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Motion Graphics in Television

by Jeremy Butler

As Margaret Morse explains in her overview of the history of TV graphics, the movement and three-dimensionality of graphic elements accelerated phenomenally with the development of digital technology in the late 1970s and 1980s. Today, hyperactive letters and logos often seem to be flying past us or us toward them. Examine the opening credits for As the World Turns—a program not known for its visual flourishes. The title comes from a virtual space behind us, rotating and swooping towards a globe constructed out of images from the program. The title then comes back towards us and we ostensibly pass through the “o” of “World”. “The viewer . . . seems to be freed from gravity in a virtual experience of giddy speed through a symbolic universe of abc’s,” notes Morse regarding similar sequences. In such a universe, the letters are far from flat or two-dimensional. The movement of the As the World Turns letters and their design makes them look like thick pieces of glass, with a sense of density and smooth texture. 

Graphics flying toward the viewer are the visual equivalent of verbal direct address. Remember that in narrative programs the visuals are designed much like the theater—as if a fourth wall has been removed and you are peering into a room. This is particularly true in sitcoms and soap operas because their sets are constructed with a missing fourth wall, but it also holds true for prime-time dramas shot on location. Consequently, there is limited actor movement in depth—toward or away from the camera. The action mostly occurs on a plane perpendicular to the camera’s and thus more left-and-right and less back-and-forth. Actors do not enter sitcom/soap-opera sets from behind the camera the way the letters in the As the World Turns title sequence do. And actors do not exit by walking toward and past the camera the way the As the World Turns title does. When graphic elements behave this way, they, in a sense, say to viewers, “Pay attention! Here we come—right towards you. Duck!” As you can see, in commercials animated graphics serve a similar purpose to announcers speaking directly to the viewers. Both hail viewers—one through visually moving words and the other through verbally spoken ones. As Morse argues, these graphics are predecessors of increasingly interactive computer environments, from first-person games (e.g. Doom and Call of Duty) to virtual reality worlds. 

The Beginnings of 3D Graphics in TV Commercials

by Jeremy Butler

Redundant, reinforcing text and small-print disclaimers are important functions of TV graphics, but equally significant is the ability of graphics to catch viewers’ eyes, to hail or entreat them to look at the screen. The most important device for graphical hailing is the ability of text and cartoon elements to be animated, for moving graphics are enormously more attention-grabbing than static ones. Animation in commercials arrived with television’s growth in the 1940s and early 1950s, but it was initially limited to techniques borrowed from the cinema. For example, a 1950s commercial for Philco refrigerators has a cartoon pixie flitting about the crisper and ends with text fading in over a seal of quality: “Philco famous for quality the world over”. The animated pixie and the simple fading in of the characters were created on film, using an analog process called optical printing. On most commercials, the graphical elements are sliding or floating or otherwise moving. Further, commercial graphics use an illusion of three-dimensionality to make letters and numbers appear to rise toward the viewer. Even in this 60-year-old spot, the 3-D shading on the “Philco quality” letters gives them a more dynamic aspect.

Motion Graphics in "As the World Turns"

Motion graphics in the soap opera.

from As the World Turns (2000)
Creator: CBS
Distributor: CBS
Posted by Jeremy Butler
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