What Are You Lookin' At?

You might not have noticed, but … nobody's really watching. And by nobody, I mean you.

Even though it's your job, I think a lot of you aren't looking. At a scope, a waveform monitor, a phase meter, vector or even the ol' VU. I'll bet dollars to donuts you aren't watching.

Why? Because you don't really have to.

Sure, if you're one o' them FCC-licensed geniuses, well, you're signing your name to a legal document, so I guess maybe you're watching. Once in a while.

But as for the rest of us, just down in the trenches makin' pictures, uhh … no. Not so much. No one seems to care, and pictures still seem to come out the other end of the wire, regardless.

Fact is, every step of the way, from the moment a tiny speck of light or whispered sigh leaves its point of origin, we've got an automatic circuit watching, measuring, adjusting, watching some more. I call these the "watchers." Like the saying goes, the watchers watch so you don't have to.

But who's watching the watchers?


There was a time when every engineer--heck, every TV production professional--knew how to read and interpret a waveform monitor. It wasn't easy; the idea that a green trace on a CRT could reveal secrets about vertical, horizontal, light, dark, color and timing… whew. Talk about abstract. But with a little practice, it became second nature; and no matter what stories we told everybody else, it wasn't rocket science.

So why, then, have we stopped watching? A bunch o' reasons, seems to me.

Let's start with "the automatics" … auto gain, auto iris, auto white balance, auto loudness. Those are my favorites when it come to blame. Now, these circuits aren't your grandaddy's old Automatic Level Control designs--voltage gets big, gain goes down. This is digital, buddy boy, and we all know that computers don't get things wrong. Sliding gamma scales, tapered slew rates … hard-coded in a chip, computed in real time. It's not gonna be wrong – why should I watch it? And even if I wanteda to change it, I bet those naughty automatic circuits wouldn't let me.

Reason number two: It's closer to rocket science than it used to be. In fact, I'd suspect the Mission Control folks would freak out if they saw what we're expected to monitor. It's not as simple as that ol' analog waveform; the colorimetry and high-def pulses are way beyond that. In the digital domain, we're looking at high-bandwidth transmission streams, compressed, muxed and demuxed … what is that, really? And don't even start with 8-VSB … the RF side of things taxes my wetware to the max.


Finally, the third big reason … big as the elephant in the living room … laziness. Sloth. A "cardinal sin," as I recall. If I can't see anything wrong, and I'm not afraid of getting fired, why bother? What's in it for me?

Looks to me like only three of my engineering brethren are ever gonna need to pretend they're watching: the shader on a multicamera shoot; the post-production colorist; and ol' Hank up the mountain at the transmitter site. The rest of us need to conserve our energy--hey, it takes time to read a fine magazine like this one here. And those donuts aren't going to eat themselves.

Here's a quick quiz, to help determine whether you're a watcher, a watcher-watcher, or just lazy. Take out your Crayolas and make a quick sketch depicting each of the following: Parade, waterfall, bow tie, lightning, eye, arrowhead, diamond. Gotcha!

You thought those were English-language words, but they're actually all names of monitoring waveforms and patterns. Didn't know that? Impostor! Masquerading as a production tech or engineer, but unwilling to do the work … the serious work of holding every aspect of production, from picture aesthetics to technical purity to delivery, to the highest quality possible.

Don't have the gear? You need to get the gear. Whether it's the gorgeous, soup-to-nuts rackmount analyzer, or a software solution that runs on your computer--get equipped, get trained, and get serious. This ain't a spectator sport; time to stop watching the watchers, and take control.