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Monthly Archives: July 2014
Amiga Dreams: my first computer graphic images, from 1987

Filed under Computer Graphics, Works in Progress

Amiga Dreams title screen (1987)

Back in September of 1987 I bought my first Amiga computer. It was an Amiga 500 – the least expensive Amiga, but with a whole megabyte of RAM. Less than a year later I’d use it to win the BADGE Killer Demo Contest, whose first prize was an Amiga 2000.

In the Fall of ’87, though, that was still a ways off. A long ways, as far as I could see: because although I wanted make pictures and animations, I was having some trouble learning to draw with a mouse. So I sent some of my pencil sketches off to a service bureau, where they were digitized with a video camera, after which I planned to paint them on my new computer. But before the scanned images came back I went to an eye-opening presentation by Jim Sachs at AmiExpo. Jim was doing fantastic artwork… and all of it with a mouse.

So I returned home and went back to drawing with what felt like a small brick, and I’d gotten the hang of it by the time my digitized sketches arrived, in the mail, on a floppy disc.

In October and November I got pretty busy with my mouse and Deluxe Paint II – and my scanned sketches – and I turned out a bunch of pictures. I put them all together with a shareware slideshow program, and zipped them up, and uploaded the slideshow to BBS systems across the country. Because that’s what we did in 1987, with our modems. On our landlines. After walking six miles through a snowstorm.

The Amiga Dreams slideshow was a portfolio that I used to approach game companies. It spread pretty far across the BBS’s and it introduced me to a whole lot of people, some of whom I still know.

I recently ran across a copy of the original slideshow at Aminet and I downloaded it. (I didn’t even have a complete copy any more.)

Now, it’s hard to simply show you the original images – mostly in 16 or 32 colors – because the aspect ratio of the Amiga’s pixels was different from the square pixels that computers use today. I had to scale these to get the images themselves into the correct aspect. So what you see here isn’t a literal version of what I did then, but the pictures look the same.

Amiga Dreams: Treasure (1987)
Treasure (1987)

These days, people call this "pixel art" – which is a pretty silly label – because one often worked with individual pixels, in solid colors, and from a limited palette. I used to say that I knew all my pixels by name. I almost wasn’t kidding.

Like most of the Amiga Dreams pictures the original resolution of the one above was 320 by 400 pixels, and I painted it with a palette of 32 colors. It was based on a little pencil sketch from my sketchbook.

Amiga Dreams: The North Light
The North Light (1987)

Here I took an old drawing for a watercolor and painted it over again in Deluxe Paint. This one was also 320 by 400 pixels. You can see that I managed pretty decent gradients for the sky and the beam of light; but it cost me quite a few of my 32 colors.

Amiga Dreams: Lady Otway
Lady Otway (1987)

Part of this picture was originally a pen and ink drawing.The digital version became better known a year or so later when I did a new, expanded version (in portrait aspect) for the cover of Amiga World magazine. Once again, this one was 320 by 400 pixels in 32 colors.

To do the portrait aspect version I rotated the image 90 degrees and turned my video monitor on its side. The monitor wasn’t too happy about that, but it was nothing a little degaussing couldn’t cure.

Amiga Dreams_ Tower
Tower (1987)

The Amiga’s Hold and Modify graphics mode was made up of equal parts of inspiration and dementia. You could use up to 4096 colors, but the color values were stored as the difference between the current pixel and the pixel to its left. Because the early Amigas used video displays there were limits on how many of these changes could happen on a given scanline, and how large the color changes could be from one pixel to the next.

If you used a HAM paint program you had to deal with strange color fringes shooting off to the right while you worked. This caused undesirable mental effects in laboratory mice, and in me.

I almost never painted in HAM after this one. HAM turned out to be great, later on, for 3D rendering, or for images that were painted in 24 bit color and converted down. But painting in HAM? It was possible: I just never liked it. I painted this picture in HAM with Digi-Paint.

Interesting note: another HAM paint program showed up a few years later. It was called Photon Paint, and it was written by the young Oren Peli – better known in this century as the writer/director of Paranormal Activity. It’s a small world.

Amiga Dreams: Serpent (1987)
Serpent (1987)

I can’t quite remember the provenance of this one. It’s possible, and maybe even likely, that this was the first thing I drew from scratch with a mouse. The original was once again 320 by 400 in 32 colors.

Amiga Dreams: The Dragon
The Dragon (1987)

Here’s another 32 color image, this time based on a couple of my pencil sketches. My original drawing of the dragon turned into a forgettable oil painting: I think it’s better off here.

Amiga Dreams: Viking (1987)
The Viking (1987)

This picture’s claim to fame is that it was the beginning of a dithering technique I finally mastered in the following year (more here).

At 640 by 400 pixels I could only have a 16 color palette. So I used part of that palette for a range of warm greys, and the rest for hues.

I used these colors in a checkerboard dithering pattern: the greys for values, and the hues for color. It worked pretty well, especially on a video monitor where the alternating pixels Closeup of the 16 color Viking picturetended to bleed together. Here’s a literal detail at twice its original size.

In practice, I painted areas with solid hues and then drew diagonal grey lines through them. I’d go over the grey lines with lighter and darker greys, either pixel-by-pixel, or in shorter diagonal lines. I also defined checker fill patterns with the 50% grey and one color, filled an area with that pattern, and then retouched the values from there.

The reason this all seemed worth it? Resolution. A 320 x 200 or a 320 x 400 image had big, visible pixels. At 640 by 400 I managed to get cleaner lines with the illusion of a large palette of colors.

Amiga Dreams: The End (1987)
The End (1987)

And this was the end, of course, in a Celtic knotwork border. I had pages and pages of knotwork designs for my drawings and paintings, earlier in the decade: I turned a lot of them into Amiga graphics in limited palettes, as we see here.

Years later, when I was building my first web site, I turned many of my early Amiga knotwork patterns into web-friendly clip art; those pages are still up. There’s even an animated Celtic knot that I painted in 1988 for the Charon demo that won me my second Amiga.

So these are my very first computer graphic images. It’s strange to see them again. Things were so different in 1987 that it seems like somebody else’s ancient history. I can’t even recall what treasures I myself found through the BBS systems of the day; there was wonderful art and freeware and shareware. It was a pre-web world, but our data still got around.

And I haven’t even mentioned the computer user groups, like VAUX, SFVAUG, and the others I used to visit, back when using a computer – or a particular kind of computer – made you an honorary member of unsecret societies across the globe.

Back to the illustrations for Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom

Filed under Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom, Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual, Works in Progress

Chapter 11 illustration for Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom

My brain’s polygon-melting beam of inspiration has turned back to the illustrations for Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom. Which is to say, I’ve had my coffee.

The whole polygon-melting thing, which admittedly is a little much, really happened a few days ago. But it’s only now – now that I have new stuff to show for it – that I feel like it’s official.

This illustration for Chapter 11 gives us a view of a robot showroom, where the indentures for new robots are sold to the public. Indentures? Robots are persons, and we don’t approve of owning persons. Unless we’re a villain, I mean. So an indenture is like a loan that finances the robot’s manufacture: when the robot works off the loan, he or she becomes a free agent. And, usually, a member of the Fraternal League of Robotic Persons.

This is one of three illustrations that needed a whole bunch of robots; I’m working now on the third of those. Looking back, it seems that I modeled about a dozen new robots for the story. That’s a little hard to measure because I built one of them far in advance, so he’s shown up in a few places already; and then there’s another who turned out to be a specific character I want to use later, so he’s gone back on the shelf. But technically? About a dozen.

Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom: Title page

I have just four more chapter illustrations to do. I also have six that will be taking a trip back to the shop for a little more work. After that, a pair of two-page spreads of character portraits; and then the illustrations will be done.

When? Probably some time in September. I think.

So it’s some time in September (I think) when I’ll try to figure out how Phase Two of the project is going. Early indications are good, but not conclusive.

The book has two chapters that still worry me a little. Chapter Two probably wants my attention in an editorial, voicey, copy editing kind of way. But the eleventh chapter….

There are times when you want it to be possible for a reader to understand something in advance. To make that happen, it can’t be impossible to get it; but it should also be possible to miss it. I’ve handled one or two of those elsewhere in the book, but Chapter Eleven still worries me a bit. I reworked that chapter quite a bit in my latest (fifth) draft. I’m a lousy tester for the problem because I already know what the reader might start to suspect . That’s an area where I hope for some new feedback during Phase Two.

I just can’t pretend that I’m a new reader any more. The fix for that? New readers.

But in the meantime: more art!

Roundtable discussion at Locus: James Morrow and Daryl Gregory

Filed under Reading / Watching / Consuming

James Morrow's The Madonna and the Starship Over at Locus there’s an interesting emailed conversation between two writers I’ve discovered and enjoyed lately. They’re James Morrow (The Madonna and the Starship) and Daryl Gregory (Afterparty and the upcoming We Are All Completely Fine).

Their two recent books each deal in some way with faith or religion, but not from a standpoint you might expect. Neither book hands you a conclusion on the tension between faith and reason. But the authors take you to some pretty interesting places along the way.

I’m very fond of Henry Kuttner’s humorous stories. The Madonna and the Starship is the closest thing I’ve ever seen to a modern work in the vein of Kuttner’s Gallegher or Hogben stories: Morrow gives us bizarre aliens with bizarre intentions, and frenzied protagonists who have to find a way to deal with them. The book is straight out of Kuttner’s era, too, since it’s set in the live television studios of the 1950’s. It is about the most fun you can have in a philosophical novel, with or without big blue lobsters.

And that’s really what it is: a story about warring philosophies. If "warring" sounds like an exaggeration, I have two words for you: death rays.

Daryl Gregory's AfterpartyAfterparty isn’t that kind of screwball comedy. Afterparty introduces a drug that makes your brain experience religious certainty: it’s like the way that psychedelic drugs fire off the synapses that tell you you’ve just had a profound insight. ("Doughnuts… and zebras! Of course!")

People who take this drug are certain that there is a god, though that god varies from person to person. That certainty stays with them unless they stop taking the drug: this makes withdrawal a pretty serious matter. It’s not a good thing for an extremely religious person to find that god’s vanished.

And if you overdose? You actually see and hear your god, your angel, or your demon. All the time. Forever.

The drug’s been buried under patents that should prevent it from ever escaping into the world. But of course that’s not what happens. What does happen is very interesting.

Anyway, these are two great books that you should read right now, and there’s a discussion by their authors at Locus.

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Down in the Basement. Where it Strains Against its Chains and Turns a Gigantic Wheel of Pain, for all Eternity. Muahahahahaha.