Australians show they can conjure their own video magic.
Two young Australians are trying to crack the new high technology market created by the growth of special video effects in television. MARGARET WERTHEIM reports.
THE world market in video effects devices is dominated by a few large companies such as the English Quantel, the recognised leader in digital effects, and the American Grass Valley. Where there used to be just cuts from one program to the next or at most a simple fade or dissolve, there are now complex manoeuvres from each shot to the next; inserts of one moving picture into another, so much in evidence in sports casts; and a mind boggling array of effects for warping, moving, changing the perspective and in general altering a TV image, as viewers of the Don Lane Show of late will know.
In short, the video effect has come of age and very much into its own.
Some interesting work is being done in Australia by two men who hope one day to market their products alongside their corporate compatriots. Stephen Jones, of Heuristic Video in Sydney, and John Hansen, of Vision Control in Melbourne, are both creating their own video effects using the latest in video technology and up-to-date microprocessor systems.
Although from different backgrounds – Jones from psychology and Hansen from engineering – both evolved from the alternative video network in Australia. Both have. been associated with Bush Video, the first alternative video enterprise here, which was responsible for setting up the cable video network at the Aquarius Festival at Nimbin in 1972.
In the early stages of their career both were active as video art. Hansen designed light sculptures and made electronic jewellery which he exhibited in Australia, New York and Milan and Jones made video tape pieces, one of which ha been bought by the Australian National Gallery.
After graduating in psychology from the ANU, Jones went to Brisbane, where he discovered the Brisbane Access Video Centre and began giving workshops to architecture students, teaching himself as he taught them. In Brisbane he participated in a number of video performance events including a major piece “Regions”, with music by Colin Brumby.
He became involved in the hard core technology of video when he helped build the television studio at the Paddington Access Video Centre, now Metro Television.
After the PAVC was liquidated in 1978 he began working on his own and in 1979 built his first video synthesiser, an analogue device which generated moving patterns and colours.
In 1980 he received a grant from the Australian Film Commission for the plans of a second, more complicated, analogue synthesiser. Both have been used extensively in underground video clips for bands like SPK and Severed Heads and in video and pieces by numerous video artists. He is now working on his first digital device, the DVS (Digital Video Synthesiser).
Although not a large scale device, such as those used in major video production houses, it offers a wide range of effects, some of which Jones believes are unique. How, in the face of such sophisticated competition, does Jones think he can capture part of the market? His answer is that if you could come up with a new effect people will be interested, but the effect probably only had a lifetime of 12 months since audiences tired of them so easily.
Since it is a smaller product it will sell for considerably less than the major devices and will thus be available to the many smaller production houses unable to afford a large scale effects device, which start at around $100,000. Jones hopes to have a demonstration model ready for the Institute of Radio and Electronic Engineers video trade fair to be held in Sydney later this year.
Hansen, who ls a qualified electronic engineer, first became involved in video synthesis in 1971. In 1974 he received an Art Council grant to develop a video synthesiser which was a hybrid analogue digital device for generating patterns. He was then in an ideal position with a background in both video and electronics, to begin using microprocessor chips in video processing when they first became available here in 1976.
Since then he has been developing his own video processing devices. In 1982 he formed a company with a group of people developing video projectors and experienced video personnel. The company, Vision Control, has three separate wings; professional consultation in the area of computer graphics, product design and video production. Under the product design wing, Hansen is continuing development of digital video effects and computer graphics systems. He ls now working on a device to be called the Conjure.
The Conjure will incorporate all the effects Hansen has developed so far, including a capability to allow artists to paint pictures in video just as they would on canvas; 3-D effects; and a unique assortment of video and computer graphics facilities. The Conjure is a large-scale, computer controlled system with sophisticated software for manipulating and creating video images. Hansen sees it as being a future competitor, on the world market, to the major digital effects devices being offered by Quantel and Grass Valley
It is an impressive achievement for such a small operation as Vision Control and augers well for the future of the video industry in Australia. Vision Control also offers a production house facility. It does not have its own video studio or broadcast-quality equipment, but claims to fill a gap in the video production sphere. The devices that Hansen and a small group of programmers design are available for use through the production wing of Vision Control, which has established a good reputation among the television stations and production houses in Melbourne.
One of the major problems associated with the new era of video effects devices is that producers of commercials, film clips and programs are often unfamiliar with the scope and possibilities of the new technology. Technicians who may be expert operators of the equipment are not necessarily good communicators. The technology is advancing so fast it is very difficult for non-technical people to keep up. Hansen sees Vision Control as providing a blend of technical expertise and the services of a team of experienced production personnel who between them will be able to satisfy even the most fanciful of clients. Already they have an Impressive list of credits behind them, including the logo for the Parkinson in Australia series, countless commercials and a range of film clips. Jo Lane, one of the production team, has been responsible for many Jo Jo Zep clips.
Vision Control hopes that when it production house goes into high gear later thus year it will be called on to provide effects for many more film and video clips, commercials logos and film titles.
Jones and Hansen say there ls a real lack of understanding in industry about what it costs how long at takes to achieve impressive results. Advertising houses and TV station which may be prepared to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars getting an effect done overseas expect to get it done here on the cheap. Hansen cites the example of the station that wanted a logo to rival the impressive computer graphic of Channel 9. They wanted it, he said, within a week and only wanted to pay $5,000. The 9 logo, done in America, is reputed to have cost $200,000. Ironically Nine is now looking at a sophisticated computer graphics package designed at Vision Control.
Given the time and money, Hansen believes it could have been done here, probably for less. It is a Catch 22 situation. No one believes you can do anything until you actually do it, and they’re not going to give you the money to prove it until they see you can.” The same problem applies to getting finance to develop the devices themselves. Venture capital for high technology products is not easy to come by in Australia. But things are looking up. Jones, who is basically a video expert, now has the assistance of a trained computer programmer and a financial adviser in charge of marketing his new device.
Hansen, whose long involvement with computers, computer graphics and video puts him in an ideal position to make the best of both worlds, is finding himself much in demand as a consultant on projects as diverse as designing a graphics system for a major new computer to creating a video version of a Brett Whitely painting for a forthcoming exhibition.
Postscript: the DVS was not completed, as there was not enough funds to buy parts needed for the design. The Fairlight CVI was released a few years later, which had less power. They are not related. We had a small Conjure in the studio – it was basically a vector illustration machine.