Low-End Theory

Making Do With What You Got

Independent film has proved that no-budget cinema can still effectively communicate ideas. In this spirit, experimental filmmakers have been exploiting the power--however meager--of personal computers since the dawn of the computer age. Toy Story 3 this ainít. Instead, the computer itself becomes both the studio the playback device. The delivery medium is floppy disk, CD-ROM, or Internet download. No celluloid required.

As with mainstream animated features, homebrew CGI cinema tends toward the fantastic. The three categories below each show this bias to a certain extent, whether it's the videogame-mediated shorts of the "machinima" movement, the science fiction imagery of the international demo scene or the personal, low-key fantasies to be found in Thoru Yamamoto's HyperCard worlds. When you can build anything, why build the mundane?

The Demo Scene

Very little has been written about demos--tightly-wound "demonstrations" of a computer's graphical capabilities. What has been written tends to characterize these short audio/visual pieces as marvels of heroic coding, "passionate, crazed, enthusiast-only programming, crafted purely for the hell of it by inspired teenagers working entirely in their spare time" (Dave Green, "Demo or Die", Wired 3.07).

What the continuing evolution of the international demo scene proves, however, is that these multimedia fireworks displays are in fact composed of filmic tropes absorbed from pop culture by young DIY filmmakers--mostly males from their early teens to early 20s. Demos are digital graffiti, visual assaults with an emphasis on spectacle and shout-outs, but housed in a slick structure of pacing and overall composition. This "personal cinema" is about representing and impressing--and it sometimes achieves amazing results.

Early demos, like early films, feature proscenium-based composition, with a static "stage" upon which three-dimension objects spin and warp. But with the increasing visual sophistication of demo coders and their platform hardware, as well as the use of canned graphic and sound libraries (most notably Microsoft's DirectX) camera POVs begin to become more fluid, and the abstract imagery that attended simple 3D expositions is replaced by narrative and semi-narrative film language. Edison's "Sneeze" morphs into Citizen Kane.

Films of note in the collection at Pixels this year include the surreal space opera "Purple", the cartoonified music video "A Touch of Funk", and the manic still life "SPOT Desktop Adventures" (featuring a nice dig at Pixar). The latter won top honors at the Finnish Assembly2K--one of the oldest demo "parties" still in effect--and the former two are from the French party LTP4. We are also pleased to present a rare compu-archeological find from 1994: Melon Dezignís supercool Amiga-made hip-hop demo "Baygon".


Pouëut.Net Demo Database
www.scene.org Demo Library
Cornea Demo Reviews
"The Hacker Demo Scene and Its Cultural Artifacts" by George Borzyskowski
Trixter's reviews of early PC demos
Introduction to Demos & The Demo Scene
Amiga Demos to VideoCD Project: archival MPEG-1 files of endangered Amiga demos (including "Baygon")

Thoru Yamamoto

At the other end of the spectrum from the demo scene is Thoru Yamamoto, a Japanese artist who has been building interactive stories--initially HyperCard stacks and now Shockwave animations--since 1993. His half-cute, half-dark vision handily crosses language barriers with its pictographic text and iconic characters. Some of his works--like the Zizi stories--are linear narratives. Some--like "Mysterious Drug Store" and "Midnight Gig"--are point-and-click virtual toys, miniature worlds to explore. Yamamoto's genius in some of these early b&w stacks may elude more worldly consumers of computer media. Please keep in mind that they were built to run on 8Mhz Motorola processors that wouldn't even power a modern cell phone, and the eloquence of their execution may become more clear.

Another excellent use of a fledgling media--the World Wide Web--is Yamamoto's Pumpkin House, which has been running continuously in pure HTML (no Java required) since 1995. The Pumpkin House creates a microcosm of little creatures who live, struggle and play in hobbit-hole houses and subterranean caverns where mushrooms are cultivated and strange gods are worshipped.


Thoru Yamamoto's Wonder World featuring Shockwave animations
Thoru Yamamoto's HyperCard stacks (Macintosh only)


"Machinima" is the most recent permutation of the low-end theory, in which tools for building 3D game levels are used to craft short films. Notable achievements presented at Pixels include the South Park-meets-Chuck Jones short "Hardly Workin'"--a half-improvised slapstick gagfest with excellent character design--and the moody experiments of UK-based Strange Company--including the gloomy "Ozymandias" (from Shelley's poem) and a neat pastiche riff on The Matrix.

Machinima embodies the no-budget esthetic. As "Hardly Workin'" co-director "ILL Robinson" puts it, "It shows that with enough determination, you can create something of quality with a minimum amount of resources @ hand. Know that & we'll make this Machinima thing take off yet." Recently "Hardly Workin'" was named Best Experimental Short of 2000 by Showtime Networks' alt.sho.com.


Slashdot Discussion: Machinima On The Horizon
The ILL Clan
The Strange Company