Archive for the 'Atari 800' Category


Making it Move pt. 6: Bits N Pieces

Continuing on the earlier posts about my early animations on the Atari 8-bit computers using MovieMaker.

Loose Ends

To round out the pitch video I pulled out the bulk of the other animations and animation tests that I’d done in the time since I’d first gotten by hands on IPS MovieMaker (at some point after I first got it, the software was republished by Electronic Arts, with a few audio compatibility issues added, just for fun). They were:


The Amiga computer launched during the period these animations were being produced and virtually everyone was aping their (then-impressive) BOING! demo, featuring a spinning ball bouncing back and forth across the screen. I was writing for ANALOG Computing magazine at the time, so I got the idea to do a twist on “Boing!” that would have the magazine’s “A” initial bouncing around the screen. All the boing type demos I’d seen up to that point were very flat and there was no attempt at dimensional shading, so I decided to make my bouncing “A” flash through a series of color to enhance the idea that it was an object reflecting light (much as I’d done on the 2nd Artek logo mentioned in a previous post). Because MovieMaker animations couldn’t really loop seamlessly, instead of starting the animation with the letter on-screen I had it enter, bounce around, then exit before the 300 frame limit.

The ANALOG Computing “A” gets bouncing.

Click to start animation (opens new window).

One thing I don’t recall is why I decided to have the letter bounce off all four sides of the screen instead of bouncing in an arc like the ball on the Amiga… but possibly it was just laziness of my part!


Since my sister and brother had Atari 8-bit computers, I made a few digital birthday cards to send to them using MovieMaker.

Birthday Blast is simply a match lighting a candle on a cake, which then explodes, leaving the message “Happy Birthday!” to drop in from the top of the screen. Nothing much notable about it except that animating the flickering flame was the most work…albeit I don’t think I did it very well.

Another birthday “card” repurposed.

Click to start animation (opens new window).

A more elaborate animation was based on my love for Warner Bros. cartoons, so I decided to let Marvin Martian finally use his “Illudium Q-36 Explosive Space Modulator” to blow up that pesky Earth as birthday fireworks…with predictable results.

“Low resolution makes me very angry!”

Click to start animation (opens new window).

I was pretty happy with the simple but effective vista I was able to create, especially the gun and the Earth. In contrast to the rolling waddle I’d done on the Opus animation, I recalled Marvin walked in in a very stiff fashion with everything but his legs stationary. I did do this, but I didn’t get the feet right. At the time I didn’t have home video (hard to believe in this day and age) and had no easy easy way to study how the cartoons animated his feet (fact: they’re just a blur of too many tennis shoes).

I dunno what this fascination with explosions was…probably just a cheap way to get a punchline across. Hey, it worked for the Muppets!


One other animation I’d done was a test to see how well I could make simple facial expressions read. For this I repurposed a Batman parody I’d created for a comic I’d drawn in high school: Catman (before I knew there was a DC comics villain with that name). All I did with this was animate the eyes, eyebrow stripes and mouth, and moved the head up and down a bit. I also used the ZOOM feature again, this time to go from a medium wide to a medium shot (with the accompanying halving of the resolution).

CATMAN: Nag nag nag…

Click to start animation (opens new window).

The thing I like most about this animation was my using the MovieMaker musical tones to create sound in sync with his lips, and to emphasize the eyebrow actions. It keeps the animation alive.


This was actually a series of animated segments making fun of computer development. These included a 2001: A Space Odyssey sendup in which the monolith is revealed to be a Univac mainframe than can’t add 2 and 2, and an Apple logo being sliced in two by an arrow and reveal to be “rotten” because it was “too expensive” (lame). I could be wrong in my recollection of the order of these events, but I believe that those were added as “prequels” to the animation below: a silly piece in which the logos of various home computer brands slugged it out in “The Big Shakeout”. It was inspired by an Atari computer demo called “Apple Kill” in which an Atari logo takes down its Apple counterpart (wishful thinking on an Atari user’s part to be sure).

“Apple Kill” goes WW III

Click to start animation (opens new window).

I like the animation in this because it’s so simple. The most fun things to animate were the Texas Instruments logo clip clopping around, the Atari logo playing Space Invaders cannon, and the Commodore logo first squeezing down so it’s “flag” shoots off as a projectile, and then animates like a Space Invader.

The full animation isn’t included in this clip, but it ended with Atari triumphant. Wishful thinking, indeed.


Making it Move pt. 5: Place Yer Bets

Continuing on the earlier posts about my early animations on the Atari 8-bit computers using MovieMaker.

Betting on Computer Animation

As I recall, the aforementioned couple who were interested in trying to find some business outlets for computer graphics had some contacts with someone at the Fitzgeralds casino in downtown Reno, and as we discussed that we talked about the idea of pitching a computer-animated video that could play on a loop on a casino hotel’s TV system that would not only plug the casino’s facilities, but would also have little tutorials on how to play some of the more complex games, like craps.

As part of this, I animated a few segments related to casinos. For example, animating the clover floating down and landing in place in the Fitzgeralds logo. I imagined this would be an interstitial that would appear between other segments.

You always win at a place with a 4-Leaf Clover emblem, right?

Click to start animation (opens new window).

I used the very limited musical scale in MovieMaker to create a short descending motif that I thought worked well.  I don’t recall exactly why I went for a blue background, but I suspect it was so that the clover could light up in bright green upon landing.

Next up was demonstrating a casino game, and I picked the hardest game to explain: CRAPS. There were two parts to this animation, only one of which appears in the video linked here.  First up was the title card, in which a floating glove picks up dice on a craps table and rolls them right into the camera and then the name of the game would appear.


Click to start the animation (opens new window).

The dice rolling and bouncing in perspective was fairly easy to do, and I settled on the floating glove because the MovieMaker program’s limitations didn’t leave much room for animating a largish human figure.

What does come back to me about the process of making these animations, when looking at this one, is that I recall drawing a lot of the elements outside of MovieMaker (which used a joystick as a drawing tool) using the AtariArtist software and an Atari Touch Tablet (click to see Alan Alda hawking it). AtariArtist had more sophisticated (by the day’s standards) paint tools (lines, rays, circles, ellipses, etc.), but the problem was it drew in the Atari’s mode 7-plus not the mode 7 that MovieMaker used, so the vertical resolution was twice that of MovieMaker. I don’t recall what tool I used to convert the files back and forth, but I remember doing it. So I’d draw the art in AtariArtist, downscale it, and then do cleanup tweaks inside MovieMaker.

Atari Artist out PhotoShop!

Anyway, the second part of the animation used text and animated spinning dice to explain how the rolls worked in craps, but the way I did it would have probably been more confusing rather than enlightening, and I’d have needed to rethink it in order to convince any casino that it was a good idea.

The final animation was a slot machine, but I don’t recall if I did this before or after the animations mentioned above. I don’t like it very much as the drawing of the machine is very flat and uninteresting, and I should have put some sort of payout chart on the front instead of the logo.

If only...

Click to start the animation (opens new window).

Speaking of that logo, HiSUG was the High Sierra Users Group, a Reno-based computer club. I wrote for its newsletter a few times.

Since this video was outmoded by the time it was finished none of this material had any obvious payoff. One might argue that I’d placed some bad bets, but everything I learned working within the strict confines of MovieMaker and the Atari 8-bit would serve me in good stead in work that would pay off, and, surprisingly, many of those skills would come back into play 15-20 years later when working on graphics for mobile phones.


Making it Move pt. 4: Crass Commercialism

Continuing on the earlier posts about my early animations on the Atari 8-bit computers using MovieMaker.


During the period I was making these animations I got together with a couple who were likewise interested in trying to find some business outlets for computer graphics. With them I solidified the idea of taking some of the animations I’d been playing with and assembling them and some new ones into a demonstration presentation. One of the ideas was to figure out how to make commercials for local TV to advertise local businesses.

I wish I could remember how this idea popped into my head, but I’m sure it was simply a matter of literalizing “the hills are alive” from the opening number of The Sound of Music. This lead to the idea of animating a parody of the opening of the film, and then using that as a hook for a video rental business.

Julie Andrews gets what's coming to her.

Click to start the animation here (opens new window)

Due to Moviemaker’s limits, this actually consisted if three separate animations. One was the title card (not shown here) that read “The Sound of Marshmallows”, followed by this segment of Julie Andrews being devoured by the lively hills, and finally the plug for the company. In this case it was a fictional video store called “Oasis Video” (which was the name of the video business belonging to the guy who did the taping of the animation for me). For this I animated a completely stereotypical Hollywood dancing girl, paying no mind to anything real or realistic.

Just where in the world is this?

Click to start the animation here (opens new window)

In retrospect while this is a moderately funny gag, it doesn’t really sell the idea of a commercial spot because I didn’t make the plug at the end feature basic stuff like an address or phone number. The logo I came up with is also, frankly, terrible, and the scratchy little weeds around the bottom left don’t help matters one bit.

Two additional notes:

  1. The colors in these animation clips and the frame grabs aren’t quite accurate to the way the original animations looked because I “recovered” these animations by running them through an Atari emulator which does a great job but never gets the colors quite the way they looked on a NTSC TV (for instance, the sky in “Marshmallow” was actually a bit more purplish than seen here).
  2. The voiceovers you hear in these clips are all replacements done by the amazing Erik Braa, since the original audio on the VHS copies I have is awful.


Making it Move pt. 3: Waddling to LOGÓS

More about my early animations on the Atari 8-bit computers using MovieMaker.


In the 80s I was a big fan of the Bloom County comic strip, and a number of my early graphics and animations featured characters from it. The video opened with the Banana Jr. computer, but another animation featured the strip’s starring character: Opus the penguin.

First first animated walk was a waddle

Click to start the video here!

This animation features what is likely the first walk I ever animated. It would have been simple to just move the feet and wings, but when I think of penguins I picture that rolling waddle, and I think I got that just about perfect.

On the other hand, I was still new to the medium and hadn’t quite gotten a handle on how to work with such limited colors. You can tell from the edges of the screen that the (transparent) background color was the red, and all three of the remaining colors got used for Opus and the floor.To make him stand out better I should have used the red instead of black to draw the lines in the floor boards, or perhaps even had the floor fade (via dithering) from yellowish to reddish as it goes back, so Opus’s famed schnozz would stand out better.

This animation was actually one of several animated birthday cards I created, as I thought there might be some business in making simple video greeting card animations to send people. I was too far ahead of my time as this kind of thing really required email, YouTube or Facebook to be practical!


My friend Jennifer frequently commented that she thought the word “logos” in print looked like it would read “Lōgōs” which to her sounded like an exotic island.

It’s pronounced Lōgōs

Click to start the video here!

She animated this, although I helped a little in how the background worked. The shake-the-skirt-off gag was mine, as I felt it needed a punchline. I did help a little with tweaking the background and characters…but those girls really needed some hips!

Again, with four colors you’re very limited, so to make the hair stand out from the background each girl had to be in front of either white or green ergo the scenery was designed around making sure the characters would “read” in front of them.

The scrolling text was a feature built into MovieMaker, and easily added. In retrospect, I could have possibly used this to add another level of animation, like moving dashes or dots or something atop an animation.


I don’t recall for sure but I think the idea for this was hatched (pun intended) around Easter time, and again it’s mostly Jennifer’s work with some assistance from me.

Simple yet effective

Click to start the video here!

I thought and still think it’s kind of charming in its simplicity, but what really sells it the little tune that Jennifer composed with the very very limited 9 note scale!

My biggest contributions to this video were figuring out how to get around the limit of six moving objects at once. The solution ended up being that only a few eggs were ever animated objects at any given time. For instance, once we had the first five eggs on the screen and stationary we’d switch from displaying individual eggs to displaying a single “actor” that contained five eggs now adorned with letters to spell “HAPPY”. We then repurposed the remaining actors to animate the next row of eggs, switching a few of them to a single actor composed of multiple eggs, etc. When all the eggs making up the message were in place, they’re just two actors, leaving the remaining four to animate the chick and  the top and bottom of the egg. Economy!


Making it Move pt. 2: Banana with Detail

Yesterday I posted about my early animations on the Atari 8-bit computers using MovieMaker, and linked to video of the same, but after watching them I thought I’d post notes about the different segments.


Part of a longer animation which featured the Bloom County “Banana Jr.” computer walking in and displaying a countdown. The walk was clumsy, but I loved the 3.5″ floppy shooting in, and the little “hop” the computer makes on contact.

The disk flies in perspective

Click to start animation here (opens new window)

The “zoom” in on the Banana Jr. at the start of the countdown was a feature built into MovieMaker and let you zoom in on the center part of the animation by taking that ¼ of the screen and doubling the size of its pixels, reducing the apparent resolution from 160×96 to 80×48!

ZOOM made the image bigger but at the cost of lowering the resolution


Artech was what I was going to call my imagined animation & graphics biz. I did two different animations of the logo I’d created. The first—appearing at the end of the video—was simply sliding around of the pieces. MovieMaker allowed you to animate up to six items (“Actors”) on a given frame, and since the logo had six letters, I opted to animate four sets of letters. Had I been able to animate seven objects I’d otherwise have animated all the letters in separately.

First version of the logo featuring 4 overlapping elements (Actors)

Click to start animation here (opens new window)

Sometime later (God I wish files included time and date stamps in those days!) I took another crack at the logo, this time spinning the two halves in, so I created 16 frames of each half of the word, rotating (30 degrees per increment), so you’d see them head on and as they turned you’d see the edges.  This was partially effective, but it didn’t have any dimension, so to create the illusion that there was some kind of light source, I changed the palette with each frame, so that the faces and edges of the letters would brighten and darken as they spun, which is a neat trick for making it look like you have more than the three colors (the fourth being the background) per frame actually possible!

Second version of the logo with multiple animation drawings and color cycling

Click to start the animation here (opens new window)


Making It Move

Some months ago I was posting about my earliest computer graphics work, starting on the Apple ][+ and moving onto the Atari 8-bit systems.

Memory is probably failing me on this account, but what I recall is that I had developed a growing interest in animation in the years leading up to and through 1984 and one of the reasons I bought my first computer was in order to do animation in a way that wasn’t going to be as monstrously expensive as traditional film methods. I bought an Atari 800XL and immediately set about getting tools. I don’t recall the order in which I purchased them, but amongst my earliest purchases were an Atari Touch Tablet, and Atari Light Pen, and, most importantly, a program called MovieMaker (no relation the Windows program of the same name).

As I’ve discussed in recent posts, the Atari computer’s graphics were fairly limited (albeit in some ways superior to other low-end computers of the era). Most paint software worked in a mode called 7-Plus (or Graphics 7½), which displayed 160×192 pixels in four colors chosen from a palette of 128, which was arguably the best multicolor graphics mode the machine could do. However, MovieMaker utilized Mode 7 graphics, which took half as much screen memory, but at a cost of half the vertical resolution, so animations and the artwork used to build them were at a resolution of 160×96 pixels.

There were other limitations.

  1. One screen for the background
  2. One screen that had to contain all the graphic elements you would animate, so you could only animate as much stuff as could be crammed onto one 160×96 screen
  3. Four colors at once, but you could change the palette frame by frame if you so desired.
  4. A maximum of 300 frames per animation file
  5. Three different sets of nine sounds each, but you could only use one sound set in a given animation

Here’s a set of animations created with these tools, most by me and two by Jennifer Voigt (the island dancers and Easter Eggs). (The native computer-generated sound were retained when these animations were assembled to video, but in a few clips recorded music and voices were substituted, as you’ll hear.)

A lot of these animations were created after I purchased the more powerful 16-bit Atari ST computer, but no real animation software was available to me for that system for the first 15 months I had it, hence I was forced to stick with MovieMaker and its limitations for quite a while.

A number of MovieMaker animations (and others) were assembled on video as a demonstration for potential business uses, but by the time I finished putting that video together I knew it was already obsolete. Still, working within MovieMaker’s rather stringent restrictions again taught me how to do a lot with very very little, something that continues to serve me well to this day.


A Pixel Is Not A Little Square

(With apologies to Dr. Alvy Ray Smith and his technical memo of the same name.)

Yesterday I posted about some of my early graphics work and included a couple of images illustrating how differently graphics would be drawn with relatively modest improvements of computer display capabilities. I noted that the images displayed weren’t necessarily true representations of how the original looked because of changes in display technology. While that’s true, it’s an incomplete explanation, as not only does the display type affect the appearance of the image, but there’s the issue of aspect ratio of the pixels that make up the image.

Because of how CRT TVs and monitors like them worked, pixels were never truly square. On the Atari 8-bit computers I was first working on each pixel of the display in the mode used (160×192) was roughly 1.8×1, and later on the 16-bit Atari ST (low-resolution 320×200 pixels) each pixel was roughly .9×1 As such, any graphic drawn to look correct on such a display ends up looking slightly distorted on modern system with truly square pixels. To better illustrate what these graphics looked like back in their day I’ve rescaled them to correct for the aspect ratio and blurred them a bit to give a better sense of how they displayed.


Atari ST image corrected for aspect ratio