02 Sep 2017

The Commodore Amiga: Once upon a time this was what we used to produce digital video

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The Amiga 4000 - as used by Warhol The Amiga 4000 - as used by Warhol Red Shark/Sony


RedShark Replay: A trip down memory lane in the company of the venerable Commodore Amiga 4000, one of the formative machines from the age of digital video.

The formative experiences of many people still currently working in film and TV will have involved one of two things: large, expensive, tape-based news cameras and deck to deck editing, or tentatively pushing a button on a Bolex and listening to silver-coated plastic rush through the gate like a waterfall made of pure money, followed by editing with a splicing block.

Neither of those approaches to acquisition and post production are long for this world in 2015, unless we're really serious purists. But for those of us born at exactly the right moment, there was a third way, something that was mainstream only for a decade or so, and that initially offered only a hint at the sort of flexibility we now take for granted.

In the early 1990s, even standard-definition nonlinear editing was a catastrophically expensive process, and financially practical only for the high-end. This was the era of the Amiga, Commodore's computer system that had famously been used, in its early generations, by Andy Warhol in the 1980s and remained prominent in the field of video and early motion graphics for its easy genlocking.

The Amiga's preeminence in the area was unmatched, in much the same way that Apple's products were, at the time, associated strongly with desktop publishing, but the hardware was modest even for the time. An Amiga 4000, host to NewTek's renowned Video Toaster card (notoriously available only in NTSC and often in effect an extremely expensive dongle for Lightwave) sported at best a Motorola 68040 processor clocked at a princely 50MHz. Upgrades to 68060s and the IBM PowerPC 600-series CPUs used in Macs of the time didn't appear until years later, after it was really too late. By default, the Amiga 4000 didn't even have 24-bit graphics capability, just a 256-colour display of broadly the same capability of a 386-era PC, with some ability to do more with the esoteric hold-and-modify modes of its custom graphics hardware. Frame buffers capable of full 16.7 million colour displays were extra, as was more than a few megabytes of RAM. At launch, the A4000 was powerful and competitive, but nothing of that level of capability was ever cheap.

Similarly expensive was something like a VLab Motion card, the hardware MJPEG codec that made it possible to store standard-definition pictures on the hard disks of the time – and let's not even talk about the cost of a five hundred megabyte hard disk in the early 90s. The performance limitations of the disks meant that the media storage drive was generally attached directly to the frame grabber, and formatted with a custom filesystem designed to do nothing more than store JPEG frames. Solving the audio problem could also be complex, as the Amiga by default had four channels of eight bit audio output, although these could be combined in software to create a stereo, fourteen-bit output. There was no audio input without additional hardware. Ethernet boards for the Amiga's custom Zorro plug-in expansion bus cost a fortune.

The fact that the entire first season of Babylon 5 had its CG effects work done on Amigas, by the now-defunct Foundation Imaging, is nothing short of miraculous given the constraints of the time. It must have cost a king's ransom in circuit boards.

Clearly, this was not a sensible prospect for home users, but desperate measures could be improvised. Your narrator's first vaguely-serious experiences behind a camera involved Sony's CCD-V6000E, a single-chip Hi8 camcorder with something approaching a usable, shoulder-mounted layout and a terrible manual lens which nonetheless seems attractive compared to some of today's servo-driven efforts. The camera produced 4:3, interlaced, standard-definition pictures, and, I now realise, slightly soft and milky ones at that. Even so, there could be no hope of capturing all that data to an affordable post production system, and the default option was tape-to-tape editing. The closest approximation to nonlinear editing involved an Amiga 1200 with – wait for it – the seminal Vidi-Amiga 12 parallel port frame grabber, which was capable of capturing either slightly ropey colour stills, or low resolution greyscale images about once every third of a second. Combine that grab rate with the automatic pause-advance speed of the V6000 camera, and we have achieved a princely 12.5fps, 320 by 240 pixel video sequence in 16 shades of grey, with no audio.

Things have come on a bit since then.

The possibilities of this situation, however, were intoxicating. I don't want to claim to have been the first person ever to have dodged a muzzle flash onto the end of a wooden gun – they were doing similar things for Babylon 5 around the same time – but there was a certain satisfaction in being able to render things in Imagine, a 3D graphics package vaguely similar to very early versions of Lightwave but much cheaper, and drop them into shots of schoolfriends reacting to fresh air.

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Phil Rhodes

Phil Rhodes is a Cinematographer, Technologist, Writer and above all Communicator. Never afraid to speak his mind, and always worth listening to, he's a frequent contributor to RedShark.

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