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


Software and storage

In many ways the software situation was parlous: the only way to make cuts was to load the raw grabbed footage into Deluxe Paint, trim the unwanted frames, then load the main sequence and append the new shot. Deluxe Paint, it should be remembered, was released by Electronic Arts, back in the days when that name directly meant something, and was by far the leading piece of graphics software in that era of computer art and games development. It was miserable by modern standards, of course, but even grading was possible – the animation formats of the time supported a palette per frame, so not only could we have images in 16 shades of grey, we could have images in 16 shades of – say – blue or green, too. On a per-frame basis, every manner of psychedelia could be achieved.

Storage was, of course, tricky. Amigas frequently used the RIFF file structure that's the basis of things like AVI and WAV files, including the broadcast wave extensions which are currently popular. The IFF-ANIM format for animations used delta compression, storing the differences between frames. Even in four-bit greyscale, normal video noise was enough to ensure that the delta compression rarely did much, and data rates were generally somewhere near the theoretical maximum of half a megabyte per second. This seemed heady at the time, and the only realistic option was something like the Syquest EZ-135 drive, providing about 135MB of storage (equal to a staggering four and a half minutes of animation!) on cartridges. This was Syquest's answer to Iomega's much more successful Zip drive, and it quickly became difficult to get the cartridges, but with internal hard disks stuck at half a gigabyte it seemed like nirvana.

The Amiga, tragically, was never developed beyond the A4000. The operating system was extremely good, but the technology rather dead-end, using a processor line with no memory management unit which therefore could not enforce memory boundaries on programs, so any malfunctioning or malfeasant software could easily take out the entire OS. Most of what made an Amiga and Amiga was implemented on custom silicon, and things like the graphics ASICs could never have hoped to keep up with the likes of Nvidia and (at the time) ATI, Matrox, and the others.

The preeminence which had been achieved in the field of video graphics was therefore lost by a company unwilling to put in the amount of development that would have been needed to stay abreast of the sheer brute force of PC hardware. Ultimately, of course, even Apple became unable to keep up, and went over to using Intel hardware, but there would have been nothing stopping Commodore doing that too, with Amiga. The flame is kept alive to this day by enthusiast groups and new Amiga hardware, for version 4.0 of the operating system, is still occasionally developed, although it is at best a curiosity now.

We really knew the video we got out of this setup was terrible at the time, and the fact that everyone's cellphone is now much, much more powerful than an early 90s nonlinear edit workstation is rather welcome. Half a megabyte – that is, four megabits – of bandwidth is now considered reasonably healthy for an internet stream of six times the linear resolution, twenty-five times the pixel count, six times the bit depth and twice the frame rate. Even so, it's hard not to look back at these beginnings without a certain rosy tint – at least, if you picked a gradient of rosy tints to replace that four-bit greyscale.

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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