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[Nettime-bold] Programming with a Paintbrush: The Last Interactive Workstation

Programming with a Paintbrush:
A Study in the Production Culture of the Moving Image

July, 1999

(An edited version of this essay appears in the next issue of Filmwaves
no. 12
This is the very long version...).

Since the beginning of the eighties the British company Quantel Ltd has
managed to maintain a reputation that has made it almost synonymous with
the limits of what is possible in digital post-production and broadcast
special effects work. More remarkable is the fact that this success is
based on an interface design that was introduced in 1981 and has
remained largely unchanged to the present day. The intention of the
company to provide a completely dedicated computer hardware that can
provide instant feedback and unequalled image processing speeds has
resulted in a completely different experience of the creative process
for the user, and one that is about to end in several important

In the hierarchy of post-production equipment, Quantel machines are like
the Rolls Royce, their nearest rivals being Discrete Logic's Silicon
Graphics based Fire and Flame family. They are the machines that led to
the fashion in the eighties of designers carrying the distinctive
Quantel pens around in their top pockets when they went out to the local
wine bars, like a little calling card that could guarantee the respect
due to someone working at the dizzy high-end of mission critical
advertising schedules and high profile pop promos. These are the people
who are selected by facilities houses not only for their technical
proficiency and creative flair but also for their client manner, their
ability to shoulder the anxieties of pressured art directors and satisfy
indecisive advertising executives. A top Quantel operator justifies
their telephone number salary by selling confidence of a particularly
rarefied sort. For when you are working at a level of production which
is premised on the assumption that this is the best that money can buy
and that technology can dare then you are trading on a dream, a dream
best characterised by the Japanese media theorist Asada Akira as the
meaning of technology itself – "When we find something impossible, we do

Now we appear to be reaching the culmination of the desktop computer era
when large standalone systems like a Quantel look increasingly
anachronistic. But this is because of a lack of appreciation of the
production culture it was designed for rather than it being outpaced by
technological development. Desktop computer graphics systems have tended
to advance in terms of an increasing number of features which are
interactively controlled through interfaces such as layers and timelines
to assemble material like the fitting together of the pieces of a jigsaw
puzzle. Complicated image processing techniques are available as menu
options with familiar sounding names in order to provide the user with
an "intuitive" interface. This logic has become well known to most
artists and designers involved in digital production, but its premises
of a tool for every style are challenged by the less familiar history of
dedicated hardware based turnkey systems of which the Quantel range is
the leading example. For Quantel operation is both intuitive and
technical, its range of features is small yet its range of application
is large, its interface is highly interactive and gestural yet it
requires a highly systematic degree of working and logical forward
planning to complete a job successfully. The characterisation of these
systems need different criteria than that of being either interactive or
script based, having an intuitive or a logical work flow or in the sheer
number of effects available to the user. We need criteria that also
allow a systems technical design to be put into its cultural and
commercial context more clearly so that the force of its influence can
be accounted for. When you learn to use a computer graphics system you
are learning a practice rather than a toolbox of techniques as such.
This practice is encoded into the technology as input contexts, devices,
menus, parameter values, controls and so on. The practice in turn
supports and expresses itself through a production culture - its working
methods, commercial imperatives and aesthetic values. How these
different levels relate to each other, whether they are really separate
at all and how a computer graphics system can form its own aesthetic
even when the technical potential of different systems are basically the
same are the questions we will explore here.

A single Quantel system can set you back anything between one hundred
thousand and half a million pounds, so it should come as no surprise
that they are not as common as "lower end" graphics systems. But this
only adds to their mystique of course. Normally housed in a large plush
studio with well dressed staff, comfy sofas and blue mineral water
dispensers, every effort is made to produce an environment in which you
could believe that the consummate achievements of human culture are
being created. But costing an average of 600 GBP an hour plus extras, a
Quantel based production still seems a distant possibility for the vast
majority of directors apart from minor work on the briefest effects
shots. For many years during the late eighties and early nineties the
desire among many independent film and video makers and animators to
gain time on a Quantel machine became a palpable envy leading to
widespread embitteredness and inferiority complexes.

This inevitable inaccessibility of the machine itself is paradoxically
combined with an extremely high visibility of its end product. The
majority of TV advertisements and nearly all of the ones relying on
highly stylised visuals have extensive work done on them by one or more
of the Quantel systems. Added to this we have graphic animation
sequences on pop promos, on channel idents and stings, also documentary
and news graphics, title sequences of all kinds as well as the corporate
video sector. If we remember that many stills images for advertising
billboards, magazines and posters are produced on the Paintbox system
then we can start to see that Quantel equipment is responsible for much
of the landscape of visual media we take for granted. As their publicity
states, "Quantel is already inescapably part of your life". Although the
status of the company as a cultural flagship in commercial image making,
its eclectic origins and historic battles with its rivals that at one
point threatened the future of half of the computer graphics industry
itself would form an instructive lesson in the cultural politics of
media technology, my intention here is just to focus on the
technological basis of Quantel's success. For it is possible even in the
implementation of the basic processing functions and the interface
design of its equipment to find many of the characteristics necessary to
understand the practice it is intended for and its wider impact on
moving image culture. Its innovations in interactive interface
technology have had a particular influence on a very small but very
significant production sector, and its creative processes and aesthetic
values have in turn set cultural standards in commercial video
production for nearly two decades.

Although Quantel currently manufacture a range of systems from the
newest Editbox designed for online editing, the Henry for special
effects and Hal for videographic design, their basic functionality
remains largely the same. Their main differences are in certain features
that change the orientation of their production environments, but if
pushed there are ways of getting the same results whichever system you
use, and such are the similarities that after having trained up on one
of them it is a relatively painless matter to learn one of the others.
In fact the most noticeable thing about a hardware based Quantel system
is that compared to a software based system like Adobe's After Effects
or Softimage's Eddie the range of available functions and features is
remarkably small.

Since the mid nineties developments in increased processor speed and
disk capacity have created the field of desktop video production and non
linear editing as a low end alternative to specialised workstations.
Although these systems cannot normally equal the fast rendering times,
video quality or integration and configurability of the high end
equipment, the software that they run can incorporate many professional
features and effects. A very common package used at this level of the
industry is Adobe After Effects which now comes with a vast array of
image filters and processes, keyframe animation facilities and
compositing options for special effects and post production. Given that
a software based system like After Effects can be up to one hundred
times cheaper than a Quantel system, it would seem reasonable to ask
just what it is that people are getting for their money. An advantage of
software based systems is that it is relatively easy to write new code
to expand the package to include new features, often sold as plug-in
extras. On a hardware based system you have to write the code and also
design and build new logic circuits and incorporate them into the
existing architecture. Users of desktop based systems are quick to point
out that software based packages have an extensive range of functions
that far outstrip those available on a Quantel machine. The most obvious
difference between the two classes of systems is speed – a hardware
based system will always be faster than a software based one, and
building those specialised processors and circuit boards dedicated to
image processing is not cheap. But this difference can be deceptive. We
can argue that when we are rendering a special effects sequence it can
make little difference whether it takes two hours or twenty hours – you
will probably still have to leave it to render overnight while you go
home to bed. Even if this means tying up a machine for a whole day while
you wait for it to finish, PC and Mac computers are so cheap nowadays
that you could go out and buy another one to work on with the petty
cash. So if a half million pound Quantel Henry won't do as much as a one
grand copy of After Effects then what is all the fuss about?

If you tell a Quantel employee that your company does all its high
quality advertising campaigns on a Mac and a copy of After Effects then
they will ask you how many of those were "top end jobs". The implication
is that at the top level of video production there exist a somewhat
different range of priorities and standards. These take several
different forms. Reliability is cited as an important feature of
production equipment, but in this respect Quantel machines are really as
vulnerable as any other. Quality is also frequently mentioned, usually
interpreted as being the ability to work with uncompressed video and in
the accuracy of various image processing operations. But there are many
software based systems now offering high quality rendering and perfect
image quality is not always necessary in every production sector.

Although speed is a factor in finishing a project on time, in a top end
production environment it operates in a different context. Much of the
work at facilities houses takes place while the client is present, so
the speed at which the designer can respond to a director's instructions
is a primary issue. Sometimes the brief involves perhaps animating to a
storyboard and would involve designers working on their own on the
different elements ready to be presented and approved at a later date.
But the job is still broken down in separate parts as far as possible to
allow more flexibility to respond to changes later. This is a main
advantage of digital production, that a project is fragmented into
different parts that can be disassembled and reassembled over and over
again without sacrificing its structural integrity. And Quantel systems
allow these different parts to be swapped around, processed, re-coloured
and re-timed almost on the fly and in the presence of the client. A
desktop based After Effects production could not provide the rendering
speed and instant feedback necessary to keep up with a client who
expects to be able to direct the work as it happens. Every moment that
the production is taking place away from the direct gaze and supervision
of the director is a moment of anxious anticipation for him or her.
Quantel equipment gives the director more of a feeling that the
programme is being put together under their direct control, allowing
constant dialogue with the operator and receiving instant visual
feedback. Therefore, at least while the client is on site, an ideal of
real-time production is always desired.

Once all the individual shots, effects footage, graphics elements and
animation layers have been prepared they are all brought together in the
presence of the client in a grandiose final creative act with the help
of a high end effects and editing system, typically a Quantel. The
working methods of facilities and production houses can be characterised
then by a de-centralised production process with a centralised final
online event. The machine's speed of rendering and of design and editing
is therefore crucial in maintaining this standard of client interface
and the illusion that the most pregnant creative moment takes place in
front of the assembled eyes of director, advertising agent and corporate
client as they lounge around on deep sofas and sip freshly squeezed
orange juice. It is this kind of environment and approach to creativity
in a commercial context that Quantel equipment has helped to create and
maintain. The simulation of creative control. The way that Quantel have
developed its technology to cope with these demands have lead it to a
particular approach to the implementation of the creative process, the
aesthetics of the interface and implications for the whole relationship
between human and computer.

The Quantel interface for video editing is not timeline based but
presents the footage as strips of video on a cutting reel or piles of
frames on a desktop. Details differ between each machine but editing is
achieved by cutting shots with a stroke of the pen or stylus, picking
them up and sticking them end to end. Layering is achieved by picking
shots up and placing them directly over other shots. The first
impression a beginner gets from using the machine is the degree to which
the interface relies on the physical gestures of the use of the pen.
Depending on the context and the particular way you move, the pen can
pick up, drop, drag, swipe, cut, stroke, paint, jog and shuttle. The
tablet is also very sensitive which means that you can use pen pressure
to input numerical values into the computer with a reasonable degree of
exactitude. In fact, nearly every parameter, numerical or character
based, can be input into the system using the stylus rather than typing
them in using the keyboard. Many software based systems offer this
option as well by using slider displays and dial icons, but in a Quantel
system the ergonomics are quite different. Instead of keyboard typing or
adjusting graphical indicators you are literally "painting in" the
values by stroking the pen up and down the tablet and watching the image
change in more or less real time. Combined with holding a somewhat less
sexy handset of buttons or "rat" in your other hand, this arrangement
makes for an unusually high degree of physical involvement with the
machine which in turn reinforces the other "hand made" qualities of its

The second thing a beginner notices, especially one which already has
experience of other graphics systems, is that a Quantel system is
relatively small. It only takes about a week or two to learn nearly all
the menus and functions on a machine. A typical Quantel workstation like
the Editbox only has about four top level menus plus the main "desk".
Each of these menus will have about a dozen commands in them with very
little use made of further levels of hierarchically organised sub menus.
You have a Viewer for adjusting edit points and transitions, a
Mix/Effects for compositing, transformation based animation and applying
filters, a Track menu for doing motion tracking. There's not much else.
Many of the functions are repeated in several different menus for
convenience. It is a small "toolbox" of basic editing and image
processing functions and you are left to work out what to do with them.

The reason for this sparseness is mainly to do with the technological
issues of hardware based systems. It is expensive to build processors to
perform specific graphics tasks, so there are limits as to the number of
operations that can be hardware accelerated at a particular stage in the
development of the technology. Quantel systems use completely
uncompressed digital video so the amounts of data to be processed are
huge (and vastly more so for a film resolution system like Domino).
Therefore the strategy is to provide a small number of fast and very
high quality functions which can hopefully be combined together to
achieve more complex effects. It is a bit like being handed a stick of
charcoal and a sheet of cartridge paper. You can sharpen the charcoal
and draw with a point, shade with it on its side, rub the dust with your
finger, sprinkle water over it, rub it out and so on – it is up to you.
Within these limitations an enormous amount can be achieved in terms of
effects design. Although it only takes a week to learn the system it can
take about six months to become a skilled user. In keeping with the
ideal of working from first principles Quantel systems have displayed an
unusually high degree of constancy over the years. Seemingly impervious
to the pressures that oblige other software companies to continually
update and redesign their interfaces, Quantel menu design has remained
largely unchanged since their beginning in the early 1980s. It is as
though the Quantel system is based on  functions so fundamental that a
change in their design is inconceivable, as unnecessary as redesigning
the shape of a pencil. Once Quantel has solved a problem it stays

Let's look at some of the implications of this interface for the user
and how it feeds through into the final product. Because so much
emphasis is placed on the Quantel designer developing their own working
methods (there are training tapes provided to give you a start with this
by the way), each user quickly starts building up their own way of doing
things based on the simple basic operations. As an example we might
consider the common process of "keying", whereby a top layer of video is
composited onto a background by making part of it transparent. Often
this is performed with a live action shot where the subject is against a
blue background. The blue background is removed by "pulling a key" to
produce a "matte" so that the background shows through. In a software
based system like After Effects this is done by simply applying a Keying
effect to the video layer and setting four numerical parameters -
defining the blue colour and its tolerance, the edge softness and edge
width. In a typical Quantel system however this task takes on the
character of conducting an orchestra. First of all the method of
defining the blue keying colour is quite different. It is performing by
tapping down on the blue of the video image directly until most is gone,
combined at the same time with adjustments of other parameters like
Softness and Value. The experience is that you are burning a hole in the
video image as you race around the blue areas with your pen. Very
satisfying. After you have pulled this "main key" you can apply a "spill
key" to help remove reflected light but usually you need to adjust the
area of the matte a bit further. A very frequent problem is "matte
lines" around the edge of the matte where it has not quite excluded all
the blue background from the edge of the subject. In After Effects this
is usually dealt with simply by adjusting the edge width parameter to
"contract" the matte. In Quantel it is the beginning of a whole art

In the training videos Quantel discuss no less than three ways to
contract a matte and suggest a fourth. It was not long before I
discovered a fifth way which became my personal preferred method. They
all involve many different separate operations of rendering out,
blurring, tonal graduation and re-combining footage. Most of the time it
is difficult to discern an objective difference in quality between these
methods but they quickly become identified with the users "style" of
working. It must be noted that After Effects also provides the same
functions which could be used to mimic the Quantel processes of keying,
but in practice an After Effects user would never consider working in
this way. In After Effects you use the Key effects to do keying and
that's that. For many keying jobs the difference in quality between
Quantel functions and After Effects effects filters are negligible
although for more complicated and difficult keys the Quantel practice of
applying simple functions bit by bit will afford you more control. But
as just mentioned, you could use After Effects in this way as well,
which leads us to an important point. A big difference between hardware
systems like Quantel and software based After Effects is not in their
technical quality nor rendering speed as such but the working methods
that the system as a whole gives rise to. These working methods
contribute to completely different artistic practice as well as defining
how well they integrate into each level of commercial production

The increased number of separate operations that need to be applied to
pull a good key in Quantel would seem to imply that the system is slower
to operate than the all-in-one approach of something like After Effects.
There are at least two reasons why this is usually not so. Firstly the
decreased amount of control available in adjusting the parameters of an
After Effects Key effect often means that much more fiddling around is
needed when dealing with all but the simplest of keys. But more
importantly we must remember the impact of the Quantel interface on the
users operating abilities. Apart from the fact that a pen interface is
faster to use than having to roll a mouse all around a screen, the
higher degree of integration of the users manual dexterity into the
Quantel system means that the speed of editing is limited more by their
physical operating skills than by the response times and rendering power
of the machine. This means that the more dextrous the user becomes the
faster the whole process goes. There are other factors related to this
as well. Because the process has been broken down into small separate
operations it is frequently possible to find new combinations of these
which can accomplish the task a little quicker. And as experience
increases it is easier in a Quantel system to fine tune the necessary
number of operations to the particular demands of each individual
editing task, skipping some steps when not significant and spending
longer on others which will have a greater impact on the result. The
more you use a Quantel the better and faster it gets. The industry
encourages a professional pride in being the fastest Quantel operator,
as though they are racing drivers fired up on the adrenaline of post
production. When a computer system offers this degree of physical
involvement in its interface and is designed to be used in a bottom-up
approach to building complex effects out of simple operations, then much
of the uniformity, reproducibility and expediency commonly associated
with computerised design systems disappears. However, it would not be
true to think that this implies that Quantel systems are perfectly
transparent and neutral technologies that exert no influence of their
own on the user as we shall see a little later.

As mentioned before, practically all of the parameter input into a
Quantel machine takes place through the pen and tablet interface. This
practice of stroking the pen across the screen until the right value has
been reached keeps the creative process at the visual and intuitive
level rather than that of comparing and checking the numerical values of
different functions, although that too is certainly still an option.
Sometimes this means that you cannot remember how you achieved a certain
effect, and usually ensures that you never get quite the same results
every time. The interactive interface is not entirely informal either –
it is a digital system and the entered values and pen moves can be
recorded and displayed. But the extent to which these systems rely on
manually editing and repainting the image is quite great. Instead of
applying extra filters to adjust the colour of a sky for instance, a
Quantel operator will frequently and more speedily just paint over it in
a few brushstrokes. If you discover that your matte is not quite
accurate enough over a couple of dozen frames then it is often easier
just to paint over the mistakes frame by frame rather than to redo it.
It often comes as some surprise to students to learn that the glamorous
special effects that they have seen on TV or in films have been achieved
only partly through complicated mathematical processes and sophisticated
animation systems. Much of the detailed work and blending of elements
together necessary to attain a completely convincing effect is through
the painstaking retouching and adjustments performed frame by frame by
hand. It is only on the fastest and most sensitive graphics systems that
this becomes a practical possibility. There are often repeated cycles of
manual painting and manipulation of footage until the particular desired
effect is achieved. It is because the video footage in Quantel is
completely uncompressed that it is possible to continually apply more
and more adjustments in individual stages without the quality of the
image deteriorating through repeated "cascading" recompression. This
prominence of hand work should remind us that computerisation is not
just about processing more things automatically under software control,
it is also about integrating and optimising manual skills like painting
as part of the production process. This in turn can have the effect of
reintroducing qualities like authorship and originality above operator
skills, returning us to traditional values that we might have thought
were becoming less and less relevant.

The tactile qualities of the interface create the experience for the
user that they are personally kneading the footage into shape like a
piece of dough, prodding at some bits with the pen and then stroking and
rubbing at others. The operation becomes very physically engaging and
finally addictive. There is a strong similarity with becoming absorbed
into the space of a computer simulation game. The experience is further
reinforced by the pleasure involved in solving a technical problem like
pulling the perfect key. The degree of control offered by the
sensitivity of the interface makes the pursuit of technical perfection
all the more exacting and intense. This in turn combines with other
factors to produce a particular kind of aesthetic in the final product
which testifies to the particularity and the idiomatics possible through
the subtlety of interface. It perpetuates a notion of quality based on
precision of control and evidenced through a smooth seamless finish.

There is actually a Quantel "look" that is instantly recognisable to an
insider, despite the scope for individual stylistic signature that the
interface makes possible (or perhaps because of it). This is partly due
to the early design of the first Paintbox. The research team at Quantel
wanted to work with a "traditional" artist to help design and test the
interface and chose to work with an illustrator called Martin Holbrook
who commonly worked on posters and record sleeves, of aeroplanes and
fantasy landscapes. In response to his input they designed a system that
used a very responsive stylus to put down very smooth tonally graduated
brushstrokes and airbrush marks. This has remained in subsequent systems
both in the inclusion of the original Paintbox functions and developed
into the widespread availability of blurring and softening tools. Most
of the main menus and functions now have their own softening or
smoothing filters which allow disparate pictorial elements to be
seamlessly combined. It is quite surprising how many "mistakes" can be
magicked away by the application of a few strokes of the airbrush, how
many incongruous scenic additions can be made to blend in with a soft
edge matte. These abilities also make it very good at producing various
glow effects which are so frequently used to make adverts and music
promos more glamorous, romantic or just softer and less harsh.  It is an
aesthetic of continuity and naturalness built into the very heart of the
system which concurs perfectly with a corporate design style that has
remained dominant until the present day. This is not to claim that
Quantel is responsible for a whole cultural milieu, but it is an
aesthetic which gives form and direction to the tendency of the
interactive interface to emphasise the particularities of
individualistic treatments [1]. For these reasons the freedom of
individual treatment that the technology allows can lead to a
preoccupation with more precise control rather than to artistic

Quantel systems typically render down each adjustment into to single
clip making it very difficult to "unpick" and separate the various
processes that have been applied. You cannot analyse how the image has
been constructed unless you exhaustively save and keep track of every
intermediate stage, which is not normally practical. There is no "undo"
function on a Quantel system. Each operation you perform requires a
similar kind of commitment as does physical media. Saving previous
versions will work up to a point but does not retain the dynamic of
reversibility that is almost standard on other software based systems.
Quantel cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together again. This also means
that as you build up your image step by step you have to have a fairly
clear idea of whether you are heading in the right direction. Quantel
warn their operators of getting stuck down "dead ends" – of applying a
whole series of processes to an image and then discovering that you have
forgotten an important factor which forces you to start all over again.
There are very few "live" events in Quantel, which means that you must
normally "commit" one edit or effect until you can proceed to the next.
In a software based system it is almost taken for granted that you can
go back and re-edit a particular parameter of a particular filter
applied to a particular layer of video again and again. In software
based packages, even after rendering any changes that you have made, the
material is still organised into its data structure and can be recorded
in some kind of separate project file. This accepted paradigm of
arranging all your visual elements and effects into a total framework or
data structure in which each part is in an interchangeable relationship
with the others is effectively unknown in Quantel. The hardware has
simply not been able to support such complexities until recently.

But the fact that Quantel systems have never offered the user a overall
layout in which to organise all their visual elements and processes does
not mean that a systematic method of working is not possible. It means
instead that it is the user themselves who must supply the organisation
– the data structure is not in the computer but in the user's head. This
internalisation of the logic necessary to work effectively with a
digital system means that such interactive workstations that seek to
reproduce the dynamics of traditional physical media are the very
opposite of the intuitive and spontaneous pattern of working that we
would expect. The Quantel user must know what they are doing without the
help of extended layer displays, timelines and associated parameter
lists. The logic of digital processing must itself become intuitive to a
far greater extent than with other systems that rely on reference to a
visible and constantly updating data structure.

The most common model for software design is object orientated, based on
the idea/expression dichotomy which aims to externalise an artist's
working methods. The software system seeks to mirror the internal
creative process by organising it into an external data process or
structure. The software is a system of menu commands and options which
seeks to match an internal model of creativity as a process of decision
making that seek to approximate an ideal artistic goal. The more
functions and the more parameters that are made available the more
successful this will be, the more exactly the software system will be
able to match the artist's intentions and give them what they want. But
of course most artists and designers do not really know what they want
before they start – the creative process is actually a process of
playing and "visual thinking" that leads to a variety of "solutions" and
modifications of the original "problem" or brief. If software architects
assume a decision based idea/expression model then the number of options
they strive to make available in a software system will proliferate with
the effect that the decision making process will become overwhelmed and
arbitrary. It is as though the exactitude of the software parameters
threaten to exceed the exactitude of the artists creativity resulting in
the whole process defaulting back to the exploration of a subject
orientated smooth space of the unknown. One example of what this leads
to is the growth of plug-in modules to provide common effects like lens
flares, explosions and rippling. In order for these effects not to
become too standardised and familiar looking they usually come with a
huge number of editable parameters which the artist can use to customise
the result. But it is very common just to give up on the endless
experimentation needed to learn all these options and to accept the
default parameters, or else to find oneself continually "fiddling" with
the values until you simply run out of time. In the arena of digital
media operating under the rubric of artistic vision, individual
expression becomes customisation.

The Quantel system and interface by contrast has been more subject
centred. This has been an effect of the many characteristics discussed
above that tend to reject the second guessing of artists working methods
with pre-packaged effects and instead reduce the system to a bare
minimum of functions. This restriction of means is partly dictated by
the current technological development of the hardware and partly by
priorities in the design of the interface. But despite this we can still
point to other ways that a design aesthetic asserted itself through the
design of the technology and the "tools" themselves as well as by the
commercial production environments in which it has been used. Such a
simply modelled system still produced images that were both remarkably
complex and remarkably similar. The sensitivity of the Quantel
interactive interface and bottom-up functionality totally absorbs the
user physically and mentally, and the aesthetic emphasis on seamlessness
gives direction to this level of user engagement. In this context the
artistic model of individual expression tends to become fetishised in
some ways but privileges the agency of the subject in others.

Graphics systems including Quantel are now becoming increasingly object
centred. Despite their close integration with the top of the commercial
production sector, the economics of a changing production culture has
been turning against them and favouring software or hybrid systems like
Flame. This year (1999) the new Quantel machines like Editbox version 7
and Henry Infinity include considerable enhancements to their hardware
to allow many more layers and edit decisions to remain "live" and
un-rendered before finally committing. These much more complex data
structures are now technologically feasible in the real-time environment
in which Quantel operates and begin an inevitable shift in emphasis from
the subject to the object in their human computer interface. This is
accompanied by new trends such as Quantel's aggressive marketing of its
Editbox range, aimed at the relatively lower end online editing market,
where the demand for sophisticated high-end effects is far less and
Quantel speed can be used to turn around longer form television
programmes. Quantel systems now also boast an "open architecture" for
the first time, meaning that third party developers can use programming
languages like Java to develop new effects plug-ins. This means that
many common effects like glows and complicated transitions will no
longer have to be constructed from the ground up in Quantel but simply
loaded in and "customised". Quantel have themselves also been developing
much more sophisticated functions to perform previously piecemeal
processes in one go, such as their new one-step keying function which is
intended to create perfect keys in one press of the button. Over the
past decade other ways of maintaining the users agency have emerged,
like the growth of scripting languages as part of a standard software
package and the inclusion of Software Developers Toolkits. These will
allow some aspects of Quantel's subject centred approach to continue
albeit in quite different contexts. Each of these will bring their own
particular pressures to bear on visual aesthetics and on wider cultural
issues and their commercial implications.

By a careful analysis of a graphics system it is quite to possible to
see how a manufacturers particular technological development can have an
impact on moving image culture, both through particular aesthetic biases
and through its relation to the values of the commercial environment it
has been designed for – its production culture. Quantel’s intention to
design for a real time production environment lead to a fast hardware
based system but was limited by the current state of the technology to
implementing a range of basic functions. The combination of these
simpler function along with a highly sensitive user interface derived
from illustration resulted in the highly idiomatic creative practices
and aesthetics described here. This analysis is apart from a cultural
one that takes place perhaps at the level of corporate policy and
identity, marketing, labour relations and working practices and the
interpretation or theorisation of the end products as texts. In fact, in
order to get some leverage on the rationale behind the direction in
which the production culture is heading it is essential to penetrate to
the level of technical practice to get a full picture of the forces
which are determining its future. It is not excusable to relegate these
forces to the status of neutral technologies that are exploited as tools
for some higher purpose, nor to present them as ideological technologies
that embody a premeditated agenda within their very structure.
Technologies are now composed of both machines and people which work
together in quite specific and complex ways.

The fact that it is possible for a Quantel operator to use a software
system like After Effects in ways that an After Effects operator would
not have thought of indicates that the technology of media is located in
a practice and that this practice is formed within the context of a
particular production culture. But trying to use a Quantel system like
After Effects would not be so successful. The object centred practice
relies on being able to define design problems in terms of the available
technical functions and in expressing the creative process in an
external data structure. This creative process is pre-empted by the
traversal of menu options and navigation of data bases. We might
conclude, therefore, that all technologically based art practices are
not equal. As long as there is access to a range of basic processing
functions, the subject centred approach is always workable, even outside
of its native production environment. Why is it that After Effects users
do not generally know how to best fine tune their effects work to get
higher quality results and Quantel users do? After Effects users are not
stupid, they just develop a different practice in a trajectory set by
the design of their software.

As we leave a generation of interface design and computer graphics
systems behind and fully enter the age of the object centred system, it
is necessary to remember that alternatives once existed. With hindsight
it may appear that the highly interactive graphics workstations and the
highly systematic text based computer programming languages that once
seemed to be diametrically opposed to each other actually had more in
common than was ever imagined.


[1] There are some other factors that contribute to the Quantel “look”
that are not based directly on the dynamics of the interface. One very
noticeable feature is the preponderance of saturated shadows in a
Quantel treated video. This comes about because the function that
darkens and lightens an image uses a colour space that tries to maintain
the same degree of colour saturation as in the original image. This is
presumably because it is felt that it is more intuitive to alter tone
independently of colour. The effect is to give dark areas a slightly
psychedelic look.

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