The 1990s Amiga with Video Toaster has a VFX cool factor that endures today

Todd Rundgren, Babylon 5, The X-Files, SeaQuest DSV, and even those demo videos – NewTek’s Video Toaster has plenty of 90s nostalgia behind it. But it also demonstrates workflow features in switching, titling, and animation that could easily inspire streamers today.

Hang on, I was about to start with an intro, but – frankly, I can’t do any better than this Yorkshire Television-produced CITV show Bad Influence!, the answer to the question “what if Computer Chronicles were not made by complete dorks who were apparently trapped in a low-budget PBS studio?” Please read the rest of this article imagining the voices of these two presenters.

“But first have a look at this!” “The AMIIIIGA??!”

That video is doubly significant as it coincides with the native edition of LightWave3D. Also, way to not underestimate your audience or talk down. (Of course you recognize a Vorlon spacecraft already!)

So, a very brief history of the Video Toaster. NewTek founder Tim Jenison loved Vermeer and designed the first edition, with Brad Carvey (who also worked on Men In Black VFX) building the prototype. Announced in 1987, the first edition was a US$2399 Amiga add-on – an insanely low price given six-digit costs of broadcast rigs at the time. (Even in 2023 dollars, that’s only $5,470.53, or roughly the price of a set of Apple Pro wheels and a video cable or whatever.) You would need an Amiga 2000, but even that was not a wildly expensive machine at the time.

Oh yeah, bonus – the Amiga’s system clock ran conveniently at double the NTSC color carrier frequency for easy sync. And the Amiga’s innovative on-board graphics chipset helped, too.

The Video Toaster was a complete bundle: a full-sized card to add video connections, a real-time four-channel video switcher, a bundled LightWave 3D modeling / rendering / animation package, frame buffer-based effects, character generation, overlays, animated transitions – the works. It was the 90s, so you’d need some video tape recorders and a controller since all this beauty would be going to video tape. But this more than any other invention democratized visual effects and made them mainstream not just for high-budget films, but for television, as well. (And keep in mind that Steve Jobs at the time was still trying to sell Pixar’s Image Computer, with complete rigs running more into the six-digit territory again.)

Eventually, you could buy complete ready-to-play rigs for around US$5000, the likes of NBC popularized usage, Wil Wheaton (yeah, that Wil Wheaton) signed on as a technology evangelist and consultant, and LightWave 3D had a life of its own as a standalone system.

Ars Technica’s Jeremy Reimer wrote a beautiful history of the Amiga and dedicated a chapter to the Video Toaster:

A history of the Amiga, part 9: The Video Toaster

Want some video artifacts of this age? Oh, does YouTube ever have you covered.

First, for peak 90s, you’ve got to have Todd Rundgren’s “Change Myself” video, which definitely seems like it was just a Video Toaster demo more than something with a … concept. (Clocks. A stop light. Todd as a leaf and a crude boat sail. A chess board. Uh, sperm? Did someone just try to literally interpret every line?)

How did it come together? Well, actually, we can ask 1991 Todd Rundgren for the accurate answer to that at SIGGRAPH, which awesomely was hosted by Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Amiga’s own promo videos are wonderful 90s ephemera on their own, even if they seem to have been directed by straight teenage boys. (“I want jet planes, and some girls in swimsuits, and UFOs, and skateboards, and football!”) Wil Wheaton, Penn Jillette, and Tony Hawk all make the 1994 video.

Then there’s this wonderful launch video, with a voice that is both somehow dramatically epic and … like way sexier than you’d expect. (Toaster Paint. Oh yeah.) It does do a great job of explaining the technological capabilities and their implications in simple terms.

Honestly, jokes aside, how is this demo video so much better than the corporate snooze-fest of the new Apple, Google, and Microsoft presentations? It’s like everyone had their souls removed through their nose sometime in the early 2000s. Let’s fix this, people.

But look – the Video Toaster is good enough that people are using it now. Here’s a walkthrough from March 2020 (ooh, good timing, you’re about to be doing a lot of streaming).

I think my favorite Video Toaster-produced video is this 1993 one hosted by Wil Wheaton himself:

And then there’s Babylon 5. Those effects looked a little crude, then really crude, and now… kind of weirdly cool and artistic and ahead of their time. (The show’s approach to real-physics spacecraft maneuvers and modeling came to influence later TV like the 2000s reboot of Battlestar Galactica, which also used LightWave 3D. There is even a Babylon 5 station model tucked into an early scene in the escaping fleet.)

The Amiga didn’t last past the pilot (see intro here, complete with very different Stewart Copeland music), but LightWave 3D did. A 1997 interview with coproducer George Johnsen details their rig. Before I start a 90s-style Amiga-versus-Mac-versus-PC argument, yeah, they used basically every platform available at the time.

Are Macintoshes used in the production?

Even though the Joe uses “another” platform, the show actually uses many! Macs have been essential to the creation of the show from the beginning. Even farther back, the Amiga and the Newtek Toaster were employed.

Currently we use Pentiums and Alphas for animation, Macs for Editing, Matte paintings and Compositing, and SGI’s for Compositing and titling. If that isn’t platform independent, I don’t know what is! The arsenal looks like the following-

Alphas for design stations serving 5 animators and one animation assistant (housekeeping and slate specialist). Most of these stations run Lightwave and a couple add Softimage. VERY plug-in hungry. PVR’s on every station, with calibrated component NTSC (darn it, I hates ntsc) right beside.

P6’s in quad enclosures for part of the renderstack, and Alphas for the rest, backed up 2x per day to an optical jukebox.Todd Rund

Completed shots output to a DDR post rendering and get integrated into the show.

Shots to composite go to the Macs running After Effects, or the SGI running Flint, depending on the type of comp being done, and then to the DDR (8 minutes capacity on the SGI).

Boy it sure sounds easy! The only problem is, we have a killer schedule and very picky producers, and ESPECIALLY picky viewers! 🙂

It is, however, a bunch of fun!

Actually using the tool was of course far less glamorous, as Computer Chronicles demonstrated in an early demo in 1988. But it’s still stunning, even there:

But these easy switching, transition, and titling tools – even if the aesthetic is dated now – could sure come in handy in 2020s software. I do hope developers look back at some of the analog-era stuff. We’ve lost a lot of the directness and immediacy of some of the hardware and software of the time. (I hated VHS for its never-ending degradation, but wow, was it easy to use a physical jog wheel on a two-deck controller – for one example. And of course, people still use Edirol-now-Roland V4s.)

OBS, I’m looking at you.

Tons of musicians are now using trackers and other Amiga-era music tools who never had access to them – or weren’t even born yet – in the 90s. So maybe it’s time for some of the visual ideas of the Amiga to get a reboot, too.

For more on that musical history, see the last CDM Amiga flashback:

And yeah, I never get tired of watching Andy Warhol and Debbie Harry at the 1985 debut of the platform:

Oh, and one more bonus – speaking of Wil Wheaton, here he is telling a little girl how to deal with being called a nerd. (I’m… guessing if you’re at this point in this article, this is probably relevant.)

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