Digital: Viva Amiga (2016)

April 10, 2018 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Excellent

Label: Vimeo on Demand

Region: n/a

Released: January 6, 2017

Genre: Documentary / Computer History / Amiga

Synopsis: Brisk & lively chronicle of the Amiga computer, and the advanced features which made it a true multimedia device for creative minds in 1990.

Special Features: Extended Interviews – “Commodore Stories: The Bil Herd Story” (90:11) / “Jeff Porter Discusses Commodore” (14:10) / “Further Into the Machine: Dave Needle” (51:51) / “Further Into the Machine: Mike Boom Full Interview” (14:08) / “Andy Finkel on BB King and Arthur C. Clarke” (1:59). Available separately: “Viva Amiga: Further Into the Machine: RJ Mical” (94:12).

 


 

Review:

We wanted to change the world. We wanted to make the best computer.”

What can the Amiga do? Well, what do you want it to do?”

The product never actually failed; it was the corporate people around it that failed.”

 

When the Amiga computer made its auspicious 1985 debut in an elaborate product launch at Lincoln Center, it was another new player determined to assert itself in a market dominated by IBM, Apple, Atari, and Commodore, and for a while it seemed as though the big-thinking team behind the unconventional machine would find a place where it could gain followers, grow as a creative entity, and perhaps become a dominant player as a true multimedia, multitasking personal computer.

Not long after its launch, Amiga ran into financial challenges typical of newcomers wanting to expand its manufacturing and distribution goals, and in need of half a million dollars, a loan came from rival Atari, courtesy of Jack Tramiel, a shark who knew the risks affecting upstarts, and had bet that the new company would fail to payback the funds, causing all of Amiga’s physical and intellectual properties to revert to Atari. A rescue came from Commodore, and for the next 11 years Amiga developed into a remarkable creature that some of its team members dubbed ‘the computer from the future.’

Initially developed as a gaming machine with advanced graphics, the Amiga’s versatile design also lent itself to video production, with NewTek’s Video Toaster card transforming the PC into a video production switcher, editor, character generator, animation and audio work station. It is ironic that in spite of outselling Apple in sales and customer satisfaction after its debut, the Amiga’s position in video was eventually nabbed by Apple.

Zach Weddington’s documentary traces the Amiga’s creation, launch, and its struggle to live up to its potential amid Commodore’s increasing marketing blunders. Viva Amiga has a fairly straightforward structure, relying on surviving team members to recall the computer’s rise and magnetic appeal to both themselves and the computer’s buyers, and within its 62 minute running time it offers a solid amount of info specifically about the Amiga, including its 1997 purchase by German PC manufacturer Escom from bankrupt Commodore.

According to Escom’s Amiga division leader Petro Tyschtschenko, the Amiga’s user base was reportedly 90% European. When Escom folded, Amiga’s remains were acquired by Gateway 2000, who did virtually nothing to resuscitate the brand, although there’s a renewed effort by A-EON to make the Amiga X-1000.

Weddington’s challenge to winnow a mass of interviews into a tight narrative without sharp digressions isn’t easy, especially when there’s myriad technical facts fighting time with nostalgia, but fans of the Video Toaster will be disappointed that the video component isn’t given a major segment; Weddington doesn’t skimp on details, but it’s clear a wholly separate doc could (and should!) be made on NewTek itself, from a revolutionary software-based multimedia developer that’s still in business.

There’s excerpts from the 1991 Video Toaster Revolution demo video that was available as a free mailer, and some brief clips at an Amiga convention in (presumably) Holland where some fans were interviewed by Weddington. The VT’s iconic maiden and spokesperson Kiki Stockhammer is briefly seen in a shot, but aside from short interviews with NewTek President & CEO Jim Plant and Co-founder & Chairman Tim Jenison, there’s no interviews with VT personnel.

There’s also too-short nods on the Amiga’s use as a music and graphic workstation; Holland’s Marcus Vlaar and Hans Wessels of Purno de Purno are the only subjects who discuss making music and animations with the Amiga during its heyday, but we never hear in detail any of their work. (Purno de Purno was apparently a children’s show, but the interviews give the impression of an indie rock band who made strictly music videos). Near the end of the doc there is a segment on the Amiga 500’s use by chiptune artists, and features mono performance clips and interviews with TRIX, 4MAT, and STAGEDIVER.

 

Digital Extras Galore

Viva Amiga is still a beautifully produced documentary, deeply enhanced by gorgeous graphics that make use of the checkered bouncing ball as a motif for the Amiga’s success and bad luck, ultimately crashing the vector-styled digital environment which Weddington uses as transition markers.

Originally begun as a Kickstarter project with bonus materials offered to investors, a large chunk of raw footage and extra interviews are available from Vimeo, including a standalone pay-only Q&A with RJ Mical. What these interviews represent is a much deeper and franker portrait of how an upstart attracts charismatic talent, and the changes that can doom a product’s future as an everlasting player.

The shortest interview outtake (1:59) has Andy Finkel recalling a long distance encounter with Arthur C. Clarke and direct encounter with bluesmaster BB King. King is seen and referenced in the doc as being part of Commodore’s attempt to make the Amiga attractive to creative minded consumers, using a campaign conceived by former Apple marketing wizards, but the approach was flawed in part due to the Amiga being presented as an Apple variant; as stated in the doc proper by RJ Mical, the Amiga was initially designed as a gaming machine and should’ve been sold for $500 in toy stores and major chains instead of an elite multimedia machine for $2500.

A recurring criticism of Commodore is the way the company marketed the Amiga, never really knowing what they’d bought. When the multimedia branding didn’t work, they revised the Amiga as a business PC with unique graphic capabilities. Mike Boom (14:08), who didn’t make the film’s final cut, recalls the 1985 launch and working as a technical writer.

A separate segment with Jeff Porter (14:10) has the self-described Commodore ‘hardware guy’ recalling the Amiga’s top-selling 500 model, and something called CDTV, which made use of a Philips CD-ROM and adapted it for use as a device to play games, access online services, and potentially play movies. Porter’s tale of the CDTV project is indicative of Commodore’s unrealistic timelines, wanting new gear ready for Christmas shipping and dealing with issues in the new year.

The corporate culture within Commodore before and after it bought the Amiga is vividly conveyed in “The Bil Herd Story” (90:11), often in astonishing frankness. Where the mothercorp’s blunders are diplomatically addressed in Viva Amiga, the raw footage from Herd – who doesn’t appear in the doc – describes a company whose creative team was wild, eccentric, and inventive, and executives who only cared about the bottom line – not just making a PC cheaper, but shipping known defective units to market just to ‘get them under the Christmas tree.’ Herd’s hysterical anecdotes are augured by helpful layman breakdowns of computer technology, especially from an engineer’s stance, and it’s one of two feature-length raw interviews worth repeated viewing.

The second epic Q&A is with RJ Mical, whose recollection of the ’85 launch unfolds like a nail-biter. His nostalgia for this golden period in computer history closes the doc, but in the pay-only “Viva Amiga: Further Into the Machine” (94:11) we get a richer rendition of his passion for discovery, inventing, and how the Amiga was such a special creature. He raises an important issue on the uniqueness of the 1980s, where the lack of competition, too many corporate overlords, and huge expectations enabled ‘one guy’ to take an idea and turn it into a hit; not because of the right marketing push or corporate parent, but because it was a great product designed with care and passion.

He describes the early years under Commodore as “blissful” to problematic within a short time. Cash rescued the company from Atari and enabled Amiga’s designers to flourish, but without a Jobsian charismatic visionary at Commodore’s helm, poor decisions hampered its longevity. A great example of dropping the ball is the mystical advert designed to re-launch the Amiga that mixed a star child with shots if an older man walking up an Escher-like stairway, approaching a softly focused Amiga resting on a pedestal, and light filling the screen – good money thrown at a bad idea that ensured the system wasn’t even remotely identified as a valuable creative tool for multimedia and gamers.

The Mical segment costs an easy $3 and is a worthy addition if Viva Amiga pricks an interest in the early history of the home computer and multimedia workstation. Where Mical represents the passion and optimism, Herd is the ground-level cynic, if not the practical minded engineer who’s there to deliver the goods in spite of the challenges reasonable, and unnecessary.

The third-longest interview is the raw Dave Needle segment (51:51) which is the funniest of the lot, as the former managing engineer at Amiga recounts the less than ideal corporate culture at Commodore, offers greater clarification of Jack Tramiel’s ruthless business practices (and those of his two sons), seeing the completion of ‘his baby’ to the 1985 Lincoln Center launch, the unexpected value of canine approval, and recurring attempts to resurrect the Amiga brand by nostalgia-steeped entrepreneurs and fans.Needle also offers some great technical details, but it’s his sense of humour and lengthy anecdotes that make this hour an absolute delight.

 

Additional Resources

Some of the archival interviews and promo materials seen in Weddington’s doc are available online, with key pieces available from the Amiga Forever website that bundles software, games, demos, and emulators with archival interviews and the infamous Lincoln Center launch in a 3-disc Premium Edition.

Fans of Video Toaster by NewTek can find an open source version of the software for their Amiga systems at Open Video Toaster.

The original Video Toaster Revolution demo video was released in almost all consumer, prosumer, & broadcast formats, and links to the video and thoughts on using the VT are available from Big Head Amusements.

Viva Amiga is available for streaming and purchase from Vimeo on Demand.

 

 

© 2018 Mark R. Hasan

 


 

 


 

External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB

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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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