Today in Tedium: For a few years in the early 2000s, I worked for a public-access television station. Part of my job included adding graphics, text, station DOG/bug—the little station logo/ID that typically appears in the lower right corner of a program—to both live and recorded programs. While we used more modern (for the time) software, I’ve always been fascinated by on-screen graphics—especially from the 1970s and ’80s. But there’s one piece of graphics tech I’ve always been interested in exploring. In today’s Tedium, we’re getting a little bit graphic with a look at the Quantel Paintbox. — David @ Tedium
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The year the Quantel Paintbox was released for public use. The Paintbox allowed its users to place high quality digital graphics on television screens with ease. Prior to such graphical devices, putting graphics on screen involved other methods that required meticulous specification, high levels of attention to detail, and very skillful teams to handle their production.
Painting graphics on TV
The story of the Quantel Paintbox begins with the advent of the digital originated graphic. Before more modern technology enabled some of the more seamless, integrated graphics we see today, setting up graphics took some time.
Text and graphics required entire departments and plenty of finesse to appear on screen. Then character generators came along and simplified things considerably. Character generators—devices that generate fonts and characters on screen—came into prominent use in the late 1960s.
Meanwhile, a small British company was thinking outside the proverbial box with a design of their own. Quantel was founded by former Micro Consultants Group employee Peter Michael in 1973. Building on past experience and work in digital video technology, the company was poised to change everything the world knew about television graphics. Their first product? A digital framestore known as the DFS-3000. It was most famously used to create a picture-in-picture image of the Olympic torch during a broadcast of the 1976 Montreal Olympic games.
In 1976, the company began experimenting with the ideas that would eventually lead to the paint box, while simultaneously releasing other products. In 1981, the Quantel Paintbox came to fruition with the help of a Motorola 68000 CPU. The first model, the DP-7001 was highly customized and ushered in the era of the graphics design workstation.
The Quantel Paintbox was the original painting system. It could do pretty much everything modern software suites can do today. But in a time when these modern amenities didn’t exist or existed in very primitive forms, the paintbox offered a versatile machine that could do it all. With the stylus, users could draw and “paint” directly onto the tablet. What they drew would then be translated to the computer screen. This completely changed the way producers and television programs thought about graphics on their stations.
The paintbox changed the game, because it could store multiple frames at once, which could then be displayed on screen. It was also controlled by a stylus pen instead of a mouse or push buttons. Not only that, but it boasted its own library and disc storage that put it light years ahead of other machines at the time.
The box was so popular, it was still being showcased and used into the early 1990s. This demo video from 1990 really demonstrates what it could do:
Retailing for approximately $250,000 in the United States, it was decidedly not a machine intended for general consumers or the general public. The expensive nature of these machines made it prohibitive for artists to get their hands on one.
Finding operators for the machine wasn’t always easy. Apparently, finding painters who could competently handle working with the Paintbox were in kind of short supply. One artist, Beau Tardy, worked for both Nickelodeon and MTV. In a 2021 interview, he talked about how hard it really was to get his hands on a Paintbox, telling Print Mag, “If you want to know why early TV [digital] graphics all look the same, it is because they were made by engineers and not artists.”
He went on to tell the magazine that U.S. TV unions didn’t make it easy for non-union members to get their hands on the machines. Apparently, only the engineers at the stations were allowed to use them. Some people freelanced and were able to use the machines, but it just resulted in the same sort of homogeneous graphics you see when viewing programs from the time.
But that didn’t mean the public didn’t benefit significantly from the multifaceted machine for a long time to come.
The serial number of the first Quantel Paintbox sold in the United States. Who was the buyer, you ask? Why, The Weather Channel, of course! They bought one to use for their reports, unknowingly making broadcasting history. Across the pond, the BBC ran Quantel Paintboxes on Apple Lisa computers for their weather broadcasts. Presenters stood in front of a blue screen and used a clicker to turn on slides that were made by the paint box and stored on the Apple computer.
The Weather Channel, fully showing off Quantel’s capabilities.
How the Quantel Paintbox revolutionized television graphics
Although the Quantel Paintbox was released in 1981, Quantel wouldn’t see its first American company show interest until 1982. That’s when The Weather Channel saw an opportunity to improve their graphics with one of these machines, ultimately purchasing one. The Paintbox only continued to gain popularity and wider use in the United States from there.
During the 1984 Olympic Games, graphics helped entice viewers to keep watching coverage of the games on ABC, who’d been broadcasting the games that year. It took the department quite a few weeks to assemble, draw, and create the graphics for that particular broadcast.
To do so, ABC’s graphic design department used a wide array of techniques and technology—including the fairly new Quantel Paintbox—to create some of the graphics on the screen that day. Many of the techniques were already in wide use for the past few years at the company and would only be enhanced by the Quantel Paintbox.
ABC Sports’ Graphics Director at the time, Hey Bley, told The New York Times, “We started using graphics as a means of conveying information. And that’s still their primary function.”
Fortunately, the broadcast was saved for posterity by and can be viewed online. Throughout the broadcast, examples of graphics made with the Paintbox are prevalent in score charts, titles, and (of course) shout-outs to sponsors. Then there are pictures drawn to represent athletes and events that wouldn’t have been possible—at least to such a highly polished degree—a few years prior.
Other major networks used the Paintbox extensively. Anyone who ever watched NBC Nightly News or CBS news programs from the time period undoubtedly saw graphics created with the Quantel Paintbox. NBC’s Vice President of News Production, Thomas Wolzien, weighed in on the marriage of graphics and news at the time:
All this stuff has one purpose, that is to communicate. If it clutters a news report, it doesn’t communicate. If it’s misused and the eye goes off the edge of the screen, it’s obfuscating what you’re trying to say and it doesn’t work. We sometimes overdo the graphics. That’s why we have meetings after ′The Nightly News’ to assess how well they’ve worked.′
He was rightly worried about over-producing or using an over abundance of graphics in news reports—something a few programs could probably learn from today. Wolzien himself is an inventory, media pioneer, and a staunch researcher of industrial trends impacting media companies. A few years later, Wolzien oversaw the replacement of manned cameras with robotic ones,
By 1986, some directors were making music videos with the machine—including the Dire Straits favorite, “Money for Nothing.” Whether it was used to make the music video for Weird Al Yankovic parody, “Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies,” featured in 1989′s UHF is still a mystery for the ages (if you know, hit us up).
But it was the British Broadcasting Corporation who really showed us the extent of the Quantel Paintbox capabilities.
The season of Doctor Who where the Quantel Paintbox played a significant role in on-screen graphics for the program. The season 18 serial, Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) serial, The Leisure Hive featured a cliffhanger at the end of one of the episodes that wouldn’t really have been possible without it. Although the BBC had been using the system since the early ’80s, this was really one of the first Instances of it being used on the popular show. It would go on to be used quite a bit throughout the next few series of the show—and the next few reincarnations of The Doctor.
The BBC show Painting With Light, from an era when watching someone else draw graphics on a screen could actually be a TV show. Adobe missed out on this!
The Quantel Paintbox’s role in a British Broadcasting bonanza
Although the Paintbox saw quite a bit of use on American television networks—especially on news programs—it was immensely popular across the pond. It makes sense, considering Quantel was a British manufacturer. European television already had some technical advantages over American TV over which Quantel’s technology took full advantage.
The popular music show, Top of the Pops, used it extensively. It even showed up on BBC news. But a lesser known, more interesting place it found some utility was in British comedy.
British comedy is fantastic. While Monty Python is perhaps the better-known example of what constitutes “British Comedy,” there are a ton of great comedians—and comedy troupes—to come out of the UK over the past few decades. One such group included such comedic luminaries Chris Langham, Pamela Stephenson, Mel Smith, and Griff Rhys Jones. Oh, and Mr. Bean himself—Rowan Atkinson—played several characters in the show.
Atkinson would go on to play the titular role in the phenomenal (and hilarious) Blackadder, and take on plenty of comedic roles down the line.
As for the show—it’s still funny (in its own way) today, but definitely a bit dated. Dr. Demento fans will recognize their “John McEnroe” sketch:
Graphical text created by the Paintbox can be seen early in the sketch. The show was funny and very topical for the time, so using such technology for its graphics was perfectly aligned with its status as a cutting edge program.
British Broadcasting also used the Paintbox extensively in another of its most popular shows: Doctor Who. But another show, Painting with Light, truly showcased what the unassuming box could do.
Artist David Hockney—known for his portraits, still lifes, and landscapes—worked with the Quantel Paintbox extensively. Later, he’d Branch out into using Wacom tablets, ipads, and many of the drawing tools included with many modern tablet computers. At the end of the day, it just goes to show how much of an impact the original Quantel Paintbox had on such an amazing artist.
“I’m painting with light on glass. The only equipment where you would get colors like this is stained glass itself, or you can get a richness of colors that even paint can’t give. It has an almost neon glow.”
— David Hockney, on the BBC program Painting with Light. The program spotlighted modern artists using the graphics workstation to create art. The first episode focused on Hockney’s work, but subsequent episodes covered artists such as Larry Rivers, Howard Hodgkin, and Jennifer Bartlett. Although it only lasted one series, the documentary style and relaxing nature of the program is like The Joy of Painting meets modern technology. A few episodes can be found online, and it’s worth checking them out—if you can find them.
As time passed, graphic design—and the technologies evolved—the Quantel Paintbox eventually fell out of favor for more modern methods.
But it wasn’t all glory for Quantel. In 1996, they went head-to-head in court with Adobe over potential patent infringement focusing on the stylus pen and other attributes that Quantel believed Adobe infringed upon with their Photoshop software. Quantel lost the case.
After all, when there are plenty of powerful graphic design and animation options available today, why would you use something that’s outdated to create your graphics? Even The Weather Channel has a lengthy process that leverages different types of technology and talent these days.
The original Paintbox was discontinued in 1993 and replaced by other, more advanced products. The Quantel Henry (a multilayer compositing system) arrived in 1992 and the company would continue to innovate in the television graphics space until their acquisition by Snell Ltd. in 2015.
Despite being obsolete since the early 1990s, it has a remarkable online following. Someone restored one on YouTube a while back, which is worth a watch if you’ve got the time. There’s also some very promising work on an emulator that has been done recently by a few dedicated folks.
As for the Quantel Paintbox, its legacy as one of the industry standards for graphic design will live on, despite other programs coming along to take its place. And it’s comforting to know it’s there in the obsolete media Hall of Fame for anyone to learn about in the future.
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