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After Effects, or Velvet Revolution

Lev Manovich

During the heyday of postmodern debate, at least one critic in America noticed the connection between postmodern pastiche and computerization. In his book After the Great Divide (1986), Andreas Huyssen writes:
All modern and avant-gardist techniques, forms and images are now stored for instant recall in the computerized memory banks of our culture. But the same memory also stores all of pre-modernist art as well as the genres, codes, and image worlds of popular cultures and modern mass culture.11 Andreas Huyssen, “Mapping the Postmodern,” After the Great Divide, (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1986), 196.

His analysis is accurate—except that these “computerized memory banks” did not really become commonplace for another fifteen years. Only when the Web absorbed enough media archives did it become this universal cultural memory bank accessible to all producers of culture. But even for professionals, the ability to easily integrate multiple media sources within the same project—multiple layers of video, scanned still images, animation, graphics, and typography—only came towards the end of the 1990s.

In 1985, when Huyssen’s book was being prepared for publication, I was working for one of the few computer animation companies in the world, called Digital Effects.22 See: Wayne Carlson, A Critical History of Computer Graphics and Animations, Section 2: The Emergence of Computer Graphics Technology. Each computer animator had his own interactive graphics terminal that could show 3D models, but only in wireframe and monochrome. To see them fully rendered in color, we had to take turns as the company had only one color raster display which we all shared. The data was stored on bulky magnetic tapes about a foot in diameter. Finding data from an old job was a cumbersome process which involved locating the right tape in the tape library, putting it on a tape drive and then searching for the right part of the tape. We did not have a color scanner, so getting all modern and avant-gardist techniques, forms and images into the computer was a far from trivial matter. Even if we did have one, there was no way to store, recall or modify these images. The machine that could do that, the Quantel Paintbox, cost over USD 160,000, which we could not afford. In 1986, when Quantel introduced Harry, the first commercial non-linear editing system which allowed for digital compositing of multiple layers of video and special effects, its cost also made it prohibitive for everybody except network television stations and a few production houses. Harry could record only eighty seconds of broadcast quality video at a time. In the realm of still images, things were not much better: for instance, the digital still store Picturebox, released by Quantel in 1990, could hold only 500 broadcast-quality images and its cost was similarly very high.

In short, in the middle of the 1980s neither we nor other production companies had anything approaching the “computerized memory banks” imagined by Huyssen. Of course, the same was true for the visual artists that were then associated with postmodernism and the concepts of pastiche, collage and appropriation. In 1986, the BBC produced the documentary Painting with Light3