New Full Length Documentary on the Demoscene

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Moleman 2 – Demoscene – The Art of the Algorithms (2012)

HD, colour, 90′

Moleman 2 is about the demoscene subculture, told by mostly Hungarian sceneres, but it features also some other nationalities.

As an impact of the spreading of computer technology, some new art sections have been born. Some of them just digitized the analogue forms, but some produced whole new artistic forms. In former times, image-, and sound-based arts required not only intellectual but physical skills as well. Nowadays, computer programming allows us to create new-styled artworks using only our intellectual skills. We don’t need our physical skills for that anymore. Computer technics is the fastest developing part of our world, which produces more and more new opportunities for art. Moleman shows you now a digital subculture, where artists don’t use always the latest technology, but their aim is also to bring out the best from 30 year-old computer technics.

The demoscene is a computer art subculture that specializes in producing demos, which are non-interactive audio-visual presentations that run in real-time on a computer. The main goal of a demo is to show off programming, artistic, and musical skills.

The demoscene first appeared during the 8-bit era on computers such as the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and Amstrad CPC, and came to prominence during the rise of the 16/32-bit home computers (the Amiga and the Atari ST). In the early years, demos had a strong connection with software cracking. When a cracked program was started, the cracker or his team would take credit with a graphical introduction called a “crack intro” (shortenedcracktro). Later, the making of intros and standalone demos evolved into a new subculture independent of the software (piracy) scene.

 

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Before the Demoscene

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Face and Body Parts - Ed Parke (1974)

In the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, innovations in computer graphics were pioneered by the University of Utah. Their program generated some of the first algorithms for antialiasing, shading, z-buffering, and texture mapping among many others. They also produced the seminal Utah Teapot and breakthrough demos of rendering and animation such as Halftone Animation by Ed Catmull and Fred Parke. Essentially, the innovations came from a community of developers who shared the same passion in visualizing the world around them in virtual space. This early work, shared by developers at MIT, Harvard, and Bell Labs, established techniques that would be inlcuded in work by the demoscene of the 80s, that we covered last summer

stills from Space++, Judson Rosebush (1974)

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Future Crew Documentary

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A few months ago, we posted a week of articles covering the demoscene. This short documentary by Yle New Media Development, originally posted on Motherboard TV, is a nice follow-up to those posts. In this first episode, The Demoscene Documentary interviews the Finnish demo group Future Crew about the backstory behind their legendary demo for PC Second Reality, which premiered at the demoparty Assembly in 1993.

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The East is Coming! The Demoscene in Eastern Europe

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Altered States by Tabo0

In 1988, a short note - titled “THE EAST IS COMING!” -- was published in well- known German cracker zine Illegal:

Have you ever heard of groups like "H.I.C." or "F.B.I."? Well, these crews are from Hungary! There is also an eastbloc-scene like in West Europe. I got demos from POLAND and U.S.S.R.

This is one of the first documentations of something like “the scene” in Eastern Europe. The Iron Curtain separated the editors of Illegal from people that were making cracks and demos in the Soviet Bloc, but this text is evidence that this barrier was not a problem for young computer nerds.

“The scene” in Eastern Europe has its origins in so-called “computer markets” in Warsaw and Budapest, where every weekend hundreds of people would sell hardware brought from the West along with pirated software. Such markets were just big copy parties. Teens with their C-64 brought in their backpacks would copy dozens of pirated games. Back then, nobody had even heard the word “copyright”. There was no need for cracks, as most games were provided with them by German and Scandinavian groups. Obviously, every game also had a cracktro, but at the beginning it was difficult to figure out what the scrollers and greetings were about. Some people even thought that Triad, Ikari and Hotline were just decent game companies.

Later local crackers started replacing the cracktros of Western groups with their own to make ads for their small entrepreneurships. One of the first Polish cracking groups was named WFC - World Cracking Federation - quite a prestigious name for a few guys pushing warez on the Warsaw market. Because of strict border controls there were no computer markets in Czechoslovakia, “the scene” was very small there.

Cracktro by World ...

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Diskmags: Underground Journalism of the Demoscene

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diskmag.png
Sex'n'Crime #14, one of the first disk magazines (Commodore 64,1990)

Disk magazines, or just diskmags/mags for short, are digital journals that were originally published on diskettes (hence the name). They share some common properties with their traditional printed counterparts, such as ads, sections and articles, but some features, such as their background music, distribution channels and interactive navigation spring from their digital nature. The demoscene has actively created diskmags starting from the late 1980s, and before the Internet age they could be considered as one of the most important international communication channels of the community. There were also commercial diskmags published by companies and user clubs, but they will not be discussed here.

Diskmags, quite naturally, deal with topics that are of interest to the community. There is a wide variety of content available in them: for example, the largest issues of Imphobia sported as many as 250 articles, spanning several hundreds of pages. Among the most typical topics are news, discussions about the changing field of technology, swapping ads, programming tricks, party invitations, competition results, and interviews of notable demoscene members. Back in the day the discussions were often heated, complete with wars between groups and name-calling. Charts, where people could vote for their favorite groups and productions used to be common as well. Such ranking lists serve as an example of the competitive nature of the community.

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R.A.W. #6, an example from the golden age of diskmags (Amiga 500, 1993)

The first diskmags, such as Sex'n'Crime, were simple and contained maybe only a dozen of articles. In a few years the amount of content and the audiovisual sophistication increased considerably, and as can be seen in the second picture, the magazines on the Commodore Amiga already featured a graphical user ...

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MSX Demoscene

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An MSX1 demo: Bold by Dvik & Joyrex

MSX was the first attempt to standardize software and hardware between different home computer vendors. With its 3.58 MHz processor, Microsoft BASIC, three-channel sound and modest graphics the MSX represented a very typical 8-bit home computer of the early 1980s. Several well-known companies such as Sony, Canon and Philips produced their own models, but their efforts were largely shadowed by the king of the hill, the Commodore 64. In spite of the tough competition, in some countries, such as The Netherlands, Spain and Brazil, the MSX line of computers was actually quite popular. A big factor in the success were the quality games produced by Konami, well-known for its numerous popular game series.

The MSX demoscene is a small but curious resident of the demo world. It could be roughly divided into two eras: the Dutch scene of the early nineties and the MSX renaissance of the late nineties. The Dutch demos ran on the advanced MSX2 computers that had improved graphics modes and often expansions such as additional memory or a sound cartridge. The effects seen in the first wave of demos were typical for the time: scrollers, colorbars, wobblers and even simple flat shaded vector graphics. Interestingly, in the Dutch scene it was considered perfectly normal to sell demos at fairs to other people, to get compensation for the hard work. In contrast, usually demos are distributed for free among the sceners and demo watchers. Many Dutch demogroups also went on to produce commercial games for the platform.

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A Dutch MSX2 demo: Unknown Reality by NOP

When the MSX started to disappear from the face of mainstream computing towards the mid-nineties, the Dutch scene also cooled down. It wasn't until 1997 that new demos started to appear, this time ...

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A Micro History of Demoscene Music

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bughug#1 by Goto80

Most demoscene music is characteristic in that it's made by hand, distributed as semi-open source, and executed in real-time. Composers adapt to the technical limitations as well as the cultural conditions, where resources were often reserved for the visual content. For these purposes, demosceners refined the tracker-software, which is essentially a text-based step-sequencer with quick access to all sound parameters.

TEF GIGAMIX 2 House Acid amiga 1991 PART DEUX

The Amiga 500 (1987) was the first home computer that you could make chart hits with. The megamix was a popular form in the scene [see clip above] but used too much memory for demos. The so-called 'ST-01 style' used smaller samples bundled with the Soundtracker software.[1] In 1989, 4-mat cut out snippets of these samples and looped them, to make beeps. The term chipmusic was coined for this music, which flirted with C64-aesthetics and had a file size of about 15 kb, which made intro-coders happy.[2]

Meanwhile, several e.g. C64-musicians were striving away from 'chipmusic' towards e.g. industrial/rave, in line with the demoscene desire for transgression.[3] Some tried to mimic older styles such as jazz and funk [4] and what was known in the demoscene as 'doskpop' - something inbetween Jarre and Laserdance, very popular in the early 1990s demoscene.[5]

On the PC, demos became more similar to music videos or media art and some demoscene musicians were signed to labels (e.g. Brothomstates on Warp). Demos started to use MP3-audio, while other composers (again) preferred more restrictive settings like soundchips and tiny soft-synthesis.[6]

The musicdisk is an emblematic artifact of demoscene music. It's an executable file that contains music, graphics and texts generated in real-time. The songs are not linear recordings from A to B, but ...

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Demo Effects in a Nutshell

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Tint by The Black Lotus (1996)

Visual effects are the building blocks of demos. To impress the audience, an effect needs to look good, have some novelty in it, and be technically well-executed. Especially during the early years of the demoscene, in the late eighties, creatively pushing hardware was highly regarded, but later on visual quality became increasingly important. The capabilities of home computers have improved considerably during the last 25 years, which has let the programmers create effects that would have been way beyond the reach of the early 8-bits such as the Commodore 64. Likewise, old tricks have become outdated or unfashionable and fallen out of use.

Scrolling text from an Ikari crack intro (1988)

Most demos released in the late 1980s or early 1990s featured some kind of scrollers: text sliding across the screen. Several variations such as sinus or parallax scrollers exist, but the basic idea is still the same. Scrollers were often used for informative purposes, like displaying the credits or for sending greetings to fellow groups. Other common effects of the time were colorbars, wobblers and sprite graphics moving on top of the background. Common to all of them is that they directly reflect the capabilities of the contemporary hardware. A bit later image-based effects, such as various tunnels and zoomers, started to gain ground, reflecting the move away from bitmapped graphics hardware, which was ill-suited for such feats.

Flat-shaded vector graphics from Vectormania by Phenomena (1990)

Bump+texture mapped 3D from Solstice by Valhalla (1995)

Vector graphics such as rotating objects and scenes became popular in the early 1990s, first in the primitive flat shaded format. Throughout the nineties the sophistication of vector graphics increased little by little and at the end of the decade you could see texture mapping, real-time shading and ...

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The Demoscene -- an Overview

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Ikari crack intro for Commodore 64 from 1989

1. Introduction

The demoscene is an international collective of programmers, graphics artists and musicians who create real-time audio-visual presentations with home computers. These people call themselves demosceners or just sceners. The real-time presentations are in turn called demos. Geographically the demoscene is a European phenomenon, with relatively little activity on other continents.

In this article, we want to introduce demos and the demoscene to the uninitiated reader.1 In the recent 10 years or so, social scientists, humanists and media researchers have written a number of texts that present the topic. These studies have been overviewed in our online research bibliography, Demoscene Research.2

Generally, the existing studies can be separated into two domains. In the first of these, the demoscene has been viewed as artistic activity. Secondly, many researchers have assessed demoscene culture as a particular way of life, for example as youth culture, counter culture, multimedia hacker culture or gendered community.

These existing works have opened up important and relevant points for discussion. But at the same time, they have often taken quite an abstract and an outsider perspective to demoscene practices. Having been active demosceners ourselves from the 1990s, we feel that the real live action of being in the scene should also receive its share of attention.

In this introduction, we thus focus on what demosceners do and the diverse artifacts they produce. We describe the basic concepts used by the sceners and explain the scene's key social conventions. The final section concludes with tips for further reading.

2. What Demosceners Do

As the name already suggests, the main activity of the demoscene is making "demos". A demo is a series of computer graphics effects with a music soundtrack. In most cases the demo -- short for demonstration ...

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Demoscene Week!

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All this week we're focusing on the demoscene here on Rhizome. We've recruited a number of guest writers to cover multiple aspects of the scene -- from demos made on the MSX computer to diskmags and more. We're starting it off with an overview provided by Antti Silvast and Markku Reunanen of Demoscene Research.

[To read all the posts from this week, click the tag "demoscene"]

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