The ABCs of Character Generators

The words scrawled across the blackboard, pronouncing the name of the show in bold, slightly smeared lettering: "The Case of the Missing Headphones!" Thus began one of the many video projects that wash across my desk in a semester long torrent. The students were using their imagination just as many of you do, finding unique and artistic ways to add titles to the finished production. From words drawn in letters made up of rose petals and then lightly blown away, to simple typed titles on a piece of white paper, we’ve all found unique and non-technical ways to enliven our productions with titles and other forms of graphics.

Sometimes these simple titles add a flare to the production that would not be possible with a cold hard computer. More often than not though, simple typing paper titles just add an air of unprofessionalism to most productions. Today’s videomakers need not depend on these old and time consuming titling techniques. There are a growing number of affordable, professional titling options to choose from. This article will guide you through the forest of titlers or character generator systems (CG) and explain the functions of the CG and the different types available.

The Basics

Before buying a character generator, you must be familiar with the options and different functions that you may find. The following should help you understand the various terms and "jargon" that sales brochures and catalogs use.

The character generator organizes text that you type through a keyboard onto an electronic page. The amount of information that you can put on each page depends on the size and type of letters that you use. Most CG’s enable you to work with a number of type sizes per page or even the same line. The number of pages available to you expands as the systems become more sophisticated.

Various typeface family’s make up the character generator’s lettering. These family’s are a collection of styles of a particular type. You’re reading a member of the Courier family, Courier 12-point. The point designation indicates the size of the font in relation to the page. Each family is usually composed of a number of typefaces. Helvetica and Helvetica Black are two typefaces in the Helvetica family. A font is a very specific typeface. For example, Helvetica 12-point and Helvetica 14-point are two distinct fonts. In lower priced titling systems you may find just a few fonts with the ability to change the font’s height, width and spacing (also called kerning). In the more advanced systems, Helvetica, Times Roman and Euro Bold are but three of the thousands of fonts you may find. You’ll also find font sizes that range from 5-point to over 2000-point.

CG’s may offer a variety of styles that will enhance your fonts. Drop shadows are one of the most popular styles. A small shadow appears below and to one side of the letter, simulating the effects of a light source on a three dimensional object. Most models that have drop shadows will also enable you to increase the shadow size and move the shadow by repositioning the simulated light around the letter. Another popular type style is the outline. Each letter will appear to have an outline of a different color enabling you to separate it from the background video. Other type styles may include italic variations, bold, underline and flashing.

Font color is another important option. Simple systems offer eight colors; black, white, yellow, red, magenta, blue, cyan and green. More sophisticated systems offer millions of colors.

One of the advantages of the CG over manual titling methods is the ability to move. Scrolling or roll pages, enable you to create a smooth continuous stream of titles. This is similar to the titles found at the end of most feature films. Crawling enables you to add a continuous line of text horizontally across the screen. Your local television channel uses this technique to announce weather warnings or news updates. You may want to display text, one page after another in a sequence. The opening credits in a film or television production usually employs this technique.

One thing to keep in mind when using moving and sequence options, find a system that allows for easy editing within the sequence. After you have retyped a roll page on a simple system a few times, you’ll wish that you had investigated the ease of editing before your purchase.

Finally, there are two terms that you need to be familiar with if you plan on broadcasting projects that use titles: resolution and anti-aliasing. We’ve all heard the sales pitches of dealers hawking their wares, pronouncing that their system produces "broadcast quality" titles and pictures. What does this mean? It all deals with the resolution of the titler. A CG has good resolution if it is able to produce clear, precise text over video. Without getting into the gory details, they (the engineers) measure the resolution in nanoseconds (a billionth of a second), the lower the number, the better the resolution. Broadcast quality is considered anything below 35 nanoseconds. The typical professional CG’s usually have resolutions lower than 10 nanoseconds. Most stand-alone CG’s fall between 50 and 75 nanoseconds.

Anti-aliasing is a function found on most computer-based CG’s. One drawback of good resolution is that letters often appear to have the "jaggies"; jagged edges caused by pixelized lettering. Anti-aliasing blends the outer edges of the letters with the background to produce smooth edges on the curves and diagonal lines. This smoothing gives the titles a more professional look.

There are basically three ways to electronically add titles to your projects: a camcorder CG, a stand alone titler, and a computer-based CG. The camcorder CG’s, have two major drawbacks that prevent them from being serious contenders in the titler market. They have a very limited storage capacity (one or two pages or even lines), and you have to add the titles as you shoot, thus adding the titles permanently to the raw footage. You can creatively get around these limitations but the process is usually very tedious and seldom gives you the result you’re looking for. Because of this, we’ll concentrate on the latter two types of character generators: the stand-alone titler and the computer based CG. We’ll also describe the various features included in some example models and provide a wide range of examples that should meet any videomakers needs and budget.

Stand-alone Titlers

A stand-alone titler is made up of a unit that uses a video input from your editing system and uses that video for a background on which to superimpose titles. Some units may also provide various color backgrounds for title pages. The unit then outputs the combined images to your video recorder. This type of character generator is relatively simple and inexpensive for those of you that do not have a computer system to complement your editing facilities. Keep in mind that even though some of the prices stated may seem a bit high compared to the computer-based systems reviewed later on, these systems do not need any other equipment or software to enable them to work with your editing setup.

For your basic titling needs, Ambico’s V-6350($300) is an inexpensive but versatile member of the basic CG field. It is compatible with all video formats including Hi-8 and S-VHS and offers ten pages of memory with eight lines per page and twenty-four characters per line. It will superimpose your titles over live video or colored backgrounds. This system offers a great deal of movement options for the money. Titles can flash, wipe and cut in and out, scroll up or down and crawl, all with three speeds to choose from. The character options include 2 fonts, 4 sizes, 3 borders, and eight colors.

The Sima Products Colorwriter ($300) boasts a twelve page memory bank with fourteen special effects. Titles can crawl across the screen line by line or converge with titles from the opposite side of the screen. They can also pop up typewriter style, letter by letter. You may zoom in or out, fade the titles or scroll them at one of four speeds. They also have included a headline feature that keeps a stationary title combined with other titles scrolling down the page. One other effect is the reverse key button. Push the reverse button, the page becomes the letter color and the live video fills in the letters. This model offers four fonts in up to eight colors including black and white.

For a little more money, last years Videomaker Innovative Product Award winner may be just fill your needs. The JVC JX-T88($450) is S-VHS compatible and offers four font sizes in eight colors and the ability to add outlines or boxed characters. This model has scroll page capability with five different speeds. It also has a 10 page memory; up to eight pages of still titles and two scroll pages. If you have a need to type foreign languages, the JX-T88 has alphabets for 7 languages including: German, French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish and Danish accented letters.

A further step up at this level of CG’s is Videonics TitleMaker 2000($600). This affordable and versatile CG features over ninety font and size combinations including a script font, calligraphy and accented characters for over 16 languages. You can also use millions of colors and an array of patterns including animated patterns to create backgrounds, letters, outlines and borders. For enhancing the characters, you can add drop-shadows, and outlines.

Memory is no problem for the 2000; it can hold over eight thousand characters and hundreds of pages with a lithium battery backup.

Sometimes, you need the ability to control scroll speed and movement. The TitleMaker 2000 enables you to set a pause point and direction change anywhere in the scroll page. A title can scroll up to a certain point on the page, pause for five seconds (or whatever time you set) and fade away or scroll in a different direction.

One very important feature that the 2000 has adopted from the professional CG’s is the preview output. This additional output enables you to preview, correct and build new titles while the main output carries the video in signal. This allows changes without the audience watching your "impressive" typing skills. It is very useful if you shoot and broadcast live sporting events.

One drawback to the character generators mentioned is their character resolution. The TitleMaker 2000 has an effective character resolution of 70ns. As noted above, "broadcast quality" is considered to be 35ns or lower. If your programs require high resolution titles, you may need to look at the over $1000 range of CG’s. Unfortunately, higher resolution at a lower price usually means fewer options. If you look through a broadcast equipment catalog you will find stand-alone CG’s that range in price from $1800 to over $30,000. Until you get above the $5000 range you usually find very limited numbers of typefaces and fonts, basic title movement and limited memory.

One fairly inexpensive and very bright star in this group of broadcast quality stand-alone systems is a new product from Videonics, the PowerScript Character Generator. This stand-alone or computer-networkable CG will begin shipping this fall and has a suggested US retail price of $2500. The PowerScript is a broadcast quality (17.5ns effective pixel resolution) system with thirty-five anti-aliased fonts and supports Adobe PostScript type 1 fonts that you can add from your desktop computer. The character styles include variable bold and italic, underline and shadow. You can assign each character its own style separately. With PowerScript, characters can be rotated, stretched horizontally or vertically, or skewed at any angle. You can also render the characters transparent in relation to the background colors, video or other characters. If you like a vast range of color, PowerScript’s four million plus colors should do the trick.

This versatile CG has variable speed scrolls and crawls as well as flash words, color changes, spinning letters across the screen, and other animation feature. The PowerScript has an object-based graphics tool that enables you to animate text, graphics and logos individually.

The PowerScript also has internally generated graphics (lines, squares, rectangles, ovals and circles)which you can place anywhere on the page. One feature that should expand your creativity, is PowerScript’s ability to display graphics created with Macintosh, Windows, DOS, Amiga and UNIX-based graphics programs such as Illustrator, Photoshop or Corel Draw. It will also support any PostScript and PCX graphics.

Finally, this system will grow with you. You can network on an Ethernet (with the addition of a network card in one of its two PC card slots) and it has an RS-232 serial port for simple connection to a desktop computer. This is just a few of the features of Videonics PowerScript.

Computer-based CG’s

If your videomaking needs include broadcast quality titles and graphics and expanded creativity, and your budget can stand the extra abuse, you should consider a computer-based character generator. These systems provide much more flexibility, a greater number of features and higher performance than most stand-alone models.

Another advantage of the computer-based CG is its ability to grow with you. Software and hardware upgrades cost less than buying a new system. They also provide more features and improvements while maintaining the familiar feel of the old system.

These systems have many advantages over the stand-alone models. The desk top computers have a great deal of power and memory as well as a wealth of software available to build graphics and typefaces. Most systems have millions of colors and thousands of fonts. You can use the computer to balance your budget, keep a database of important addresses or write memos and letters to friends and business associates. None of these are possible on the stand-alone systems.

While it has distinct advantages, the primary problem with a computer-based CG is its cost. The culprit is the cost of the computer itself. One way of justifying the cost is to take advantage of the computer’s abilities. If you’re a serious videomaker, you probably need or already have a system that will do spreadsheets and word-processing to produce budget forms and production scripts.

To enable your computer system to input a video signal from your camera or video player; convert it into computer readable digital formats; combine it with your graphics and titles and output it to a video tape recorder and monitor, you will need a video capture board. These boards have various capabilities and can cost from $500 to $5000 plus. Most of the four figure boards also have editing capabilities. With some research, you should be able to find a board that will fit your computer’s needs.

There are primarily three computer platforms that support video character generators: The Amiga, the IBM compatible PC and the Macintosh.

The Amiga platform has had a rough time lately. Last year its parent company, Commodore International shut down their offices and manufacturing plants and filed bankruptcy. The future looked pretty uncertain. In April of this year, Escom of Germany won the bid for Commodore’s assets in the United States Bankruptcy Court. On May 30 of this year, Escom held a worldwide press conference to announce their plans for the coming months. The main point of interest for this article is that Escom will continue to build the Amiga 4000/040 and 4000/060. However, it will take awhile for the Amiga to become available as readily as it once was.

One major advantage of the Amiga computer platform is the standard NTSC video jack. You don’t need a video capture card for this platform. However, you’ll still need some form of genlock to enable the system to superimpose titles over moving video.

If you own NewTek’s Video Toaster, you already have a fairly good CG system. If you want to expand your Toaster’s capabilities, you may want to look at Innovision’s Montage ($500). If you have an Amiga AGA 1200/4000 or Amiga 2000/3000 with OpalVision or Impact Vision 24, you’ll want to look at Montage 24($400). Both systems require 8MB Fast RAM & 1 MB Chip RAM, a hard drive with 10 MB’s free, AmigaDOS 2.0 plus a 68020 accelerator or higher.

This CG system has eight scalable master typefaces with "click and drag" font scaling on any individual character. You can also resize the text horizontally or vertically. Additional Montage fonts are available for expanding your typeface library. If you’d like to use PostScript fonts, you can purchase the additional Montage PostScript Module (see dealer for prices). The Montage for the Video Toaster, will load fonts in Toaster and Chroma formats.

Other features of the Montage include 16 million colors, anti-aliasing characters to background with a 1ns effective resolution, and the ability to select any combination of fonts, sizes and colors per line. Character styles include fully adjustable outline, shadow and cast attributes, as well as variable transparency, gradient color fills, embossing and soft shadowing.

The Montage also features a 24-bit, 16.8 million color graphics display in IFF-24 or Framestore formats. Its imaging capabilities include translucency blending, gradient color spreads, beveled boxes and wallpaper embossing. As with most CG’s, the Montage has a number of transitions. Its effects include wipes, crawls, scrolls, checkerboards and slides. All of its transitional effects playback automatically or manually with user controlled speeds and pause times.

Another product that works on the Amiga platform is Innovisions Broadcast Titler 2 Super High Res version($300). This system requires an Amiga computer with 1 MB of Chip RAM and 1 MB of Fast RAM and the ECS and AA Chip sets.

While a capable system, the Broadcast Titler 2 has fewer features and less power than the Montage system. However, it still has more features than most stand-alone models and has a sharp resolution at 35ns. This system offers 16 anti-aliased fonts with adjustable borders, cast and shadow. You can also load hundreds of Amiga and color fonts. Graphically, the system boasts over four thousand colors with 320 colors per page, IFF brushes and patterns for text fill and built in backgrounds. It also supports IFF image file import and export. The transitions include credit roll, crawl, page shuffle, corner, push, pull, ease, tumble and more. For those who currently own Broadcast Titler 2, you can upgrade to the Super High Res Model for $99.

If you own or are planning to purchase a PC, there are a number of options for you in the world of CG’s. Crystal Graphics weighs in with the Flying Fonts Pro($245). This system requires a 386 or higher PC (math co-processor or Pentium recommended), eight MB of RAM (thirty-two MB recommended) and forty MB of available disk space (again, more is recommended). Flying Fonts Pro also requires Windows 3.1 or NT and can use any Windows-compatible video graphics card.

This system has most of the features of other professional CG’s with many additional treats including 2D and 3D animation and texture and mapping support.

Besides its standard twelve outline fonts, it has a built in text tool that gives you the ability to load PostScript Type 1 and True Type fonts; a virtual library of thousands of fonts. The simple modeling tools allow ease of use and rendering capabilities include predefined materials such as glass, stone plastic, chrome and gold. You can also use any 2D Tiff, TGA, BMP, PCX and GIF file as textures or backgrounds.

Living up to its name, this program offers an array of text animations. Besides the usual CG fare, you can fly titles in and out, create compound motions such as flying words and spinning letters, and use any of over a thousand predefined animation paths for your titles. As a final treat, Crystal graphics includes a CD-ROM with hundreds of images for textures and backgrounds.

If you’re in need of a truly high quality system and can do without some of the bells and whistles of Flying Fonts Pro, take a look at Innovision Technology’s brand new (ships this fall) Alpha CG($700) video titler and Alpha FX($300) effects module. This system has an effective text resolution of approximately 1ns. Its system requirements include a 386, 486, or Pentium PC, SuperVGA card or TARGA 16/TARGA+ video adapter, eight MB of RAM, Windows 3.1 or Windows 95, 20 MB of available disk space and an optional VGA to NTSC Converter or Video Genlock Overlay card.

Besides extremely good resolution, this program provides easy creation of titles with up to sixteen million colors and the use of any fully anti-aliased scalable True Type fonts. It also supports full color texture mapping, outlines, extruded shadows, soft-edge feathering and video transparency. You can also process the images with built in processing filters.

With the optional Alpha FX effects module you gain the ability to add multiple page sequencing and special effects playback. These effects include most of the usual CG effects found in other systems.

For the Macintosh user, the field has a few bright stars. Avid Technology’s Bola 32($795) offers high-quality anti-aliased text, and support of an 8-bit key-alpha channel that ensures that text remains smooth even over live video. In addition to its own fonts, Bola 32 supports Adobe PostScript Type 1, Macintosh bitmap and True Type fonts.

The system requires any Macintosh II series, Quadra, SE/30, LC or IIsi (requires floating point unit or software emulation of FPU). You’ll also need System 6.05 or System 7, five MB of RAM (eight or more recommended), 32-bit color Quickdraw (included as part of System 7), a 16 or 32-bit color display card (highly recommended), Truevision NuVista series video framegrabber/display card and a NTSC broadcast monitor to preview your titles. If you want to import PostScript fonts, you’ll need Adobe Type Manager (ATM) version 2.0.2 or greater.

The Bola 32 performs over 20 smooth transitions between video, text, graphics, or sequenced screens. It also produces smooth broadcast quality rolling text with text styles such as drop and depth shadows, textures and transparency.

If you enjoy using the Macintosh interface, you’ll find the Bola 32 easy to use and a flexible intuitive CG program.

If you’re in the market for a high quality (10ns effective resolution), sophisticated system for your Macintosh, take a look at Comet/CG 3.0 by Microberts Software Incorporated. The system requirements include the Macintosh Quadra and RISC PowerMac, eight MB system memory (sixteen recommended), System 7.1 or later, True Type and PostScript fonts, video graphics card, and a minimum 14 inch color monitor. The Comet/CG 3.0 supports all PostScript, True Type fonts as well as most WorldScripts. You have total control of the over forty different text attributes including character kerning, sizing, textures and others.

Graphically, the Comet/CG 3.0 is able to import any PICT image you may create and has a large number of graphic tools to create high quality backgrounds and text objects. It provides rules, safe title and action areas, as well as logical menu windows to provide ease and accuracy in your title development. With flexible document and page manipulation as well as thousands of video pages per document, the Comet/CG can handle the most demanding video project.

Cue Credit Roll

Two key items you need to really think over before you decide what kind of CG system you’re going to invest in are: "What are my video production and titling needs now and what will I be doing in a few years?" Technology changes very quickly. It’s always a good idea to find out how upgradable your system will be and decide whether it can keep up with the times. If you feel that you’ll be able to grow into a system, and you need high quality titles now, do the research, shop around and buy a system that won’t give your banker a heart attack but will meet your present and future needs. If your productions do not require professional quality titles, pick up a piece of chalk and take a walk to the nearest blackboard. By the way, we never did find those headphones!

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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