Back in the days before microprocessors


Back in the days before microprocessors, Character Generators were members of the Graphics Department armed with sheets of Letraset and cardboard. The finished caption cards were then handed over to the stage crew who acted as "Caption Pullers". For a title caption sequence, cards were stacked in shooting order alternately into two separate piles (like A/B film rolls) and placed on blackboard-style easels somewhere in the studio. Two cameras (and cameramen) would be assigned to shooting the captions, with the Vision Mixer switching between them. As soon as the red light went out on the camera, the Caption Puller would pull the top caption off the pile and the cameraman would frame up on the one underneath.
The more complicated captions were made as a multi-layer cardboard sandwich, with holes in the front layer behind which cardboard tabs could be pulled out to reveal additional text or images beneath. Each one had to be individually made by hand and, with a few exceptions like the opening/closing station logo, could rarely be used again. Worse still, any changes, or even a simple spelling mistake, could mean the entire caption had to be remade. All in all, the whole process was a potential recipe for disaster, not least from the simple action of knocking a stack of precariously balanced captions onto the floor seconds before they were needed.
So it’s not surprising that many production staff welcomed the arrival of electronic caption generators with open arms - but not all of them did. You might think that the Graphics people would be the first to celebrate the end of rub-down lettering and cutting up cardboard, but it was not as simple as that. Early electronic devices could knock out caption text in a fraction of the time, with instant editing too, but where they gained in speed they lost heavily in quality. Graphic designers take great pride in the detail of layout, from font selection to the positioning of individual letters. For them, the lack of proportional spacing combined with blocky or jagged-edged letters felt as much like a return to the Stone Age as most of us now would feel if we had to go back to the days without computers.
Things have moved on a long way to where we are now but, for many years in between, one name became synonymous with electronic captions in UK television, that of Aston. The Aston 3 & 4 dominated TV captions in the UK from their introduction in the 1980s through into the '90s. Their combination of technical quality and operational usability resulted in thousands of sales to over fifty countries, and won the company a Queen's Award for export achievement in 1982. Even today, for many people, any title overlay with a person’s name and position is an "Aston", just as any vacuum cleaner is a "Hoover" (or any edit suite an "Avid").
Astons were born into an era of studio design where equipment resources were limited and centralization was the norm. Central VTR and Telecine areas assigned machines to individual studios through a booking system, the theory being that no one area would need continual access to these large and expensive machines. It was all rather like the days of expensive mainframe computers before the arrival of desktop PCs. Video and audio feeds were patched around the building via tie-lines, and talkback systems used so that the studio could cue the VT operator when needed. Aston CG machines had to be able to work in this way too, kept in a central area and assigned to a studio or edit suite when needed. Connecting the video output could be done just like a VTR, but operating the Astons presented a different problem. For whereas the VT operator could be in the central area, it was less practical to give instructions and script changes to a graphics operator who was not in the control room with the rest of the production crew. As such, Aston developed a way of using standard video cabling to allow communication between their dedicated keyboards and the central Aston mainframe, itself a two foot high rack unit stuffed full of circuit boards.
Aston operators would often bring the keyboard unit with them to a studio control room, get it patched into the mainframe by the video engineers, and then have to log-on in order to use it. They could also have a portable 5.25" floppy disk unit, plugged into the keyboard, to allow the use of caption pages prepared earlier and the addition of extra fonts to the system, without having to go off and locate the actual mainframe itself in the bowels of central "racks". Despite all this innovation, operating an Aston 4 at speed, particularly for a live event, became something of a specialist skill, a bit like Steadicam but without the kudos! If anything, you just got shouted at if you couldn’t find the caption with a player’s name fast enough after they’d scored a goal (whilst simultaneously remaking the caption with the score).
Everything on these Astons was keyboard driven, like using a PC under DOS. There were additional dedicated function keys for tasks like line/letter spacing/positioning, but you had to know what everything did - there was no "on-screen help". Remember too, this was an age before the widespread use of PCs, so very few people had any computer literacy skills to fall back on. I got involved with Astons in the late '80s whilst I was at Granada TV (in film sound). This was because they knew I could program on an Amiga, which had a nice graphical user interface (for its day), and because the Aston had a serial port through which it could be remote controlled.
The initial project was to control an Aston 4 to produce a live countdown timer for the Krypton Factor. After that was a more ambitious project for generating snooker scores with statistics. All the operator would have to do would be click on coloured balls on the Amiga screen when the players potted or fouled, and the software would automatically update the score, maintain a "break" total, work out the remaining points available, keep a log of the game, and update the Aston with a current score caption including a graphical representation of how many balls of each colour had been potted in the current break (once a certain threshold had been reached). Unfortunately Granada immediately lost the snooker contract before they'd used the software, but it was adopted by the new operators and in conjunction with Wurmsers (thanks Neil!) it was used for ITV’s snooker coverage for several years in the early ‘90s. I still have an Amiga and more recently bought an Aston to set up a little "technology museum" area, but the keyboard doesn’t work so I can’t log on to the mainframe. If anyone has an Aston 4 keyboard going spare, or can repair mine, I’d love to hear from them!

Tags: character generator | aston | caption puller | iss022 | graphics | captions | subtitling | aston 4 | N/A
Contributing Author N/A

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