The following is an exceptional interview found within the pages of the excellent US-based Amiga magazine "Amazing Computing". It was conducted in 1987 when the Amiga was just starting to really flex its muscles and pop open eyeballs around the country. This is why I just love this mag - it was almost the Economist for Amiga mags. It was long-form, in-depth, and deeply ingrained in the "pro" market from the beginning and well beyond the end. Mr. Sachs made himself a household name among Commodore fans, and this interview offers unique insights into his art, code and the computer that helped elevate his career. I've transcribed the entire 4.5 page article here so others might be able to enjoy it fully like I have. I love the optimism for the Amiga's future and capabilities Mr. Sachs exudes throughout the interview. -- intric8
Volume 2, Number 4
"His graphics works on the best selling Amiga game to date, Defender of the Crown, has numbered Jim Sachs among that small but honored fraternity of "superstar" Amiga developers."
by Steve Hall
I remember the first time I saw Jim Sachs’ Amiga art. It was May 1986 and my Amiga had only been part of the family for two weeks. I had heard a lot about the Amiga’s graphics capabilities, but it was really the sound that sold me. Graphically, the dealer hadn’t shown me a single thing on the Workbench Demos disk that my old Atari 800 couldn’t do with a few display-list interrupts. Even the bouncing ball demo was making the rounds on the 8-bit Atari bulletin boards. A little disappointing after all the hype, I thought.
All that changed the night I downloaded an archived file of Jim Sachs’ artwork from Virginia’s Empire BBS. My jaw dropped as I beheld, for the first time, pictures that have since become legendary in the Amiga community: the exquisitely rendered Sachs Castle 1990; the finely-textured woodcut, Foxpuppy; and of course the Porsches. And all these were done in low-res??? In one download, I became a believer in Amiga graphics.
Jim Sachs is a former Air Force pilot who left the service when “career enhancement” demanded he trade his worldwide cargo routes for the ordinary life of an instructor pilot in Lubbock, Texas. In 1984, aware that the home computer revolution was quickly leaving him behind, he bought his first Commodore 64 for $350. “I was sure the price would never go below that,” he laughs.
Within eight months he taught himself machine language and had produced his first commercial effort, Saucer Attack. A multi-staged shoot-em-up set in Washington, D.C., Saucer Attack featured better graphics than some Amiga games. Unfortunately, software pirates nibbled away his profits; he describes the title as “the game every kid has and nobody bought.”
Sachs spent another year working on what he describes as “the ultimate C-64 game”, a time travel fantasy called Time Crystal. The rampant pirating, throughout the younger C-64 user community, caused him to decide against marketing Time Crystal; nonetheless his public-domain demo continues to fuel rumors of the game's release wherever C-
64 users congregate.
His graphics work on the best selling Amiga game to date, Defender of the Crown, has numbered Jim Sachs among that small but honored fraternity of “superstar” Amiga developers. His work has appeared on the covers of every Amiga magazine as well as many of those not Amiga-specific. His Mazda artwork is virtually a trademark for Aegis Images. And you would be hard-pressed to find an Amiga dealer that doesn’t have a Sachs color screen dump proudly tacked to the wall.
Today, Jim Sachs lives in a mountain resort community in southern California, thousands of feet above the smog line, in a partially completed cabin immediately recognizable as Sachs_Castle_1990. His wife Edi is a personable, understated lady who accepts her husband's computer addiction with good humor.
A tireless advocate for the Amiga, Sachs is as likely to turn up at a small users' group meeting, sharing his secrets, as he is to be seen at a major exhibition, promoting his newest projects. Though proud of such accomplishments as being named The Guide to Commodore Computing's Computer Artist of the Year, Sachs is likelier to bring up a more recent collaboration between he and Edi - a healthy new baby girl, Jill Marie.
Sitting in that portion of Castle 1 990 that is complete in 1987, I began by asking Jim the question everyone asks when they first see his work...
AC: How did you over learn to draw like that?
JS: I have no formal training, but I've pretty much always been involved with art since I was a kid. It turns out that the kind of art that I'm good at - and the kind that I like to do - translates very well to the computer screen.
AC: How so?
JS: Detail, contrast - mostly contrast. That's where most of the people fall down in trying to draw on a computer screen. That's because it's the opposite of how you would do It on paper. On paper, you start with something that's white and put down darker colors. With the computer screen it's just the opposite; you start out with a black screen and paint with points of light.
It just turned out that my interpretations of light and shadow and detail happen to turn out really well on a computer screen. I don't know how to describe it. You should have talked to one of the guys I had working for me, Steve Quinn - he's working for Cinemaware now. He was doing some pretty good work on the Amiga - in fact, some really outstanding work - but he could never get the contrast.
Finally, he took a step back and did all of Defender of the Crown on the Macintosh. He did every screen that appears in the released version. They ported It over from my version, and then Steve had to completely redraw it - starting with straight black and straight white. Then he had to dither everything in between to make all the different shades and tones. He came up yesterday just thanking me for the education; it was a total revelation to him. And now his Amiga work is so much better, because he can think in terms of contrast now, and not just color.
AC: You virtually set the state-of-the art for Amiga graphics
with Defender of the Crown.
JS: You know, I didn’t do all of every scene in that whole game. My job was to create graphics, but also to ensure a certain continuity. Much of the artwork handed in to me needed to be cleaned up, in order that all the graphics would look like they were done by the same person. It's all a matter of style.
AC: And attention to detail.
JS: That's right. The details I include are things that most people will never notice, but if the details weren't there they would. Things like the shading on the title screen of Defender; if the light wasn’t coming from a certain direction and casting the shadow of the brass flowing down across the rocks, it would really look flat.
AC: How do you feel about the game?
JS: We had a lot more planned for it, but a lot fell by the wayside in order to get the program on the market promptly. Cinemaware was getting an incredible amount of interest on the product, and Christmas was coming up.
AC: You cant fault them for wanting to make money back on their investment.
JS: No, you cant, and we were really breaking some new ground here. Nobody knew the kind of time this sort of project would require. It was, in many ways, just like producing a movie - there were the factors of coordinating script writers, graphics, music composing and so on. All told, I think we did pretty well, though a little more time would have allowed us to put more into the gameplay.
At this point, Sachs takes me on what could be called a guided tour of “the cutting room floor" - those portions of Defender of the Crown that, due to time or disk space, were omitted from the finished game. Called to the joust, a knight rides off to battle in a full-screen clear wash superimposed over the island, a red arrow tracing his path across the map.
Heralding the contest, the trumpeters' chests rise and fall as they play the fanfare, while pennants snap crisply in the breeze. The joust begins, and the view cuts from the wide overhead panorama to ground level intermediate views of each contestant and his steed, alternating between each other as they close in ("That's five weeks of work right there, " Sachs observes.). A boulder, catapulted short of the top of the castle wall, impacts against the side, spreading a spiderweb of cracks.
The most breathtaking moment occurs when Sachs lobs a firepot over the castle wall; there is a pause, and then flames appear, licking up the sides of the castle and consuming the massive oak drawbridge. It is an impressive commentary on Defender that even the rejected portions of the game are stronger than many released titles.
AC: I can understand how you feel about all that was cut out; even so, the game is still a striking effort.
JS: Well, it's hard to argue with success. We sold 20,000 copies of Defender of the Crown in the first six weeks, and for a machine with a user base of about 150,000, that's phenomenal.
AC: One of your first pictures that made the rounds was an advertisement for an Amiga version of Saucer Attack. Are you still planning on releasing Saucer Attack?
JS: I was going to port it over - it was going to be my first project. In the '64 version you shot at the saucers against a flat background of Washington, D.C. The Amiga version would have featured a 3-D environment; you'd actually drive through the streets with the buildings coming at you. The saucers wouldn't just be flying over the buildings but over your head - you'd have to back up to get 'em...but right now I'm just too swamped with other work.
AC: So Saucer Attack for the Amiga isn’t going to see the light of day?
JS: Probably not. Not unless I happen to have a whole lot of time left over. I would have to do it under my own label and it doesn't pay to have things under my own label anymore. Going independent, I'd have to pay for all the advertising. On the '64 version of Saucer Attack I made $30,000 but I spent $27,000 in advertising, so it wasn't worth it - except to gain a name.
I was able to fly to Commodore in Pennsylvania and grab Paul Goheen, who was head of Commodore software at that time, sit him down in front of a monitor and say, "This is what I can do, give me developer's status on the Amiga," and he did. So it was worth going through that, and eleven months worth of work on Time Crystal - a product that's never going to come out - because it got me Developer's status on the Amiga in time to get a jump on other artists.
AC: How does programming on the Amiga compare with the C-64?
JS: There isn't any comparison. To design the background for Saucer Attack I had to draw the design on graph paper and then enter it into the computer as a series of hexadecimal numbers. That screen took about three months, putting it in a pixel at a time, not being able to see what I was doing. Designing graphics on the Amiga is just a dream. It's fantastic being able to see what I'm doing.
AC: How about machine-language programming?
JS: I'm on a crusade right now to get people to ignore Intuition and the operating system and get right down into the heart of it. That's why I was able to squeeze all of that performance out of the '64, because I was writing directly to the hardware registers. The Time Crystal demo uses the whole 64K - the place where BASIC used to live is all my own code, the place where the Kernal used to live, everything except for the last two bytes in the whole computer is all my own programming.
That's why the Atari people are able to make the ST look like the Amiga - they're all former '64 people that're used to really getting down and dirty with it, and they get in there and use the microprocessor to do the things that the Amiga does just loafing along, letting the Copper and the Blitter do.
I've seen some fantastic screen demonstrations done on the ST and nobody has bothered to do that kind of thing on the Amiga because it's so easy not to - you become complacent, you just access ail its built-in routines for doing these things, and you just cant do that if you want to beat the competition!
AC: Speaking of the competition, why did you choose to go with the Amiga rather than the Mac, which was firmly established -
JS: It’s black and white.
AC: - or the ST?
JS: The ST came out when I already knew about what the Amiga was going to be, and even though I hadn’t seen an Amiga yet I had read so much about it that I knew it was what I needed. I knew from the beginning that the ST was designed as low-priced competition for the Amiga. Well, I wanted the real one. The ’64 was state of the art when I bought the ’64. The Amiga was state of the art when I bought the Amiga. I wasn’t about to write for less than state-of-the-art.
The Amiga is the first step in a process of hardware evolution that will eventually - I would say within the next ten years - allow you to sit down at your desk, and do a movie like Star Wars, or anything that George Lucas or Steven Spielberg can do for 40 million dollars right now. You’ll be able to sit down at your home computer and do everything - the sound, the music, the artwork - the story, that would rival a Hollywood production.
AC: Rumors have already started to leak out about your latest "Hollywood production" - tell us about it.
JS: Right now I'm producing 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea for Aegis. We had hoped to get Disney interested in buying-in, but so far they haven’t been very cooperative, so I'm taking most of it directly from the book.
AC: What will that mean for the game?
JS: There are a few things I can’t use. The island of Volcania - Captain Nemo's home base - is a Disney invention. In the book. Captain Nemo has no home base. He destroyed the place where he built the Nautilus as soon as the Nautilus was done. The book is also more realistic; in the movie Nemo escapes from a slave camp by stealing one of their ships with a few of the other slaves. And with no other resources than that, he builds the entire submarine.
AC: Out of coconut leaves?
JS: In the book it's a lot more logical. Captain Nemo was really rich - he had a fleet of ships - and he went to different countries, contracting with major manufacturers all over the world for little parts of the ship, so nobody knew exactly what he was making. He just gathered all the parts, took them to his desert island and put it together.
AC: What kind of graphics are you working on?
JS: I'm working on routines that will let you come up to a ship and sail all the way around it, and see the whole process in detailed 3-D. I'm working on some ship models right now - I figure I'll need 19 different views to do what I'm trying to do.
AC: Let me see if I understand what you're saying. 20,000 Leagues will have the 3-D graphics of Arctic Fox with the detail of Defender of the Crown?
JS: Exactly. One of the things I have to do - in fact, one of the hardest things, it's never been done before, is to write a "shrink" routine that will take an object and shrink it in real-time to any particular size you want at that instant. The only view actually in the computer is the large view with the full detail. Then for any particular moment, you don’t see that view, you see that view compressed for whatever depth you are from the object at the moment.
I need a routine that starts with the object and removes certain lines of code that I predefine - for instance, some of the detail in broad areas that you could afford to lose. A line here and a line there, and it shrinks a little bit at a time. I was originally going to write the routine to do the 3-D version of Saucer Attack, so that the entire city would appear off in the distance and as you advanced, the buildings would not only get bigger but actually gain detail, instead of losing detail - 'cause the program would be putting the detail back in. So now I'm finally getting around to having to do the routine.
AC: You've banked a lot of your future on the success of the Amiga - so how does it feel, witnessing a Commodore marketing plan that some have described as "Ready...fire!...aim..."?
JS: I think they're getting it together. Commodore has finally taken the hint from guys like me and everybody who's been on a crusade to change their marketing strategy. They were going after the IBM market and it's a mistake; they were getting killed. This is the greatest creative tool that's ever been designed, and they couldn't see it - they were marketing it to do spreadsheets and word processing, trying to replace IBMs in peoples' offices and they're never going to do that. IBM is too entrenched. Here's a machine that can do things no other machine ever has been able to do, and they were blind to it - they didn’t use it in their advertising.
AC: What would you have used?
JS: Graphics and sound. That’s what people buy this machine for. That's where the heart and soul of this thing is. Amiga always could see it - the people who designed it could see It - then of course, they were all laid off. R.J. [Mical] knew that. Dale Luck and all the other people that designed the thing, but Commodore was absolutely blind to it. Now that they’ve started changing their marketing strategy they're selling really well. Defender of the Crown seems to have helped them, too.
AC: Do you have any advice for aspiring Amiga artists and developers?
JS: Bulletin boards are a great way to become known. There are also users' groups, the Fred Fish disks, and the AMICUS™ Network. If somebody is really good and has a unique style on the Amiga, it's no problem getting noticed. I'm sure the market for artists is going to skyrocket now that we've pretty much increased the stakes.
The manufacturers are not going to be able to continue to put out Commodore 64 port-overs like they have been. They won’t sell up against games like Defender of the Crown and some of the projects I'm working on - and I'm sure other people are working on too. Everybody's going to be starving for artists really soon. I would say that getting your work on the bulletin boards and on public-domain disks - at users' groups and dealers - would be the way to get noticed.
Update: I discovered AC re-interviewed Mr. Sachs seven years later in 1994. You can read that interview here.