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Computer Editing Puts a 1990s Spin On `Ol' Blue Eyes'

HERE at the corner of Sweetzer and Beverly Blvds., producer George Schlatter is doing what he has done more than anyone else for 35 years - changing the face of television.

``See the clarity of those hair strands, hear the clarity of that voice?'' asks the man who shattered the mold of TV conventions with ``Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In'' a wacky comedy series that ran in the late 1960s and early 70s.

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Tonight, CBS will air his newest innovation: A one-hour documentary on singer Frank Sinatra (``Sinatra Duets'') produced entirely on a computer.

``This changes everything,'' says Mr. Schlatter, who, this summer, sold off 16 rooms of traditional editing equipment to replace it with the new technology. According to Schlatter and other television frontiersmen, computer technology will:

* Shave weeks off TV production time.

* Allow directors to make last-minute changes.

* Bring down costs to the point that many more independent producers will be able to create broadcast-ready shows.

* Give viewers more topical - and some say - more creative TV as a result.

``Now, you can try things so quickly,'' says Dave MacCarn, director of applied technology at Boston's public TV station, WGBH. ``That allows you to improve the program.'' Two of the station's series - Frontline and Nova - will air full computer-edited documentaries later this season.

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Computers have already invaded the rough-draft stage of television production. Directors cut and paste video and audio on souped up computers until they have everything just right. Then they use this computer-generated play-list, or final draft, to go back to the original videotapes and record everything onto a master tape.

The innovation of Schlatter and a few others is to skip this final step. Instead of going back to the original videos, they're recording the master directly from a computer hard disk. It's the television equivalent of moving from a typewriter to a desktop-publishing computer.

``It's difficult to actually grasp the impact of a tool this powerful,'' says Bruce Kuchta, a technician for George Schlatter Productions. ``Much of what was done in film labs that used to take months can now be done in literally seconds.''

Sitting in a room in front of two Apple Macintosh computers and a stack of hard-disk drives, Schlatter and an assistant put final touches on the Sinatra special. The program is a montage of sound and images culled from more than 235 reels of footage, some of it 70 years old. By recording these images onto a computer, the editing team has created stunning special effects.

In one duet, the 1990s Sinatra croons out a classic with a man from another era - himself at age 29. In another he shares melody and lyric with singers Jon Secada, Neil Diamond, and Willie Nelson. The effect is so cleverly done that the duos at times appear to share the same stage, even though they sang at different times and in different places.

``If you wanted a bigger audience,'' Schlatter says, pointing to a frame of Sinatra singing in a crowded auditorium, ``you could erase that wall and double the audience in the click of a button.''

Schlatter is not the first to use this technique, but he is the first to bring it to network television. He produced this summer's ABC comedy series ``She TV'' and the more recent 9th Annual Comedy Awards using the technology.

``It's sort of a landmark when you can get the network to accept the quality,'' says Alan Miller, partner with Moving Pictures, a New York-based digital post-production company. Mr. Miller used the computer technology to produce two TV shows - the first 13 episodes of ESPN's Saltwater Sportsman and a Japanese magazine program called Tilt 23-1/2.

USING computers to do final editing has its critics. ``The finished product coming out of the computer is still controversial for broadcast use,'' says David Shapiro, senior manager of program editing for The Discovery Channel.

Many television editors say the quality of the computer output can't match that of industry-standard analog tape. ``There's more grain than Beta SP, less depth of field,'' says Steve Audette, on-line editor for WGBH.

But in many cases, image quality takes a back seat. News is one example. Some local news programs are using the technology for their broadcasts because its faster and more flexible. Since October, Frontline has been producing its 20- and 30-second promos using a computer system from Avid Technology.

The Tewksbury, Mass., company is the leading vendor of computer-based video-editing machines. Schlatter Productions, Frontline, and Moving Pictures are all using Avid systems to create their final master tapes.

``It creates new market opportunities for us,'' says Martin Vann, director of Avid's western sales division. For one thing, the Avid systems, which cost $50,000 to $90,000 apiece, are far cheaper than the traditional on-line editing rooms costing up to $500,000. ``Over the short term,'' Mr. Vann predicts, ``more and more people will do what George [Schlatter] is doing.''

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