The ‘Virtual Reality’ Look of the 90s

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Full disclosure: This article is in no way meant to be a comprehensive cover of the virtual reality boom of the early-90s, nor is it even meant to describe the mechanics of virtual reality. In fact, this blurb has very little to do with virtual reality itself; it mainly just discusses a few specific animation techniques — ones that, because of their creation in the archaic days of computer animation — have a virtual reality look that permeated so many mediums from about 1992 to 1995 (with a little spill over into the late-90s). My apologies to any nerds I may have misled with the headline.

Movies, TV shows, music videos. At some point, a few contenders from each of these outlets dabbled in the look I’m talking about. And when creating whatever it was they were creating, animators loved overusing one of three things: flying through space and/or getting closer to Earth until it was zoomed in on a city street; flying through the innerworkings of a computer or ‘the internet’; or people made from liquid metal.

Let’s take a look at some of the offenders. And when I say ‘offenders’, I actually mean “awesome things that I loved enough to remember 13 years later.” Presented in no particular order.

First up is a show whose intro almost completes the trifecta of animations I mentioned above. Hardcore TV was a short-lived half hour sketch program that was like a mix between The Twilight Zone, Saturday Night Live and Real Sex. No, seriously. I don’t remember much of the show, but that opening animation is beautiful.

This music video definitely adheres to the trifecta and THEN SOME. Peter Gabriel has always been known for his cutting edge videos, and they always seemed to display techniques that weren’t widely being used at the time. The animators for this video pulled out all the stops. I can only imagine what editing it was like. And what a jam!

Another HBO show, this one was actually a spin-off of Tales From the Crypt. Perversions of Science (if the title didn’t give it away) was meant to be more science fiction themed. It bombed and didn’t survive more than one season. The only episode I remember starred Kevin Pollack trapped on a space ship with a beautiful blonde android. It was directed by William Shatner. Who knows, man.

Another HBO production; last one I promise. Hosted by George Clinton, this was yet another space-aged anthology, but packaged in a three-segment 90 minute movie. The intro shows trash floating through space in a wonderful mid 90s computer animation.

Two other music videos I remember using these animations quite heavily while also featuring an emphasis on “yes, this is supposed to be virtual reality” were Def Leppard’s “Let’s Get Rocked” from ’92 and Aerosmith’s “Amazing” from ’94.

Looking back at these videos is so funny and surreal. Not only were computers a foreign concept to me at the time (hey, I was 10), but the idea that I would ever actually use a computer, let alone on a daily basis, LET ALONE on a daily basis for work, LET ALONE on a daily basis for work and for hobby was probably the craziest, most unbelievable concept ever. And yet here I am, just a shade over a decade later, and I cannot – for the life of me – pull myself away from the computer. Moving on.

Liquid Television. I cannot say enough good things about this show. I loved this show. It came back a few years ago much to the delight of all us nostalgiasts. But I never got back on that train, so I’m not sure if any of the new stuff was any good. But the original show – and those original credits (with music by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh) – is fucking perfect.

I’ll end with a few films that used virtual reality and its hilariously dated animations to great effect.

Brainscan is, in my opinion, criminally underrated. A classic, even. Or at the very least a guilty pleasure. The movie centers around a virtual reality game, so it’s rife with beautiful computer animations like this:

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Then there’s Lawnmower Man. It’s not great.

However, it has what I’d consider some of the most memorable ‘virtual reality’ animations from this article/era thus far. Who wasn’t amped when they saw these images from the trailer? I know I was!

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And finally, Virtuosity.

Not that it matters, but I feel like this was one of the – if not the – last films to use this style of animation. I think virtual reality was dying out at this point, and using it post-’95 would’ve seemed completely dated.

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However, I really dug the movie as a kid. He’s a computer-created villain; a composite of 83 famous serial killers. That’s as solid of a concept as I need for a film! Plus, you get to a computer animated Adolf Hitler. And really, isn’t that what we’re all looking for in a movie?

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