Shooting stars

In this summer of televisual drought the only possible reason millions of people can have for watching the box is to get a glimpse of those wonderful three-dimensional 2s ploughing up timber floors, zooming around on motor bike undercarriages, peeling apart, turning into slinkys, doing a whole bunch of extraordinary, unpredictable things. They are the best thing currently on telly. The station idents, as they’re known, for BBC1 do generically similar though more restrained things. But the mobile 2 has developed a genuine personality – and with it a treasured place in the visual consciousness of the chattering classes.

There are thousands of designers out there who’d kill to be able to do that. The more recent individual examples of the idents that we’ve been seeing may be the work of BBC graphic designers. But the inspired creator of the idea – and of the first nine or ten exemplars – is, of course, Martin Lambie-Nairn. You could put it another way and say that the BBC’s presentation graphics team has been inspired in its continuing development of Lambie-Nairn’s wonderful concept. Neither view would be incorrect.

Lambie-Nairn was brought in five years ago by Pam Masters, chief honcho of the 300-strong presentation department, to both create station identities and to set up a new management structure in the small graphics department – to give it the qualities of a real life non-institutional design practice. He has succeeded beyond all expectations at the former and, if the enthusiasm of the eight designers is anything to go by, he has also succeeded at the latter. They are part of BBC graphics which is a horizontal organisation with a staff of around 35 designers serving five traditional BBC vertical zones ranging from the aforesaid presentation through drama to entertainment and kids. It’s Producers’ Choice time and last year graphics turned over 8m – 2.1m of which was profit.

You don’t get a sense of rampant capitalist entrepreneurship in the White City Design Building – yes, one of Television Centre’s rambling annexes is graced with that name. Mind you, you don’t get that in the average design office either. But there is a degree of outside competition (almost all of it from ex-BBC graphics designers) especially when outside production companies are concerned. Interestingly, the entertainment design group headed up by Bernard Heyes is still doing the title sequences to Clive James’s programme – even though he has moved channels to Carlton. Still, it would be difficult for, say, presentation graphics – with its relentless output of slides and pointers to shows in each day’s viewing programme, as well as the station and special theme identities – to operate in anything other than an in-house way.

The bread and butter of BBC graphic designers is title sequences. These are sometimes 27 seconds long, sometimes 34 seconds but always somewhere in between. You might ask what they’re for, beyond establishing the title of the show/film/game/chat/drama and perhaps a few credits. There was a time when producers at the BBC asked that too. But not anymore. Title sequences are perceived as establishing a programme’s preliminary impact, as providing in that 30 seconds a summary, a flavour, setting a mood for the following 45 or so minutes. Says Heyes “The title sequence promises value. It’s something like a 30-second commercial – shot for one tenth of the price.”

The way a title sequence is commissioned at the BBC is a producer comes up with a few ideas and a vague notion of the ingredients – but rarely with a clear idea of what is wanted. “Producers always want something different,” says Heyes. “It’s the designer’s task to come up with the idea. That can come immediately or it can take a week.” And the half minute shown on screen can take between two and three months to create.

You want to know what kind of special experience you need to design for the TV screen. The answers you get are never very helpful. The current bunch of BBC designers comes from a variety of art schools and they’re mostly graphics designers – although the BBC is vaguely aware that some schools are now providing specialised courses. The great training school of course is the BBC itself – and BBC people happily point out that stars like Lambie-Nairn learned their specialised stuff there.

What is special about TV graphics is that extra ingredient of movement. Of course, the graphics disciplines to do with space and line and proportion and positioning still apply. There’s that added dimension of time. And that involves a different mode of thinking which has something to do with movie making, something to do with animation and often storytelling. And because a title sequence is so short every frame and its relationship with the one before and after has to be meticulously edited. “It’s more than just movement and dealing with space: every single twenty-fifth of a second is critical,” says presentations designer Mark Chaudoir.

The ordinary BBC designer has access to an enviable range of gear: Quantel PaintBoxes, Harrys (and a Flash Harry), rostrum suites, Mac and Silicon Graphics computers – and, apart from 6B pencils still widely used for storyboarding, there is access to film crews: many title sequences call for real-life stuff which isn’t in the archives. In these cases the graphic designer turns into a film director.

With all this gear to hand there’s a tendency to imagine that BBC title sequences and mobile station idents are mostly computer-generated. Not necessarily so. That shower of gold dust at the end of the National Lottery title is actually a handful of glitter filmed against a blue background and laid over what is otherwise a totally computer-generated sequence. On the other hand, that bunch of light pinpoints which swirls around and eventually becomes something like a 2 is not computer-generated; it’s actually a bunch of waving optic fibres anchored in the 2 configuration which somebody has deliberately disturbed.

The BBC people are amused at outsiders’ how-did-you-do-that interest but there don’t seem to be any second joke agendas in the way the images are created. It’s a disappointingly sensible matter of deciding what they want the 1 and 2 to do and, providing they haven’t worked it out themselves, finding out from the Beeb’s vast storehouse of knowledge the best way to go about it. That’s nice because the computer stops being The Computer and becomes just another useful tool.

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