A freelance graphic designer can now accomplish what used to require the resources of an entire department.
When I started at the BBC in the early '80s, the graphics department included two guys whose sole job was to draw and paint text. That's right — no desktop printers, no Macs. If you needed text, you told them what was needed, and they drew it to the appropriate size in the font chosen. Need six-point text? Out came the fine paintbrushes and the magnifying glass. Need 400-point text? Out came the 2in decorator's brush. The most impressive thing was that the font was drawn perfectly; many of the parallel lines in fonts such as Helvetica are actually converging, as it makes the font more aesthetically pleasing. Unfortunately, for these highly skilled artists, technology soon made them obsolete.
In a short period of time, we've seen the rise of desktop machines, particularly the ubiquitous Mac for designers, along with the PC and desktop printers, which are all capable of providing amazing quality at low prices. Where are we now then? Well, hardware costs are the lowest ever in terms of the power/cost ratio, with off-the-shelf desktop machines outperforming the custom machines of yesterday. Software is also relatively cheap, although some may baulk at the cost of plug-ins, which can cost more than the host software.
Some of today's tools
The sophistication of TV graphics is partly driven by budget. As software gains features and hardware costs plummet, it is amazing what can be achieved for relatively small budgets. Directors see special effects in blockbuster movies and want similar effects in their television programs. TV channel managers see high-end commercials and want the same look in their promos and channel branding elements. Here are some of the players.
For designers, the Adobe suite is still the king. After Effects continues to grow stronger. The latest revision, version 7, resolves a user interface that was becoming frustratingly cluttered. Windows now lock in position, and the effects and rendering palettes finally stay where users put them.
With the introduction of Creative Suite 2, Adobe added a connection to Bridge. Bridge allows users to access project files, applications and settings, and provides project-based searching, file organization and sharing. After Effects 7 includes a range of presets, which is useful for new users, users who are in a rush or users looking for inspiration. Animated previews speed the selection process.
These are all based on standard effects, but all are easily tweakable. For video editors and other nondesigners, these presets allow a great jumping-off point for exciting graphics elements, further thinning the line between professions. Adobe's range of text reveal and animation presets allow users with little knowledge of animation techniques to create complex effects. Expanded support for file formats and Flash video, and an improved graphical keyframe editor, are further improvements to an old classic.
Many will be eagerly awaiting the native versions of Intel, promised for 2007. Adobe's CS2 line also includes Dreamweaver 8, which, along with Flash, was Macromedia's star product prior to its acquisition by Adobe. Where this leaves GoLive, Adobe's Web editor, can only be guessed at, but surely a merging of Macromedia's products into the core of Adobe's range can't be too far off.
Speaking of Apple, Final Cut Pro marches on. FCP Studio is a good value for the money. The HD editor is packaged with a suite of programs, including audio editor and music composition tool Soundtrack Pro, as well as DVD Studio, a pro-level DVD authoring tool that's simple enough for beginners. Why make VHS copies when you can provide the client with a shiny DVD, along with a polished interface? FCP includes Motion 2, the much-needed update to Apple's motion graphics product.
The original Motion, while interesting to look at, was, in my opinion, too slow for complex solutions. The new upgrade turbo-charges things. Again, Motion is a tool that allows less-skilled operators to produce tasteful, usable graphics. It's good for video editors wishing to expand their creative horizons. Seamless integration between these tools makes the creative flow a more enjoyable experience.
Apple has updated its compositor, Shake, to version 4.1. Shake provides universal binary operation for Intel/Mac support at a price less than After Effects.
One of the benefits of working on a nonproprietary platform is the wealth of programs available, adding a huge array of effects to the designer's palette. E-on's Vue series has the ability to create photorealistic landscapes. The imminent release of version 6 should move this powerhouse on to even greater things. Import and export of motion tracking and camera data add to its integration with 3-D and After Effects.
Designers benefit from these product releases, not just because of the extra features, but also because of the way these products integrate. Often the updates provide the freedom to adapt a project during an edit without needing to start again. The old rigid workflows of offline, then audio and graphics, then an online conform and composite, are eliminated. This more interactive workflow allows any element to be easily changed during the creative process. These new software solutions enable a cross-disciplinary approach. With this, an editor can add graphics, or the designer can edit a sequence together.
For a freelance designer, the lack of an IT department for support can be a potential disadvantage. Downtime and software maintenance is lost creative time. However, there are some utilities that can help.
For example, FCP Rescue has saved me a lot of time resetting my preferences when I've had to trash my FCP settings. Onyx keeps my Mac humming along nicely.
Other useful utilities include Discus version 4, which provides fine CD printing. Now I can easily create professional prints onto my CDs and DVDs, which is great for impressing clients.
Cinematize has proved invaluable to extract footage from a DVD sent by clients.
None of these utilities are graphic design tools, but one of the benefits of using a desktop machine is the array of programs that make life easier, even if they aren't your primary tools.
Having these software solutions available at great prices opens up the world of creative design to many who would otherwise struggle to enter the industry. And the packages allow highly creative people to show what they're really capable of. We old folks benefit, too, when we combine this new technology with our experience, creating new and exciting ways of working outside our traditional fields of expertise.
The current generation of software and hardware enables a more flexible way of working that has transformed TV graphics. With the blurring of roles between editor, graphics operator and compositer, graphics and effects sequences can now be seamlessly mixed with live action in ways that were difficult and expensive with previous tools.
Consider a linear edit suite. The editor had a CG for lower thirds and basic titles, plus a DVE for some fancy page turns. Anything more complex had to be prepared in advance and cut into the sequence. Today, a graphic artist can mix vector and raster graphics, and add animation and live video, bouncing between applications to complete the project without compromise.
For the broadcaster, the option to use a freelance graphic artist with a commodity laptop or desktop machine, instead of using an in-house department, means better and less expensive graphics. The desire to provide movie-style special effects and the need for powerful branding messages can now be met at a cost within the budget of many multichannel programmers and not just reserved for prime networks.
So how far have we come since I started in television? Well we can now composite 2K images in real time on a laptop, produce bureau-quality prints on a printer costing less than €150 and create photorealistic landscapes on our desktop. How's that for change?
Steve Archbold is a freelance visual effects artist/director based in London.