Television Production Handbook 
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1980-2009 Roger Inman & Greg Smith. All rights reserved.

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NOTE: Of all the chapters in this handbook, this is most subject to change as television production moves from the use of tangible forms of image storage, such as slides or prints, to electronic storage. While slides and prints are still important sources of pictorial images, in the generation and use of titles and text, I have not used or even seen anything other than computer-generated text since the mid nineteen eighties.
Titles and Artwork

Graphic material is very important in many types of programs. Certainly almost any sort of show looks more polished and professional if it has, at least, opening titles, and credits for the major members of the production crew at the end. Other types of written and graphic material may also be needed.

There are four main ways to incorporate graphic information into a television program.

The CHARACTER GENERATOR is a computer that produces printed material digitally and converts it into a form which is directly usable as a video source.

Graphics can also be produced on LIVE CARDS, usually cardboard sheets about 11 x 14 inches, which are shot by a camera.

SLIDES can be produced photographically in a variety of ways from the same sort of originals used for live cards and can then be projected into a special camera using a device called a film chain or projected onto a white surface and shot by a camera.

COMPUTERs are used to generate most of the graphics now used in television at all levels.
Character Generator

Character generators differ significantly in their versatility and ease of use, but mostly tend to look the same, consisting of a console with a typewriter-style keyboard and, usually, a dedicated video monitor. there are a number of special keys on the keyboard which control specific functions of the character generator, such as page advance, character size and type style, automatic centering, and perhaps other options. There is always a set of keys to position (up, down, left, right) a cursor which appears on the character generator's own monitor (but not in the signal sent to the switcher) and indicates exactly where on the screen the next letter will appear.

Most character generators allow for only a small number of characters on the screen at once; ten lines of thirty figures each is typical. Actually, this isn't a disadvantage. Small characters are difficult to see given the limited resolution and large viewing distances of TV sets in the home. This general principle applies to all graphics work for television: keep it simple, make all important elements large, and try to present complicated graphics in several pages, if needed, instead of all at once. The output of a character generator is usually inserted over other video by means of a key or matte.

As character generators become more sophisticated (and expensive), they may offer some of these additional features: Most units can store more than one "page" of graphics and allow you to recall them in order, or randomly, by pressing keys. The ability to roll (vertically) or crawl (horizontally) lettering across the screen is useful; rolling credits are common at the ends of programs, and crawls are often used to make announcements during a program at the bottom of the screen. Some machines offer a disk or tape cassette storage system which allows pages of characters to be stored for recall at any time, also extending the page-storage capability of the character generator enormously. Finally, more sophisticated character generators offer a wide variety of sizes and styles (and sometimes colors) of characters, variable italicization, outlines, shadows, and even the ability to create custom characters or logos for regeneration later. Less expensive machines may offer only one or two sizes of a single type font; the very cheapest don't even have lower-case letters.

The major disadvantage in the use of character generators for television graphics is that they are at their best only when presenting rather simple textual information. If you have in mind any kind of charts or graphs, or the use of some special type style, you'll have to use something else.

Live Cards

Before computer graphics we used live artwork cards in front of a camera to present graphics and photographs. Modestly stiff multi-ply cardboard in cards about 11 by 14 inches were the most common background material for live cards. This material is available at art supply houses in a variety of colors and textures.

Lettering on live cards can be done with dry transfer letters, again available at art and school supply stores. This material is provided in large sheets containing several complete alphabets of a particular type font. There are other lettering systems too, sometimes faster or cheaper but seldom as good-looking as well done dry transfer work.

In making up live cards, it's important to assure that everything you need will be seen on the television screen and that no extraneous material gets in. Always allow a 1-1/2 to 2 inch border on all sides of a live card to give some leeway in camera positioning and framing. This area should be completely clear of dirt, pencil marks and other distractions, as should, of course, the main picture area itself. Also, remember that the dimensions of the television screen are four units wide by three units high. A six by eight inch area in the center of an 11 by 14 card would be a very safe one in which to compose your graphics. Usually type no smaller than 24 point (1/3 inch high) would be used in a space of that size.


Any 35 mm still camera can be used to generate slides for use in television. In any photographic work for television, remember that the television system always crops the image slightly, so you'll see less on the TV screen than appears in the original slide or film. The 35 mm slide format also has a slightly different aspect ratio than the TV screen; the pictures are wider. Thus, anything at the extreme edges of the picture will not be reproduced.

Digital still cameras normally have a 1.33 aspect ratio and almost all have more than the 640 x 480 pixels used in SD television graphics.  Still cameras featuring the same 16x9 aspect ratio as HD TV are now on the market.

It's wise to allow a border of about 20% of the picture area on each side when framing in the still camera's viewfinder to allow for this image cutoff. This same precaution applies when shooting live-action photographs for use in television. Some very expensive 35 mm cameras have interchangeable focusing screens and make available a screen marked with the appropriate television "safety" areas.
Here are the most important restrictions on the use of still photographs in television:

1. Observe the safe action area. As mentioned above, a border of about 20 percent is needed. For a quick and conservative approach, turn a 35 mm camera on its side, as if shooting a vertical-format picture. The area seen from right to left in the viewfinder can be reasonably expected to be seen in the video image after you turn the camera back for the horizontally-framed shot.

2. Shoot only in horizontal format. Vertical slides appear on TV with severe cutoff at top and bottom and with a black border on each edge.

3. Keep contrast low. Pictures taken in bright sunlight without additional fill light, or indoors with a single flash unit, are often too high in contrast to reproduce properly on television (although they may look fine when projected on a screen). You should try to follow the same rules for lighting still photographs taken for television that you would in lighting for a video camera itself.


It's not as easy to use film in television as it seems it ought to be. Two problems arise. First, film is usually shot without any regard for the television safe action and title areas. The outside 20% or so of the film image is lost in the transfer process. Second, film is shot at 16, 18 or 24 frames per second. Broadcast film chains use special shutters in their projectors to repeat every fourth frame, bringing the frame rate up from twenty-four to the thirty frames per second required for television. Film shot at sixteen or eighteen frames per second can't be synchronized to television without special projection equipment.

At one time virtually every television station had a film chain, both for news film and for  theatrical films.  Now they are rare indeed.  To use film in a video production you will almost certainly have to convert it to video at a photo store of duplicator that has the necessary equipment.  The transfer should be made to digital video, such as miniDV or DVCAM if possible.


Computers can be used to generate television graphics in live productions if their output signals are adapted to the NTSC standard.  Most often computer graphics are integrated into programs during editing using nonlinear editing programs.

Computer screen outputs differ from standard NTSC video in several ways. First, most are "non-interlace." That is, there is no division of the picture into alternating odd-line and even-line fields. Second, the rate at which frames are displayed is usually much faster than the nominal thirty frames per second used in television. And third, many computer graphics displays leave a fairly large border, or "safe area," around the active graphics area. The television video area fills the entire screen. Although a variety of add-on products might allow recording of computer images on videotape, conversion to actual broadcast television standards requires a special video card.
Even still images on computer take up a lot of space. Each true broadcast-quality image requires about one million bytes to display. To make transfer and storage of video images more practical, two basic compression techniques have been developed, with more on the way.

JPEG compression deals with discrete images, one at a time. Typical video frames can be compressed to one seventh of their original size with no discernable reduction in quality. It is usually possible in using JPEG compression to specify the degree of compression desired, so noticeable image degradation can be avoided.

MPEG compression works on the assumption that much of the image from one frame to the next in film or video remains the same. Except for key frames, no single MPEG frame is complete and each has meaning only with reference to the frame that preceded it.

Some additional observations on computer-based video can be found in the Editing section.

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