DEMOing. A new emerging art form or just another digital craft?
Shirley Shor & Aviv Eyal
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“Jonny looks around, confused, his train of thought disrupted. He collects himself, and stares at the teacher with a steady eye. ‘I want to code demos,’ he says, his words becoming stronger and more confidant as he speaks. ‘I want to write something that will change people’s perception of reality. I want them to walk away from the computer dazed, unsure of their footing and eyesight. I want to write something that will reach out of the screen and grab them, making heartbeats and breathing slow to almost a halt. I want to write something that, when it is finished, they are reluctant to leave, knowing that nothing they experience that day will be quite as real, as insightful, as good. I want to write demos.’”
A 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 . 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 . 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 .
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 ? Enter the DEMO. The old-school DEMO was a piece of custom software code  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 1.2 MB 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 . 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 , 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 . 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 expected…
New-School 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 . 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  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 .
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 . 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 hours.
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 .
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 21 st 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 today!