by Sheldon Liebman
This month, Sesame Street begins its 25th season as the leading television show for children. This teaching show has educated and entertained countless numbers of children and adults, and continues to fascinate everyone who watches it. Over the years, many of us have grown up with Sesame Street. This season, Sesame Street does some growing of its own.
On-screen, the set has more than doubled in size and now extends around the corner. Off-screen, production moved to a whole new neighborhood. In the Art Department, approximately 80% of the graphics will be created on an Apple Macintosh.
In May, the Sesame Street offices moved into the Kaufman-Astoria Studios in Queens. The sets and equipment began their move in July. And the new season started shooting during the third week of August. There’s a lot more space in the new facility, and the Art Department will be doubling their computer graphics capabilities to help fill some of it. Not bad for a group that didn’t even have a computer until 3 seasons ago.
Victor DiNapoli is the Production Designer for Sesame Street and has been with the show for 22 of its 25 years. He was the one who started the process of computerizing the Art Department 3 years ago. “I was an IBM diehard frustrated by the lack of good graphics,” explains DiNapoli. “Then I spent some time in Florida working on a Muppets special with the people at Disney. While I was there, I was exposed to a Mac for the first time, and I got addicted. It did all the graphics I’d been trying to do at home with my IBM, and PhotoShop really turned me on.”
The system DiNapoli saw was a Macintosh II FX with Adobe PhotoShop, and he set out to duplicate it. When the first phase of the installation was completed three years ago, the equipment list looked like this:
Apple Macintosh II FX with 8MB RAM
Maxtor 325MB Fixed Disk Drive
SuperMac Spectrum PDQ Display Adapter
SuperMac STD9790 19″ Color Monitor
Microtek 300ZS 300dpi Color Scanner
Wacom SD312 12″x18″ Data Tablet
Apple Personal LaserWriter II NT
With this list of equipment, the Art Department became computerized. They weren’t tied into the Edit Room at that point, but that followed soon enough. Within a year, DiNapoli upgraded the system to include the following:
TrueVision NuVista+ 4MB
Ikegami TM14-19R Broadcast Monitor
Bernoulli 90 Removable Disk Drive
Utah Scientific ICS-2000 Router
HP Deskwriter C Color Inkjet Printer
RAM Upgrade to 20MB for the Macintosh II FX
Fractal Design Painter
More recent upgrades added a NuDesign 128MB Floptical disk drive and a Canon BJC820 color bubble jet printer.
At this point, the Art Department created a two way link to the edit room. Every camera, every tape machine, the Ultimatte, the Chyron, and the line feed can all be sent to the NuVista+ through the router. And the signal from the NuVista+ can be punched up in the edit room, just as if it were another camera. There is also local tape capability in the Art Department, so a variety of tape formats can be fed into the NuVista+ or recorded directly from it.
Mike Pantuso has been the Graphic Designer on Sesame Street for the past 7 seasons. Before that, he worked mostly for advertising agencies and magazines. The Mac system has given him “the freedom to experiment and try 75 variations if necessary. It’s amazing how this helps us out.” Pantuso offers the following example. “We do a lot of hard props for the show here. Magazines, books, signs. In the olden days, you had to send it out for typesetting or rub on the letters, and you’d just live with it if it wasn’t exactly right. You might take a week creating a prop. With this system, I can do the same thing in 30 minutes or a few hours.” Although he still creates the original illustration as line art, Pantuso now scans the artwork into the system. Using PhotoShop, the final image is created, and then it can be output to one of the color printers or fed directly to the edit room if necessary.
Since they are working exclusively in video, incredible detail in the graphics is not necessary. Pantuso uses PhotoShop with a setting of only 72 dpi when he is creating background props for the show. He does all his typesetting with TypeStyler. And he prints mostly on the HP or Canon color printers. Their low resolution can’t be detected when the videotape rolls. When props are created for the foreground, for close-up, or for long-term use, they send a Bernoulli disk to a local printer who creates a gloss or matte print from an IRIS Graphics high resolution printer.
Although it seems incredible that they only use two programs, both DiNapoli and Pantuso agree that for now, it’s the best way. Pantuso has “started to use a lot of programs, but I find them archaic compared to PhotoShop. I just keep coming back to it.”
Pete Ortiz is a Graphic Artist in his first full year on Sesame Street. For the past few years, he has worked as a free-lancer for the show. He and Mike Pantuso started together in the advertising industry and are happy to be working together again in this environment. Ortiz used a Mac in advertising, but says “it was very different. Here, you have the freedom to put out really good work. The Mac not only saves time, but the quality of the work is a lot nicer in the end.”
Bob Phillips, Art Director for Sesame Street, has also noticed how much the Mac helps with the show’s graphics, and hopes to get the same advantage in areas like set design. “The Mac has vastly increased the amount of richness and detail we can have in props.”
DiNapoli agrees, but is also quick to point out how much time and money they save with the system as well. “Since we are public broadcasting, we have to be somewhat frugal. By sending finished product over the wire, we have eliminated a cost factor as well as a time factor. And we can even get a better look. The Mac gives us the same look as kids are seeing everywhere else, and that’s important. If we want to hold a child’s attention, we can’t look old compared to other programs.”
DiNapoli is continuing to be careful as he prepares to bring in the second Mac system for his department. “When we bought the system, we got it from a reliable vendor who supports us.” That same vendor is now replacing his own demonstration Macintosh II FX, and DiNapoli will be taking delivery of the system. “It’s virtually identical to the system we already have, with 20 MB of RAM and a SuperMac display adapter. This one won’t have a direct video link, but we’ll network it to our existing system.”
With a second system installed, they’ll be able to do even more of the work in-house. Although they’re already doing a lot of work for a wide variety of uses. Three recent projects really show the freedom and flexibility the Mac has given this four man department. Or is it five? Victor DiNapoli thinks of the Mac “as the fifth person in the department. I can start a job and then go do other things.”
Like coordinating with the California company that created the 75′ wide by 25′ high painted backdrop for the park in the new neighborhood. A backdrop that DiNapoli originally created on the Mac. “I took a few panoramic pictures of Central Park with my 35mm camera, scanned them into the Mac, and went to work in PhotoShop. I cleaned up the sky, removed the people, and added foliage to the trees. The finished image was printed at 1/2″ per foot on an Iris printer and sent to California. The finished painting looks just like my PhotoShop image.”
Another project recently started by the group is a catalog of the sets that are used on Sesame Street. According to DiNapoli, “we use the NuVista+ to grab frames as the sets are being used. Then we print them to make a catalog of all the sets.”
Perhaps the most exciting use of the system also happens to be the one that can save the most time and money compared with the traditional way things were done in the past. Sesame Street shoots 100 new shows a year, each of which can have 20-25 minutes of new material. That translates into a lot of props and sets. Or not. One of the most recent pieces created for the show is a Muppet music video, Polly Darton’s “Save Your Energy For Me.” The shoot involved 12 different backgrounds and camera angles, but virtually nothing exists outside the computer except the Muppets and other actors. The whole video was shot over blue, and Victor DiNapoli did the rest. As he explains, “I got a 3/4″ tape with the Ultimatte videos, and grabbed a frame from each of the 12 scenes into the NuVista+. Using PhotoShop, I created 12 different backgrounds matched to the scale and perspective of the original footage. I sent each background over the wire, and they composited everything together for the final piece. We saved a lot of time, a lot of money, and we ended up with a better look.”
With two systems, the Art Department will be able to do even more than the amazing amount they already create. Is there anything they’d like to add beyond what they have? DiNapoli is “very interested in the new Quadra 840 and its video aspects, but as yet we have not had the opportunity to experience or experiment with it.” Both Ortiz and Pantuso are trying to find the time to learn some other programs, particularly Macromind Director and Fractal Design Painter. Ortiz “wants to touch on the animation” in the future, and Pantuso finds “more tools specifically for painting in Fractal.” Phillips wants to start using the Mac for CAD. “I can draw an original faster than you can do it with a CAD program,” he says, “but once it’s in there, you can cut, paste, and resize very easily.”
Whether they are using the computer or doing things “the old way,” everyone agrees there is no better place to work than on Sesame Street. Bob Phillips sums it up best when he says, “At the end of the day, I feel like I really contributed something by working on this show.” The same can be said for the Macintosh.