July 28, 2019 7:12 PM   Subscribe

Before the advent of digital graphics, television and movie producers wanting high-tech animations had the option of using analog computers to process video signals. The characteristic look of 1970s and early 80s video graphics was primarily thanks to the Scanimate, a sophisticated analog computer which produced instantly-recognizable 3D animated text and colorful patterns.

The Scanimate system was developed by the Computer Image Corporation (Wikipedia) beginning in the 1960s, and (according to Wikipedia at least) eight units were made. Today, two of them are preserved by engineer Dave Sieg (YouTube, Vice MotherBoard video), who describes Scanimate as "sort the visual equivalent of like a Moog synthesizer." His website,, captures the retro feel with a quintessentially Web 1.0 design aesthetic.

Scanimate was featured previously on MetaFilter, and mentioned occasionally ([1], [2]) in FPPs that are well worth exploring.
posted by biogeo (22 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite
Here's a primo demo reel from CIC circa 1975, we are deep in the heart of the 70s here, my friends. There's some bizarre stuff in here. If you only watch one thing though, this HBO sequence is pretty trippy.
posted by jeremias at 8:04 PM on July 28, 2019 [14 favorites]

Now this is what I call best of the web!
posted by wires at 8:09 PM on July 28, 2019 [2 favorites]

Scanimate animations, on a CRT television, have this shimmer that’s hard to describe and that doesn’t come across at all on a modern flat panel. (I suspect video compression has something to do with it too.)
posted by Ampersand692 at 8:22 PM on July 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

jeremias, that demo reel is amazing. Not just as a demo of the Scanimate, but as a mid-70s time capsule. There's so much weirdness in there, but I have to call out the ad for hydronics (I think maybe it's just a single home hydronics installation company? But the ad is definitely for the concept of hydronics) that sets up a hypothetical dystopia of government intrusion that can only be avoided by installing hydronics in your home. So I guess it's all the jerks using forced air heating that are responsible for the state of the world now.
posted by biogeo at 10:14 PM on July 28, 2019 [3 favorites]

Heh, the Video Toaster (digital, Amiga-based) had a lot of the animations shown in that demo reel; now I know what they were emulating with some of their odder movements
posted by davejay at 10:34 PM on July 28, 2019 [4 favorites]

I've wondered about this tech for ages! Thank you!
posted by lokta at 2:54 AM on July 29, 2019

And the website design is true early 80's classic web style! That green!
posted by sammyo at 4:14 AM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Ger-ry Toddddd!
posted by CynicalKnight at 5:20 AM on July 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Tangentially related, I recently learned of The Fonz, a Sega arcade game, which appears to create the effect of a winding road by distorting the image.

Which I guess is a similar method to the sorts of things the Scanimate is doing to the image?
posted by RobotHero at 8:26 AM on July 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Two masterpieces of Scanimate are music videos by Earth, Wind, and Fire: "Let's Groove" and "Fall In Love With Me".
posted by vibrotronica at 9:42 AM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

I feel like there would be a market for miniaturized boutique versions of these machines for veejays.
posted by sleeping bear at 10:58 AM on July 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

early 80's classic web style

posted by Abehammerb Lincoln at 2:55 PM on July 29, 2019 [4 favorites]

If you grew up watching the original version of "The Electric Company", those shimmering psychedelic transitions, and the letters morphing into objects, were all Scanimate.

In "Star Wars", Scanimate was also used for the "computer" displays aboard the Death Star as Grand Moff Tarkin watched it approach Yakin. (Most of the other "computer" displays in "Star Wars" are simply cel animation, with the notable exception of the famous wire-frame trench run.)
posted by Kibo at 2:58 PM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

The early '80s web was when 13th century typefaces were really popular again.
posted by biogeo at 7:16 PM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

sleeping bear: “I feel like there would be a market for miniaturized boutique versions of these machines for veejays.”
None of them quite do what the Scanimate does, but "video synthesizers" like the Critter and Guitari ETC or LZX Vidiot and Cadet can integrate with a DJ or electronic musician's rig to provide a real-time visual component to their performances.
posted by ob1quixote at 8:50 PM on July 29, 2019 [2 favorites]

Something to remember about the Scanimate is that it isn't actually capable of producing the text and line art you see being used. People drew that stuff by hand using traditional design techniques and it was scanned into the system with a camera as a black and white image, and then it used chroma/color shifting to add color to grayscale images.

As well as do all of that cool analog video processing stuff like position animation, warping and tilting and more.

The CIC demo reel link linked by Jeremias at the top totally reminds me of 80s/90s demoscene warez.

On the home/desktop video synth stuff I've seen a few that are basically modular video synths in a Eurorack format just like an audio synth with patches and knobs, but they output direct oldschool VGA or composite and look pretty amazing on a good LCD or DLP projector. They would probably look best on a nice Sony Trinitron CRT monitor, the biggest SVGA one you could find. The one I saw was also sound reactive and could take in sound inputs.
posted by loquacious at 9:02 PM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yeah, it wouldn't surprise me if it turned out you could generate text de novo on the Scanimate by very carefully manipulating the CRT raster beam (as was sometimes done for vector graphics displays, like the original Asteroids arcade machine), but that doesn't generally seem to be the way it was done. The documentary (Vimeo) linked on the front page goes into a little more detail showing how you go from text line art to 3D animations with the Scanimate. Of course it's not "true" 3D (in the sense of having an internal representation of a 3-dimensional space the way that a modern digital computer would for its animations), but some of the effects are incredibly sophisticated nonetheless.
posted by biogeo at 9:27 PM on July 29, 2019 [1 favorite]

Tangentially related, I recently learned of The Fonz, a Sega arcade game, which appears to create the effect of a winding road by distorting the image.

IIRC, pretty much all car-racing/driving games (Pole Position, OutRun, &c.) of the pre-3D era simulated a 3D road by one of various hacks which looked sufficiently like one-point perspective but were computationally cheaper than 3D projections.
posted by acb at 5:36 AM on July 31, 2019

Yes but what is unusual to me is it's not bending just the road but the entire image. You can see the other bicycles bend when they go around corners. And the bend is very smooth compared to the large pixels on the bikes. So is it an analog rather than digital effect?
posted by RobotHero at 5:59 AM on July 31, 2019 [1 favorite]

I don't quite know why I typed bicycles there. My eyes and ears work. I know who the Fonz is.
posted by RobotHero at 8:27 PM on July 31, 2019

Yeah, that's a pretty interesting effect. Maybe created with a per-scanline variable phase shift in the CRT signal? It looks like the display is still a fairly conventional raster display. I could imagine achieving that with either analog or digital effects.

Old arcade games had some great, unusual solutions to the problem of producing graphics on minimal hardware.
posted by biogeo at 10:45 PM on July 31, 2019

I'm also reminded of the post on someone making a video card. So it might be offsetting where it's sampling from right in the equivalent of a video card?
posted by RobotHero at 6:36 AM on August 1, 2019 [1 favorite]

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