The Daily Heller: Tales Of the Paintbox Wars

Posted inThe Daily Heller
Thumbnail for The Daily Heller: Tales Of the Paintbox Wars

After publishing a Daily Heller on the 40th anniversary of the Quantel Paintbox, I heard from a veteran of the Paintbox Wars—Beau Tardy, of Dizzy Worldwide Promotions, currently a digital artist, video editor and director who worked as an MTV, VH1 and Nickelodeon artist/designer in the early cable TV days. He generously offered to fill in some missing links in the history of the tool. Including why the on-screen output looked the way it did.

(Warning: If you get headaches or seizures from looking at ultra-quick–cut/montage videos, do NOT watch these promos, bumpers and motion graphics; ask a friend to describe them to you.)

Tardy writes: He used the Paintbox starting in the late '80s at local TV stations, and then worked at MTV in New York where his department did most of the famously frenetic MTV IDs using Paintboxes. "Adrian Wilson and I were talking about how hard it was for actual artists to get their hands on the early computers because they were so expensive.

"In my case in the U.S. the unions did not allow non-union members access to any TV production gear, which the Paintbox fell under," Tardy explains. "I had to struggle to get my hands on one but it took several years because only 'engineers' were allowed to use them.

"If you want to know why early TV [digital] graphics all look the same, it is because they were made by engineers and not artists."

See some of Tardy's work for MTV, VH1 and Nick here.

As this chapter of motion and digital design history has not been widely integrated into the canon, I asked Tardy a few follow-up questions:

When did digital hardware and software begin to make a more creative impact?

I believe the late '80s was a watershed moment. Siggraph was starting to show computer graphics made by artists (at universities, typically) and companies like Pixar and Pacific Data Images were beginning to venture into storytelling. Clients realized that they wanted commercials that were more flashy and less stiff. Cherry Coke done by Charlex in NYC (1986) was a groundbreaking commercial at the time that used Paintbox in addition to other gear to achieve a 'collage' look. Then Michael Jackson came out with the "Leave Me Alone" video (1989), which used the same technique.

Did the unions relent and eventually ease their tight grip on non-members?

Yes, eventually when the demand became greater for operators that actually knew how to design. It's my understanding that the big TV networks were the first to purchase these machines, which were exorbitantly expensive. These networks were heavily unionized (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE). When more nonaffiliated independent post-production facilities were coming online is when real designers started to be hired. In order to get a project accepted, it needed to be storyboarded first and then approved by the production department, who would then allocate time on the machines.

How did you feel when you first used the Paintbox? Was it an epiphany of sorts?

My first time was at WWL-TV4 in New Orleans in 1987, and the operator at the time just threw me into the fire and said, "OK, fix this logo." It was for a TV commercial and the client had given us his business card, and we had to lift the logo off of that (typical at the time). I was excited and very nervous because I didn't know what to do, but the operator (whose name I unfortunately forget) was very gracious and stepped me through it. The Paintbox was very intuitive to learn for an artist, as the computer side of things was completely invisible. It was easier than Photoshop is today, to be completely honest. Of course, Photoshop has much higher resolution, but still does not have a video interface. You could literally control video tape machines from the menu on Paintbox.