A brief history of television graphics


Thirty years ago, television captions were routinely created by sticking white Letraset characters onto black card. Credit rolls were possible using special devices which used long strips of black material onto which the Letraset was stuck, and which were literally rolled, either by an electric motor but sometimes even by hand.
There were, of course, a whole bunch of disadvantages in such a system, both obvious and perhaps less obvious. First, you needed people to do it: people you could trust to check the spelling and achieve a balanced layout, but who were stuck with a very boring and unfulfilling job.
Second, you had to allocate one or more cameras to view them, and a precious effects bank in the switcher. These were the days when a studio would never have more than four cameras and a lot of programming was live, so this was a serious imposition.
The caption cards were usually stacked on a music stand, and someone had to stand there and remove them when they had been used. You simply superimposed the output of the caption camera – white letters on a black background – on top of the picture (you still here some old school directors calling for “the super” – that is where the expression comes from). If you wanted multiple captions, you either used more than one camera or you had to keep switching the caption camera on and off.
Those of you with very long memories may remember the original UK wobbly-set soap opera Crossroads. This made an effect of its end credits, having them flying in and out in turn from top, sides and bottom: done with two cameras panning and tilting.
So there were real pressures on the industry to come up with an electronic replacement. While the first device in service was probably the Riley character generator, developed in association with the BBC, the real honour for pioneering commercial success must go to Aston in the UK and Chyron in the US.
The honour takes the practical form of becoming generic trademarks. You still find people trying to hire an “Aston operator” (or, in America, a “Chyron operator”), even when they will actually be driving a Pixel Power Clarity (or one of the many other character generators now available).
These early character generators were fairly simple devices, being effectively just a replacement for the Letraset and card by producing white letters on a black background to be superimposed onto the picture. Indeed, the quality of text was arguably worse, as at this time there was no anti-aliasing of the characters.
In this case, aliasing is the jagged appearance of lines on a television screen which are not perfectly horizontal or vertical. What should look like a straight edge is rendered as a series of steps by the line structure of the television screen. Add in interlacing and it means that curves and angled lines will appear to crawl as well as look rough, particularly in relatively small fonts. Get the font size really wrong and you could end up with moir patterns.
Anti-aliasing minimises this effect by cheating the eye. It smudges the difference between the two fields of the interlaced frame. If you look closely it means that the edges of diagonal lines look soft, but from normal viewing distances it minimises the jagged steps and reduces other problems.
Anti-aliasing was one of the developments that reached the character generator market by the late 1980s, at around the time that we founded Pixel Power to bring a new approach to the technology. We saw that the market was now beginning to demand more than just electronic Letraset, including a good approach to anti-aliasing and a much broader choice of fonts.
There was also a requirement for more than just static captions: rolls and crawls were also added, by us and by our competition at the end of the 80s.
This period also saw the first attempts at 3D character generators, bringing a greater range of animation to captions. Names like Floating Point, the Quantel Cipher and the Ampex Alex led the way in 3D. If these products do not sound familiar to you do not be surprised: they were all short-lived because practical, workable 3D graphics were beyond the technology of the day.
Character generators were black boxes at this time, using bespoke hardware. Processing power was such that layouts had to be rendered before they could be used, and extended animated sequences were impossible because of memory limitations.
The user interfaces also tended to be rather less intuitive than we would expect today, and operators needed an extended period of training. That was actually a major obstacle in the wider use of character generators: there was a shortage of well-trained operators, and once trained on the preferred machine, they tended to resist moving to another manufacturer and another user interface.
Interestingly, although character generators are now much easier to use, the availability of operators can still be an issue, particularly in high pressure areas like live sports. And they are still often called “Aston operators”, even though the chances are they are operating something else.
If the 80s were characterised by the drive for good quality text, in the 90s the character generator started to become more than just a caption device. Pixel Power, and Dubner in the USA, led this movement, adding a stills store and paint tools alongside the keyboard.
Broadcasters were initially resistant to this concept: they were mindful of the pressure to get the captions right in live transmissions, and were reluctant to add more to the operator’s arsenal. But in linear post production the idea was taken up much more readily, and that was certainly where our company found its first big successes.
The other big change which started in the mid-90s was a shift away from dedicated hardware to Microsoft Windows-based hybrid systems. The benefits include the ease of swapping files, allowing you to bring in to the character generator something you have created elsewhere: a logo from Illustrator or PhotoShop, for example. In the old days, anything that came out of a character generator had to be created in that character generator. Now designers can use the best tool for the job.
It also enabled the use of standardised, low cost fonts, giving the designer much more creativity without having to persuade a producer to make a big investment in electronic type. Different character sets could be accessed simply by swapping fonts, giving the character generator multi-lingual capabilities for the first time.
The downside was again, reluctance on the part of broadcasters looking for equipment to use in a live broadcast. Windows, they argued, has been known to crash: would a hybrid system be robust enough, they asked.
Today, that transition is complete. You cannot now buy a character generator that relies entirely on bespoke hardware and software.
The same trend – adding functionality on a standard computing platform – has led to the virtual demise of the dedicated character generator in post production. Excellent text functionality is now available either as a standard function within the editing software, or as a low-cost plug-in from firms like Boris.
But if character generators are now never seen in post, that has been countered by a massive rise in their numbers in master control. The multi-channel world has created a whole new television science/art: channel branding.
And where that once meant just a simple bug inserter, now there is a call for much more sophisticated devices, creating sophisticated branding sequences designed to keep the viewer’s finger off the remote and waiting for what comes next.
Television purists will bemoan this as it has led to one of the blights of today’s broadcasting (they would argue): the credit squeezeback, wrapping the branding in multiple windows around the end of the programme. Infuriating if you actually want to read the credits, but seen by broadcasters as a powerful way of retaining viewers without reducing the amount of commercial time they can sell.
Again, it has been the developers of character generators who have made this possible. Tools like the Pixel Power Clarity now include a 2D DVE with multiple planes, which in transmission can be used for squeezebacks and to create other branding sequences.
We have already seen that stills stores were added to the character generator: now it is routine to have a video clip store too, and separate functionality for audio, to store and replay voiceovers in branding applications. In large playout centres you may be sending the same content to multiple countries, so now you need to have a number of audio stores for voiceovers in different languages.
And all of this must be done in HD, which means surround sound. At Pixel Power we have now implemented Dolby Digital 5.1 in the audio section of the Clarity, which means we can de-embed the surround sound from the incoming programme, dip it, add the appropriate voiceover then re-encode it, keeping everything in sync with constant latency through the system.
Once you sit down to design a squeezeback branding system for a typical large multinational playout centre, you realise that it would need a surprisingly large number of boxes if it were not all implemented inside what was once a humble text device, the character generator.
This sort of application clearly calls for a great deal of automation. Content has been automated for a while, and now we are seeing automated playout, working with a transmission automation system to create the right captions and content.
The ultimate is a system we developed in association with Red Bee Media for BBC World, where a network of character generators talks to the scheduling computer to know what programmes are coming up, then automatically creates suitable branding and promotional sequences to fill the gaps. So if the next programme is about the business world, it might build a set of stock market prices or exchange rates, interrogating external sources as necessary. All the playout automation needs to do is notify the character generator that it needs a 30 second sequence in the next junction, then cue it.
Not all applications are automated, though. I have mentioned live sports broadcasting a couple of times already, because it is one of the most demanding jobs for both the character generator and its operator. Because you never know what is going to happen next, you never know what sort of graphics sequence you are going to need. It is the unpredictability of sport that gives it its excitement – but when the unpredictable happens, that is when you need good, informative graphics the most.
The solution is to build a standard set of templates in advance, and provide a fast and reliable link to the statistics computers so that all the information is ready in an instant. But you still need to get the right template populated and on screen, so there is an increasing interest in special purpose user interfaces, developed for specific applications.
These might use touch screens or special control surfaces from companies like JL Cooper. They give twin advantages: for broadcasters they give added speed, but for occasional or non-expert use they can give access to functionality that the operator would otherwise struggle to find. At Pixel Power we have a development kit for user interfaces, called Toolbox, and we are finding it popular with the display team at large stadiums, for example.
Looking to the future? My view is that 3D graphics has now come of age, and is seen as a standard requirement. There are devices out there now that do very effective 3D captions – but they tend not to be anything like as effective or intuitive at the standard character generator tasks like rolls and crawls.
Pixel Power’s view - and we showed a 3D option for our Clarity range at NAB this year – is that 3D has to be just another option for the character generator, its designers and its operators, and not an end in itself. We have come a long way from simply replacing Letraset on cardboard over the last 30 years, by building on the basics and adding the functionality that users need, when they need it.
Abekas A72
Abekas A72
Quantel Cipher
Quantel Cipher
Aston Ethos
Aston Ethos

Tags: pixel power | television graphics | iss021 | graphics | character generator | captions | aston operator | aston ethos | quantel cipher | abekas a72 | N/A
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State of the Nation
Dick Hobbs - new This morning I was eating my healthy muesli and idly listening to Radio 4 when someone came on who claimed to be from the Oxford University Computational Propaganda Project.
Tags: iss129 | fake news | facebook | tv globo | amagi | robot | ai | artificial intelligence | Dick Hobbs - new
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Empowering connectivity choice in the field
Yvonne Monterroso Reliability, flexibility and ease of use are the key requirements when covering the news and live events, especially when the location could be anywhere. Connectivity is one of the biggest concerns in the field when the pressure is on to capture a key event – if you cannot establish a reliable transmission path to send your video back to the broadcast studio, there is no story.
Tags: iss129 | dejero | satellite | streaming | ku-band | cloud | Yvonne Monterroso
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Capturing the spirit of Mexico
Leonardo Dalessandri Filmmaker, director and editor, Leonardo Dalessandri first came to fame with his stunning video ‘Watchtower of Turkey,’ which with more than 200 million views, garnered the accolade of Best Vimeo Video in 2014. His vibrant images are combined with a unique editing style, incorporating slow motion, hyper lapses and invisible match cuts to produce genuinely breathtaking final results.
Tags: iss129 | watchtower of turkey | davinci resolve | blackmagic. corona | Leonardo Dalessandri
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A Pandoras Box to empower the filmmaker
KitPlus The setting was Celebro Studios London, home to their fully 4k television studios, where journalists and industry commentators gathered late last November to witness the launch of the revolutionary Rotolight Anova PRO 2. This was no ordinary unveiling though, the launch was streamed live on Facebook and YouTube and hosted by award winning news anchor man Martin Stanford with Wesley Dodd, CEO of Celebro Media Group and Rotolight MD Rod Gammons in the studio.
Tags: iss129 | rotolight | celebro | anova pro 2 | led | lighting | wesley dodd | rod gammons | KitPlus
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Speed in a Changing Media Landscape
Mike Nash We are living in the video era - the staggering statistics on video growth make that abundantly clear. According to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index: Forecast and Methodology 2016–2021, video will make up 82 percent of all consumer internet traffic by 2021, an increase from 73 percent in 2016. To put this in perspective, “it would take an individual more than five million years to watch the amount of video that will be crossing global IP networks each month in 2021.”
Tags: iss129 | hulu | amazon | netflix | signiant | svod | Mike Nash
Submitted by Mike Nash Read this article in the tv-bay digital magazine
AoIP in the intercom world
John Sparrow Everyones talking about using AoIP (Audio over IP) in the broadcast world, but what does it mean to the operators actually making the production - the intercom users? And after years of interoperability taking the lowest common format of analogue tie-lines (also known as 4-wires), has intercom today already moved into the digital world by sharing digital audio resources with other types of hardware?
Tags: iss128 | clearcom | clear-com | dante | aes67 | beltpack | isdn | John Sparrow
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State of the Nation - Telling Imaginary Stories
Dick Hobbs - new In mid-October, Nokia issued a press release from its headquarters in Finland, announcing a refocusing of its business, with a growing emphasis on digital health. Read on a few paragraphs, though, and you find this statement....
Tags: iss128 | samsung | ozo | vr | nokia | ibc | david attenborough | Dick Hobbs - new
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Marjan Television Network - a case study
Ian Muir Internet and Satellite content distribution now allows production companies and broadcasters to send targeted TV programmes and video to widely dispersed audiences all over world, whilst located where theres easy access to the technology, equipment and expertise to produce top quality programmes.
Tags: iss128 | ac ent | lighting | chroma-q | space force | fresnel | quasar | q-led | lumipix | stark400 | Ian Muir
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The Transition to a full end to end IP video solution
Brian Olson Most video professionals will agree that the future is IP. The question is, when and how do they make this transition? With manufacturers just introducing new IP products, many people are observing and waiting. However, the reality is that the move to IP is already rapidly taking place and is more transformational than the move from analogue to digital, SD to HD, or HD to UHD/HDR. IP will change the way that people interact with video, making it more flexible, more accessible, more scalable and will provide more opportunities for content delivery
Tags: iss128 | newtek | ptz | ip | uhd | streamstar | xsplit | vmix | ndi | Brian Olson
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Managing Talent
Nicole Inanc Presenting for television is a talent that is critically competitive. Budding presenters around the world produce showreels, attend acting schools and fight to be the next Ant and Dec¦ but what is it exactly that makes a successful television presenter? As a wannabe TV presenter myself, I wanted to explore the exact process talent managers follow when finding the next big thing and whether I have exactly what it takes.
Tags: iss128 | portsmouth university | education | bsc | ccitv | Nicole Inanc
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Supporting broadcast quality control
Alan Wheable With the ever-increasing number of program channels and range of different program distribution formats, the process of ensuring program quality has become a complex one for contribution/capture, production, post production, server ingest and content distribution.
Tags: iss128 | omnitek | wcg | hdr | test and measurement | smpte 2110 | smpte 2022-6 | Alan Wheable
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The dangers of live streaming without a license
Joseph Adamson The entertainment industry is visual and sound driven. Without these two elements there would be no such a thing as entertainment. Its obvious that there are people who create sound/s and visuals. Copyright laws were created to protect the industry and these artists. Many organisations have been created to look after musician, writers, poets and filmmakers. For example there are a number of bodies especially the MCPS [Mechanical-Copyright Protection Society], which is responsible for collecting royalties and licensing of music on behalf of musicians and music producers.
Tags: iss128 | ail | youtube | streaming | license | Joseph Adamson
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Reunion on Kingsman ensures efficient workflow for sequel
KitPlus Both on and off camera, there are some collaborations that are built to last. Armed with the success of their work on the first film adaptation of the Kingsman comic book (Kingsman: The Secret Service), director Matthew Vaughan reunited with cinematographer George Richmond, DIT Joshua Callis-Smith and colorist Rob Pizzey, to deliver Kingsman: The Golden Circle, the upcoming second installment in the spy comedy series.
Tags: iss128 | kingsman | blackmagic | goldcrest | davinci | arri | dit | KitPlus
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IP or not IP, that is the question
Brian Larter There can be a one size fits all approach to prompting, but with the many forms of production in todays broadcasting world - from a major sporting event, to the biggest Saturday night entertainment show, to a 24-hour news operation or prompting on location - it is unlikely that a single system will suit every circumstance. The equipment needs to be designed for purpose, interchangeable and adaptable, since prompting, like other areas of the broadcast workflow, does not stand still.
Tags: iss128 | cuescript | prompting | prompter | ptz | ip | Brian Larter
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When a lens is more than just a lens
KitPlus Matching shots between different cameras can be tricky at the best of times. But how do you match lens characteristics between a live action shoot and a CGI composition? The CP.3 XD lenses from Zeiss offer an efficient solution to this with their frame accurate meta-data.
Tags: iss128 | zeiss | lenses | lens | prime | cp.3 | cgi | vfx | KitPlus
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How the Cloud can be enabled as traditional broadcast workflows evolve
David Schleifer The Cloud itself is fairly simple, but for broadcasters it can be difficult to leverage. It isnt technically complex but broadcast still overlaps requirements that need real time, high resolution and quick turnaround solutions. Plus, this is coupled with the need to connect with dispersed geographic locations, reduce costs and access multi-format assets. As a result, broadcasters have moved away from asking the basic question what can I do in the cloud? to trialling projects and implementations are now underway or under evaluation.
Tags: iss128 | ott | primestream | David Schleifer
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Leveraging licensed broadcast spectrum assets
John Payne There are several different approaches to transmitting live and file-based content from the field to the studio. Traditional microwave Electronic News Gathering (ENG) provides high bandwidth, high-quality transmission with low latency. Using the secure, dedicated BAS spectrum keeps control in a broadcasters hands. The past few years have seen a shift in video technology toward acceptance, and adoption of IP-based links into ENG workflows.
Tags: iss128 | eng | bas | imt | vislink | imt-vislink | John Payne
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IP Prompting
Jon Hilton# The potential nirvana of interoperable IT, Telecommunications and Broadcast convergent technology definitely felt a lot closer at this years IBC with the launch of many, many broadcast IP ready devices, workflow and solutions. While the big ticket camera and live production infrastructures dominated the headlines there were a number of smaller but equally important IP workflows that were launched which are fundamental to successful, professional TV production and this includes the often forgotten world of TV Prompting
Tags: iss128 | portaprompt | ip | prompting | ippg | windigi | Jon Hilton#
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Growing a news agency from the inside out
Lorna Garrett Growing a new media outlet in todays highly competitive market requires taking a strong look at the new ways media is being consumed. Many of the most successful recent startups are community focused, often finding a niche market that wants to be engaged in a way they perceive themselves. Al-Araby TV is a London-based news and current affairs satellite channel that has set out to do just that for Arab citizens.
Tags: iss128 | gpl | garland | al-araby | teracue | x-player | amino | aminet | icue | Lorna Garrett
Submitted by Lorna Garrett Read this article in the tv-bay digital magazine