a man in a shop-bought mask, while the moving backdrops – in the original series, an example of genuine digital animation amongst the pseudo-CGI – were replaced with somebody offscreen wiggling a bit of corrugated metal about.

These are all extreme examples; during this period, it was more common for digital animation to be emulated using hand-drawn techniques. Often used as a visual motif in kids’ science fiction-themed cartoons (witness the cel animated wireframes in the opening sequence to Transformers) this approach was put to good use by Rod Lord’s animation work on the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy television series from 1981. Created using litho film and coloured gels, these sequences suggested digital graphics simply by combining glowing primarily-coloured images with a black background. An added plus was that the animation could get away with being a little bit jerky…

One sequence in Hitchhiker’s Guide portrayed an intergalactic war as an early video game, a theme drawn upon by other animators: for example, in 1982 a British public information film used Space Invaders-like imagery to advise audiences on safe driving [see image below]. The biggest example of this, however, came when Disney produced an entire feature film based around the look of eighties arcade games: Tron.

Tron contained genuine CGI animation backed up with large amounts of compositing tricks based around matte effects and backlighting; this made the live action footage look as though it had been digitally processed. As a result, the film stands as arguably the premiere example of pseudo-CGI.

In her book British Animation: The Channel 4 Factor Clare Kitson remarked on the fact that Max Headroom, Channel 4’s biggest animated hit, was not actually animated. 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… The current popular synonym for animation, ‘manipulated moving image’, seems to be made for Max.

Of course, if Max had been made using actual CGI he would have ended up as a creaky old relic, rather like the “Money for Nothing” video which came out the year after his debut. Instead, Jankel, Morton and Frewer came up with a genuinely iconic creation that has aged surprisingly well.

Today, it is all too easy for animators to fall back on the tricks of their software and lose track of the wider aesthetic potential of their work. What Max Headroom—and, to an extent, some of the other pieces mentioned here—show is the opposite effect: digital animation spurring creativity in analogue work. They have an ingenuity and hand-made charm which is missing from so much modern computer animation.

Primitive digital imagery has had something of a resurgence across the past decade or so, to the point where pastiches of 8-bit pixel graphics have found their way into mainstream productions such as Wreck-It Ralph. Perhaps it is time that the animators and digital artists of today rediscovered the lesser-known cousin of this aesthetic: the strange world of pseudo-CGI.

NEIL EMMETT is the editor of The Lost Continent, a fantastic resource devoted to British animation, past and present. This piece is an expanded version of a post that originally appeared on his site.

  • Those Hitchhiker’s Guide segments still blow my mind every time I see them. The attention to detail and execution is extraordinary.

    • Fraser MacLean

      Respect to the magnificently talented Mr Kevin Davies for those very sequences! Kevin – care to tell the people how you did it….?

  • Floyd Norman

    Processing power was extremely expensive back in the seventies. I remember trying to build digital vehicles for the TV show, “Hot Wheels.” The ideas were good. The hardware and software near impossible to work with.

  • Reminded myself of a sequence in 1984’s “Electric Dreams” featuring a pseudo-CGI sequence too.

    • Neil Emmett

      Nice find, I wasn’t aware of this one.

      • It’s a film that inspired me to want a computer badly that could do a lot of multimedia things long before such concepts were within reach. Nowadays I feel too spoiled with what I got.

  • shootingstarnz

    great article, really enjoyed reading it, being an 80s baby:P

  • kiptw

    Remember some battery ads from the 90s with the creepy “Futterman” family? They looked synthetic — and they were, but in a plastic face/body mask way, rather than virtual.

    • Funkybat

      Your mention of them brings back something like a half-memory. It must have been early 90s if not earlier. Does anyone recall the brand they were advertising? Now I want to look them up!

  • Tstevens

    Don’t forget 2001. The screen animations on the Discovery were all animated by hand and rear projected on set.
    You could also look at Disney’s use of stop motion models in films like 101 Dalmations as precursors to CG…

  • Roberto Severino

    Now these are the kinds of posts that I want to see more often on Cartoon Brew! This stuff is really fascinating. I would have never guessed that even Tron was a pseudo CGI film!

    • matt

      I found that part unclear and a bit misleading. Because the ‘pseudo’ stuff is basically that they took the live-action footage of the actors, printed them like individual cels and hand-coloured them/added glowing effects because it was much much cheaper than the digital alternative (which really wasn’t an alternative – certainly no motion tracking then!). Other than that there were matte paintings. It was basically the inverse of a completely bluescreened/greenscreened film. Maybe that bit on Tron could have been slightly expanded considering the relevance.

      What Neil failed to mention (considering the article’s focus) was that the parts that were fully computer-animated DO absolutely stand up, in spite of the time they were created. In fact the Lightcycles and Recognisers, Tanks and Carrier designed by Syd Mead are the main reason (along with Moebius’ distinctive costume designs with their neon circuitry motif) the film is remembered. Certainly not for amazing feats of storytelling.

      Getting to my point, considering the archaic limitations of CG at the time, the reason for Tron’s visual resonance is primarily due to Mead’s knowledge of design (both graphic and industrial) and how he was able to apply solid insight about balance, composition and proportion to make iconic shapes/forms from such primitive parts (and I mean using basic computer primitives!) in a way that those signature vehicles and therefore the film are instantly recognised years later (along with the costumes by Moebius, equally brilliant in his visual field) in contrast to almost nothing of the film’s plot.

      It’s no accident that in the sequel (which again was made due to the original’s iconic imagery, certainly not its box office performance) the vehicles were only basically given a new slap of paint, and those distinctive silhouettes remained pretty much intact.

      Finally, considering that Tron pre-dates most of the eighties videogames you mention in terms of aesthetics, that’s arguably an enormous error. Sure backlit animation was all the rage and there was Pong in the seventies, but the film was already written and in preproduction at the start of the eighties. It was influenced more by nascent computer animation than videogames, even if that was an integral part of the final film. Certainly not 8-bit.

      As for the 8-bit aesthetic, Minecraft would have been an even better example than Ralph.

      Finally, did you know Neil that James Cameron apparently worked out that lateral solution for Escape from new York? That would have been incredibly relevant to the article and may well have been in research about that effect.

      I disagree with some of the views posited/posted here. There’s an apples-to-oranges comparison going on because while the majority of hand-drawn/made/oldschool animation and effects which were very ordinary and uncreative have slipped from memory (and are unavailable to view) and we only see the cream/best of a hundred years of those artforms, CG is unfairly and naively compared to it. And now an argument that faux-CG is intrinsically of more worth. When we are both seeing the best AND worst of this comparatively young form. Unlike traditional and introducing a false equivalence. And the progress is staggering if you compare them at similar points in their timelines. Also, surely the fact that generally anyone using CG in the last decade or two is basically using the same tools should serve to reinforce not obscure that it’s the PEOPLE that still make the difference in doing good work.

      Having said all that, it was a cool and thought-provoking article Neil. Thankyou.

  • Firstly, to dismiss the quite staggering feats of observation, skill and dexterity that goes into some modern animation as “creatures moved by motion capture” is wonderfully myopic. I’m quite amazed that someone would even take the effort to say such a thing when they have taken some such little effort to understand the process.
    Secondly, Max & HHGTTG were great pieces of vision and artistry, something which was very apparent at the time, in my view up with Bladerunner and the like. To compare them with nothing but the equivalent work today (O’Reilly? Gumball? Life of Pi? Mikey Please?) seems unfair to everyone mentioned.
    Animation has, is and will be mostly made, by people. It is generally not solely captured or scanned or generated. Anyone who tells you it that is is probably mistaken or they are stretching the truth.

    • Neil Emmett

      I didn’t read Clare Kitson’s comment as dismissive – she’s drawing a line between Max Headroom and modern mo-cap, as both are digital works built on an actor’s performance.

      I certainly don’t mean to imply that no CGI animation has artistic merit; I’m thinking less about Pixar and more about lower-end digital work. Something like the H2G2 sequences could be made in Flash and it’d be pretty straightforward to emulate Max Headroom using After Effects, so I’d say it’s fair to compare them to the cheaper side of modern digital animation.

      • Yes, I suppose I am coming at it from a purist point of view. My animosity to this statement is that is a powerful assumption help by some, including many in the industry, that what they see on the screen is “captured” or “rotoscoped” or it’s production has been automated in some way. There is as much hard animation graft accompanying Serkis’ performances (for example) on the screen as there is in anything by Harryhausen. The point is it is masked by the sheer wealth of work and detail that goes into large production CGI.
        Much of the animation of the tiger in Life of Pi was so sophisticated many people didn’t even start to think it wasn’t a real tiger, that is the level to which we have come, and technology is only partly responsible for allowing this.
        In my opinion the individuals that work in this field are true renaissance people, they need to understand so much about, math, physics, programming, art, colour, composition, movement, and much more.
        Motion capture very rarely works by itself, especially with animals, it needs heavy interpretation and is often used as a guide as the film tests were used a guides for the Disney animation of the thirties and forties.
        When budgets are low one takes as many short cuts as one can to get the job done, technology does help with this. As a result of technology we have so much animation all around us, and what I think you compare the psuedo-CGI with, just would not have been made back then because you couldn’t do it.
        The line around what is animation and what is not animation, is, I agree, blurred. But I will argue fiercely with any who suggest that what many produce today is somehow demeaned purely because it is made with a computer not a light box.

        Anyhow, this is a though provoking piece and thanks for engaging.

  • Jimbo2K7

    The marvelous Art of Noise used Max in a music video…

  • Ivan

    Great article, Neil! These are the sorts of article I come to the site for.

  • Never knew that the Blade Runner sequence was actually done with miniatures. Thanks for teaching me something today!

    • Andrew Singleton

      The Tyrell Corp building would have had more shots, but during one of the filming sessions (involving a smoked room and prolonged exposures) the whole thing caught fire because the lights used on the inside to make the inside twinkly office lights effect was so hot it caused the whole thing to be set on fire.

      Also other bits of cityscapes were from Close Encounters dressed up with bits and bobs and stuck on it’s side. Listening to the commentary track and watching the making of are really educational experiences.

      Even the turntable of the replicants wasn’t some fancy camera rig. They had the actors on a turntable holding very still. (sadly

      Bryant’s dialog holds up poor in that scene. i dunno it just grates me.)

      • higgins2k

        The Tyrell building miniature can be seen at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, NY, or anyway it could when I visited there in 2006.

  • Donomator

    Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton; didn’t they direct that Super Mario Bros. film with Bob Hoskins?

  • robsugar

    Max Headroom would be a great candidate for a high-def remastering. The series was prescient in it notions of a society predominated by myriad TV channels, instant feedback, ubiquitous video surveillance and cyber- and steampunk aesthetics. Not to mention Amanda Pays in her prime.

    • Neil

      Ironically, it’s probably cheaper to recreate him as a real-time, fully CG character, than it is to hire an actor wearing a load of prosthetics, now.

    • godstalker

      I’d argue that hi-def is the very antithesis of the Max Headroom aesthetic.

  • smurfswacker

    Back in the mid-1980s I was a storyboard artist on a film that sort of did this the other way round. For “Starchaser, the Legend of Orin” a US-based artist created wireframes of his spacecraft designs (by entering them point by point as xyz cooridinates). These were animated by computer (don’t know what software). The results were traced onto cels by the Korean animators and finished the old-fashioned way. This technique gave the space-battle sequences a big-budget look. Incidentally, the movie was produced for 3-D, but I only saw the flat version.

  • 3DAnimator

    Speaking as a computer graphic artist, I think that what a lot of people don’t realize is that pretty much every different 3D animation job comes with it’s own set of unique challenges. In a way, the sequence from escape from New York in which the 3d landscape is created with boxes displays is very similar to the type of sideways thinking that is actually required to produce any work of technical significance that uses 3D Graphics. Just like the ‘old days’, a CG artist these days is a person with a challenge, a workshop and a set of tools… Not (as many people think) just somebody picking choices from a menu of animation options. Even the simplest examples often represents many, many small artistic and technical challenges. The cutting edge of the field is invented along the way and just like the old days it’s a constant process of discovering new ways to convince the audience that they’re looking at something amazing which of course in reality is actually not there…. Not that I want to dismiss this article…. I’m a child of the 80s and love to enjoy a bit of nostalgia as much as the next guy :)

  • v_vsn

    I would disagree with this: I would point to Max Headroom and the computer displays in Ridley Scott’s Alien and Blade Runner as the premiere examples of pseudo-CGI. Tron used genuine CGI, one of the first movies to do so, so citing this as a pedestal example is going to be confusing.

  • etmthree

    I spent weeks shooting fake vector graphics for Star Trek IV…

  • Jeremy Galante

    EXCELLENT article! A quick history lesson with some modern application. Cartoon Brew needs more more more of this!

  • LaughsAtHumans

    Interesting. I had always thought Max Headroom was made by filming Matt Frewer (heavily makeuped, yes), but then the image was inserted and the processing done on whatever passed for a computer in 1987; I remember hearing that there was nothing they could do about the stutter, because what they were doing pushed the envelope for the equipment they were stuck using at the time.

    Hell, I see this effect sometimes now. Playing Elder Scrolls Online yesterday (a game that has only been out maybe six months), the ghosts I was dealing with would pull a Max Headroom when they started speaking (this seems to be a new glitch, I ran that quest before on another character, and this did not happen). It was that glitch that drove me to start re-watching the series, and to come here out of curiosity over details of its production.

    I guess what I had heard back then was the equivalent to the BTTF Hoverboard lie (that they existed, invented by Mattel, but were not for sale because of litigation reasons.)

    I cant say this ruins my childhood, but it does kind of put a damper on my late teen years. :P