Analogue Wayback, Ep. 17

The shape of your stomach.

The 1970s into the early 1990s was an era of significant experimentation and development in analog and digital video effects and animation. This included computer video art projects, broadcast graphics, image manipulation, and more. Denver-based Computer Image Corporation was both a hardware developer and a production company. Hardware included an advanced video switcher and the Scanimate computer animation system. The video switchers were optimized for compositing and an integral part of the system; however, it was the Scanimate analog computer that is most remembered.

Computer Image developed several models of Scanimate, which were also sold to other production companies, including Image West in Los Angeles (an offshoot of CI) and Dolphin Productions in New York. Dave Sieg, Image West’s former chief engineer, has a detailed website dedicated to preserving the history of this technology.

I interviewed for a job at Dolphin in the mid-1980s and had a chance to tour the facility. This was a little past the company’s prime, but they still had a steady stream of high-end ad agency and music video clients. Some of Dolphin’s best-known work included elements for PBS’ Sesame Street and The Electric Company, the show open for Washington Week in Review (PBS), news opens for NBC, CBS, and ABC News, as well as numerous national commercials. One memorial Pepto Bismal campaign featured actors that step forward from a live action scene. As they do, their body turns a greenish monochrome color and the stomach expands and becomes distorted.

Dolphin was situated in a five-story brownstone near Central Park. It had formerly housed a law practice. Behind reception on the ground floor was the videotape room, cleverly named Image Storage and Retrieval. The second floor consisted of an insert stage plus offices. Editing/Scanimate suites were on the third and fourth floors. What had been the fifth-floor law library now held the master videotape reels instead of books. A stairwell connected the floors and provided the cable runs to connect the electronics between rooms.

Each edit suite housed several racks of Scanimate and switcher electronics, the editor’s console, and client seating. At the time of my interview and tour, Dolphin had no computer-assisted linear edit controllers, such as CMX (these were added later). Cueing and editing was handled via communication between the editor and the VTR operator on the ground floor. They used IVC-9000 VTRs, which were 2″ helical scan decks. These are considered to have provided the cleanest image over multiple generations of any analog VTR ever produced.

Each suite could use up to four decks and animation was created by layering elements over each other from one VTR to the next. The operator would go round-robin from deck to deck. Play decks A/B/C and record onto D. Next pass, play B/C/D and record onto A to add more. Now, play C/D/A and record onto B for more again, and so on – until maybe as many as 20 layers were composited in sophisticated builds. Whichever reel the last pass ended up on was then the final version from that session. Few other companies or broadcasters possessed compatible IVC VTRs. So 2″ quad copies of the finished commercial or video were made from the 2″ helical and that’s the master tape a client left with.

This method of multi-pass layering is a technique that later took hold in other forms, such as the graphic design for TBS and CNN done by J. C. Burns and then more sophisticated motion layering by Charlex using the Abekas A-62. The concept is also the foundation for such recursive recording techniques as the preread edit function that Sony integrated into its D2 and Digital Betacam VTRs.

The path through Scanimate started with a high-resolution oscilloscope and companion camera. The camera signal was run through the electronics, which included analog controls and patching. Any image to be manipulated (transformed, moved, rotated, distorted, colorized) was sourced from tape, an insert stage camera, or a copy stand titling camera and displayed in monochrome on the oscilloscope screen. This image was re-photographed off of the oscilloscope screen by the high-resolution video camera and that signal sent into the rest of the Scanimate system.

Images were manipulated in two ways. First, the operator could use Scanimate to manipulate/distort the sweep of the oscilloscope itself, which would in turn cause the displayed image to distort. Once this distorted oscilloscope display was then picked up by the high-resolution camera, then the rest of Scanimate could be used to further alter that image through colorization and other techniques. Various keying and masking methods were used to add in each new element as layers were combined for the final composite.

Stability was of some concern since this was an analog computer. If you stopped for lunch, you might not be able to perfectly match what you had before lunch. The later Scanimate systems developed by Computer Image addressed this by using digital computers to control the analog computer hardware, making them more stable and consistent.

The companies evolved or went out of business and the Scanimate technology went by the wayside. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting facet of video history, much like that of the early music synthesizers. Even today, it’s hard to perfectly replicate the look of some of the Scanimate effects, in part, because today’s technology is too good and too clean! While it’s not a perfect analogy, these early forms of video animation offer a similar charm to the analog consoles, multitrack recorders, and vinyl cherished by many audiophiles and mixing engineers.

Check out this video at Vimeo if you want to know more about Scanimate and see it in action.

©2022 Oliver Peters