Nearly as unique and irreplaceable as the men and women who designed them, the analog machines behind early animation produced in idiosyncratic circuitry pre-digital visuals. The fingerprints of those designs are all over familiar animation from decades past. And one of the most extraordinary of those machines must certainly be the Scanimate. Built by the Computer Image Corporation of Denver, Colorado starting in the late 60s, only eight models were made, of which just one survives. That one remaining unit is in Asheville, North Carolina, near the home of Moog Music and our friend Chris Stack at Experimental Synth. So, of course, we wind up seeing this analog-powered machine driven by Control Voltage from a Moog, at top.
What makes the Scanimate worth revisiting above all else is the fact that it was real-time – pumping out a consistent 60 frames per second, or more than a lot of the digital devices we see today. As a real-time animation device, in fact, it still edges out a lot of the sophisticated digital tools today, from those employed by pros down to the “render it first” workflows of software like After Effects. I wish, indeed, that computer software designers would look back at how these tools worked; even though the hardware is almost impossible to find, the design notions introduced here still could inform new software. They may seem even more relevant today than when they were new, particularly with software’s ability to quickly produce new tools.
Do watch the video here, but you’ve seen the output of this gadget before:
The Electric Company, Logan’s Run, Star Wars, Sesame Street, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, and countless station idents and commercial spots used the tech.
I could say more, but there’s enough information at the site of the remaining machine’s owner, one Dave Sieg, to ensure you don’t get any more work done all week. So I’ll leave it to Dave – and let the Scanimate speak through its eye candy.
Here’s a fantastic vintage news report on the tech, as seen through the eyes of the time:
I’ll close with what I think may be one of the best visualizations of periodic waveforms and wave physics I’ve ever seen. Note to self – I need this a lot.
And the rest is history.