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The Definitive Oral History of 1980s Digital Icon Max Headroom

In the early 1980s, the fairly new Channel 4 in Britain wanted to show music videos like MTV, but they didn’t want to copy the music video channel. Maybe they could come up with something different from the veejays who hosted MTV. Maybe graphics? Maybe a boring guy in a suit? Maybe an artificial intelligence rendered in computer graphics? Ha! It was a ridiculous idea, because in 1985 computer graphics couldn’t render a character. But what a great idea! The fact that it was impossible didn’t stop Max Headroom’s creators. They went ahead with a show called 20 Minutes Into the Future, which became a phenomenon. Max Headroom, the character, was a computer-generated avatar of a television personality who was in coma, glitches and all, but to get that character to TV, the computer graphics were faked by makeup and lighting.

Matt Frewer ACTOR For a time it was... I won't say it was infuriating, but it was frustrating — you wanted to go, "That's me, that's me, it’s not a computer-generated man." But of course they wanted to swear me to secrecy because otherwise anybody could make a computer-generated man if they knew that it was as easy as putting on all this make-up.

John Humphreys PROSTHETICS DESIGNER I have to say, it was being presented as computer graphics, and I had people even say to me, who worked in some big companies in Britain, "Oh, you'll soon be out of a job, look at this, it's all done with computer graphics!"

Peter Litten VISUAL EFFECTS ARTIST It was very galling. It won a BAFTA for graphics, and of course other than a few lines, there weren't any graphics. A few wobbly lines. And they refused to enter us in the make-up [category] because they didn't want anyone to know it was make-up.

I'm trying to remember how long the make-up took. Probably four hours of make-up? When you get into the swing of it, we probably got it down to three hours or so in the end.

By 1987, the show had crossed the pond and was now called Max Headroom. Although American actor Matt Frewer still played the title character as he did for Channel 4, the show was so Americanized that viewers had no clue as to its British roots -although they already knew the character from his ads for Coke and other products. The show was revolutionary, not only in its style, but in that it was quite critical of the television industry. Max Headroom burned bright and quickly, and left a mark on the history of TV. Read a fascinating oral history of the concept and character by its creators and producers, at The Verge. -via Digg


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