The Daily Heller: The Box That Designers Thought Out Of

Posted inThe Daily Heller
Thumbnail for The Daily Heller: The Box That Designers Thought Out Of

Dateline: July 22, 1984, The New York Times. "For the past three years, a team of artists and engineers has been cloistered on the fifth floor of the ABC studios at 70th Street and Broadway, preparing first for the Winter Olympics last February in Sarajevo and then the summer Games. For up to 20 hours a day, they have been assembling words, pictures and symbols on machines with space-age names like the Quantel Paintbox, the Dubner CBG (for Character Background Generator) and Chyron. Some of the resulting images turn somersaults a gold medal gymnast would be proud of." —Alex Ward

Whether you think in a box or out of one, the Quantel Paintbox was a late–20th century marvel put into service at ABC Sports. The Quantel Paintbox made "graphics" designers—especially motion and kinetic ones—specialized professionals within the broadcast industry.

Quaint by today's standards (in terms of its logo, hardware design and graphic output), the product celebrated here was the envy of digital designers everywhere. Quantel was a British company established in 1973, which created digital broadcast equipment. The name Quantel derives from Quantised evision, in reference to the process of converting a television picture into a digital signal. As well as other firsts, they created a digital framestore in 1975, which for the first time enabled broadcasters to combine two live videos into one digital moving image.

Paintbox typography/graphics expert Pepper Howard.

Adrian Wilson, photographer, early Paintbox adopter and current street artist, alerted me to the fact that this is the program's fortieth anniversary: In 1981 Quantel launched the true-color, real-time digital system.

It was not the first digital paint system—Richard Shoup created his 8-bit paint program SuperPaint at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1973, and Alvy Ray Smith had implemented the first 24-bit RGB paint system Paint3 at the NYIT in 1977. Quantel's Paintbox was the first system to employ special-purpose hardware for acceleration of digital painting and the first to utilize a pressure sensitive pen, which controlled all screen-based menus. It caused a stir among designers because of its speed and versatility. Yet while it was the future of technology then, today it is an example of shadow-ridden, faux-handmade '80s aesthetics. The flying logos and the onscreen graphics it produced prove that even the most forward-thinking machines, from the first printing press to the telephone, do not stay contemporary forever. Everything about the video below—from the green-screen environment to the spokespersons' clothes and hair—show exactly how dated (and expensive) the future can be.

Quantel products were designed and manufactured in Berkshire, England, in a factory that originally built parts for the Spitfire in World War II. Launched nine years before the release of Adobe Photoshop, there was no other graphics invention like it at the time. The paintbox retailed for £120,000 in the U.K. and approximately $240,000 in the U.S.. Despite its high cost and the fact that its 14-inch hard drive could store just 330 MB, the first-generation Paintbox became the 1980s TV and post-production industry standard and won many awards for its innovation and commercial success, with a major update not introduced until 1989.

Quantel’s intuitive "pen-driven interface was the best-in-class, and what the Paintbox offered would have been impossible to achieve without dedicated hardware." That hardware was unwieldy … and potentially fatal. Legend has it, a platter from the massive hard drive came loose, flew across the room and cut into the wall of the edit suite—but fortunately, no human or animal heads were severed.The Weather Channel was the first American purchaser, followed by the major networks such as NBC and ABC. In the 1984 New York Times article quoted above, Roger Goodman, director of production development for ABC News and Sports, said, ''It used to be that we had a staff of artists who drew and drew. But with the Paintbox, an artist can come up with a graphic in 15 minutes that used to take two days."Many independent video post-production companies sprang up in the 1980s to service large-budget video, advertising and music video clients. Paintbox was central to many of these facilities, and notable projects completed on it include The Cars' "You Might Think," which was included in MoMA's first exhibition of music videos in 1985, and Sting's 1985 Love is the Seventh Wave. Director Steve Barron explained, "I was keeping an eye on new technology, and this machine had just come out called Paintbox—you could paint on the frames or manipulate the frames, literally frame by frame. Me and a couple of friends bought one. That’s how the effect with the blacked-out background and Knopfler’s illuminated blazer, guitar and headband came about." Winning MTV's Video of the Year in 1986 was the best possible promotion for the Paintbox to both the public and creative professionals.

Renting time on a Paintbox was not cheap; in 1987, it cost $300 per hour, plus another $300 for the 'operator,' which made it out of reach for artists to learn how to create work that was of little interest to the art world, or art collectors. To give the opportunity for new, young artists to experiment and hopefully attract them into the digital art world, Quantel donated two Paintbox systems, which were relocated between six English art colleges every six
months. By the 1990s, Quantel had introduced a major video Paintbox update, an HDTV and print resolution graphic Paintbox, and several other computer graphic machines. It marked the high point of the company's profitability, size and market position, placing it in the top handful of broadcast vendors. The company had a global presence with major offices, staff and facilities on the East and West coasts of the U.S., in Paris, Tokyo, London, Seoul, Hong Kong and Sydney, plus other overseas resources. There was a private air operation—Quantel Aviation—based in Farnborough, which included a private Citation IV executive jet. However, due to a failed patent infringement lawsuit against Adobe's Photoshop, and as cheaper software-based products began to gain ground in Quantel's then-core businesses of compositing, graphics and news editing, the company was not able to maintain this position.Despite the hundreds sold across the world, there is believed to be only one surviving original series Paintbox, which is currently being restored and repaired by Mark Nias to mark the anniversary of its launch.

Among the memorable Paintbox artifacts left behind were the rash of what was known as "flying logos" (which reached an apex with AfterEffects). At design conferences I recall attending in the '80s, various critical debates raged over the ultimate efficacy of these motion graphics. Personally, I found them annoying. But I suspect they were an evolutionary speed bump in the highway of progress.

Posted inHistory The Daily Heller