Amiga and the Visual Effects Industry

by Eric Schwartz
From the AmiTech Gazette, March 2019

Welcome back folks. Spring is approaching, and retreating, and approaching, much like waves on a shore. Our meeting will be on Saturday the 16th, at the usual place and time. I hope to bring my Raspberry Pi to the meeting, to workshop some Amiga emulation with Amibian. My end goal here is to learn about the top end of what is possible on an emulated (on the Pi) Amiga system, and how it compares to the likes of a Vampire accelerated system, or even a PowerPC-based machine. I hope to see you there.

In my typical trawling of YouTube, I ran across a brief history of the Commodore (Amiga) CDTV, once listed in a different video as one of the “bottom ten” game consoles with the lowest sales numbers, a feat topped by Commodore’s own C64-based game console. Of course the CDTV’s problem was that it wasn’t marketed as a game console, or a computer, but a “home multimedia player” that looked like stereo equipment, made to beat the upcoming Philips CD-I at their own game. The problem was it was a game no one would win, as the public had little interest in CD-based multimedia systems. Even though the CDTV had a lot of benefits, and even advantages over its competitors, it was too expensive and obscure to catch sales from the general public, while most Amiga fans at the time preferred to buy or expand the standard Amiga computers. I wouldn’t mind having a CDTV for my shelf, however.

Top Hat Gaming Man - CDTV

Another video I enjoyed talked about 90s sci-fi show Babylon 5. It’s well known that the show used Amiga and Video Toaster systems to produce its CG effects with Lightwave 3D, at least for the first couple of seasons. Later it would move much of that work to Pcs, when the Lightwave software was separated from the Video Toaster and ports to other systems were produced.

One thing I hadn’t really thought that much about previously is the Amiga’s role in revolutionizing the visual effects industry. Back in the day, spacecraft effects for science fiction films and television were made using models and optical printing tech, an expensive option and a limited resource, depending on the budget of the production. You might see models and even whole shots reused frequently to save money. Computer graphics came to be used more through the eighties and early nineties, but they were often as expensive as the traditional effects, if not more so, as they involved workstations such as Silicon Graphics machines, which cost tens of thousands of dollars each, plus technical staff and custom software. This made computer graphics a similarly limited resource, especially on a television budget.

When the Babylon 5 show came about with scripts calling for outer space scenes and battles that could stress a theatrical movie budget for one episode, it was time to get innovative. With the then-new Video Toaster capable of TV-quality graphics and 3D animation, and a full Amiga Video Toaster system a fraction of the cost of a Silicon Graphics workstation, it was possible to buy multiple Amigas for the price of one SG and farm their output to exceed the rendering throughput for the budget of the other means.

Other effects houses, studios, and individuals followed the example of Babylon 5’s creators and effects studio Foundation Imaging. Computers and software both improved over time, and it became easily viable to produce quality CG effects using consumer-grade systems. Effects of all sorts became more common in television and lower-budget productions, as well as more elaborate across the board.

The Amiga, being ahead of its time as a graphics and video production platform, as well as the vessel for the Video Toaster and its associated Lightwave 3D software, helped pioneer this trend much as it has in other areas. While I wouldn’t say that Babylon 5 was the first production with such effects production, or that such a trend could never happen without the Amiga, it’s clear the Amiga was an integral brick in the foundation for the modern landscape of computer graphics and visual effects.

VFX Geek, VFX, the Amiga, and Babylon 5