This article first appeared in issue 354 of PC Gamer magazine in March 2021. Each month, we feature exclusive features exploring the world of PC gaming, from behind-the-scenes insights to incredible community stories, to fascinating interviews, and more.
In the mid-90s, I spent long afternoons animating car crashes and alien abductions in 3D Movie Maker. It was one of Microsoft’s best pieces of software at the time, and it’s the first time I can remember real-time 3D rendering being introduced to me as a creative tool (though I may have -be also played with Doom mapping).
It’s also completely weird.
There was an idea in the 90s that modern software should map its functions to the most obvious metaphors possible. In Microsoft Bob, for example, programs were organized into rooms in a house. PC Gamer’s 90s demo discs similarly featured adventure game-style interfaces. These virtual spaces couldn’t have boring old tutorials – Turing and Asimov promised artificial intelligence, not tooltips – so they were supplemented with chatty characters such as a cartoon dog, our very own Coconut Monkey and Microsoft Office’s infamous Clippy. 3D Movie Maker also had a guide, but since it was for kids and it was in the 90s, it was an ugly blue guy with goat’s eyes perpendicular to each other. It was a real nightmare, McZee.
McZee’s antics — riding a shopping cart down roller coaster tracks, transforming into a slice of cheesecake — illustrate why the ’90s hold such a monopoly on the words “wacky” and “wacky.” He guided users through a movie studio, eventually leading to the interface where you could make your own movies with props and characters as garish as him. The models were clearly influenced by American cartoons of the time, such as Rugrats and Rocko’s Modern Life, and that was enough for me at ten. (A Nickelodeon-themed software version released in 1996 as well.)
If I didn’t know anything about 3D Movie Maker and you asked me to imagine what a 3D animated children’s program might have looked like in 1995, I’d probably assume it was a proto-Garry’s Mod disaster. with impossible controls. On the contrary, it was brilliant software. It has simplified 3D animation so kids can create amazingly sophisticated scenes. You could even record your own audio if you had a microphone.
To animate a walking character, you add the character to the scene, select the walking action, then click and drag it on the ground to record a path. You can then go back to the start of the scene and do the same with another character or prop, overlaying the movie with animations. It was in 3D Movie Maker that I first got an idea of what a digital animation and video editing timeline was like, which I would take into the embarrassing games I made with Adobe Flash , the software used for so many vector animations in the late 90s and 2000s.
Once you created a video in 3D Movie Maker, there was little else to do but show it to your family and friends. It was more or less a toy, but also a glimpse of the future. At the time, we were still crudely editing home movies with two-deck VCRs (MiniDV was a new format), but it was becoming clear that personal computers would one day put amateur creators – filmmakers, animators, musicians, designers of games – on the same field as the professionals. 3D Movie Maker wasn’t a game per se, but it was a vision of entertainment software as a creative tool, as opposed to a one-way fun pipe, and that’s very PC games notion.