Max Headroom and the Amiga

by John Foust
Reprinted from Amazing Computing V2.10 (October 1987)


Inside the East Gate of Lorimar TelePictures in Culver City, California is a walk-up office of the ABC television series “Max Headroom”. In one room, the walls are covered with blueprints of the set and detailed drawings of futuristic devices. The floor is littered with real-world devices from the past – an old Heathkit oscilloscope and a “condenser tester”.

One desk is piled with papers and videotapes - Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Bladerunner, Brazil, the Max Headroom pilot episodes - and an Amiga computer system.

This desk is inhabited by Jeff Bruette, a technical consultant for the Max Headroom series. The Amiga is an integral part of the production of this futuristic series.

Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future piloted six episodes last spring on ABC, and now joins the ABC fall lineup with twenty-two new episodes. The series focuses on the actions of an investigative reporter for a future television network called Network 23. The main character, Edison Carter, was injured in a motorcycle crash while investigating corruption within the Network itself.

Network executives scan Carter’s brain to find out what he has learned. A computer expert uses this opportunity to test his latest invention, a method of storing a subject’s memory and generating his image. The last thing Carter saw was a low-clearance barrier marked “Max Headroom,” thus the name of the computer-generated character who bears a stunning resemblance to Carter.

“Well, in my own humble, little way I suppose I’m David Letterman, MTV, and Dr. Ruth all rolled into three. If I do hove a fault, it’s a very unusual skin condition… it’s called perfect” — Max Headroom

The stuttering Headroom character stars in a series of commercials for New Coke, as well as hosting a talk show on the Cinemax cable network. A Newsweek cover earlier this year highlighted Max’s escalating popularity.

Bruette is also working on an upcoming series called “Secrets and Mysteries”. This work is being done in conjunction with Bruette’s freelance graphics company, Prism Computer Graphics. He describes the series as “like 'In Search Of, but in a Jules Verne setting.”

“Secrets and Mysteries” is a syndicated series produced by ABC. Bruette produces computer graphics for the series with the Amiga. Most of the show’s graphics will be done with the Amiga. Computer artist Cris Palomino is working with Bruette to generate images for the show. Bruette describes her work as “meticulous”.

High low tech

Designers on the Max Headroom set study videotapes of futuristic movies, such as Blade Runner, looking for ideas for the Max Headroom set. Bruette describes it as the look of “high low-tech, or antique equipment being updated”. Some sets mix old electronic equipment with futuristic gear. “This is high tech; the low tech is boring. So, what they [Headroom designers] are trying to do, is take the high tech which everyone enjoys and put a new twist to it.”

The characters in the future have a different attitude about technology, too. Bruette explains their perspective.

“Theoretically, all this technology has reached a maximum point. For some reason, the cause for developing all this almost disappeared, as if one civilization ended and a new civilization moved in. We’re into the future, past their discovery stage. They figure out that if you hook up this old Underwood typewriter with a series of sensors on the hammers that send signals to the computer, the computer displays something accordingly. Everybody knows that.”

Amiga overlays

For the new series, the Amiga produces the overlay graphics for the ViewPhone, the VidiCam, InterCam and SecuriCam. When two characters are on the phone in the show, a telephone transmits a video image, as well as voice. On both ends of the call, the character sees the name and phone number of the other person. The VidiCam is Edison Carter’s portable video camera, used for live updates to the Network. The SecuriCam takes the Big Brother viewpoint, spying on everything that moves.

Bruette uses high resolution Deluxe Paint II to draw the overlay graphics. Large fonts from a custom font disk are used for the lettering. In some cases, letters must appear in succession, or perhaps an indicator on the screen should blink. Bruette uses a preliminary version of a program from Aegis called GrabANIM for this work. GrabANIM is essentially an Amiga step-frame recorder. Invoked with a hot-key sequence, the program looks at the current screen and stores it as a frame of animation, using the new IFF ANIM format, ANIM only stores the differences between successive frames (It only stores the new letter or the absence or presence of the blinking indicator), so file storage is at a minimum.

By recording the Deluxe Paint II screen as the letters emerge, Bruette creates an entirely computer-controlled animation sequence that can be transferred to video tape (Aegis has released a freely distributable program called ShowANIM
that plays ANIM animations).

Many companies, including Electronic Arts, Aegis Development and Byte-by-Byte, have supplied early releases of their software. According to Bruette, the companies will not be mentioned in the closing credits, but that it is always advantageous to be part of a popular show.

Amiga vs. IBM

For simple overlays like the SecuriCam, you may wonder why the Amiga is better than the equipment used in the early episodes? For the pilot episodes of Max Headroom, the overlays and other video special effects were accomplished with an IBM-PC-based system equipped with a special genlock board. A keyed switcher and graphics from a Chyron video effects machine were also incorporated. There were only two computer systems in use, one on stage and one in the production area.

Richard Lewis is the production designer for the Max Headroom series and also worked with Bruette on the Amazing Stories episode. Lewis explained why the Amiga is an improvement over the Video Image system. “That system had limitations. That’s why I was trying to get us to use this system. The IBM system had a palette with a 256 color range, sixteen colors at a time. We never got shades we were happy with. Using the Chyron, you’d lose quality in the overlay by reducing the resolution on videotape cassette.”

With the Amiga, much more control is kept in-house. Many video special effects houses have expensive systems for computer graphics. In addition to Prism, the Max Headroom series is currently working with The Post Group, a local video special effects house. The Post Group works with Amigas, as well as much more expensive video computers.

The older, more expensive video effects machines were always a bottleneck, Lewis said. “They have a lot of big toys to play with. When you’ve spent a quarter-million dollars on a system, you have only one. No matter how fast or sophisticated it is, it is a bottleneck. With the level of stuff we’re doing, it doesn’t require a quarter-million-dollar machine to do a simple overlay. You can dedicate those machines to a higher level of graphics, instead of turning out everything through the big machine.”

The Amiga is a low-cost solution to the bottleneck. Several members of the crew have their own machines. Down the hall, series art director Frank Pezza uses an Amiga and Deluxe Paint to design logos and test colors for the sets and computer graphics. He uses Scribble! to write budgets and reports. Pezza was also art director for Miami Vice, and worked with Lewis on the series “Whiz Kids”. He has also done computer graphics design at the Post Croup.

Peter Wagg, executive producer, has an Amiga in his office, so he can approve everything that goes on the screen, including any special overlay graphics. Bruette described what happens in Wagg’s office. “We go in there and stick a disk in, and say ‘Here’s what we’re using,’ and he usually says ‘No’.” He has something in his mind of what he wants. When something is presented to him, he thinks of something else. It is inevitable that whatever is done, is changed."

Eight miles from Lorimar, the Post Group is getting backed up on the special effects they are producing. Bruette expects the Amiga to take up the slack and contribute more to the show as each episode is produced. “The Amiga is going to end up doing more and more on the show,” going beyond overlays, doing such things as network logos. Designers at the Post Group have Amigas “because of us,” according to Bruette. Bruette is constantly asked where and how Amigas can be purchased.

Amiga Is “too good”

The quality of Amiga video has been sufficient, so far. In fact, production people have had to “dirty up” the video, to make it look worse. According to Lewis, “So far, the biggest complaint about the graphics was that they weren’t crude enough. Now, at the Post Group, they are using an ADO to shrink it down, they then have a camera aimed at the screen to rephotograph it, to distress the video signal. It is a lot of work to put it [the video] through a blender and chop it up. It is the hardest thing for people in video because they are geared to the glossiest, brightest picture you can give which isn’t always what we are looking for.”

In one instance, a fault in a genlock combined with the Amiga composite video signal to make vertical bars in the final image. All along, Lewis warned Bruette that he would need to correct the genlock to remove the bars before filming. When producer Peter Wagg saw the bars, though, he asked Bruette to enhance them, to make them more visible. “When Jeff and I did the Amazing Stories segment, there was a reason I was pushing real hard to use the Amiga and digitizing.”

Lewis explained why the Amiga was preferable. “We looked at the stuff the video houses could deliver. We had a lot of resistance from the video post-production people at Universal because they all wanted to do it the old way: You shoot the actor, you do some kind of effects on him and play it back. Every time we looked at their effects, it looked like the things you see on sports on ABC. It is very slick and blenderized. Everybody has seen it. If you are trying to say this dude is in the computer, and you’re seeing the same thing you see behind a sports announcer, it doesn’t click. The Live! board gave us that edge. Like the time Live! takes to update an image when a head turned you got real interesting effects that said, this is a computer, this is not a trick,”

Script to screen

Commodore has worked closely with Bruette in providing computers for the staff of Max Headroom. There are a total of thirteen Amiga systems in use at present, seven Amiga 2000s and six Amiga 1000s. The writers for the show use Commodore PC-10 MS-DOS computers.

“To some degree, Commodore is involved in Max Headroom from 'script to screen,” said Bruette, laughing at the overused expression, but adding, “it’s really true”. Unlike the obstacles Bruette encountered when he asked for genlocks for Amazing Stories, Commodore was very helpful in getting Amiga systems for Max Headroom.

Bruette wanted Amiga 2000 systems because they are more expandable than the Amiga 1000, but Commodore was unable to deliver them in mid-August. “They don’t have them to give. You can’t get blood from a turnip. It’s not that Commodore didn’t come through.” To Bruette’s surprise. Commodore worked things out and sent the Amiga 1000 systems, as well as several Amiga 2000 systems direct from Germany.

Among the devices expanding the Amiga 1000 systems are Commodore genlocks. Xebec hard disks, Microbotics StarBoard II memory boards and a Calcomp color printer. A CSA Turbo Amiga 68020 system had just arrived, and Bruette planned to use it to make VideoScape and Sculpt 3D much faster.

Bruette hopes to expand each Amiga 2000 system with hard disks, dual floppy drives, a genlock board, five megabytes of RAM and a Bridge card as soon as possible. Commodore sent one-drive systems with one megabyte of memory. Since then, he has been sent several two megabyte memory boards and a hard disk controller card.

Bruette attributes much of Commodore’s involvement to Commodore’s southern California representative, Hal Lafferty of Jack Carter Associates. “He is a great facilitator. He has been extremely helpful on all things so far. If we needed anything right now, and if he had it, it would be over here before the day’s end.”

For their contribution. Commodore will get a mention in the closing credits in the form of this message: Production computers supplied by Commodore Business Machines, Amiga Division.

Amigas on the set

Bruette walked through the back lots of Lorimar to the set of Max Headroom. He passed the set of “Knots Landing” on the way down Garland Avenue. Lorimar also produces the series “Dallas” and “Our House”, and movies such as, “The Boy Who Could Fly” and “Perfect Strangers” (?). Lorimar’s studios were formerly part of Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

Max Headroom production has a building of its own. Each stage building could enclose several small houses. The ceilings are nearly a hundred feet high. The inside is very dark, and the air contains wisps of artificial fog used to enhance the lighting of the sets. Thick batting covers the walls to reduce sound echoes. Each room in every building in the series is built out in the open in the actual building. The Network boardroom is only a few yards from Theora’s apartment, for example.

Bryce Lynch’s computer lab has a false hallway that only goes back about ten feet, but with mirrors and tricks of “forced” perspective in the sot construction; it appears to go on and on to other offices. Up close, the details of each set are reminders of reality, while on television, the illusion of the future is created.

For example, the pink bus used as Blank Reg’s Big Time T.V. network headquarters is only a metal shell. The real bus used for exterior shots is stored on a back lot. The walls of the bus interior carry more reminders of reality. Most sets have piles of anonymous old electronic equipment, but up close, you can see that the equipment is actually only infrared thermometers and television calibration equipment. On screen, the walls and shelves just look cluttered. In reality, the posters are from the Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd, old 1940s magazines and a photo of the Max Headroom cast and crew.

Suddenly, a horn wont off and all the workers stopped. The entire building was quiet in a matter of seconds. Filming had begun on another set. Only the voice of an actor could be heard.

Live overlays

The fall season is scheduled to begin on September 18 with a special double episode, a rerun of the pilot episode titled “Blipverts” and a new episode called “Deities”. Shooting began August 20.

Bruette studies the scripts before the production of each episode. In this way, he knows which graphics need to be done on each production day. After a graphic is created in advance, it is transferred to videotape and copies are sent to the Post Group and the playback editing group. The graphics are also approved by the executive producer.

In the video playback van on the set, the overlay graphic is played back on an Amiga, while the actors are performing a scene on the set. The two images are combined for the final print. Cables lead from the van to the set. The video van also performs color correction and sync on video for the show. Bruette has customized some of the equipment used here. “I have an Amiga 1000 [which] I made rack-mountable. The 2000 is 17 3/8 inches wide - just waiting to have ears put on it - so, it will be rack-mountable.”

Bryce and the C-64

Actor Christopher Young plays Bryce Lynch, the computer whiz who created Max Headroom. Lynch is the director of research and development at Network 23. This role is his first for television, but he has much experience in commercials. In these advertisements. Young said he was often cast as “the wimpy kid.”

Young revealed the commands he gives the computers on the set. “I type my name over and over, Christopher Tyler Young. Once in a while, I type the return key. I know a little bit about computers.” Young once owned a Commodore 64, and his family had an Apple II while he was growing up in eastern Pennsylvania. In fact. Young lived very close to Commodore.

“Some of the things I say are pretty ludicrous. They don’t mean a whole lot to the ordinary person, but it’s fun to watch it, because the ordinary person thinks it’s a bunch of incredible things that this kid is saying. In real life, most of it is just made up anyway. It is neat playing the part because it is something different than me. I’m not like Bryce Lynch in any way, but it’s fun to step out of Chris Young on character and play something totally opposite.”

Did Chris study computer nerds to play this part? “No, I haven’t. It came naturally. I didn’t do any studying or research. I guess I took situations from my high school life, from kids I’ve known. Bryce is not a nerd, he’s a human being. He just doesn’t care what he dresses like or what he looks like, so he doesn’t bother combing his hair, and he doesn’t bother looking hip and trendy. He’s himself, and that’s what counts. He’s himself, and that’s why everyone likes him.”

Amiga as a workhorse

Brian Frankish is the producer for Max Headroom. His jacket bears a button that says, “Who hired all these sleazy people?” and he explained that Max Headroom is a series like any other, with a fixed budget. The pilot episodes of Max Headroom went beyond the planned budget by as much as a half-million dollars each. This year, the series is a scale show with a fixed budget, meaning the crew is paid like the crew of any other show. The production staff is average sized for a series, with perhaps twenty extra people doing the computer graphics. A total of 125 people are involved in the production, including more than a dozen performers.

The filming of an episode takes seven business days, but episodes are shown every five business days, so the schedule gets tighter as the series progresses. “With six of them [episodes], you could just burn yourself out. Now, we’ve got to do twenty-two and last until next March.”

Frankish is very enthusiastic about the use of computers in the series, “They are a necessary function in communicating the concepts of our show. We are dealing with information, where it comes from, its source and where its going. That’s what these graphics are about. With a computer, we don’t need a keying video switcher because the computer has a built-in keying ability. The kid [Bruette] types in the stuff, the fellows hit the right keys, it goes together in the video trailer, it plays back on the stage, whoosh; it’s that simple. It is similar to what we had before. We were working with an IBM PC before. The type of PC we were using didn’t have the broad range of colors or the smallness of the pixels. I don’t speak ‘computer-ese.’ I hire guys who do. One of my major functions here is harmony.”

Frankish explained that Max is something special. “We try to maintain somewhat of a camaraderie among the Max Headroom cast and crew that lets people know they are involved in a pretty phenomenal project because we are the hottest thing since sliced bread.”

In the past. Frankish worked on the movies Brainstorm and King Kong, so he has worked with high technology before - and wants more technology. “The toys are getting smaller. No, come on, hey, give us more, we use it. We burn up the available technology. They say civilization hasn’t grown that far yet. Come on, civilization, grow. We’ll take it. If you invent something new, we’ll use it. For us, the Amiga is the basic workhorse of visual communication.”

Page Scans