Sunday, 16 February 2020

JUMP UP AND DOWN AND MOVE IT ALL AROUND [222]



Now I am producing the occasional “Dancing with the Gatekeepers” video in addition to these articles, I am considering how to add further elements to them – the writing is fine, the presentation will only become more confident with further practice, but the series, such as it is, currently has no music, and no opening titles. I have keyboards, and some tunes in mind, but creating opening titles appeared to be something well outside my abilities.


However, I remembered that, if I played more towards a nostalgia angle, creating effective titles suddenly becomes much easier. Before computers revolutionised visuals on UK television in the early 1980s, there would be departments at TV companies dedicated to moving construction paper and Letraset around our screens. If you wanted animation, it will be hand-drawn – television and film advertising in Britain was shaped and influenced by names like Richard Williams, Halas & Batchelor, Wyatt Cataneo, Bob Godfrey, Aardman, and so on. Very strong, very nostalgic, but still very difficult for me to replicate.


A possible answer has turned out to be something for which I cannot have any nostalgia, because we never saw it in the UK, mostly because the technology was far too expensive at the time. A major part of 1980s imagery, as reproduced in the present day, is landscapes made of pink grids and purple mountains, often looking a bit hazy – it evokes early computer animation, but American TV audiences were seeing views like this since the 1970s, and it was down to “Scanimate,”a name originally describing the computer system created by the Denver, Colorado-based Computer Image Corporation, but is now used to group together the images created using similar processes.




Very simply, Scanimate is analogue computer animation, using video synthesis. The easiest way to break this down is knowing that a synthesiser, in terms of music, is used to refer to a keyboard that is creating sounds through manipulating a sound wave, either by shaping the wave, or modulating it with other waves. Before this became a digital process, with the Yamaha DX7, synthesisers would have banks of levers, knobs and switches, all devoted to oscillating, amplifying and filtering sound. Now, change the sound wave for a TV picture, manipulating images you have scanned into your computer, using similar knobs and switches to increase and decrease image size, move them around, make them glow, change their colour, and break them apart. This all happens in real time, in buttery-smooth video, instead of animating individual frames.


The original intended use of Scanimate was to animate TV shows, with Computer Image Corporation making a test of a scene from “Scooby-Doo Meets the Harlem Globetrotters” – having watched it online, I can only assume that the smoothness of the animation jars with the limited movement of Hanna-Barbera’s style at the time. However, Scanimate found a niche in creating company and TV station logos, music videos, and opening title sequences for shows, over time creating an aesthetic based in flying logos and glowing landscapes, usually against a black background. 



Seeing demo reels of companies like Computer Image Corporation, Dolphin Productions and Image West, with many colourful works smashing into each other, I began to imagine an alternate universe where Terry Gilliam was working on one of these instead for “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”. However, Scanimate never really made it to the UK – there may have been artists working with analogue video synthesis on a small scale, but we never saw it introducing programmes on the BBC or ITV. Instead, the UK had to leap into computer animations pretty quickly – the first routine use of computer graphics on a British TV programme was in 1983, for the weather forecasts on the BBC’s “Breakfast Time,” using a Quantel Paintbox computer paid for with a special government grant. Back in the US, Scanimate had fallen out of favour by the mid-1980s, although one machine is kept running – more information can be found at www.scanimate.com.


So, how do I replicate Scanimate? It will be a case of observing exactly how objects are moved on screen, what colours are used, and applying a video tape filter to the finished image. However, at least I don’t have to draw anything, or cut up construction paper.

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