Historic Video Synthesis Tools

The Chromaton 14 was designed and manufactured by Ralph Wenger in 1977, and released by BJA Systems, originally selling for $ 9,500 USD each. There were 120 units sold, but today less than 8 working units are known to exist. The Chromaton 14 is a fairly small video synthesizer, approx 18 by 18 inches square. It includes 2 camera inputs with color quantizers, but can also generate fairly complex color images without any external inputs. It is an analog system that is programmed with an array of switches and knobs. Each unit has 6 pattern generators, 4 colorizers, 2 independent motion generators. Looks like the dashboard of a ‘56 Chevy, lots of single gate TTL logic inside. All front panel controls run off 5V DC, thus they are quite suitable for voltage control or computer control.


Dave Jones Colorizer and Frame Buffer

In the mid 1970’s Dave Jones started developing a series of analog and early digital video processing tools at The Experimental Television Center. E.T.C. is a non-profit video studio used by artists from around the world to make video tapes. The early machines developed by Dave Jones included standards of the industry like keyers and sequencers as well as not so common devices like colorizers. The JONES COLORIZER, is among the myriad of famous and widely regarded realtime video processing innovations from David Jones.

David Jones is a Canadian-born video artist and engineer who has been producing video tapes and performances for over 30 years and developing image-making tools for over 25 years. He has worked with electronics since he was ten. At age 12 he built a shortwave radio from a kit, then in highschool he built an AM radio station. After high school he helped to run a mixed-media performance troup in Europe, known as Video Heads. In the seventies he built, modified, and repaired video equipment for artists and orgizations throughout New York State, and began in 1974 working with the Experimental Television Center, designing and building video tools for their studio. He was involved in video performances and installations at E.T.C. and elsewhere. During the late seventies, he continued designing analog imaging tools and began to work on the first of many digital imaging machines. He also helped develop the computer system at E.T.C. and wrote the software for it. The early 8O’s were spent working both in industty and the arts, including the designing of hardware and writing of software for the Amiga computer. Image processing tools designed by Dave Jones are in use in artist’s studios around the world as well as in schools. Jones has become known for innovative and powerful video tools that let artists explore the signal.

DJ made his colorizer in response to using the Paik-Abe, which had lots of color but limited control over them. DJ’s had very precise control over the colors and the layering of the channels. The Jones Colorizer is still the only colorizer that was not based on a color encoder, which is part of why it looks so different than other colorizers. There were 4 colorizers built. Three of them are 4 channels, while the 4th one was a six channel version that is still in use today at the Experimental TV Center. The first, a 4 channel, was built in 1974/75. The others were built in the early 80’s.

A partial list of other creations include:
- hard edge keyers, soft edge keyers, outline generators, frame buffers, A-D/D-A with bit swapping, video delay lines, audio delay lines, oscillator banks, various control voltage generators/processors, Raster Manipulator (poor man’s Scanimate), sequencers, routing switchers, laserdisc (and now DVD) synchronizers, lots of custom controllers and software for specific artists.

Taking a concept from the analog music field, Dave Jones started adding voltage control inputs on his video designs that allowed each of the knobs to be adjusted by an outside voltage such as a waveform from an oscillator. This turned out to add incredible power to the video machines since now you could turn any, or all, of the knobs at once. By patching a bank of oscillators and other control voltage devices you could create complex images. As each new video device was developed these control voltage inputs were designed in giving this growing image processing system a lot of new capabilities.

By the late 1970’s Dave Jones had built a couple of other custom analog image processing systems for video artists Ralph Hocking and Gary Hill. These included an assortment of experimental devices that evolved during the late 1970’s. During the early 1980’s Dave Jones decided there was a demand for some of his video processors and spent a couple of years developing versions to manufacture. During this time he worked as a freelance video engineer and digital consultant. By 1985 the new generation of video imaging tools were ready. In 1985 Dave Jones started Designlab and started to manufacture his image processing tools for artists. Due to the high cost of building these machines and Dave’s commitment to keeping the prices within reason, coupled with the the limited demand, the sale of these machines could not sustain Designlab. The company ended up doing a lot of industrial designing and engineering for other manufacturers who required Dave’s expertise in video.

Due to a chance phone call in 1991 to his old friend, video artist Gary Hill, Dave Jones moved Designlab away from industrial designing and back into the video art field. Designing and building custom video and computer tools to support the art of Gary Hill and a series of other video and electronic artists, Designlab’s reputation for building custom tools for artists grew rapidly. Designlab, now known as Dave Jones Design, has become one of the leaders in the field of custom electronics used by electronic artists around the world. If you go to any major contemporary art show you will probably see art powered by Dave Jones Design’s machines, or images created using them.


Jones Frame Buffer

Dave Jones explored early digital video processing techniques through design work at the E.T.C. & in April 1977 he created the 64 by 64 frame buffer, which stores images as a pattern of64 horizontal by 64 vertical squares, with a choice of 16 grey lcvels per square. The cost of memory and analog to digital conversion limited the number of grey levels and resolution. These limitations yielded a video image meshed into a charming box-like grid of intensity, that is frozen or held under front panel control.
A 4 bit, 16 level video-speed Analog to Digital Converter, samples the monochrome video input. This is fed to a 4K by 4 bit static Random Access Memory (RAM), where it is held on command by a front panel push button, locked to the vertical interval. The output of the frame buffer memory passes to the output Digital to Analog converter, changing the video signal back to its analog form. When running “live” the image bypasses the frame buffer memory, passing straight to output. When “frozen,” the image is pulled from the frame buffer, showing the last stored picture. A horizontally / vertically locked address counter supplies the timing for the memory. A later addition allowed coutrol of the write pulse by an external signal, developing a coarse keying between the stored and live image. The coarse “mosaic” and 1 6 level contouring of vodep intensity are components of image style seen in the 64 by 64 buffer.

EAB VideoLab

Original Manual from Vasulka Archive: http://www.vasulka.org/archive/Artists2/Hearn-Vidium/EABvideolab.pdf

EAB VideoLab designed by William Hearn: 

1. The Basic System- Modules A and B are used together and provide Genlock, Switcher, SEG, and Colorizer features. These units are capable of producing most standard and many novel special effects. 

2. Music Interface- Module C interfaces the basic system to any sound source and provides for producing automatic sequences of video effects. 

3. Chroma Keyer- Module D provides the Videolab system user with four independent downstream chroma keyers utilizing joystick control. These units are fully color compensated and require no external delay lines. “The Videolab System- A Highly flexible, complete, low cost, modular video synthesizer. The EAB Videolab is a voltage controlled video synthesizer. The function of the Videolab is to accept up to six video images and to provide the user the capability of switching, combining, and modifying these images in a wide variety of ways…”

Paik-Abe Synthesizer

From 1969 to 1971, together with television technician and specialist Shuya Abe, Paik constructed a video synthesizer that made it possible for him to edit seven different sources simultaneously—in real time. Seven cameras are calibrated to receive seven colors, each perceiving/photographing only a single color. The equipment is enhanced by a button for mixing, and a small clock that reverses the colors—from ultraviolet to infrared.

In his manifesto «Versatile Video Synthesizer,» Paik demonstrated a few ways of possibly using the machine. He combined characteristics of the image variations with great names from art history:

This will enable us to shape the TV screen canvas
as precisely as Leonardo
as freely as Picasso
as colorfully as Renoir
as profoundly as Mondrian
as violently as Pollock and
as lyrically as Jasper Johns.

(Source: Kat. Nam June Paik, Videa ‘n Videology 1959–1973, Emerson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York, 1974 p.55)

The Paik/Abe Synthesizer

by George Fifield

There are a few moments in history where a major advance in the arts is also an advance in engineering and directly responsible for a major acceleration of popular culture. The invention of the Paik/Abe Synthesizer is one of those perfect moments.

The Paik/Abe Synthesizer is the first machine designed to distort existing video. It was built in Boston at WGBH-TV in 1969 by Nam June Paik and Shuya Abe.

At the time Paik was an artist in residence at the public television station. He had come the previous year as part of a contingent of artists invited to create a revolutionary broadcast television show called “The Medium Is The Medium.” It grew out of an exhibition at the Howard Wise gallery in New York. The idea was to have these new video artists take over a television broadcast studio to make video art. The producers Pat Marx and Ann Gresser successfully approached the Ford Foundation for funding. But at the time broadcast television was an insular institution, to say the least, and finding a television station that would allow these artists in was difficult. Marx and Gresser had seen an article in Newsweek about a TV show on Boston public television called “What’s Happening, Mr. Silver” produced by Fred Barzyk. This was a weekly program hosted by Tufts University professor David Silver. The episode mentioned in Newsweek was called “Madness and Intuition.”

During the production of it, Barzyk recalled, “I used every film chain, every video tape machine, I had groups of thousands of slides being projected. I had a guy on a motorcycle circling two old people from an old people’s home. I had two guys sleeping in bed. I gave [director] Dave Atwood instructions that whenever anybody got bored they just yelled out and we would change to what ever else was there without rhyme or reason, assuming that everything would make sense by the time it all came out. Twenty-two minutes into the show I got up and left. As director I just walked out. One lady called up [the station] afterwards and said, ‘Don’t ever do that again, you’ve given me brain cancer.’”

With this kind of creative exploration about the structure of Television already in place, WGBH was recognized from the outside as a place where artists might be allowed some freedom to play. Barzyk, producer Olivia Tappen and Dave Atwood were invited to New York and arrived with 100 lbs of 2" inch tape of their work to show the Wise Gallery artists. Everyone got along and the artists came to Boston.

In March 1969, “The Medium Is The Medium” aired nationally featuring six artists, Allan Kaprow, Nam June Paik, Otto Piene, James Seawright, Thomas Tadlock and Aldo Tambellini. Each of them made a short video using WGBH equipment. Paik’s contribution, “Electronic Opera #1” pioneered the idea of interactive television in his by exhorting viewers to “close one eye” or “close one eye half way” and finally, “Turn off your television set”.

“Nam June Paik showed up in [rubber] boots and with about twenty old TV sets.” Barzyk remembers, “I asked him why he was wearing the boots and he said, 'Oh, I get electrocuted otherwise.’ He asked if I could get a nude woman to dance over a picture of Richard Nixon. I went as far as I could on public television. I had a dancer who was willing to do it in pasties and a g-string. But that shook up the station too, because this was definitely not what they expected. However with the Ford Foundation supporting this show and getting national recognition they had to pay attention. Reluctantly, but they had to pay attention.”

Later Paik introduced Barzyk to Howard Klein at the Rockefeller Foundation, who had seen the importance of this new medium some time before. Klein had already worked with a number of artists and institutions, like Paik and KQED in San Francisco, funding video experimentation. When he added WGBH and later WNET in New York to the process, he was able to design an entire program, the Rockefeller Artists-In-Television Project, to cover the various grants. And Paik became a WGBH Rockefeller Artist-In-Television.

Barzyk recalls working with Paik in that summer of 1969, “Nam June’s vision was immense. His language was somewhat limited and his communication with engineers (and his ideas had a lot to do with engineering) were threatening to a lot of people. Nam June had an engineer friend in Tokyo, Mr. Abe, and he came to me with an idea that he would create a machine for himself that would be away from the requirements of the [WGBH] engineers. I remember he and I had lunch with Michael Rice [president of WGBH] and we laid out this huge piece of paper which tried to describe the synthesizer and what it was like and what it was going to do. I don’t think Michael really understood, but he knew that Nam June would be gone for three months and we got the money needed to send him to Tokyo and to develop and devise this thing and bring Mr. Abe to help set it up here in the United States.” Paik returned from Japan in the spring of 1970 and made the synthesizer over the summer.

What Paik wanted to accomplish was to make video as malleable as paint. He realized that all the broadcast studio equipment in the world was still not enough to accomplish his vision of “video wallpaper. Nam June Paik saw television as the canvas for the next generation of electronic artists. The synthesizer itself was designed to do exactly what all the WGBH engineers prided themselves on avoiding. It contaminated the video signal.

By wiring up seven old black and white surveillance cameras to a colorizer and scan modulator, Paik and Abe were able to distort the color and misshape the image on the television screen. In the early sixties, Paik had displayed old television sets with huge horseshoe magnets sitting on top. This wild distortion of the magnet on one TV was exactly the effect Paik wanted on everyone’s TV. With the synthesizer, he was finally able to achieve it.

Paik himself described the Synthesizer; "Is sloppy machine, like me.” The original Synthesizer is a jumble of old video equipment that probably looked scavenged back in 1970. Starting with seven old black and white surveillance cameras, the Synthesizer is a colorizer and scan modulator combined. Each of the seven video signals is passed through its own non-linear amplifier and then through a matrix into a RGB to NTSC color encoder. This meant that one camera acted as the red input, one green, one blue, one as red and green, one as red and blue, etc. Aiming the cameras at roughly the same object gave overlapping color images. David Atwood, who was Paik’s roommate in Boston that summer, said simply, “The engineers hated the thing.”

The Synthesizer debut in a four hour broadcast television show called “Video Commune - The Beatles from Beginning to End” on WGBH, channel 44 on August 1, 1970. Paik took advantage of a licensing agreement that WGBH had which gave them rights to air all Beatles songs. So he created four hours of a wildly colorful broadcast performance to a soundtrack of Beatles music. Susan Dowling, later director of the New Television Workshop, described Video Commune as “All the images on the show - surreal landscapes (crushed tin foil), eerie abstractions (shaving cream), bursts of color (wrapping paper) - were transmogrified by the Synthesizer at the very moment of broadcast: "live” television at its most unexpected.“ Interspersed with the Synthesizer video and Beatles music were clips from a tape of Japanese television, in Japanese, with no subtitles.Viewers in Boston had never seen anything like it.

After Video Commune aired the engineers came out and said, "You guys blew up the color filter on the Channel 44 transmitter and if we ever do this again, we have to have more control.”

Later Paik left Boston and built many more Synthesizers, including ones for the Experimental Television Workshop in upstate New York and for WNET in New York City.Atwood described his job as the mediator between the WGBH engineers and the Synthesizer. He tells the story about the Green Frog. In the Synthesizer room was a large container in the shape of a green frog. It contained numerous video cables of different lengths that he had collected around the station. After Paik left, when artists like Ron Hays created a new show on the Synthesizer and it was scheduled to air the engineers would always say something like, “We can’t air that, its 60 degrees out of phase.” Atwood knew that by adding cable to the output of the Synthesizer, he could change the phase by 2 degrees a foot. So he would go into the Synthesizer room and pull thirty feet of cable out of the frog and add it to the output. Then he would return and say, “Look at the phase now, how is it?” The engineer would then have to air the work.

Today the original Synthesizer is the Kunsthalle in Bremen, Germany, in a large frame built by Paik himself, which is covered by a jumble of vintage televisions which show the various videos made with the synthesizer and their date of production. Wulf Herzogenrath, director of the Bremen Kunsthalle explains that he insisted that the dates be there, so the MTV generation of kids who came into the room realized that these modern looking videos were made before they were born, not last week.

By exhibiting a simple machine this way, Herzogenrath showed that he understood the importance of the Paik /Abe Synthesizer to world culture in a way that few in Boston or the rest of the United States did. It represents the vision of an artist who sees a medium of communication and understands that to make art with it you must first subvert it.

Until NamJune Paik the medium of worldwide broadcast television was the engineers temple. Artists were not invited. Yet by 1970, this “vast wasteland,” as it was called, had transformed our culture, becoming the most powerful form of communication in the world.

Paik revolutionized that. The handful of videos he made with the Synthesizer had an effect far beyond their audience. Suddenly the idea of video art made sense in a way that it hadn’t before. Video became a canvas that the artist could literally paint on. The freedom of creative thought that Paik’s creation spawned spread like wildfire. The Paik/Abe synthesizer and others like it were used by an entire generation of artists interested in the formal beauty of the abstract video image. Suddenly artists started inventing new electronic tools as fast as they needed them, twisting video signals through a whole new language of feedback and colorization, processing and disruption.

Rutt-Etra Video Synth

The Rutt-Etra video synthesizer was co-invented by Steve Rutt & Bill Etra. It essentially was an analog computer for video raster manipulation.

Beck Direct Video Synth

In this pre-digital analog era, there were no digital image systems that could electronically and instantly produce colors, shapes, textures, and motions in real time. Some artists such as John Whitney and Stan Vanderbeek were using IBM main frame computers to generate monochrome dot and vector images on a CRT, then exposing film frames in stop motion animation format. Colors were obtained by optical printing with color filters. The IBM computers could often require hours to compute a single frame of 10,000 dots and vectors.
The Beck Direct Video Synthesizer was designed to construct an image using the basic visual elementals of form, shape, color, texture, and motion. No video camera was involved, which differentiated Beck’s totally constructivist approach considerably from his contemporaries, who employed monochrome video camera colorizers (such as Etra) or camera image distortions in their approaches to video synthesizers (such as Nam June Paik and Shue Abe.)