Szilárd Matusik’s documentary feature film, Moleman 2 – Demoscene – The Art of the Algorithms, focuses on an art form you may have never heard of. Unlike the common understanding of software demos as they relate to video games, the demos being discussed in this film are visual and auditory experiences, much like experimental music videos, created via an executable file running through its code.
In other words (let’s see if I can pull this off), instead of a video running as a piece of separate media being called up and executed by a program, the video is created in real-time via the program as it runs. If you see a cube, it’s not because someone created a picture of a cube and placed it in the program, the program instead is drawing the cube via code. The results of which can mean massively complex and incredible visual and musical experiences, all done within the limitations of 4 to 64kbs of written code. Still with me?
If not, just watch the damn film, because it explains the demoscene, and its history, with far more coherence than I can muster. An international affair, the film covers the birth of the scene via software pirates and crack developers leaving their mark with personalized digital graffiti, in the form of coded intros to cracked software. These intros often became more complex, and more interesting, than the pirated software itself, and a scene grew up around them, to see who could do the most with the computing limitations of the day. Thus, the demoscene.
And much like the scene it covers, this documentary is not going to be for everyone. While I was fascinated, as I imagine many would be, by the different visuals and music the different crews and collectives were able to produce considering the limitations of computing and file size, I was likewise struck numb whenever things got too code-heavy. For example, sequences where demo coders explained that the images or music were simply certain lines of code being executed was interesting, but also confusing for a coding neophyte such as myself (save for, in comparison, the little amount of html and php coding knowledge needed to maintain a website).
So, while I found the film to be extremely well-paced and edited, with a consistent narrative that made sense considering the continuing evolution of the demoscene, for me I probably just got too much of it with a feature film. This isn’t a criticism of the film feeling too long or anything like that; again, it is extremely well-paced and entertaining. Instead, this is a case of me being the proper audience for the film up to a point.
That said, if you’re in the demoscene, or interested in the demoscene, I can imagine that the film probably doesn’t say enough for your tastes. If this is your thing, you could probably watch films about it all day, in much the same way you could code all day or absorb any other scene-related activities. So, in a way, the film is too niche and advanced, say, for a beginner’s course but too simplistic and explanation for a veteran. It’s a rough balance to strike.
Overall, though, even with my brain shutting off when things got a bit too technical, I found the film fascinating, even inspiring. It’s often been remarked that limitations breed creativity, and the demoscene is a perfect example of how so many have tackled the same limitations with differing, though entertaining, results. The exercises in creative problem solving and artistic expression are the universal take-aways from the film, and it’s hard not to relate to the film on those levels. Even if I didn’t know the demoscene existed prior to seeing this film, I’m glad it does.
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