Cartoon Brew: Max Headroom and the Strange World of Pseudo-CGI


I’ve come across people who believe that Max Headroom, the Channel 4 character from the Eighties, was a genuine piece of computer animation. But although he was conceived by the animators Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel (of Cucumber Films fame) Max himself was portrayed by actor Matt Frewer, placed into latex makeup and a shiny costume and set amidst a range of technological tricks.

Half of the frames from the footage used in Max Headroom were removed in production, resulting in a juddery look to suggest animation shot on twos, and Frewer was bluescreened in front of a basic digital backdrop. The crew even added deliberate faults to the “animation” – such as the stammer which became Max’s trademark – to complete the effect.

This process seems somewhat surreal today, in our brave new world of Maya, Xtranormal and Blender. Max Headroom was created at a time when 3D CGI animation was desirable, but not always affordable; if the budget did not allow it, then the crew had to fake computer animation in front of the camera.

Another good example of this can be found in the 1981 film Escape from New York. Early on in the movie we see what appears to be a wireframe model of Manhattan; in actual fact, a physical model was built for this sequence, with reflective tape placed along the edges of the buildings. Shot under ultraviolet light, this recreated the luminescent green-on-black effect of primitive CGI."

Some examples of this kind of work:
(Hand Drawn)

Hitchhiker’s Guide - Vl’hurgs war
Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

Max Headroom interview on the David Letterman Show
Escape from New York


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