Analogue Wayback, Ep. 9

The evolution of typography in the edit suite.

As a kid my mom worked at a small town newspaper. Although offset (photographic) printing was becoming the norm, they still used old Linotype presses. This gave me an insight into typography. There are plenty of videos on YouTube explaining Linotype presses, but the short explanation is that you type a sentence on its custom keyboard and the press uses a master set of that typeface to create slugs for a line of type. Slugs are comparable to the key slugs on an old mechanical typewriter, except these are the full sentence in a row instead of individual letters.

The process uses molten lead to form these slugs, which are molded and cool as they exit the device. An operator then aligns the slugs on a tray that forms the layout for a page. Once inked, these print the text onto paper – for example, a newspaper page. To change fonts requires replacing the tray of one master typeface with a different tray.

Prior to this semi-automated system, type was laid out by hand using individual letter slugs. One advantage to the Linotype press over hand was that you only needed a single character set, rather than individual slugs with a ton of additional letters. You wouldn’t run out of the letter E, for example. The hand printing process points to the origin of the terms kerning (space between individual letters) and leading (space between lines of text – originally using lead spacers).

My first TV job was as an audio operator/booth announcer on the evening shift at a PBS station. With downtime between program breaks, we also prepared title cards to be used for the studio productions. This was prior to the general availability of electronic character generation. Titles were typically black cards with white text. The cards were shot with one camera and then keyed over another shot, such as for lower thirds. If you liked arts and crafts in elementary school, then this was right up your alley! 

To create a lower third title card, you started with tabbed booklets of individual white letters on a black background – sort of like a stack of Post-it notes. Tear off a letter or a spacer and place it with the backside facing out into a special ruler-like guide to build a line of text. Once the little paper tabs are properly aligned and that name complete, run double-stick tape across the back. Then place the row of text onto the black card, sticking it with the tape. Since the edges of the torn paper tabs are white, the last step is to take a black Sharpie pen and ink out any specks of white that aren’t text. Whew!

My first editing gig at a real post house was still prior to electronic titling being common. What gear was available created terribly crude-looking text on screen. In our case, graphics and/or titles were integrated into the edit using cameras or a slide projector connected into a film chain (telecine island). It was common for edit suites to include one or more black-and-white “titling” cameras that were vertically mounted on a stand with lighting. Place the black-and-white card on the table, manually straighten the card by eye or a grid while viewing a monitor, and use the camera’s zoom lens to scale the graphic.

Our biggest client was a regional grocery chain and there was a whole process at the facility to efficiently crank out multiple weekly “price & item” commercials. No electronic method at that time would support graphics like “$3.99/lb, Limit 3 per customer” in different typefaces, font sizes, kerning, or proportions. So we had an art department that generated art cards for the main titles ($3.99/lb), as well as 35mm slides for the smaller disclaimer text (Limit 3 per customer).

Even when electronic systems like Chyron were introduced, the early systems could not generate clean, anti-aliased text with infinite size options. The ability to generate extra small “mouse type”, like a retail disclaimer, only came later with more advanced product versions. The shop’s engineer had rigged up a home brew slide system that fed one side of our film chain. It used a standard Kodak 35mm projector mounted on a platform with thumbs screws for leveling. A thin strip of art tape was placed on the safe title line of the monitor for visual alignment. The editors could easily line up the slides, both centered and level. That certainly sounds crude today, but it was a bit of old school ingenuity that resulted in quality text on screen for the time.

The next time you are wrestling with that titler plug-in, just be glad you don’t have to run into the next room to level the graphic. Or to wait an hour while the art department makes a change or fixes a typo!

©2022 Oliver Peters