interview of the legendary Amiga artist Jim Sachs conducted in 1987 by the excellent US-based magazine Amazing Computing (AC) and transcribed it to be easily consumed by today's devices. Since then I received a large addition to my AC collection from my friend mattsoft. He received several boxes of magazines from a retired member of the NCAUG (National Capital Amiga User Group from Washington D.C.) and graciously gave me several. My original stack of 20+ AC magazines grew to a new astonishing height. My much-more--complete collection now spans from the late 1980s all the way to 1999! In any case, I ran across a second comprehensive interview Amazing Computing conducted with Mr. Sachs in the April edition from 1994 published exactly seven years later.I recently found an
Some of the topics are rehashed from the previous interview, but Mr. Sachs goes into much more detail into some of his projects, his emotional state during some of them, as well as his artistic processes. Very cool stuff.
Interesting side notes:
The magazine only raised in price by 45 cents in seven years. It also went from black and white to full-color. They did not change their long-form articles over the years (thankfully) and still heavily targeted the adult/professional user. The magazine, after 1994, soon became thinner and thinner as time went on. It is amazing it lasted as long as it did for another 5 years.
I've transcribed this interview from my personal copy, which can also be found in PDF form here.
Volume 9, Number 4
AC Interview: Jim Sachs
Amiga Artist and Game Developer
If there is one person who stands out as the premier artist for the Commodore Amiga, it would be Jim Sachs. Mr. Sachs' artwork has been seen on the Amiga since its earliest stages. However, Jim began his career as an architectural major at Cal State LA and then he studied Air Force ROTC at USC. He was an Air Force pilot, flying C141s for six years, until the Air Force wanted to change his posting, “They wanted to make me flight instructor in Lubbock, Texas. I wasn't about to do that so I got out of the Air Force. I already had my house at Lake Arrow Head. About 4 years later I got married.
[Jim Sachs continued] I was just sort of casting around for some ideas as to what to do for a career. I knew nothing about computers, so I decided to buy a Commodore 64 because the price was low and it looked like a good way to enter the field.
After a month of typing in programs from magazines, I discovered that had a flair for computer programming. I decided to do a little artwork on the 64, although it meant programming the picture in hexi-decimal arithmetic since there was no such thing as an art program at that time.
I created a backdrop of Washington DC and my wife suggested that I make that into game based on the old movie Earth Versus the Flying Saucers. So I did. I put in flying saucers which destroyed the buildings and your job was to destroy the saucers. I decided to market that game directly from my house through mail order. It did relatively well. It paid for the advertisements I had in most of the major magazines. The game got good reviews but didn't make any real money on it because piracy was really rampant in those days.
With that game and winning Commodore's first graphics competition, I had enough of a name in the industry to get developer status on the Amiga right away. I drew a few screens using Graphicraft, which was a very primitive paint program (but light-years ahead of what I was used to). I took these first few drawings to a Commodore show in San Francisco in February of 1986, and was immediately hired by Cinemaware and Aegis. I guess that's pretty much the early story.”
AC: When you went to Cinemaware, the first thing you worked on was Defender of the Crown?
JS: Yes. About four years after I started with the 64, I switched to the Amiga.
AC: How long did it take you to create Defender Of The Crown?
JS: Seven months at twenty hours a day average. There was a tremendous amount of pressure from Cinemaware to get it done. They would call me in the middle of the night to make sure I was still working. At the end of the project I needed to go to twenty-two hours day and cracked. I had nervous breakdown at that point.
Cinemaware hired one of my apprentices, Rob Landeros to do the last screen in the project - Robin Hood by the campfire. After that, he became the Art Director for Cinemaware.
I could not go into my computer room for a month. I went through a little psycho-therapy, and I slowly started to come back. I worked on the house for a while and did some real manual labor. I got my bearings again. But, I really didn't want any part of Cinemaware after that. I never did any other projects for them.
I went to work for Aegis Development. I did some artwork and demos using Aegis Animator and Aegis Images. Then did the artwork for Ports Of Call.
Ports Of Call was submitted to Aegis by a programming team in Germany as finished product. But the graphics were so bad that it could not have been released it in that form. Of course, they were hoping that would take pity on them and redo all the graphics. Which I did.
The game needed very little programming after that, because the programmers had done the game in such a way that it called up IFF images. As long as I re-saved my artwork under the same names, their game would run with my artwork instead of theirs. It was very easy to get that product on the market. It was a big hit in Europe, and did relatively well over here too, but Aegis didn't push it as well over here. After Aegis went out of business and The Disc Company took it over, it became a bundling deal, packaged with Amiga 500s.
AC: Any other projects?
JS: I did another project for Aegis which I hesitate to name because it turned out so badly. But it was written in BASIC and it was very slow. It was called Arizok’s Tomb. I believe I saved the graphics on it, but nothing could have saved the programming.
I did a lot of magazine covers, book covers, and ads for Aegis. I did graphics for Commodore to use in advertising and demos for early Amigas. Eventually I got disillusioned with Aegis and quit. Soon afterward, everyone else did too and they went under.
At that point, I started Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea with Disney. However, I had some trouble with Disney at that time. The deal fell apart. With each new management regime at Disney I would present the case to restart the project. Only in the last few weeks has that been successful.
I did lot of game development for the Mattel Powerglove on the Amiga, even though it was pretending to be done on the Nintendo. I did television advertisements for them where a kid is playing Nintendo games on giant screen, but the images were actually coming from an Amiga. I helped design the first couple of games that came out for the Powerglove.
AC: The artwork was done on the Amiga?
JS: Yes. All of it.
AC: And they ported it over?
JS: They were able to port over two of my concepts to the Powerglove - the two simplest ones. But the one that really sold the Powerglove to retailers was variation of Time Crystal, a demo I had done on the C64. I did an anim of that on the Amiga and that is what they used in all of their advertisements to get the investors. We knew at the outset it was going to be impossible on the Nintendo, but it really got a lot of interest at CES (Consumer Electronic Show). They paid well and I had pretty good working relationship with Novak, the head of that department at the time. He quit Mattel and went on to form his own company doing SEGA games. Since then, I haven't had any contact with Mattel.
I also did all the book covers for the series of books by AmigaWorld. The Amiga Vision book, the cover for Rob Peck's book, and AmigaDos 2.1. I also did some covers for Commodore Magazine until they stopped publishing.
AC: After that you were still working with the Amiga.
JS: Yeah, I have never quit. I did some game artwork for Novalogic and Electronic Arts. I worked on Centurion. Kellen Beck designed that. He was the designer of Defender Of The Crown when he was at Cinemaware, then he quit to form his own company with Will Vinton, the guy behind the California Raisins, and he recently joined Trilobyte. He's talented game designer, and I expect to see some great work from him in the future.
I also taught a lot of seminars where I would travel around the country and give lectures. I did some for AmiEXPO, The Hunter Group, and some on my own. My own seminars were entire weekend affairs where I charged about $35 per person and gave eight hours Saturday and eight hours Sunday of Computer graphics, animation, music, and basically everything that was involved with.
Those went over very well until the Video Toaster came out and then everyone only wanted to talk about the Toaster. I wasn't involved in that, so I stopped doing the seminars.
AC: Did you ever use the Toaster?
JS: No, I never have.
AC: Any desire to use the Toaster?
JS: I have never had a chance to get into 3-D rendering, and have preferred using 2-D paint programs to simulate a 3-D look. In the past I'd always used Deluxe Paint, but now am on very good terms with Digital Creations and have helped them somewhat with the development of Brilliance. Mainly I did the package cover artwork that they are using in all of their advertisements.
AC: Was that straight deal or commission/royalty arrangement?
JS: Straight deal. They gave me equipment to do the job. They gave me an A4000 before the general public had their hands on one (one of the original black front prototypes), 1960 monitor, Supra 1400 baud modem, and bunch of really nice state of the art equipment so that I could do the project and modem it back and forth to them. That took about weeks to do the original picture and then they kept wanting more and more fish added to it. More fish, more fish. Over the next 3 months or so I kept adding more fish and it finally got to a state where they were able to use it. I began that screen about year and half ago so that's a long project. They've been really nice to me and sponsored my attending the show in Toronto and I just kind of helped them out in the booth bit. I'd like lo see them come out with a machine which can do what the Toaster can do even more, really. They've been working on something along those lines for several years now and I'm very hopeful that it will finally come to market. They really put all their resources into Brilliance. I'm behind them and their program 100%.
AC: Some of the people you taught have gone on lo do other things. You mentioned one gentleman who apprenticed for you who did the final screen for the Defender of the Crown.
JS: Yeah, he became the art director of Cinemaware when I left, Rob Landeros. He was already an accomplished artist, scrimshaw sculptor. When Cinemaware went under, he went to Mastertronic which became Virgin Games, then he quit to form his own company with Graeme Divine, called Trilobyte. They developed The 7th Guest and The Eleventh Hour. A really talented group. Steve Quinn was another apprentice of mine during my Defender of the Crown days. He went on to become the art director of Park Place Productions, which was major development company until Sony stole most of their employees to form their own game company.
The third fellow 'discovered' was David Mosher, who is now an art director at Interplay. He did graphics for Battle Chess and is working on the Star Trek games.
AC: You've had lot of impact on the Amiga. I mean your artwork is seen on almost every demo the Amiga does for any new product.
JS: Yeah, Commodore usually hires me to do graphics or do the whole thing for the demos. I did the whole A500 demo, the original one that was given out to ail the dealers. I did the CD32 demo, the one with the dinosaur and the jets. Usually I work in conjunction with Silent Software, where they do most of the programming and do everything else. I did all the ROM graphics for CDTV the user interfaces, start up screen, the preferences, and the audio panel, and it went over very well and made big impact. Unfortunately the machine itself didn't. I was hired to do it all over again for CD132, but I'm very disappointed with how that turned out because it was changed so drastically after I turned it in.
AC: Did they give you any reason for changing it?
JS: No, they never really did. I can't really think of any excuse for changing it. One of the programmers mentioned that it was hard to program into the ROMs, but I still have version which runs fine when booted from a floppy.
AC: You're a programmer as well as an artist?
JS: Yes, but I only deal in machine language. Almost everything these days is written in C and I've never been able to learn C. I only speak machine language. Defender of the Crown is written in The Director. I didn't have time to program it in machine language so I worked very closely with Keith Doyle who (wrote The Director) and got him to make tot of changes in his program, and to give me sections of source code, so that could make changes too. I'm really sorry to see that The Director is not really being supported anymore, it was heck of good environment for game development.
AC: How low long did it take you to reprogram Defender of the Crown II?
JS: It ended up taking about 2 years but most of that was because of changes Commodore was making to the platform. The game had to be done in different languages so it could be a worldwide release. Initially Commodore hired translators to translate my text but lot of that didn't turn out well at all. So had to hire other people lo redo lot of that. The Italian version and German version were the only ones that I was able lo keep from Commodore. I had to redo the Spanish version and French version and I did all the English version from scratch. The guy I hired to do the English version also spoke French, but with an English accent. Some French people are not thrilled that the narration had an English accent, but the game is set in England so they just have to live with it, I guess.
Suddenly Commodore decided that CDTV would use the 2.0 operating system, so had to completely redo the game. The Director wouldn't run under 2.0 initially so there were a lot of changes in The Director, in animation speed and things like that. Of course, CDTV never made it to the market with 2.0 chip in it. I've probably got the only one with 2.0 chips. Instead, they switched everything to CD1-". Now its whole new ball game, so had to redo the game, optimizing for 68020 microprocessor, more available memory and several other things. Time after time CBM kept coming back with a whole new groundwork for the platform that the game had to run on. Well, it's finally on the market and I'm pleased with the way it turned out.
I cleaned up lot of the screens and redid lot of the artwork. There's probably about 2 months of redo in the artwork and 3 months to write all new music. There's 5000 lines of code for each language, 25,000 lines all together. Then I had to convert all the title screens to other languages. I don't really like doing conversions. It's not as enjoyable as original work.
AC: Speaking of original works, you're starting to work on 20,000 Leagues under the Sea again?
JS: I'm 90% sure it will go through this lime. Marc Teran, the new head of Disney software, seems to have some real vision. There are still many parts of the deal which have to be ironed out, but the mood is very positive this time.
The game will really set precedents in many areas. Its a huge game. There will be many different islands you can explore and they're all real islands, the Seychelles, for example. Those islands have very distinctive rock formations and you will be able to tell which island you're on by this. This involves a tremendous amount of research, and it will be geographically correct for circa 1868.
AC: Will you have to spend time down in the islands?
JS: I wouldn't mind couple of working vacations in Bermuda or Hawaii. Most of it will come from books and magazines. I have been collecting material for several years in anticipation of this project.
AC: low long do you think this will take?
JS: We're shooting for the Summer of 1995 but this may slip a little. Disney seems very realistic about time. We’ll need a good staff for this project, and I’m really going to have to delegate and not try to do it all by myself.
AC: You basically work out of your home - will this project affect that?
JS: No, I have a very well equipped home office. Of course, there is a lot of work which has to be done elsewhere. My friend (and sometimes partner), Reichart Von Wolfscheild of Silent Software just bought a new facility including a tremendous barn structure which is perfect for a simulated movie studio, and this is just like making a movie.
AC: I assume you use lot of your architectural background in what you do and you like to play with light. Do you start with white background, black background, or what?
JS: If I'm drawing characters or objects that are going to be put into game, I start with neutral background. Most people tend to draw these objects on black background, but that usually gives false sense of contrast. When the object is placed into the real scene, it often looks very washed-out. So if it is going to be in the ocean set it on blue-green background, or if in the sky, light blue. Artists create a lot of problems by not putting enough contrast into their art initially. They set middle values of color and no real bright whites or dark blacks and things just don't show up. They try to compensate for this by going WAY too intense on the saturation (vividness) of colors. I always tell my students to use high contrast, but low saturation.
Anti-aliasing, which is smoothing the jagged edges so they're not visible is also very important. Many people think the artwork in Defender of the Crown is hi-res, but it's all anti-aliased lo-res.
AC: Any other tips?
JS: I like to lay things out directly on the computer, not on paper first. The computer is great brainstorming tool. You can cut and paste and erase things at will.
In laying out a scene, light is the main thing. Picking the light source and sticking with it is probably the major tip could give budding artist. Too many don't understand where the light is coming from in a scene, i.e. sun or lamp, and where the shadows should fall. For instance, using clip art, they'd clip out the Golden Gate Bridge and maybe put it into a picture of the Rhine River. Now, the image of the bridge has light source coming from one direction and the river scene has the light coming from another direction, and it doesn't look realistic. If they would just flip the bridge over, the light sources would match and it would look realistic. It's such a simple thing, but can make an enormous difference. Keeping track of where the light should be coming from - that would be my biggest tip for novices.
AC: Why do some artists resist the computer?
JS: Some very accomplished artists have trouble making the transition, have trouble with the mouse, have trouble visualizing an image as light instead of dark. They view things as colors they've applied to a white paper instead of black canvas that you're painting on with points of light. People experienced with photography seem to have an easier time making the transition. They are used to thinking in terms of light.
AC: Your form of art lends itself very well to Brilliance.
JS: Absolutely, I find it very hard to go back to DeluxePaint. I'm very spoiled with Brilliance and its unlimited undos. I'll immediately start in drawing something without thinking, 'Should I be saving right now?” In DeluxePaint you only have one level of undo and I'm constantly being bitten by that now.
AC: You have a wide vision of what is going on in the marketplace, what do you see in the direction of software?
JS: More games like the 7th Guest. Bill Gates called that one the future of interactive multimedia, so it's getting lot of notice. I'm going in that same direction with 20,000 leagues, but with even more depth and realism. I want you to really feel as if you’re under water - you'll see it, hear it, feel it.
People seem to be worried about virtual reality, that you won't want to leave your home pretty soon, that there won't be life outside of computer games. I have just the opposite view. These games open up new experiences which make you thirsty for more knowledge of that subject. People are always afraid of new technology, but each slick, high-lech invention creates even more demand for it's opposite - rough, cobby, handhewn. Do people wear dirt-free Teflon jumpsuits? No, they wear the same thing they wore 150 years ago - faded blue jeans.
People felt computer art would replace traditional artists. Not true, it just gave the artist an extension of the tools available. Computers will never replace reality, they will make you want to experience the fresh air or see a real babbling brook that is not computer generated. Virtual Reality can be a valuable tool in designing buildings, practicing surgery etc. But it will never replace reality.
AC: So we'll be a lot more creative in the future.
JS: I think so. Computers open up this creativity to the common man. Soon, you'll sit down with your $2,000 home computer and create something like the movie Tron. Do all the music and graphics without hiring actors or renting studio, right in your own home, and open up all sorts of opportunities for creativity to people who used to work at MacDonald's with no hope of breaking into the entertainment field.
AC: With the multimedia explosion what does Commodore have to do to be part of that. Is CD32 the answer?
JS: It’s an interim answer. But Commodore has to get people thinking about CD32 and the name Commodore. They've got to get the word out, ADVER TISE!
AC: But the hardware is there?
JS: The hardware is there. Its good machine for the next years. Its also good TV cable box. It can do MPEG decoding and it can do overlays of graphics onto a signal. It can do anything Time Warner or Viacom would want from a set top box. Every existing box in the country is going to have to be replaced in the next few years, and CD':'s price and capabilities are right.
AC: Geoff Stilley quotes that there could be 40 million installed by the end of the year. That's how fast it could be. I asked him what this does to help the Amiga market.
JS: Well it helps the market by having the name Commodore on every kid's game machine. The parents think, 'If this little game box can do this, imagine what the A4000 can do.' I know a lot of people in the industry don't like the fact that it's game machine. If it gets the name of Commodore on the lips of kids, the parents notice. That's how Apple did it—all the kids see the machines in school and go home and tell their parents to buy one. Apple blitzed the educational market.
AC: Isn't CD32 whatever you put into it? I mean it's a game machine, if that is all you play on it, but if other software is created it could do other things.
JS: Oh yes, it's a powerful machine, and will be expandable with keyboards, disk drives, etc. If enough units are sold, then I'm sure manufacturers will come up with external versions of Retina boards, digitizers, networking systems, etc. It would be nice if Commodore could come up with some seed money to get both hardware and software projects started, and also really advertise the machine, but I don't see any sign of this yet. I think some drastic changes in the company's philosophy are needed, and very quickly.