Lan Merrill
Issue: February 1, 2010


From the first characters scribbled on a writer’s napkin, a production begins to take shape through a series of arduous steps — treatment to rough, scripting to re-write, pre-pro, to (hopefully) production, and then into the post, approval, and final distribution chains.

In almost each of these steps, the character generator (CG) appears to guarantee that critical production information is available to properly identify and ensure that the right media is being accurately acquired, manipulated, prepared, securely delivered, and finally correctly distributed for the end users consumption. The CG is also playing an increasingly important role in establishing and maintaining the continued (and ever-growing presence) of branding and advertiser messaging, which is the life blood that the content and service provider’s identity, business models, and revenue streams depend upon. Regardless of where and how media is produced, distributed, or consumed, the connection from the CG to the cash register is vital and cannot be underemphasized.

Once upon a time, shows like I Love Lucy were broadcast live and in “realtime”, for the pre-scheduled, pre-arranged (and pre-taped) once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch just that single viewing. Things have changed a bit since then. Today, a program can appear in endless iterations on a continually expanding variety of platforms from digital cinema, HDTVs, YouTube, and, to iPods, in airports, gas stations, and shopping centers. As content producers and production techniques become ever more sophisticated in generating and repurposing this portable content — whether for conventional broadcast, digital cinema, podcast, or mobile TV — end users grow more savvy and selective in their consumption of this media. So, it becomes even more important that effective steps are taken to protect the identity, the value and the integrity of that content.

The CG is a flexible solution that provides content protection by simplifying the addition of visual identification and branding, such as slates, logos, and lower thirds that clearly identify programming, brand messages, and the logos or the delivery providers. Equipped to support fast, easy, and accurate insertion of text and graphical-based media-specific details into recorded and live material, the CG also ensures that throughout the production chain, content is securely protected, accounted for, finished, and delivered accurately by and for the particular media provider or outlet.

The chain of physical production events usually begins with the simplest character generators — a pencil or a pen. This quickly moves into an electronic character generator, or the word processor. Once a project is chosen and green-lighted, the project moves into the pre-production phase. Here, more specialized electronic CGs provide quick and simple means of adding graphic slates for video talent, location, and camera shots, including the graphical ID of possible locations, camera angles, and local practical elements. Easy integration of these details in pre-production helps to ensure that each element is available as planned once shooting begins.

As shooting commences, the CG provides an intuitive template-based interface that can automate and speed creation of live slates that identify reels, tapes, cans, cards, and other recording media with detailed metadata such as lighting conditions, camera focal lengths, gamma, knee, iris, black levels, filters and LUTs, props, cast members, costumes, special and visual effect setups, and details. And don’t forget good old timecode. In many cases these metadata will also be embedded into an XML file for reference later, but there will inevitably be some visual cues added to offline or proxy material to make pre-pro easier.

During single camera production shoots, in-camera shot marking using the built-in CG can be a convenient tool for identifying good takes (both audio and or video), plus identifying interesting outtakes, talent reaction shots, or good audience interactions. When shooting on stage, the CG again makes it easy for staff to create slates with information essential to the production workflow. Preconfigured templates provide a fast and ready solution for correctly identifying show numbers, takes, reels, and isos. The CG can also be used to insert visual cues for later effects and for other material that may require CGI, Foley, or other effect work using external treatment or processing. With a clear visual indication of key details, it becomes much easier for creatives in the offline, nearline, and online processes to find the right material quickly and process it properly.

During editing, the CG offers several scenarios for laying in titles. One method is realtime online overlay of edited material, sent through an external CG and then brought back into the NLE for the next sequence, typically performed in a lossless, high-quality format to ensure that image quality is not affected. This costly online approach is employed for larger budget projects that can afford the online suite time.  Another approach is to incorporate CG into the offline EDL, using low-resolution proxies for placement prior to creation of an online final.

Additionally, timeline-based CGs are built into most NLE systems to provide overlay functionality, but the quality of the finished CG typically suffers in quality and speed compared to realtime broadcast quality solutions. The ideal solution for laying in graphics during the editing process is to provide fast, straightforward, affordable, high-quality real time CGs integrated into the NLE system. A new generation of affordable CG products that are currently entering the marketplace promise to meet all of these requirements.

As rushes, rough cuts, and the multitude of subsequent revisions are completed — following extensive back-and-forth among the creative, executive, financial, and compliance teams — the program undergoes a final finishing session that incorporates the final audio layback, laugh track, and perhaps any additional graphical (CG or special effects) elements as required. 

The CG is then used again when the final product is delivered by file, tape or some other media to the distribution or dub house. This facility will often create a protection master file or tape, using the CG to put bars, slate, and the countdown on the protection master file or tape, which eventually will be the version used on-air. As the program is prepared for distribution, whether via a satellite, Web-based, or terrestrial platform, the CG once again can be used to support the automated insertion of a target-specific complement of commercial, program, and promo identifications.

Finally, once a show is played out by a local or distant media outlet, the company’s branding is overlaid by a CG to display logos, coming up next events, audience participation and interactive information, along with other branding and monetizing mechanisms.

The production and delivery of today’s media programming requires clear communication and messaging at every step. While maintaining brand awareness is a well-established role for the CG, the entire production chain can benefit from intuitive, easy-to-use CG systems that simplify the process of identifying pieces of media, their characteristics, and their role within the increasingly complex workflows used to create and deliver programming effectively. The CG enables the ever-increasing needs of the marketplace to provide dependable and quantifiable monetization of the providers’ content to the consumer.

Lan Merrill is Vice President of Engineering at Compix Media (, an Irvine, CA-based broadcast graphics systems manufacturer.