Knight Rider and Driverless Cars

I was recently passed this interesting tweet which embeds a few seconds of video where you can see how the special effects department of the old 1980s TV show Knight Rider pulled off KITT (Knight Industries Two Thousand, a super-advanced car, voiced by William Daniels) doing his super-high-tech driverless driving.

This sort of thing happened a lot in special effects, in the days before everything was done with CGI. Special effects people tended to be ruthlessly practical and also to have an excellent sense of exactly what would show up on the televisions of the day. And the televisions of the day were not great.

The actual technical specifications are complex, but, approximately (in America), televisions had about 640×480 pixels, and only drew half of them at any given time (even rows were drawn in one frame, odd rows in the next frame, alternating, so that any given row was drawn 30 times per second). Then when you combined the various aspects of transmission and manufacturing, colors weren’t as precise so the whole image would be fuzzier. You got a decent image, but you didn’t see details. Special effects people knew this very well.

The result is that high-definition blu-ray editions of early special-effects-heavy TV shows actually do something of a disservice to the show. In Knight Rider, you can see the guy driving the car when it was supposedly driving itself. In Star Trek you can see that the rubber texture on the gorn’s suit. These really don’t enhance one’s enjoyment of the show.

I’m not sure what the solution is, or if there even is one. Not that many shows from the age of special effects are really worth watching, these days, so it’s not too big a problem.

One thing that helps a bit when I watch the bluray of Star Trek with my eleven year old son is that we watch it on my computer monitor while we sit on a couch twelve feet away. You can’t see the textures on the gorn suit quite as well on a 28″ monitor when you’re that far away.

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