Quantel were a small company based in Newbury, England that had achieved success by developing early digital video products, notably the innovation of being able to combine two live video feeds by using a framestore.
The development of Paintbox started in 1980. Quantels Richard Taylor clearly identified that the fundamental challenge was to create a system which would paint a line
as if a camera had looked at a real painted line. Without a solution to this issue real pictures could not be created live by real artists.
Because Quantel had worked out a way to simultaneously combine two video images, a bell-shaped brush of colour could be blended with the existing underlying image, and this stamping repeated rapidly, overlapping previous stamps, as the brush was moved by the artist. A genius invention was to vary the power of each stamp in accordance with the artists use of a
Quantel patented pressure sensitive pen, rather than by a mouse or keyboard.
From this base idea, flowed the whole digital studio. By changing the texture of the brush, different media such as chalk could be replicated and adding the ability to define geometric shapes meant that it included a graphic studio. The user could create masks, then cut out and move any part of the image. Quantel buying the rights to generate over a thousand fonts meant that the design studio was complete.
The ideas and software was one thing but in 1980, the hardware was as big an issue to overcome. The huge, state of the art hard drive was only just over 300Mb, so the processing had to be done by over 30 circuit boards, custom made by Quantel and each containing over a dozen specially programmed chips. The stunningly complex machine was designed to run in TV design studios and so had to be incredibly reliable, broadcast quality and with no observable delay between the time the artist moving the stylus and the cursor on the screen responding.
The final piece of the jigsaw was to create an artist friendly, non-tech interface. Creative Martin Holbrook was brought in and it is a testament to the beauty of the stylus-operated menu system he created that it would remain largely unchanged for 25 years.
The Paintbox was launched to a select number of potential buyers in a hotel suite during the National Association of Broadcasters annual show in New York, Spring 1981. It was an instant hit, with the first order placed by the soon to be launched Weather Channel but also multiple units were purchased that year by ABC, NBC and other major networks across the world such as the BBC followed suit. Though priced around $450,000 each in todays money, the Paintbox was a sound investment because it not only drastically reduced the time it previously took to hand make all the TV graphics and titles but the bright, colorful, brand new graphics attracted new viewers, which attracted more income from advertisers.
Independent production houses such as Charlex and Broadway Video in NYC and Moving Picture Company and Framestore in London made a fortune by purchasing the Paintbox and creating amazing new TV commercials and music videos on it.
The Paintbox was the first user friendly, real time, 24 bit, full color, broadcast quality, pressure sensitive stylus operated, digital studio in the world and it would be nearly a decade before it faced any serious competition. By that time, the Paintbox was THE industry standard - cheaper, more compact and complete with a range of related Quantel machines which could also edit, animate and create 3D.
Mark Nias has kindly provided the following timeline of Quantel products. Apart from Mirage, which required Pascal programming, all other machines which followed from Paintbox were essentially either improvements, or had added features such as editing.
1975 - DFS-3000 Digital Framestore
Traditionally used for time base correction to allow different sources to be synced. The framestore did have
some other uses in post production effects as it also includes picture size reduction and positioning on screen
allowing the composite picture-in-picture effects with the use of a mixing desk.
1977 - DSC-4002 Digital Standards Converter
Used for real-time conversion between 625 (PAL) and 525 (NTSC) picture formats.
1978 - DPE-5000 Digital Production Effects
This was Quantels first purpose built real-time video effects machine and provided a little more pzazz to both
on and off air productions. Allowing the operator to position, size, flip and tumble the picture in a
programmable pattern. Later enhancements included rotation and Oozebox which allowed each picture line
to be positioned and sized which in turn allowed the picture to be oozed into shapes definable shapes.
1980 - DLS-6000 Digital Library Store
The library store was a stills library and archive system which allows the mass storage of still images in a
1981 - DPB-7000 Digital Paint Box AKA Paintbox
The Paint Box was a ground breaking machine for its time and the first commercially successful digital
painting system. The DPB would allow an artist to generate art and graphics by hand or ingest video to be
edited. With several painting brushes like Paint, Chalk & Airbrush all in varying sizes. Graphics functions
provided illustration tools like lines, rectangles, ellipsis and fills. The Stencil and Pasteup functions allow a huge
flexibility in compositing all the other functions together to form the final work. The operator/artist required no computer knowledge whatsoever as everything was selected and created by simple menu boxes using a Quantel Patented pressure sensitive pen.
1982 - DVM-8000 Digital Video Manipulator AKA Mirage
The Digital Video Manipulator was another technically advanced machine for the time. Allowing an operator
input real-time video and then manipulate that video into a 3D shape that can be moved in a 3D space.
Additional outputs allowed the newly manipulated image to be keyed over any ther video. 3D shapes could
also be simply shaded or a still input video could provide a digital texture to the shape. Later options included
Starlight which added several new features, most notably lighting control.
1986 - DCR-7700 Digital Cel Recorder AKA Harry
Harry was another technical first, it was the first digital recording, editing and compositing machine available.
Allowing an operator to record video, combine it with effects, other clips or still images and composite them
together with animation. The operator worked with on-screen reels of video which could be cut and packed
together to form the final work. Video storage time was limited to around 7 minutes.
1989 - V-Series
Quantel introduces a new Paintbox as part of V-Series a new architecture designed to operate the newly
developed Paintbox V5 software. The new architecture was designed to allow future machines to be
expandable and based on similar interchangeable parts. This allowed for easier development of new products
and reduced costs. It marks the start of a peak in Quantels success during the early 1990s.
1990 - Picturebox
The new Picturebox, based on the new V-Series architecture was a replacement for the old DLS-6000. It was
primarily a stills store but as it shared components with Paintbox it began to include some of the basic
functions to make it more flexible.
1990 - Harriet
Using the new V-Series architecture Harriet was an animation over video machine. It combined a Paintbox
with a Ramcorder. The Ramcorder was a solid-state RAM based video storage device which allowed fast read
and write video access. This would allow the artist to load video in real time into the Ramcorder and then use
Paintbox to rotoscope or animate graphics over the top of that video. Although Harriet was a popular machine
its lifespan was short lived to the limited 13 seconds of video storage, no audio capability and later, the
introduction of HAL.
1992 - Henry
Quantels Henry was actually the machine they had wanted Harry to be in 1986. It took until 1992 for the
technology to move on enough for them to make the project a reality. Again based on V-Series, Henry was a
compositing and effects machine. It allowed an artist to composite multiple layers of video with effects into a
final work and allowed this to be done in mostly in real time. This meant fast previews of the effect to be
made before committing to a render. Like Harry it used the reels interface to generate packs of layers which
could be individually controlled, ordered, removed etc. Henry also introduced Dylan, Quantel’s purpose
designed video disk storage array for mass storage of around 14 minutes of video.
1992 - HAL
The Quantel HAL was designed as a bridge between the very limited but cheaper Harriet and the very
advanced but very expensive Henry. It combines many of the features of Harriet but with some of the video
processing hardware from Henry, notably the addition of audio and the use of the Dylan disk array. HAL in use
felt very much like a Paintbox or Harriet because it did not use the reels interface. Instead it used a simpler
timeline of clips for editing. But it proved a natural progression for an artist to move from Paintbox to Harriet
and then on to HAL making it fondly remembered with artists.