I like the fact that lately “Demo” is often described as “Digital Art” rather than “Demonstration of computer programming technique (aka show-off)” like it used to be. I’m sure the true beauty lies in code itself, but there are tons of demos that people can appreciate without having any computer knowledge. (I can say this because I’m one of these people.)
We can appreciate drawings without knowing which brand of watercolors were used, and we can appreciate music without understanding what software was used to edit; that’s because it’s art, I believe. It leaps everything and just goes straight to your heart. So are some demos. (Well, but those behind-the-scenes stories are always too fun to miss… and that’s why I’m doing this interview.. 🙂
And when we say “demo is digital art”, I think Preacher‘s demo is one of the perfect examples to prove this phrase. His often abstract and minimal works seem like a contemporary art we would see in installation gallery..
So this time, I interviewed Preacher (Traction, Brainstorm) who’s been in demoscene since mid-90s and often referred to as “coder-poet”. I asked him how he discovered demoscene, where he gets his inspiration, his goals, his workroom (there’s photo!)… and we did a little game too 🙂
photo by Liivia Pallas
First of all, could you please introduce yourself briefly?
Hi, my name is Martti Nurmikari and in the demoscene I am known as Preacher of the groups TractionandBrainstorm. I’ve been following the demoscene since the mid-Nineties, released my first demo at Assembly 1999 and have done over 50 demos since. I’ve mostly done programming and design, as well as written a few articles on various diskmags. Currently I am working as a lead gameplay programmer at Bugbear Entertainment, ie. making computer games for PC and consoles.
When and how did you find demoscene?
I think it was in 1994 or 1995. A friend loaned me a CD with shareware games that had come with this Gravis Ultrasound. I wanted to try out some games on the CD and I did, but there were also a couple of demos there. The first demo I ran was “Crystal Dreams” II by Triton, and even though I didn’t really understand back then what was happening, I was hooked instantly. I started learning programming pretty soon after that.
Did you study programming by yourself?
Yeah, I got a book from the library and got a C compiler from my school teacher. I had done some really simple games on the C64 using Basic when I was really young, but doing programming with C and DOS was really different. Luckily we had just gotten a modem, so I could call a local BBS and get some tutorials on graphics and such from there. It still took a long time before I managed to make anything that wasn’t hugely embarrassing. Back then I didn’t know anyone else who was into programming, so I had to go at it all by myself.
OK then, will you explain more about the time you made your first demo? You said “it took a long time” but the outcome was great?
We tried with my first group to create the first demo many times and always failed. I think our first try was in 1996 and we tried every year until in 1999 we finally had gotten enough skill to actually complete it. If I remember correctly, it was done in the end in a few weeks or so from pieces that were mostly done already. You can see “Viping”, my first demo, here.
It’s not very good by any standard but it was a really special moment to see it on the big screen. Unfortunately it can’t be run on any modern computer because of bugs and the source code has been lost, but at least there’s this video.
“Viping” by NoID
You released this demo at Assembly 1999. Was this the first demoparty you joined?
No, I had been to every Assembly since 1995, and tried with my friends to make a demo from 1997 onwards. I think I still have the source code to the 1998 attempt somewhere, it was truly horrific and embarrassing. I am glad that we didn’t finish it up 🙂
Somehow this first demo you made (Viping) is already “you” in it…
If I remember correcly, for Viping I coded the particle stuff in the beginning, the blue flowery effect after the bump mapping and the recursive rotozoomer part with greetings, as well as participated in the design process. That’s hardly the kind of stuff that I do nowadays, but there’s something in the mood of the demo that carries the first seeds of what was to become.
Ever since you found demoscene, you or your life has changed in any way?
Definitely. I’ve made a lot of friends in the demoscene, and it was through the scene that I got into the game industry that’s now become my career. It’s definitely one of the things that has shaped my life the most. It was also the first artistic thing that I ever did and opened a lot of avenues for me in that sense.
You’d been always interested in doing creative thing or demoscene opened your artistic viewpoint?
I liked to write when I was a small kid, but demoscene definitely opened up my perspective to creating things, probably because it was related to technology and I was really interested in that when I was a teen. Nowadays I am more interested in creating things and expressing ideas, but not interested in pure technology at all anymore. Back then I used to build my own computers, nowadays I don’t even know what components my computer has! Still, programming is one of the few ways in which I know how to express myself, so that’s what I do.
Do you set any specific theme before making demo such as mood, keyword or certain effect? Do you write it down or draw your ideas/imagery in notebook or something?
I think that writing or drawing something in a notebook is a really good idea in principle, but I rarely do anything concrete beforehand.
I usually have a visual idea, then create something and then proceed from there. Often when that happens, I end up somewhere else than what I originally thought. Music is also an inspiration. I often listen for specific moods and become inspired that way, or someone offers me a great demo track and I start from there. It varies, but I very rarely plan a lot in advance, but this is something that I would like to explore more, though. I do have one script that I finished a few years ago that I want to complete, but it’s a massive project and I haven’t had time for such things.
It can be a movie!
I have actually been thinking of doing animations instead of real-time graphics, but I like to see my ideas grow on the screen. This is something that I will definitely try out at some point though, when I have the time to learn the tools.
Let me just go back to the subject we touched on your first demo “Viping”. Although each of your released demo has different concept, I personally feel your signature style in them, which is dreamy and ephemeral (which I adore by the way). Is there any fundamental theme or idea that you always pursue in your work?
Thank you! The fundamental theme and idea takes different forms from demo to demo, but I do I think there is an underlying thing connecting my work, a kind of a search for an ambience or resonance of sorts. “Purity”, maybe? The same thing is there in my writing and when I play guitar, since all art is expression and comes from somewhere within.
One day I hope to fully realize it. I have been close to it with some productions (like “Väre” and “Traction” (my demo from 2004)), but I haven’t been completely satisfied so far.
I’ve also tried to do other kinds of things, explore new ground purposefully, but for some reason I feel that most of those demos haven’t really been all that good. Lately I’ve just gone with the flow and done what I feel I do the best.
“Väre” by Brainstorm
You just explained to me that music inspires you sometimes. Other than music, where do you get your inspiration for demo?
Modern art and architecture. Nature. Movies. Poetry. Religion. Love. I cannot really specify exactly, sometimes it just happens.
Sometimes I don’t get any inspiration at all for a long time, but a party is coming soon and I start just making something. Usually the inspiration will come once something is on the screen already. For example, Väre happened that way. I made it in a week with no previous idea of anything, the basic effects and scenes were made in a few days and then the rest of the time was just spent tweaking and making it look good.
Then there are some ideas that I’ve been thinking of for years, one of which I will try to finish up for Evoke 2013. It’ll probably be called “Form” and it’s going to be about certain kind of classic modernist art and architecture.
Can’t wait to see that. Well, I bet you like reading. Is there any book which influenced your work largely..?
I read a lot, yes, from the classics to science fiction and comics to poetry. I don’t know if there are any books that have influenced my demos a lot, though. Like I said, I don’t make many plans for demos, but I do have a script written for something that’s largely based on a book. I’m not going to reveal that, though, because that would spoil it 🙂
Alright 🙂 Let’s go to the next question. You’re in demogroups called Traction and Brainstorm. How do you work with other members? Do you get together? Tell us your collaboration process.
I usually work “alone” in the sense that I am the sole director of what is happening in my demos. There needs to be one person working as the art director and a kind of a producer to keep the project moving on and in this case it’s usually me. I usually ask friends for music, or someone offers it to me and then I start working on concepts and ask for help when necessary.
I periodically post previews of the demo on the demo group mailing list, get feedback and improve it based on that. Me and my groupmates live in different countries so getting together to work on stuff is not possible, though it would probably be quite interesting.
When do you choose a title?
The title comes usually when I hit the point when I understand the demo concept myself. Sometimes that comes really early on, sometimes it takes a lot of time and I’ve once changed the name of a demo after I arrived at the party place. Recently the concepts have been better realized and the names have come really early.
Interesting, you let the demo decide the own title… Did you have “this is it!” moment when you’ve reached the good title?
Pretty much. It’s the same thing as when I write, at some point the ideas come together and form naturally. It rarely changes after that moment. It’s a great thing to experience.
Regardless of which group you’re work with, do you set your own rule or goal? Is there anything you really care about when you make demo?
I want to express the idea, concept or thought that I have as well as possible. I don’t really care for the audience reception or being popular, but I want to look at the finished result, feel proud and see my own signature and “feeling” in it. Of course it’s nice to win a competition or get a prize, but that’s not my main goal at all.
You’ve been creating so many demos by now. I wonder how you keep your motivation for so long.
This is sometimes really hard 🙂 I do like to go to parties and meet up with friends and something good always comes from that. Sometimes I take long breaks from coding and focus on other things like writing, reading, photography, playing the guitar and so on. But the inspiration has always come back. I had a long creative slump from last summer onwards, but then I visited Revision 2013, which was one of my best demoparty experiences, and now I am bursting with inspiration again. It feels really good.
When I got a job doing games I found out that after spending a day sitting on front of computer, doing that in the evening is not as fun as it used to be. My demo output went down from many demos per year to one or two, but I think that the quality went up since I learned to really program professionally.
(Unfortunately I won’t be able to understand.. but here’s one for readers who makes demo…) What program do you use to make demo? Do you create your own tool?
I am pretty oldschool when it comes to the technical side. I simply code all my effects and scenes in Visual C++. I have my own demosystem that has some pretty nifty features, but it’s definitely not a demo tool that anyone else than me could really use. I’ve been thinking of making something like that, like a demo tool for artists, but it’s too much work and I like to do stuff by programming, so I’ve kept my system. I have set up a page where I have put up source codes for my old demos, as well as a few seminars that I’ve held over the years.
Could you show us where your demo is born…?
photo by Preacher
Here’s my computer corner. I have a rather small flat and I like to keep things very simple. The desk is originally my grandfather’s and it’s from 1940s, the radio-looking thing is my guitar amp that I also use as a speaker for the computer. Sometimes I also pick up the guitar for short noodling when taking a few minute’s break from coding.
Do you do anything particular while making demo? …like listening to music, drinking tea, coding in the darkness…
While coding, I usually like to either listen to really ambient music or old techno, but I might go for metal or rock or anything else, really. It depends on my mood, and of course when I am finishing the demo, I need to listen to the demo soundtrack itself to do the synchronization and final tweaks. As for drinks and such, it depends.
I do like to drink green tea and lately I’ve enjoyed genmaicha (Japanese rice-flavored tea as you probably know) and mochi’s a lot.
Yes, it’s tasty isn’t it? 🙂 Ok, so here comes the classic question… your favorite demo, memorable demo, demo that changed your life… anything… tell us a demo which is special to you.
This is a hard one, because there are so many. One of them is “fr-043: rove” by Farbrausch, because it relates to a very special time in my life. The mood and especially the music invoke feelings that were really comforting and reminded me of new worlds opening up when old ones were closing. This goes for the whole Breakpoint 2010.
Of my own demos I would choose “Virta“, which is one of my most popular works, partially for the same reason as above. It’s also the closest I have ever been to really realizing the ideas and the visions in my head, finding that very special purity.
“virta” by Brainstorm & Ümlaüt Design & Traction
Personally I’d never been to, but it was sad to know that Breakpoint (one of the biggest demoparty held in Germany between 2003-2010) was over. But you said you went to Revision known as a successor Easter party. Do you think Revision is taking over the essence of Breakpoint?
Definitely. It’s a bit different due to being organized in a different city and partially by different people, but much of the spirit has stayed the same. It’s still the best place to meet sceners and still has the best competitions. I think everyone should be there!
You have created some poetry reading demo (or poetry coding in this case..), and you are sometimes referred to as “coder-poet”. Would you mind playing word inspiration game with me? Tell me what instantly comes up to your mind after hearing this word.
– Ants and the sun, bared rocks and a clear night sky. Also, due to association, a great American psych rock band Barn Owl.
– A rose.
– A picture of a dying red star. This one was strange.
– photo lab at my mother’s former workplace. I still remember the smell of the chemicals and how exciting it was to see the picture appear on the paper.
– warm wind in the springtime. I stopped college when I got a real job, I hope I can finish it some day.
– a jar on a table, in summer. The sound that the spoon makes against the plate.
– blue, formless winds, quiet breeze and an ever sustaining note. A place where nothing moves, a place that I will strive towards for the entirety of my life.
– old stone carvings. I don’t know why.
– the moment when I walked in at Breakpoint 2005 into the partyhall and saw everything that was happening there. I felt at home.
Please elaborate the last one. What is demoscene/demo to you? Why do you make demo?
I want to express myself and have fun doing it. Also, now that I’ve been in the scene for so long, the demoscene is also a very social thing for me and I have made many of my best friends that way. Also, as an artform, demos are really unique and they’re in that cool intersection between technology and art. There’s so much cool stuff that can be done with algorithms and procedural generation that would be really hard to replicate with any art software, or at least it would be really hard for me. Doing it this way is easy and it’s great to see mathematics come alive on the screen.
photo by Liivia Pallas
Just out of curiosity, were you good at math at school? I’m kind of imagining that you were a boy who’s always watching out of windows in the classroom. (Sorry, maybe it was me. 🙂
I was good at pretty much everything at school and thus spent a lot of time in my own world when the lessons were boring, including staring out of windows and wondering about the universe. I wasn’t particularly good at maths though and I’m still not, but the high school level stuff was really easy. Even if I’m over 30 nowadays, I still stare out of windows a lot 🙂
Haha. Ok, let’s look beyond a little bit more further. What type of demo do you want to make in the future? Is there any dream or goal that you want to achieve in the scene?
Even if I am not all that focused on success, I really did want to win a Scene.org award but they were discontinued so that possibility is forever gone.
I want to make something that I can look thirty years from now and still feel really, really proud of it, which means making something that truly comes from my soul. Also, I want to make a good demo for some other platform than PC. It could be Amiga, it could be Commodore 64, or it could be something completely different. I’ve made some small tests, so we’ll see…
Also, I want to travel to more parties. I really wanted to go to Tokyo Demo Fest this year, but I had to give up on those plans. Maybe next year 🙂
Good call 🙂 There’re so much fun stuff going on in Tokyo, you’ll enjoy it.. Ok, so finally, your message for demosceners and demo fans out there please.
Put your heart in it and make some art! If you haven’t yet gone to a demoparty, do so. It’s awesome and you’ll meet the coolest people there 🙂
Not just answering my interview, Preacher generously allowed me to use his photos that are used for his magazine article. (These are beautiful work of photographer Liivia Pallas.) Thank you very much for everything, Preacher!
If you want to see more of his work, be sure to check out his website, group site (Brainstorm, Traction) and Pouet (If demo is an art, Pouet is like a free-entry museum …with playgrounds.) And his ZINE interview provides some more stories around Breakpoint 2010.
I won’t write individual names but thank you so much for those of who encourage me to go on and gave me suggestions! ..And of course, thank YOU who’s reading this article till the end!! 🙂