The Video Toaster 4000

Image credit: 
YouTube / NewTek

Did you know that actor Wil Wheaton helped develop a video editing system in the early 1990s? Read on for some deep nerd trivia.

If I told you there was a serious computer system named the Video Toaster 4000, you might think that was a joke. Unless, of course, you did any video editing in the 90s. Dear friends, the 90s were a special time for video -- camcorders were common, VCRs were common, but in order to edit that raw tape into a hip skating video with over-the-top 3D effects and purple-and-green checkerboard backgrounds, your options were limited. The Video Toaster 4000 was a Commodore Amiga-based system offering a huge library of special effects (many cheesy, some very tasteful, and all frankly amazing) for "only" five thousand bucks (compared, seriously, to hundreds of thousands for other setups). And my high school had one.

In the back room of my school's library Media Center, we had a TV studio. In the heart of the control room was the Toaster. I learned to use the system, and worked on my school's morning announcements TV show for years, often running the Toaster live during the show, switching between cameras, B-roll from a VCR, and running live credits typed into the character generator. After our first year on the air, certain transition effects were banned due to overuse (one involved a spaceship flying into frame and then a flash of light, transitioning to the next shot; another featured a woman in either a maid outfit or an overly minimal witch costume walking into the frame and tapping a magic wand to switch scenes). But, I'll admit it, occasionally a banned transition effect (3D CUBE WIPE!) would make its way into the morning news due to "operator error."

Here's a promotional video introducing the system, including brief appearances by actual Video Toaster owners Wil Wheaton, Penn Jillette, and Tony Hawk. In this video, you see most of the effects generated by the Toaster, and you may recognize them from 90s TV -- these things were in use in lots of TV studios. The Lightwave 3D software (part of the Toaster suite, later sold separately) was used for special effects on seaQuest and Babylon 5, among others. Okay, now check out the video -- and pay special attention to the segment at 1:52, introducing Wheaton as "Actor / Toaster Punk."

For more on Wheaton's involvement in the Toaster's development, read an interview with Geeks of Doom. Wheaton said, in part:

"When I worked for NewTek and worked on the Video Toaster 4000, I didn’t do any of the actual programing. I did a ton of product testing and quality control, and worked in the marketing department and then I was sort of one of their technology evangelists." ...

... "I’m really proud to have been part of the very beginning [of home video editing]. We were the tip of the spear in Personal Video Production — which is what we called it back in ’94. I think it was ’94 when were were doing that. Y’know, I think you can draw almost a straight line between iMovie and Final Cut to the Toaster."

And here's a demo of an earlier version, explaining a bit of the technical background:

And just a few more -- these are from a Toaster-produced demo video called Revolution; note that the start of the second video features the infamous "falling sheep" effect, which was also banned at my high school for being overly cheesy:

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March 20, 2013 - 12:38pm
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