Analogue Wayback, Ep. 13

More corned beef, please.

In two decades of being freelance, I’ve done my share of on-site edits. Some are booked well in advance. Others start with a panicked call from a producer early in the morning.

It was a cold St. Patrick’s Day weekend in 2007. My friend – the producer – called on Friday morning with an urgent request. She was in Savannah doing a show for Spike TV to air that Saturday evening. It was a mix of Florida and New York crew, but the main editor was snowed in and couldn’t get a flight from New York to Savannah. Could I quickly drive up to Savannah as the main editor (out of two) to get the show on the air? So I tossed clothes in a bag and headed to Savannah, getting there by mid-afternoon.

If you’ve ever seen the Nathan’s Famous competitive hot dog eating contests, then you’ll get the drift. It was like that, featuring the same competitors, except that it was themed around St. Patrick’s Day. Think corned beef and cabbage instead of hot dogs. As with most “plausibly live” competition shows, there was a Friday and Saturday round, plus featurettes and graphics. The preliminary round was to be recorded Friday afternoon and then the final round on Saturday. The editors had to package the show into an hourlong competition to be fed up to Spike late on Saturday afternoon in time for network QC and an 8PM slot for air.

The event was set up in the River Street area with our two production trailers parked nearby. These contained the live control room and two Avid systems connected to Unity shared storage. The intent was to record the live rounds straight through an Avid to the Unity and then build the feature segments, clean up the live events, and package everything into a finished show formatted to network time.

I made it there in time to record the preliminary round, but immediately hit a hiccup. Every time I started the live ingest, Media Composer kicked out of record after less than a minute. After a bit of trial and error, I only recorded one channel of audio instead of two and it worked. Go figure. No big deal, since this was mono from the board feed anyway. We got it recorded, worked a bit into the evening, and had act one in the can.

The trailers had no shore power and ran off of generator power. The last thing the truck engineer did that night was to top off the diesel to make sure we would have plenty for the next day. He left the generator running with equipment power on, since it would be cold overnight. That way, we would be good to go for an early start on Saturday.

If you aren’t aware, St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah is a BIG deal. This meant an early call to avoid getting stuck in traffic headed to get a position for the parade. People had already been camping out on some of the city’s historic squares. We immediately saw upon arrival that the generator was now off. No power and it wouldn’t restart. Uh oh! After some frantic calls, the engineer finally located a generator repairman who was available and could actually get to our location without being stuck in traffic. We were finally up and running again by mid-morning – meaning a late start with a live contest to record and three more acts to cut. The day proceeded according to plan and we were working as fast as possible. But it was getting close to the drop-dead time to feed a final (to length) file to NYC.

Fortunately, this director was very trusted by the network, so they granted him some leeway. We were able to feed later without any network QC review and the show was allowed to run fat in length. However, this meant I was still working on the final act leading up to showtime, because of the late start. We finally fed the fourth segment while the show was already starting to air and made it with minutes to spare. Plausibly live was nearly live for real!

These competitive eating contests can be cringe-worthy, but given the St. Patrick’s Day theme, this one was even more so. At the crew dinner that night, our director – who had directed many MMA broadcasts – opined, that although he’d seen many disgusting things, this one might have topped them all!

©2022 Oliver Peters

Analogue Wayback, Ep. 12

The smoke was so thick…

One of the many things that’s changed for the better is that smoking is no longer common nor even allowed within most video facilities and recording studios. Watch any of the documentaries about legendary music studios or more recently Peter Jackson’s “Get Back” and it will strike you how prevalent smoking was – even around sensitive gear.

When I joined Century III, our first facility (prior to Universal Studios) was the former Bee Jay Recording Studios, which had its own classic rock history. We remodeled most of the building, but left some of the original studio control rooms intact, including all of the smaller B Studio. One of the essential tasks was to clean the windows, whose double-pane glass was quite hazy. Carefully removing them revealed years of nicotine build-up on the inside from cigarette (and other?) smoke that had seeped in through the wooden walls. You can only imagine that any delicate electronics and even patch bays suffered from the same fate.

Most of our clients weren’t heavy smokers or at least had the courtesy to step outside for a smoke break. However, smoking was still not verboten at that time and we endeavored to accommodate clients in any reasonable manner. The online edit suites at our brand new Universal facility were larger and designed to handle plenty of clients in a session. The suites include a raised platform for a producer’s desk and behind that, a large sofa and arm chair. That was the scene for one of our more uncomfortable sessions.

The booked session was for a large corporate presentation involving a short turnaround with some long nights. It was supervised by an older producer, who was a heavy smoker, and his younger associate producer. One of the other editors started out the session, but after the first day the client complained that the editor was too slow. So I pulled the short straw and continued the session in his place.

If this wasn’t the session from hell, then it was close. First of all, the senior producer spent much of the session making demeaning comments about various people. You know it will be over soon, so you just buckle down to get through it. As we worked later into the evening, he simply fell asleep during the session. Then, it was mainly the associate producer and myself – finally we could make progress.

If that wasn’t bad enough, the senior producer was a heavy smoker. He was planted in the arm chair the entire time with an ash tray resting on the arm. As he smoked, he would flick ashes from the cigarette in the general direction of the tray, missing it most of the time. Therefore, on the carpet around the chair leg was a rather large circle of cigarette ash. Although the suites were large with tall ceilings, the smoke simply accumulated. There was quite literally a fog in the room. If you looked from the hallway door across the room towards the window into the machine room, the view was pretty hazy.

Fortunately we got through the session and thankfully never saw them again. I know my colleague wasn’t and isn’t a slow editor, so I didn’t think their criticism was ever justified. But I’ve often joked to him that he must have been purposefully going slow just to get away from this awful client!

©2022 Oliver Peters

Analogue Wayback, Ep. 11

Bumping your capstan.

I started out editing in an era of wrestling edits out of quad VTRs, so I tend to have less concern when there’s an issue with some plug-in. Not that it can’t be a problem, but it’s just one more indication of how far the industry has come.

In the 70s and 80s, the minimum configuration of an online edit bay involved three VTRs, a switcher, audio mixer, and the edit controller. Two VTRs were for playback and the third was what you edited onto. You needed both players to make a dissolve. If there was only one camera reel, then before starting the session, the editor would often make a complete copy (dub) of that camera reel. Once copied, you now had the A-Roll (camera original) and a B-Roll Dub to work from. You could roll A and B together and make a dissolve in a single pass, laying down clip 1 and clip 2 with the dissolve in-between. If it was a series of dissolves, then this required matched-frame edits in order to dissolve from the end of clip 2 to clip 3, then the same from clip 3 to clip 4, and so on.

To be completely seamless, the matched-frame edits had to be perfect. There’s the rub. In simple terms, NTSC and PAL are systems where the color signal rides on top of the black-and-white signal. This involves a colorburst signal and a sync pulse. NTSC follows a cadence of 4 fields (2 interlaced frames) in which the phase of the signal repeats every other frame. This cadence is known as the color frame sequence. When you play back a recording and the VTR first achieves servo-lock, it can lock up usually in one of two phase conditions as it syncs with the house sync generator. This slightly affects the horizontal position of the picture. 

If you record clip 1 and the VTR locks in one horizontal position, then when you make the matched-frame edit onto the end of clip 1, the VTR has to lock up again in that same position. If not, then there will be a slight, but noticeable, horizontal shift at the edit point. It’s a 50/50 probability of where the deck locks up. Some of the Ampex decks featured a bit more control, but the RCA TR-600 models that we were using tended to be sloppier. If you got an H-shift at the edit, you simply repeated the edit (sometimes several times) until it was right.

The facility hired a sharp young chief engineer who took it upon himself to create a viable workaround, since RCA was never going to fix it. His first step was to add an LED onto the front of one of the circuit boards as an indicator. This was visible to the editor when the VTR panels were open. This indicator could be monitored through the glass that separated the edit suite from the VTRs. Polarity condition 1, LED on. Condition 2, LED off. His next step was to add a remote switch for each player VTR next to the edit console. The editor could trigger it to “bump” the capstan control. This would cause the VTR to unlock and quickly relock its playback.

If the LED was on when recording the first part of the clip, then on the second edit the VTR would need to lock with the LED on, as well. If so, you’d achieve a successful matched-flame edit without any H-shift. Quad VTRs would lock up in anywhere from under one up to ten seconds or longer. The editor would monitor the LED status and could control the preroll length, which was generally five seconds for the TR-600s. During a matched-frame edit, if the condition was wrong, hit the switch and hope that the deck would lock up correctly before the end of the preroll. Otherwise lengthen the preroll time. This process worked better than expected and quickly became second nature.

At the risk of moving into the “kids, get off my lawn” territory, young editors clearly don’t know the fun they are missing with today’s modern nonlinear edit systems!

©2022 Oliver Peters

Analogue Wayback, Ep. 10

Color correction all stems from a slab of beef.

Starting out as an online editor at a production and post facility included working on a regional grocery chain account. The production company had a well-oiled “assembly line” process worked out with the agency in order to crank out 40-80 weekly TV commercials, plus several hundred station dubs. Start on Tuesday shooting product in the studio and recording/mixing tracks. Begin editing at the end of the day and overnight in time for agency review Wednesday morning. Make changes Wednesday afternoon and then copy station dubs overnight. Repeat the process on Thursday for the second round of the week.

The studio product photography involved tabletop recording of packaged product, as well as cooked spreads, such as a holiday turkey, a cooked steak, or an ice cream sundae. There was a chef on contract, so everything was real and edible – no fake stylist food there! Everything was set up on black or white sweep tables or large rolling, flat tables that could be dressed in whatever fashion was needed.

The camera was an RCA TK-45 with a short zoom lens and was mounted on a TV studio camera pedestal. This was prior to the invention of truly portable, self-contained video cameras. For location production, the two-piece TKP-45 was also used. It was tethered to our remote production RV.

This was a collaborative production, where our DP/camera operator handled lighting and the agency producers handled props and styling. The videotape operator handled the recording, camera set-up, and would insert retail price graphics (from art cards and a copy stand camera) during the recording of each take. Agency producers would review, pick takes, and note the timecode on the script. This allowed editors to assemble the spots unsupervised overnight.

Since studio recording was not a daily affair, there was no dedicated VTR operator at first. This duty was shared between the editors and the chief engineer. When I started as an editor, I would also spend one or two days supporting the studio operation. A big task for the VTR operator was camera set-up, aka camera shading. This is the TV studio equivalent to what a DIT might do today. The camera control electronics were located in my room with the videotape recorder, copy stand camera, and small video switcher.

Television cameras feature several video controls. The iris and pedestal knobs (or joysticks) control black level (pedestal) and brightness/exposure (iris). The TK-45 also included a gain switch, which increased sensitivity (0, +3dB, or +6dB), and a knob called black stretch. The latter would stretch the shadow area much like a software shadows slider or a gamma control today. Finally, there were RGB color balance controls for black and white. In normal operation, you would point the camera at a “chip chart” (grayscale chart) and balance RGB so that the image was truly black and white as measured on a waveform scope. The VTR operator/camera shader would set up the camera to the chart and then only adjust pedestal and iris throughout the day. 

Unfortunately not all food – especially raw ham, beef, or a rare steak – looks great under studio lighting nor in the world of NTSC color. Thankfully, RCA had also developed a camera module called the Chromaproc (chroma processor). This was a small module on the camera control unit that allowed you to adjust RGBCMY – the six vectors of the color spectrum. The exact details are hard to find now, but if I remember correctly, there were switches to enable each of the six vector controls. Below that were six accompanying hue control pots, which required a tweaker (small screwdriver) to adjust. When a producer became picky about the exact appearance of a rare steak and whether or not it looked appetizing, then you could flick on the Chromaproc and slightly shift the hues with the tweaker to get a better result. Thus you were “painting” the image.

RCA used this chroma processing technology in their cameras and telecine controls. The company eventually developed a separate product that predated any of the early color correctors, like the Wiz (the original device from which DaVinci was spawned). In addition to RGB color balance of the lift/gamma/gain ranges, you could further tweak the saturation and hue of these six vectors, which we now refer to as secondary color correction. The missing ingredients were memory, recall, and list management, which were added by the subsequent developers in their own products. This latter augmentation led to high-profile patent lawsuits, which have now largely been forgotten.

And so when I talk about color correction to folks, I’ll often tell them that everything I know about it was learned by shading product shots for grocery commercials!

©2022 Oliver Peters

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