Learning under fire: What a difference an internet makes

animated signBack in the mid-Eighties I started at an animation studio as a camera operator for a Whiteway Sign animation system. If you’re unfamiliar with the company, they were one of the leading manufacturers of animated signs for sports venues, theaters and such. This was all pre JumboTron. Animated signage literally consisted of matrices of hundreds or thousands of light bulbs, each representing a single pixel. Or in the case of color signs, hundreds of groups of three bulbs, one red, one blue and one green.  The studio created animations on a regular basis for a long list of clients including major sports teams and venues, and then shipped the animations to the customer on really huge “portable” hard drives. We even did half-time animations for The Superbowl one year.

Most Whiteway systems up through the early nineties ran on DEC PDP-11 minicomputers, rather large beasts that were roughly 50 percent computer and 50 percent central air conditioning unit. On my first PDP-11-40day I was handed a bundle of photocopied pages from the PDP-11 manual and the manual for the Whiteway software. I was also given a 15 minute introduction to the Oxberry animation stand used with the system and the black and white CCTV camera that served as the input device. I then spent a few hours entering a simple animation (drawn on pegged animation paper) into the system and cleaning up the digitized results.

That was it for on the job training. On Day Two I was expected to have absorbed most of what I needed to know and work without constant supervision. Day Two was hell but I survived it, and stayed with the company for several years. I eventually took on more complex tasks and while I was never a lead animator, I was able to work in many support roles, both technical and creative, on video and film projects.

final cut pro xShuttle forward in time, a quarter century and change. A former boss and current business associate is a partner in a documentary project, projected to run 90 minutes when completed. He’s already shooting, in 4K onto high density memory cards. He’s hired me on to be footage librarian and logger, and additionally to research and build a combination solid-state and traditional drive array to handle the anticipated 10 – 15 hours of raw 4K footage.

Day One was yesterday. I was shown the workstation (a fairly high end Mac) and the software being used, Final Cut Pro.

No photocopied manuals, no walk-throughs. Just a simple request:

“Can you google this to get up to speed?”

To add some perspective: Other than my own small video projects, I’ve pretty much been out of the industry for twenty years. Compared to the simpler video editors I’ve been using, that screen looked pretty daunting. And additional responsibilities of this new job meant learning more about a technology that had left me behind over a decade ago.

While I’m not going to become a Final Cut guru just by reading articles, this research gig has really impressed on me what a real game changer the internet has become. No photocopying or purchasing manuals, everything is there. As well as advice on best practices for the job ahead, and differing views and opinions on how to get what needs to be done, done.

Of course, there’s bad with the good. Bad advice is just as easy to google as good advice. And it’s hard to get a refund on free advice.





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John has a 35 year history as jackass-of-all-trades in film and video production, audio production, traditional and computer based animation, information technology and janitorial engineering. The past 15 years have been focused more heavily on application and web development, while John is also continuing his advanced studies in Mid-European Cave Troll etiquette.