Friday, September 25, 2009

ANCHOR character generation

Our Sunday evening routine was always the same - my four siblings and me having their hair washed by Mum on a production line, with Dad on hair-drier duty. You'd regularly smell burning as he'd be distracted by something on "The Money Programme" or "News Review". If you could smell pork there must have been something really interesting on the news...

Whenever I was able to put the the ever present risk of third degree burns out of my mind, there were two things that fascinated me about "News Review". One was the bags under Peter Woods' eyes. The other was the subtitling for the deaf and hard of hearing. It was in a strange but fascinating style of writing you only ever saw on the BBC.

The best thing about News Review was the subtitles

Adding to the mystique, there was also a huge illuminated transparency (about a meter by a meter and a half) of Jan Leeming from "News Review" with this subtitling below the charts in my opticians in Crewkerne that was used for testing people's distance vision.

The subtitling was created by a system developed in-house by the BBC called ANCHOR. The BBC used Anchor for everything from General Elections to "computer readouts" on episodes of Doctor Who to superimposing "MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM BBC-2" on the test card.

Perhaps the reason I remember ANCHOR with such affection was that it heralded cricket being rained off, which freed up our family's only television for programmes aimed at human beings with some concept of boredom.

Richard Russell, a BBC engineer and BBC Microcomputer legend remembered the ANCHOR system as follows:
ANCHOR was a largely *analogue* character generator, developed before digital technology was capable of such things, and as such was pretty remarkable. An attempt was made to develop a proportional-spaced ANCHOR - I remember seeing it being worked on - but I think it never got beyond the laboratory stage because it was so complex.
Richard Russell - retrieved 14 July 2008

However, Bob Richardson, one of the BBC's graphic designers at the time remembered it less than fondly:
ANCHOR was a truly dreadful piece of kit. It was "free" to BBC productions (no internal charge was made for it) but nobody wanted it. Only Pres used it on occasions to give close-of-play cricket scores. Pres had one ANCHOR machine in the main BBC1/BBC2 editorial area on the 4th floor at TVC and the other sat in Vision Maintenance on the 2nd floor under a dustsheet. It didn't get out much. ANCHOR used a monospaced face and had an 82 character set. It... ...had been around since the Moon Landing in 1969. The keying was also pretty crap.
Bob Richardson - retrieved 14 July 2008

I'd always wanted to create an ANCHOR typeface for myself so when, in early 2006, my friend Rory Clark managed to recover a complete edition of "News Review" with Peter Woods and a BBC 2 News summary with Joan Bakewell from a Philips N1500 cassette I was in luck. Both programmes had used ANCHOR to produce subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing. I took screenshots of every page of ANCHOR text and luckily managed to get every character between those two programmes.

Nowadays, instead of going to all that trouble, I could have simply downloaded BBC Engineering Monograph 84 off of the internet!

I created each character in Macromedia Flash and then imported them into Macromedia Fontographer. This was quite an exciting project at the time as it was the first font I'd ever created.

The end result (a truetype font file) worked rather well, and I'm glad to say it was put to good use by the late Simon Luxton who produced some rather interesting applications of ANCHOR that he remembered seeing as a child. Here is a picture I made for Simon - click to enlarge:

Peter Woods with that bloke off the Nationwide pantos

If you use the font at 41 points on a screen that's 788 x 576 pixels in height then you'll get an end result identical in size to the size seen on screen.

I've now licensed my ANCHOR font under CC-BY-SA and it's available to download from here.


wbhist said...

One example of ANCHOR fonts shown in the U.S. was on a July 10, 1975 newscast from WPIX Channel 11 in New York during the sports report where a golf match featuring Jack Nicklaus was spotlighted, and the ANCHOR type appeared at 4:01:
Not quite a minute into the clip, you also get to see the U.S. Vidifont in action. Compared with ANCHOR, however, Vidifont's type presentation would appear to have been more advanced.

Dave Jeffery said...

Firstly, it's lovely to hear from you again! I hope you are well. Many thanks for dropping by here.

It's wonderful to see ANCHOR turning up on US television. I suppose by 1975 Anchor was already at least six years old, which was an eternity given the way technology was advancing.

Vidifont was obviously superior, but the nice thing about ANCHOR was, as an analogue generator, it would look exactly the same on an HD set whereas Vidifont would show its pixels.

wbhist said...

Vidifont was also used on some PAL systems (there are clips from Australian TV where it was used for lower-third captions on YouTube). However, the vertical proportions did not change, thus the characters appeared crushed compared with its use on NTSC.

I suppose there are ways Vidifont can be "revived" for today's uses . . . there are references online . . .

wbhist said...

And one Australian clip (again, look how the lower-third fonts on the "Encounters" segment look scrunched) that bears the Vidifont type is:

Unknown said...

I like the boldness of Anchor as seen in Doctor Who, which I first watched on weeknights from 1981 on The University of North Carolina Center for Public Television, as broadcast by WUNK-TV, Channel 25 in Greenville NC. Here are a couple of Vidifont examples from my tapes – one from Channel 25 and one from WSBK 38 in Boston.

Unknown said...

As a follow up to my 2 PNGs, here's an article by Vidifont's Stanley Baron, who was invited to Alexandria Palace in 1986 to speak about it. - PJ 'BeeblePete' Fagan

Unknown said...

Based on Stanley's article, I see now that the framegrabs I posted are a lot closer to the Vidiac device; they're not Vidifont framegrabs, sorry! The Vidifont looks more like a proper font, and is apparently based on CBS News 36 which was in turn based on News Gothic Medium Condensed. I was intrigued to read that there are irregularities in CBS' adaptation of News Gothic, designed to make letters appear at their best after being smeared by video. This is analogous to 'ink traps' in metal type - tiny round bites taken out of a typeface's sharp angles that trap excess ink, preventing the deformity of the intended character shapes. -beeblepete

Unknown said...

In practice, Vidifont seems to have a lot more in common with Helvetica than News Gothic, particularly in terms of the J, R and Q. - pete