Four decades ago, no matter where you looked, you saw Max Headroom—or as the Los Angeles Times called him, “the ultimate TV star of the ’80s.” He had shows on two continents and three networks. David Letterman hosted Max for his American network television debut. And Max, the media darling, even made his way to the covers of both Newsweek and MAD, the latter with Alfred E. Newman lampooning him.
In concept, Max Headroom was designed to look and feel completely computer-rendered, as if processors, RAM, and hard disks had produced the final output we saw on our screens. But he wasn’t computerized at all—a maximum amount of makeup, prosthetics, and painful contact lenses transformed actor Matt Frewer into Max Headroom.
“You couldn’t tell how it was made,” CalArts faculty member Michael Worthington recalls. “And then there was the choppy editing, high-fi meets low-fi, a kind of hacking into the system with a guerrilla aesthetic also tied to the sense of humor.”
The show has its roots in the early ’80s, at the intersection of music and the newly created Channel 4 in the U.K. Producer Peter Wagg, who worked for Chrysalis Records, explained in The Verge‘s “The Definitive Oral History of 1980s Digital Icon Max Headroom” that the idea started out as an animated, fabricated host of a music video show. Teaming up with writer George Stone, they landed on a name: Max Headroom. Stone didn’t have a good answer for why that name worked, but Wagg loved it since it dealt with the content, he told The Verge. “I mean, it’s all sound, it’s all vision, it’s filling your head full of music and sound.”
The project began as a cyberpunk TV backstory movie, Max Headroom: Twenty Minutes Into the Future, in which a television reporter suffers an accident after discovering some nefarious activities by his employer, and is replaced by a wise-cracking, glitchy “CGI” version of himself. The Max Headroom Show, with the title character as a veejay, debuted mere days later—and was a hit.
Max eventually made his way to HBO’s “side project” Cinemax with The Original Talking Max Headroom Show, adopting a celebrity interview format piloted in the U.K., featuring the likes of William Shatner, among others. ABC then adapted the original movie into the series Max Headroom, aka Max’s Blipverts. If that wasn’t enough, Max’s celebrity status made him an ideal spokesperson to help Coca-Cola promote, appropriately, New Coke—with Ridley Scott directing the commercials (yes, that Ridley Scott).
Ultimately, Max may not have been able to save New Coke (the company eventually discontinued it), and his final TV show completed its run in the late ’80s—but he continues to reverberate throughout visual culture today.
Along with Wagg and Stone, Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton are credited as co-creators of the character; collectively, they brought the idea to life with the help of special make-up and prosthetic designers Peter Litten and John Humphreys, who designed Max’s look and feel.
With each appearance and each performance, transforming actor Matt Frewer into Max Headroom was time-consuming. It took hours to complete. But well before Max’s fame, during the project’s formative years, an even bigger issue loomed: How do you make somebody look and feel digital? “When we were first approached,” says Litten, “no one had any idea how we were going to achieve what they wanted. It was as vague as, ‘He’s a computer-generated character.’ It had to look like Matt, it had to be as convincing as possible.” At that time in the ’80s, nobody knew how a computerized humanoid would appear, but Humphreys and Litten worked together, combining their talents and artistic know-how to pull off a special effects magic trick, albeit without any digital tools. “We had to realize the future as best as we could,” Humphreys says, “and we pulled our hair out from time to time.” That meant trial and error, experimenting with media, and applying or reapplying makeup and foam prosthetics to Frewer, who sometimes stretched his face in such exaggerated ways during performances that the foam lifted off or seams began to show.
How do you make somebody look and feel digital?
The illusions had to be real, lifelike, and above all, remarkable to the point of fooling eyes and brains into believing Max was not Matt, but all digital. Litten and Humphreys took cues from the computer tech of the time, and achieved this by smoothing things out, creating prosthetics that completely covered Frewer, making him look plastic—what we might call “low-polygon” today. Low-polygon 3D animation requires less data, which means faster render times and other efficiencies.
For designers creating in the wake of Max, Litten says, his influence was palpable. “If you look at the early computer-generated characters, with the subtlety of expression and before they mapped textures onto their skin, around the ’90s many looked like Max. The CGI look we prophesied for the future turned out to be extremely accurate.” One need look no further than 1995’s Toy Story and its fully computerized characters, with their smooth skin and plastic-ish hair, similar to Max’s coiffure. (Unrelated but related, it’s all also eerily similar to today’s touch-up video feature on Zoom.) Today, the “low-poly look” remains popular in various media, and Max Headroom brought it to the mainstream.
“The CGI look we prophesied for the future turned out to be extremely accurate.”
Though the effects were groundbreaking, Litten and Humphreys do have one sore spot when it comes to their work on the show: the lack of award nominations. “It wasn’t entered into the make-up categories,” Litten says, “because the producers wanted to keep it a secret that it wasn’t computer graphics! Hence the BAFTA was given—rather unfairly, we think—to the graphics department!” The British Academy of Film and Television Arts honored Rod Lord and Peter Tupy for Max’s work with an award for best graphics in 1986. Litten jokes, “We say we won a BAFTA for our work—even though it was actually awarded to the wrong department!”
I don’t recall the exact moment when I learned that an actor was behind Max. But it made no difference to me; the character was the bee’s knees whether produced on a super-computer hard drive or manufactured by special effects smoke and mirrors. Max’s sharp looks and wacky sense of humor, along with his signature stutter and shifts in pitch, made me laugh whether on TV or in print (like Max Headroom’s Guide to Life, which I still own). No matter how it was done, the future is now concept struck me and an entire generation of designers and creators as amazing—and achievable thanks to computers that so many of us had in our homes or offices or schools. Creatively, 1983–1993 was what designer and design educator Lorraine Wild called a time of great change: the proliferation of Apple products, Jeffery Keedy producing remarkable things in his studio and in classrooms at the California Institute of the Arts, old (analog) ways with new (digital) methods right around the corner.
Sure, MacPaint wouldn’t necessarily let you create Max in the comfort of your own home, but having a computer and seeing Max on TV, you had hope: One day, I too could make something like this, or at the very least, create something digital all on my own. For all the Max fans like me way back in the ’80s, “It was like the future had arrived,” says Humphreys.
Design educator Briar Levit, who directed the documentary Graphic Means: A History of Graphic Design Production, also reminisces about the ’80s at large. Yes, it was all cool—the music, movies, computers, MTV, the raves—“so much more was happening,” she says. Levit’s students at Portland State University who take part in a workshop titled Study the Old, but Create the New fully embrace antiquated technology, and romanticize the look and feel of the ’80s. But it’s less about recreating and more about exploring, like the happy accidents that can give a design its hands-on quality—a humanity that something purely digital often lacks, especially coming off two decades where the prevailing aesthetic was smooth, flawless, error-free design.
Whether you call it mistake-ism or glitches, that choppy quality made Max unique, and his aesthetic endures. In the ’90s, you needed look no further than David Carson’s scratchy, fragmented work. Today, type can touch or overlap, images can look funky, there are lots of visual and aesthetic guilty pleasures, and if you have some video game-ish graphics with pixels or low-poly art, it’ll all be cool—especially if there’s that ’80s vibe, says Timothy Dowling, who co-wrote 2015’s Pixels, in which Max Headroom plays second-fiddle to the video game characters.
“’80s nostalgia has gone on for a long time now, and if you look at pop culture then, it was a time of fun music and movies, and more escapism,” he says. “Nowadays, with a year or two of the pandemic and Trump and the culture wars, there’s something nice about harkening back to what seems like a simpler era.”
Dowling’s not wrong, especially if you look at what’s being made and shared on Instagram. Archivist and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences visual history researcher Tony Best, a child of the ’80s himself, sees that ’80s vibe alive and well with Retrowave and Vaporwave, “nods to Max in the form of ’80s visual aestheticism, glitch art and even Me Decade consumerism (hello, New Coke).”
Over the years, Max has popped up over and over and over in music videos, from the likes of 50 Cent & Tony Yayo, Selena Gomez, and Eminem, complete with the wild, wacky neon backdrops. As for those backdrops, similar patterned lines, colorful neons, and juxtaposed shapes can be found in art by Patrick Nagel, work by the Memphis design group, and the 1982 movie Tron. That look and feel continues to influence artists today, such as Instagram’s nullvision. “I grew up at the end of the ’80s, and the beginning of the awkward ’90s aesthetic,” nullvision says. “Nagel’s art is something I have always loved, Tron definitely continues to inspire me, and I can’t pretend that Max Headroom wasn’t somewhere in the mix. The bizarre, pseudo-futuristic look really stuck with me.”
At the Museum of the Moving Image, curator of film Eric Hynes riffs not only on how well-designed Max was, but also how big of a role Max played in everything ’80s, and in our perception of the decade today. Max may have been like a lot of the breakout characters of the era, such as Spuds MacKenzie—but with Max, Hynes says, we witnessed network TV, technology, and cable TV taking over our lives. We got a glimpse of Max’s digital world, one not yet available to us, nor available through other mainstream media. When Max reached ABC in 1987, the general public saw this future for themselves. And while movies like Tron (1982) and Blade Runner (1982) brought that vision of the future to movie theaters, chances are, given his cultural ubiquity, more people saw Max. Your grandmother might not have known about Flynn or Deckard, but she probably saw Max Headroom on television.
“My grandmother loved Max! She was upset when it went off the air,” says Michael Betancourt, author, research artist, critical theorist, and media historian. But between Max’s media omnipresence in the ’80s and the ads and sponsorships, don’t think of him as an “influencer.” Betancourt says that while contemporary influencers “are in a sense something like Warhol’s ‘superstars’ who are known in their circles, but not because they are sponsored by existing media outlets, this dimension is entirely missing from Max—he is more like an ironic, uncontrollable corporate shill who says the wrong things and everyone loves him anyway. That tension between total assimilation and total rejection is a lot of the reason I think he’s had such longevity.”
“I’m willing to bet the farm that there will be a 2020s version of Max Headroom.”
Ultimately, “Max isn’t digital,” Betancourt reminds me many times over our phone call, “but he is the first popular presentation of this stuff. The audience knows that he is beyond the technology available in the 1980s, but that isn’t important. What matters is that he shows what such a thing would be like.” That, in and of itself, meant something to the general public—and it still means something today.
Max rose to fame as a singular personality created by a record company, TV stations, and artisans costuming an expressive actor. Today, billions of people are trying to do what that team did with one highly curated avatar: get that 15 minutes of fame, or 15 million followers, or 15 million likes, or all of the above. Max is a ghost from the past but also a destination—but as hard as we may try, there’s only room for one Max Headroom. So maybe a revival is in order? “I’m willing to bet the farm that there will be a 2020s version of Max Headroom,” says Tony Best. “It kind of makes sense for the Gen Y/Z audience—and Hollywood has no problems with reboots.”