DEMOing :: A new emerging art form or just another digital craft?

Posted by shirley shor | Fri Apr 25th 2003 4:04 a.m.

DEMOing <?XML:NAMESPACE PREFIX = O />:: A new emerging art form or just
another digital craft?

Text by Shirley Shor & Aviv Eyal <>

DEMO is a software program that renders a several minute's long collage
of 3D animation, sound, music and text on a personal computer.
DEMOs mix graphics programming with cutting-edge graphics and
experimental music to create an audio-visual eye-candy. DEMOs are a bit
similiar to electronic music video clips. The main difference being that
in a DEMO, each frame is generated in real-time, as it is played-back
for the viewer on his computer by custom code that uses the
functionality built into high-end graphics cards. DEMOs are designed to
wow the viewer, to show-off a creative use computer graphics and sound
by the DEMO authoring crew - a team of young and mainly European
software developers, graphic artists and electronic musicians. DEMOs are
designed for dedicated DEMO parties and DEMO competitions, held across
Europe and are downloadable over the Internet for free.

In this text we argue that DEMOing (coined after PAINTing) is Unique Art
form with deep and rich cultural, formalistic and esthetic roots in the
computer underground movement of the early 80s'.

:: Old-School DEMOs :: Early History :: An Hacker Art Form is Born ::

To start our journey into the land of the DEMO we have to go back, way
back. Just close your eyes and imagine that it is 1981. Personal
Computers are just starting to emerge from the computer hobbyist
underground; cheap multi-GIGA-size hard-drives and RAM are about 15
years away into the future. Software is packaged and delivered to users
in one or more Floppy Disks. In the Apple II system, the operating
system is also crammed on the floppy, along-side a software title and is
loaded to RAM as you booted-up your machine. Most software titles and
specifically games normally span one to three floppies. The title's
splash screen will appear after the initial OS boot and before the user
can interact with it. In the U.S most titles are sold and distributed
via computer hobby stores, hobbyist groups meetings and mail orders
directly from the publisher. Outside the U.S it is very hard to get
software at all. Enter the crackers
<> [1]. A Cracker would
obtain a legitimate title, remove any copying protection measures
applied to it by the publisher and distribute it for free to their local
friends, computer users group. Some will also set-up BBBs (Bulletin
Board Systems) in the basements of their homes and post the broken title
for downloading over dial-up
<> [2]. Sure, piracy hearts
software sales to some extant but I'm convinced that it caused more good
than harm to the software industry by infecting otherwise perfectly
'normal' people with the PC Germ and thus breaking computing into the
mainstream. Were you first hooked to software by a CD 'borrowed' from a
friend? Piracy certainly didn't heart game publisher Electronic Arts
becoming a multi-billion company being talked about as the next Disney.
People also tend to forget that in many countries outside the U.S., one
often could not even buy a given software title at all since there were
no local computer stores and no easy way to shop internationally. That
was at least the case in my small birth-place country of Israel. Without
the bootlegs and the BBSs, millions of people around the world would
never get into this geek-thing at all. I personally know about five
software industry people that got attracted to computers in early age by
games I would let them copy for free. Today, all software titles are
readily available for purchase online or at your favorite office
supplies store, so there's little excuse left to bootlegging
<> [3].

The mostly teen-age cracker had gone through the trouble of doing all
this to impress kids like me around the globe with their technical
capabilities and coolness. So, how will all these kids, booting-up the
newest just-released cracked game, would know to attribute its
availability to the Apple Rebel and Hot Rod and the infamous MotherBoard
BBS <> [4]? Enter the DEMO.
The old-school DEMO was a piece of custom software code
<> [5] and content that
crackers would write and attach to the boot sector of a pirated software
title Floppy. The software would execute as soon as the Floppy will boot
on a computer and would display a page attributing the cracker's crew
alias names. Short, cute and catchy aliases akin to the ones used in Hip
Hop culture. Names like The Intern, First Class, MPG, Desert Storm, DJ
Clue and The 2-live Crew. After a few seconds delay the DEMO would
start-up and the 'legitimate' original title. Performing this neat feat
required at times a fairly sophisticated understanding of the underling
disk operating system, assembly language and the hardware platform
involved. In the early 80s, DEMOs were fairly modest and consisted a
text information page appropriately named 'title-page' containing
credits, shout-outs and dial-up numbers to free software BBSs. Title
Pages rapidly involved to include graphics, animation and music as
crackers began to compete with each other for reputation and credibility
in the computer underworld scene. The challenge being: who would be the
first create and distribute the most impressive audio-visual DEMO for
the hottest new game just out? This new unprecedented form of expression
had almost absolute artistic creative freedom; the only constraint being
the available space on the Floppy and the multimedia capabilities of the
target computing platform. Remember, the complete bustard DEMO software
needs to fit side-by-side with the legitimate host software on the
cracked Floppy and Floppies had total storage space in the range of 4KB
to 64KB (compared with about 1.2MB in today's standard floppy disk and
about 760MB in a single CD-ROM). From the cracker's perspective, it all
boiled down to getting the greatest and latest game for your favorite
computer platform, cracking it in quickly, designing writing your demo
in days, patching it in, testing that the original software still works,
and uploading the final disk image quickly to few leading BBSs across
the US so it can be downloaded by anyone with a computer and a modem. If
everything worked smoothly, and nobody else had beaten you to it, you'll
get the satisfaction of having you're A.K.A name in front of thousands
of computer enthusiasts like you all over the world. It seems that these
numerous challenges only contributed to the creativity and ingenuity of
the demo makers: In the mid 80s', the cutting-edge in personal computer
sound, graphics, compression, text effects and animation is to be found
in DEMOs. In addition, a new breed of title-page writers would
specialize in the art of DEMO creation and let others in their crew
focus on cracking.

Some DEMOs contained original graphics and music; some appropriated
graphics, animations and music elements from the cracked host title and
used them a new and innovative configuration or mix. Some copied the
title's software publishing company logo and subverted it in a humors
way <> [6]. Some will add
short prose, similar to the into text that opens up a motion picture -
"Somewhere in a galaxy far away..." - and some will politely ask you to
support the software movement by purchasing the title if you enjoy it or
use it productively - seeding the Shareware software publishing model.
It is a shame that most of the great classic DEMOs are by now probably
forever lost without ever being systematically being researched,
cataloged or archived <>

The DEMO scene also drove innovation in media software tools, one of the
first multi-media authoring software packages for a personal computer,
before ground-braking titles such as HyperCard
<> [8], PaintShop and
VideoWorks were even conceived, was a DEMO creation kit for the Apple
II. This nameless tool allowed you to start from an empty bitmap or load
a bitmap image drawn in another paint software package, specify
rectangular and non-rectangular regions on the bitmap's surface, assign
an animation loop and optionally a sound loop on the region bits, add
new text region, type text into them, set a font face from one of the
bundled Fonts and draw color shapes and lines - a pretty impressive feat
for a model 1982 software running on a text terminal having, according
to today's standards, a pretty rudimentary raster and vector graphics
modes with no real Fonts support
<> [9]. Finally, you use the
tool to install your new creation and the custom animation software
run-time on a target Floppy - now boot-it up, cross your fingers, and
hope to see your DEMO, an unbroken copy of the operating system and the
original software title all loading and running smoothly together as

:: New-Schoo l DEMOs Mature to become a new digital art form ::

Now close your eyes again and fast forward back to 2002. Cheap PCs with
lots of RAM, hard-disc capacity and high fidelity stereo sound
capabilities are abound world-wide and millions of computer enthusiasts
and gamers have very fast machines with dedicated 3D graphics and high
resolution color monitors. Computer software title is now readily
available in retail stores and via the almost ubiquitous Internet.
Software is a $XX Billion a year business and gaming software is a XX
billion dollars a year business. CG animation is prevalent on many hot
kids flicks. Napster is RIP. Organizations such as RIAA, Disney and MPAA
basically dictate the copyright laws of the U.S. and cracking software
is a federal felony that can get you in Jail for the best years of your
life - definitely not a way to impress your friends anymore. You would
imagine that all of the above would spell the end of the DEMO scene, but
in reality the contrary is happening. A new breed of DEMOs which I take
the liberty to name here New-School DEMOs is quietly becoming a major
artistic form of expression in the computer underground. DEMOs gave up
their original hosts and are now distributed via the Internet and in
special 'DEMO Parties' annually held all over Europe
<> [10]. New School DEMOs
are not attached to software titles anymore. They exist independently as
self executable software packages. The DEMO creators now come from a new
generation of hard-core software hackers
<> [11] that are deep into
the C programming language, esoteric audio formats, computer graphics
and 3D frameworks such as OpenGL and Microsoft Direct 3D. The motivation
remains to gain reputation among friends, fellow DEMO crews and the
computer underground. However - there's a new twist - building a great
DEMO is a great way for an aspiring 3D artist to get into The Biz, that
is, the computer games business. Watching a New-School DEMO unfolding on
your computer can be a real eye-opening inspiring experience - being
completely untainted by any direct commercial interests or by the latest
art-world passing fad, a new school demo is designed to create an
engaging and highly personal audio visual experience that utilizes your
computer resources and graphics card to the max. Conceptually, a good
demo is designed to suck you in and it won't let you go until it is over
- Don't Press ESC just yet! Some DEMOs look like electronic music video
clips you've probably seen on TV before - an ambient psychedelic four
minutes trip through an alien kaleidoscope world, but many of them have
new, raw and refreshing esthetic qualities that you probably have not
experienced before. A good DEMO needs to contain something fresh - a new
subject matter, a new animation technique or, even better, a fresh
combination of known techniques and classic subject matters
<> [12].

Technically, The DEMO is a short video clip where the frames are
generated in compiled custom C code written by the demo maker. However,
unlike tradional digital video clips of CG animation, the code renders
the clip frame by frame using a 3D software framework runtime
<> [13]. Each frame is
rendered to the screen using the viewer's Graphics Card 3D capabilities.
The code uses pre-generated raw media materials such as bump maps, 3D
mashes and paths, surfaces, textures, MP3 sound snippets, bitmaps and
fonts. In some cases, the code also generates the clip's soundtrack on
the fly. The code also synchronizes the animation with the Soundtrack,
in many cases modifying the 3D camera position and the scene lighting
with each music beat or measure. A great demo must use these elements in
a creative way - creating a unique impressive artistic expression that
is being generated and unfolded for you, on your personal computer, each
time you view it, by the artist's code and esthetic vision. It may take
up to few months for a team of digital graphic artists, computer
musicians and software hackers to create a great demo from start to
finish. Great DEMOs have better graphics than anything you'll get on the
PlayStation 2 gaming platform. Interestingly enough, unlike the
old-school, new-school DEMOs is currently mainly happening in Europe
with very few significant works coming out of America. Semi annual DEMO
parties are being held all over Europe and mainly in Holland, Germany,
Denmark and France and most DEMO web portals are European based. The
DEMO party brings a new social aspect to the art form since many DEMOs
are specially designed for such an event. Some parties contain real-time
DEMO creation competitions where participating artists must create the
best DEMO they can, from scratch, over a limited period of time - say 24

If you've read this far into this text then you probably ask yourself:
well, this is all very good but what's the relationship between the old
school and the new school? Where's the common thread? One starts to see
the evolutionary pattern by looking carefully into the world of
new-school demos. One type of new school demos are called Intros. An
intro is 1. a DEMO that must be packaged into less than 16K or less than
64K self executable code. This the size of one typical JPEG image in
your favorite website homepage and 2. When viewed, it must blow you away
both esthetically and technically. Creating an engaging and original
several minute video clip with a sound track and compressing it to a
size of a JPEG is definitely a feat that require considerable talent,
time and effort. But how did these guys ever get the idea to impose such
constraints in the first place? Now that you are empowered with the
knowledge of this text you can clearly see that the roots of the Intro
demo competitions are in the days of old school demos, where DEMO
builders had to work within these technical constraints. Intro DEMOs are
therefore RETRO old-school style DEMOs
<> [14].

Another thread linking the old with the new is highly creative and
non-standard usage of textuality. Legacy CG video clips use very little
to no text. However, both old-school and new-school demos heavily use
text in a similar fashion. Text is highly stylized, uses non-standard
customized fonts, text animation is a must for every demo. Textual
content typically includes shout-out to friends, family members, fellow
crackers and demo makers, a private joke, a girlfriend's name, a cool
BBS or a Website and most importantly and a must-have, animated credits
of the aliases of the people who put the DEMO together. After all,
that's what it is all about. The text is not supplemental to the
graphics - it is not an add-on patched to a 3D CG Clip, on the
contrarily, it is integral to the DEMO and sets its tone and esthetic
style, typically having its own dedicated Intro and Outro scenes.
In addition, almost all new-school demo makers use monikers and alias -
old-school style - short, witty and completely anonymous. The reason to
conceal the real name has long vanished since new school DEMO makers are
not pirating software anymore and, as I've stated, would like to build a
personal reputation to get into The Biz. What's in play here are the
traces of the old-masters style as it continues to be expressed by this
implicit act quotation by a new generation of artists.
Lastly, our final clue lies in the content of several New-School demos -
they intentionally perform audio-visual quotation of the style and the
content of some old-school classics. Remember, in the DEMO scene copying
is not an issue of law but of creativity and reputation - you may and
should copy anything you want and use it as a raw material to your new
creation, as long as you make the end-result original.

DEMOs today are an emerging art form that is unique and interesting in
the way it combines new kinds of artistic ideas, subject matters, and
techniques. An art form that requires a high level of technical and
digital media craftsmanship mastery, and in many cases involves a
collaborative team of artists and software developers.

Still, mainly happening in the computer art underground, beyond the
reach of paralyzing mainstream agendas and interests, created by
talented and dedicated young people - we can all look up to DEMO Scene,
get some inspiration and even perhaps some ideas regarding how to keep
evolving the digital art movement so it can produce autonomous, vital
and a fresh forms of artistic expression in the 21st century and beyond.

In this text, We've tried to show that DEMOs are unique audio-visual
virtual constructs with deep formalistic and esthetic roots in the
computer underground movement of the 80s'. No words can fully convey
them and you definitely need to experience them first handedly - All you
need is a PC, Internet Connection and a decent gaming 3D video card -
the DEMOs are all free, just download over the Web and check them out

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