As one year finishes and another begins, it’s traditional to look back and reflect on the last 12 months. However this time I’m going to stretch that a little further and look back about 20 years, because while cleaning up over the holiday period I discovered some video magazines dating back to 1996, which provides an opportunity to reflect on what’s changed since then.
It’s already difficult to try and describe what life was like before the internet – in fact it’s hard enough remembering what it was like before the iPhone! From a professional perspective, I’ve always been fascinated by how the video production industry has been changed by the advances in technology since I began working. While it’s one thing to focus purely on the technological changes (e.g. computers in 1996 were more likely to have 16 megabytes of RAM instead of the 16 gigabytes more common today), many of the changes that dramatically altered lives and workflows were a combination of different developments that somehow combined and interacted together.
In case you missed it, I’ve previously made a series that looked at the desktop video revolution, and demonstrated the differences between the production process for a TV commercial made in 1997 versus 2014. Another article reflected on the personal challenges of working through that period, and how changing workflows to use the new technology raised all sorts of issues for traditional production companies. The point of that article – which isn’t very clear but is still something I ponder every day – is that there used to be a clear distinction between video production companies and design agencies, but the desktop video revolution bought those worlds together and blurred the boundaries.
As you may not have the time to watch the video series and read the article, I’ll quickly summarise that for most of the 1990s, video post-production required a lot of very expensive, specialised equipment. The average home computer in the 1990s couldn’t even play back video because a whole range of technologies weren’t yet advanced enough. Computer processors weren’t powerful enough, the average computer didn’t have enough RAM, hard drives were small and very slow, and even if you paid enough money to solve those problems then video itself was an analogue format, so you needed an expensive video card to digitise it from a very expensive video tape deck. But beyond even those problems, another huge obstacle was distribution.
Using home computers to do video post-production didn’t really take off until the last few years of the 90’s – the desktop video revolution – and one of the reasons this was a “revolution” was because up until then, professional quality video and digital effects were only accessible to a small group of elite people. In the video series I referred to “million dollar rooms”, because it was quite common for post-production companies to spend well over a million dollars on outfitting their high-end suites. Those were the days when people referred to Silicon Graphics workstations with reverent whispers, and in our city you could be charged up to $1,200 an hour to work in the most exclusive suites. That’s $1,200 an hour. In 1997.
This rarified high-end market was dominated by two companies: Discreet Logic and Quantel. Discreet Logic were best known for their “Flame” software, while Quantel made their name in the early 80s with their “Paintbox” system but had since gone on to release many tools for high-end video production, including a film scanner. Quantel’s high-end video products included the “Editbox”, intended for online editing and “Henry” for visual effects.
It was Quantel who published a quarterly magazine called “Clips”, that showcased work made with their systems from around the world, and somehow the company I worked for was on the mailing list. While it’s not unusual for companies to produce their own promotional magazines (these days they’re more likely to be distributed on the internet), the Quantel magazines were printed and bound more like books – and they offered a tantalising insight into a world I hardly knew.
It’s difficult to describe how elite the world of Flames and Henrys was, at a time when even a decent sized city like Melbourne would only have a handful of these systems. High end digitial video effects were so specialised, and the equipment so expensive, that in 1996 there were probably fewer Flame suites in all of Australia than there are computers running After Effects in the office where I’m working today. Because the desktop computer had such an impact on this rarified field, the emergence of desktop video really was a revolution.
What intrigued me most about the “Clips” magazines, and the reason I treasured them so greatly, was because they provided my first introduction to something that I didn’t even know what it was. Today we call it “motion graphics design”, but that term wasn’t even used back then. In fact – as I recalled in my earlier article – there was a period of time when people doing what we now call “motion graphics design” didn’t know what to call it. The seminal website “motionographer” stands as a testament to one of the several terms used by graphic designers working with video.
Motion graphics certainly wasn’t something you were taught at film school, and in traditional linear edit suites adding text supers and titles could be seen as more of a chore than an artform.
So I didn’t know what “motion graphics design” was, and as I was working for a traditional film & video production company I was working on productions that used real-life cameras, lights, sets and video editing. But at the same time, I was discovering After Effects and trying to figure out how it fit into the production process. Again, it’s difficult to explain to people who have grown up with computers, but before Avid, Media 100 & Adobe came along, even creating simple text supers for video required dedicated (and expensive) character generators that only had a few fonts to choose from, in a limited number of sizes, in one of 16 colours.
This brings me back to the point I made earlier – how difficult it is to remember life without the internet. While it’s one thing to look at the technology needed to make videos, it’s easy to overlook the importance of being able to distribute and share them. In 1996 there was no YouTube. The software needed to compress videos into a format that could be shared and played on desktop computers was still specialised. You couldn’t guarantee that a video file would play on both Macs and Windows machines. The only universal video format was MPEG 1, which was low resolution and relatively low quality, but still generated files much larger than the average user was accustomed to. This is a time when people still used floppy disks, and sharing a file larger than 1 megabyte wasn’t easy at all.
As I write this, WIRED has just published a fantastic article on the history of one of the internet’s first viral videos, in which they mention some of these difficulties. Even if you had the capability to make an MPEG1 video clip, the only way to share it was via email – and sending an email with an attachment larger than 5 megabytes could easily fill up and lock the recipient’s email account. Not a great way to make friends. Just as timely is twitter user @mixtus, who’s popped up in my feed with a CD-ROM from legendary design studio MK12, made in 2000. Because 18 years ago, physically making a copy of your work – either on a CD-Rom or VHS – and sending it in the post was the best way of sharing it.
All of this meant that if you were interested in motion graphics design during the 1990s, there was no obvious and regular source of inspiration or guidance, and if you were lucky enough to see something then there was no way to save it. Even with more traditional resources, such as books, there wasn’t much being published, either. I had vaguely heard of a pioneering book called “Pause” but my local bookshop wasn’t able to get a copy, so the first book I bought was Steven Curran’s “Motion Graphics” at the end of 2001 – almost 5 years after I first started working.
Until then, all I had were a few copies of “Clips” which mysteriously appeared in our mailbox a few times a year, until suddenly it didn’t. While Quantel was a huge name throughout the 80s and 90s, the rapid rise of desktop computers had a major impact on the economics of post-production, and the million-dollar suites began to disappear. These days it’s hard to find any reference to Quantel, or details of the hardware that dominated video production about 20 years ago.
I don’t know how long Quantel produced their magazine for, and whether they stopped making it altogether or just stopped posting it to us, but the few copies I had were treated like they were printed on gold.
When I found them again a few weeks ago, I was surprised at how well I remembered them. I had spent so much time pouring over every page and examining every image that it was quite disconcerting to look at the dates on the cover and realize some were over 20 years old. Re-discovering these old magazines is like digging up a time capsule from the first few years of my career.
The articles don’t date as well as the images. One recurring topic that is discussed in every issue is the transition to digital TV.
The first copy of Clips that I have dates before any digital standards had been agreed upon (does anyone still remember the ATSC vs DVB debate?), and different people had different opinions about the impact that digital transmission would have on the industry.
I also cracked a wry smile when I read an article about proposals for High Definition TV, with an engineer saying in 1998:
“We’re looking at the number of active lines. Will it be 1125? Will it be 1250? We’re hoping that won’t be the case. We’re hoping that common sense prevails and that it will be 1125 which appears to be becoming the pseudo standard.”
I’m still impressed by the efficiency of the Quantel interface. My current computer has dual monitors, each running @ 2560 x 1440. I suppose this means I have a combined desktop size of 5120 x 1440, which sounds pretty big. When I’m running After Effects, those screens fill up pretty quickly. But back in the 90s, the Quantel interface only took up the bottom third of a TV screen. The interface was actually shown on the same screen as the video being worked on, in other words it was effectively a single-screen system. As the resolution of digital TV was either 720 x 486 or 720 x 576, it’s remarkable that all of the features of the software were condensed into such a small space – a rough calculation suggests that I could fit 32 copies of the Quantel interface onto my current computer screens. In fact the Quantel interface was so small that it’s not easy to find any images of it – you have to look at these pictures pretty carefully and squint to see the grey and green boxes down the bottom. Yet all of the features that I use daily in After Effects – timelines, layers, effects, type layout, even tracking – were present in the same system.
Looking beyond the obvious technical changes, what I find quite striking is how well some of the designs hold up. There are many images here that, even if they seem slightly dated, look very similar in style to motion graphics being made today. Blurs and glows were very popular, mainly because these powerful systems could render them so quickly. In 1997 you were pretty cool if you knew how to blur text while fading it up/down in After Effects, but the render times on 1990s Macs were frightening. I have a vague recollection that on my first Mac, I never blurred text more than about 30 pixels because the rendering time jumped up to minutes per frame.
One image, coincidentally from a local TV network, shows a graph of global warming temperatures. Extruded and offset in 3D space, it would still fit in perfectly if it was shown on TV news today.
There are two images that I remember particularly well. The first is a still from the 1996 Olympic games, which I always thought was incredible. I’d just never seen graphic design like that anywhere else. Every time I looked at it I was amazed at how all the elements worked so well together. I would stare and stare and try to deconstruct all of the layers, from the gradient behind the athlete’s head to the fonts and text layout. It’s worth mentioning that at the time these graphics were made, After Effects couldn’t wrap text in a circle – so even the white ring of text had me in awe. We had to wait until Adobe released the “path text” plugin to do that, and once they did, I wrapped lots of text onto lots of circles, just because I could.
This picture is the epitome of the confusion I felt when I first started working, when I was seeing a piece of motion graphics design without knowing that there was such a thing, and having no idea how something like this could be made. The confusion wasn’t simply technical – it wasn’t just a case of Quantel machines being able to wrap text in a circle while After Effects couldn’t – it was about the value of design itself, and realizing that there were different parts of the industry out there that worked in completely different ways to what I had experienced so far.
The second image, or series of images, was from a TV commercial made in 1997 for Cointreau. The commercial had a timeline along the bottom of the screen and I loved the look of the graphics – there were multiple layers of detail that gave it a much more sophisticated look than a simple line or grid. Over the next few years I had to create many scrolling timelines for many corporate productions and these images were always my first reference.
However I also remember the Cointreau article for another reason. As much as I worshipped these magazines and spent hours examining the images, they were only ever still images. Over time, a lot of what I thought I saw was to do with how I imagined they moved. In other words, even though these were images of motion graphics design, there was no motion on the page. That’s the problem with books, and perhaps one of the reasons there weren’t more published on motion graphics. I loved the way the timeline in the Cointreau TV commercial looked on the pages of “Clips”, but there was no indication of how it moved. In my mind, probably because I’d tried to deconstruct all of the layers involved, I imagined some sort of parallax movement, and a motion that suggested weight and inertia. Several years later I actually got to see the “real” commercial and I was surprised at how different it looked to what I had imagined. I was actually quite disappointed, because the timeline didn’t move at all! In fact, the “real” TVC was much less sophisticated than I assumed it would be, and it made me realize how misleading a still image could be. These days, all I have to do is search on YouTube and I can watch the video instantly – but I’ll always remember the shock I got at the difference between the version that I imagined after reading the article in “Clips”, and the actual commercial.
Several years later in 2002, the film “Minority Report” featured a now-famous sequence where the multiple timelines moved with weight, inertia and parallax. The Minority Report sequence still looks fantastic today, and is pretty much what I imagined the timeline in the Cointreau TVC would be like.
Overall, particular colour schemes and fonts come in and out of fashion, particular effects such as blurs and glows also come in and out of fashion. But beyond simple trends, great design will always be great design and will stand the test of time.
What I realize now, that I struggled with so much 20 years ago, is that producing great designs has little to do with specific tools or technology, and everything to do with placing value on design and the design process itself. As a post-production company, Quantel and its high-end suites may have faded into history but I’m happy to have a few copies of “Clips” to remind me of those times.