In Depth: Scanimate Animation System #TBT

In Depth: Scanimate Animation System #TBT

At Half Rez in Chicago last November, Nick Campbell of Greyscalegorilla took us on a historical journey to the birth of television motion graphics with Scanimate. I had seen the retro-futuristic Scanimate animation throughout my childhood on shows like Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, but I never realized what this analog wizardry was. If you’re over 35 years old, you have certainly seen Scanimate animation content on TV. Today I’ll explain Scanimate and show you lots of fun examples.

Scanimate Throwback Thursday at Toolfarm

The Scanimate animation program was developed in the late 1960s by Lee Harrison III, founder of Computer Image Corporation of Denver, Colorado, and was everywhere in the 1970s and 1980s. Scanimate was a groundbreaking analog video synthesizer used create title animations and motion graphics1. Scanimate worked by first scanning in the art or text from black lit tables. The art was displayed on a small CRT and could then be interactively scaled, rotated, distorted, twisted, bent, spun, moved, and changed it’s color, by turning knobs. These overlay element animations would be recorded and played back the video to generate complex 2D animations for television.2 They could create animations in real time and had a very fluid, yet electronic look, to them.

These Scanimate computers were enormous and expensive. A lot of it was really trashy looking and the artists who created the Scanimate animations are the first to admit it in documentaries on the topic.

Dave Sieg

Dave Sieg is likely the world’s foremost expert on the Scanimate computer system and owns a working Scanimate system. He also runs a website dedicated to the topic. Dave got his start in 1979 by working in computer maintenance for Image West, Ltd. in Hollywood, CA, which had two Scanimate computers.3 The next few videos are from Dave’s website.

News report on Scanimate

This should give you a quick overview of Scanimate and computer-generated graphics of 30 years ago.

The Dream Machine Trailer (2006)

This is from a three-part documentary on Scanimate. Here’s part one.

Ron Hays

Ron Hays was cutting edge, experimental and influential in the field of motion graphics in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He won Emmy’s for best graphic design for some of his work (Krofft Superstar Hour with the Bay City Rollers). Unfortunately, he died in 1991 at the age 45 of AIDS. Here did some great work in his short life.4

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978)

Mr. Hays was responsible for the Alice Cooper video for the cover of Because. Anyone who knows me can tell you that I’m a super fan of The Beatles and this movie is AWFUL. I’m not putting down Ron Hays work here, but the whole concept of the film is cringe-worthy. Because is a beautiful song that is absolutely destroyed by Alice Cooper. The Bee Gee’s on backing vocals can’t even save it. I digress, here’s a snippet of Ron Hays’ work at 1:10 in the trailer below.  Also, check out the end credits.

Ron Hays Music-Image: Odyssey (1979)

Earth, Wind & Fire – Let’s Groove (1981)

Genesis (1981)

In 1981 Ron Hays was also featured on the M.O.P. Radionic Workshop talking about his piece Genesis. The music is by Ragnar Grippe.


Other Scanimate Work

Miscellaneous 1980s Graphics

A Collection of Scanimated Logos

Logan’s Run Open (1977-78)

Funny story, I took Futuristics as an elective in high school and talked the teacher into letting us watch Logan’s Run in class over a few days. If you haven’t seen the film, it’s awesomely bad. It’s one of my favorite sci-fi films of the 1970s.

Sesame Street – A Count of 10 with Nobody

This is trippy stuff.

Can’t Stop The Music Trailer (1980)

Starring The Village People. I know disco and Scanimate were just out at the same time but I feel that they go together like peanut butter and jelly.

Electric Dreams (1984)

Super cheesy film but great E.L.O. in the trailer! The title is Scanimate.

Justice – DVNO (2008)

We actually featured this one on our blog in 2008 and I referred to it as “100% pure unadulterated eye candy”.

Simulating Scanimate with Today’s Software

Where would you even begin?

Use a waveform generator, an oscilloscope, ramp generators, particle generators, etc. Trails from Sapphire or Boris Continnum would give the echoing look of the old ABC logo. Do you have ideas? Let us know!


1 Wikipedia: Scanimate.

2 Scanimation in the Analog Days By Dave Sieg, SIGGRAPH 98.

3 A Critical History of Computer Graphics and Animation, Section 12: Analog approaches, non-linear editing, and compositing.

4 Ron Hays; Multimedia Conceptualist. Los Angeles Times Obituary. April 19, 1991|BURT A. FOLKART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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Posted by Michele Yamazaki