Nostalgic recollections of a bygone production era
May 16, 2007
May 16, 2007
I tend not to write in this space about internal matters regarding how our magazine is produced, on the assumption that readers prefer that I focus on industry issues.
However, I’m going to break that rule here because of a new development and in the event that some of you might be interested in how a magazine is physcially put together. Actually, I started out wanting to just mention a small but important change in how our magazine is produced, that will greatly enhance our efficiency and profitability — one that speaks to how the digital revolution is changing how business is done.
When my partners and I launched our first magazine (HazMat Management) 17 years ago, we wrote or edited articles on early-version PCs. I recall orange glowing letters on a black background, and we had to navigate around in DOS code. It seems like a thousand years ago now, with today’s “point and click” technology. (If you can remember ever typing “C:ENTER” you’re showing your age.)
My partner Todd Latham and I used to take turns at deadline time sitting at the computer formatting the magazine in Ventura — the state-of-the art layout software on PCs at the time. (Layout people have always preferred the Mac, and Ventura was a poor cousin to Apple layout software, but it did get the job done.) In those days, it could sometimes take us three or four days working all day and all night to finish the magazine and generate files on floppy disks, which we then took to a pre-press establishment in downtown Toronto, which would convert them to another format (Mac-oriented, I imagine) so they could be printed out as lineotype sheets, each containing a positive image of each page of our magazine.
We would then take these sheets back to the office and carefully cut out photos (that were printed as screen art) with an Exacto-brand surgical knife and, using a wax glue gun and roller, paste them carefully inside the keylines for each image. Since this was all black and white, any color ads and color photos had to be pasted into this set up as a black and white image, and then we’d write “POS” (“For Position Only”) in thick black marker across the image. (At the film house — the next stage — the technicans would match the four-color film art with these “POS” images and assemble the film manually, using red [i.e., invisible] semi-transparent tape. Black pages were one sheet of film, and four-color pages were, naturally, four pages of film, one for each print color: magenta, cyan, yellow and black.)
Todd and I would have “iron man” contests to see who could work the longest getting the magazine to the film stage. (The things you’re prepared to do when you own your own business!) I forget the record, and I forget who established it. I recall that it was me, and that it was a 36-hour shift at the computer, getting up only for pee breaks and coffee. But it might have been Todd. At that time we had an office in a house in the Portuguese part of Toronto, on Salem Avenue off Bloor Street West. I remember several times when I’d been awake for two or more days working and I’d go over to one of the local coffee shops and order a milkshake-size espresso, wait for it to cool down, then chug the whole thing in one go. If bennies had been available, I would have taken them. One time I listened to exotic Portuguese accordion music late at night in one of these shops for about an hour before going back to my desk.
After the hell of typesetting every word, image and comma, and pasting the whole thing up manually, and sending it all off to the film house, we’d go home and sleep for about 16 hours. The sales staff (led by our other partner, Arnie Gess) would get on the phone and call the various advertisers to get their artwork (film or lineotype) sent over, so that it, too, could be forwarded to the film house, and added to the layout. All this manual assembly of paper and film (and wax guns!) is impossible to imagine in the era of digital production, although to some extent ads still have to be rounded up and put in position in the final art.
I recall one time getting very annoyed with Todd about something that seems trivial now, but was a big deal at the time. After generating the film files for lineotype, the only thing you wanted to do was go home and sleep. But I always had to wait around at this file-conversion place downtown for hours and hours while they converted the PC files to the necessary format. It would sometimes take 8, 12, 14 or more hours! I later learned that this was because the establishment used Macs, so the process was terribly slow. We could have taken them to another pre-press house with PCs that could have ripped the files quickly, but this would have cost a couple of dollars extra per page, and Todd was intent on saving money. When I learned how small the savings were, and when I thought of all the timjes I’d waited from, say, midnight until 6:00 am for these files to be converted, I wanted to strangle Todd!
Another off-beat memory I have from those days was the earliest glimmerings of the digital film process. Remember, we initially generated computer files that were then converted to another format, all with the goal of printing off black and white pages to which we added cut outs of the ads and photos, and this was then shipped to the film house to be, literally, photographed. The photographic images were used to generate film, which was then used in a photo-chemical process to produced metal plates which were directly mounted on the printing presses.
The digital glimmering was this: One day I walked into a new pre-press house (one of several that we changed to, in part because we were rather slow paying our bills to suppliers in the early days!). They had an enormous new machine, with the words “HELL SCANNER” on the side. This thing was truly gigantic — more than the height of a normal room — and was exotic and European. It must have weighed several tons and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I think the name of the machine would make a good title for a sci-fi book, but anyway, that gigantic machine performed, in those days, the same function as your little $79 scanner from Costco today! It performed the amazing new (magical!) function of scanning artwork and making everything digital. (We never made use of it, because we couldn’t afford the rates at that time, so we stuck with conventional pre-press production, wax guns and all.)
By the time my partners and I sold our business in 2000 to a division of what was then Hollinger (which had just bought the old Southam Magazine and Information Group), we had already long since stopped with the old lineotype system, and actually had an internal production person who did everything via computer. (There were still a lot of glitches, though, and many late nights spent with him or her figuring our what part of our computer array was screwing up and preventing the correct output of film files. On more than one occasion we lost the entire typeset magazine to computer error — the production person hadn’t backed up the files as they went along, and so lost days and days of work!)
But even in the new Hollinger (now Business Information Group, a division of Glacier Ventures in B.C.) our assigned “art director” has had, all this while, to produce the magazine as computer files that are then sent to a film house where they’re coverted (digitally) to film, which is then couriered to our printer (in Winnipeg).
So, my my mind was flooded with all these memories the other day when our publisher Brad O’Brien informed me that we’re shifting to a new system for the next magazine edition — one that uses NO FILM HOUSE! Simply put, our art director Sheila Wilson will place all ads and other artwork in the digital files on her computer, and send the whole job (via email, I imagine, or ftp site,but I don’t really know) as a monster-size digital file to the printer. The printer will produce a final color mock-up and courier it to me and Brad so we can take one final look and sign off on the job before the magazine goes on press, Going this route gives us more control over the job (e.g., one less middleman in the process) and will save thousands of dollars per edition in film costs. That’s tens of thousands of dollars annually that will go directly to the bottom line, and these reduced costs will boost our profitability (which, these days, is the only form of job security for us non-union folk).
I realize that I am already a dinosaur for the next generation of magazine and media grads from universities and polytechnical colleges. People starting out nowadays will completely take for granted the bleeding edge computer technology that puts everything together in virtual reality. There will be no wax guns or whiteout under the fingernails for them!
One final thought — all of this reminds me of my own childhood and just how much things have changed in the print media world. I grew up in a newspaper family. My father and stepfather and mother and stepmother were (and some still are) newspaper writers and editors. (They were all on staff at the same time and recently remarried to one another when the old Toronto Telegram folded in 1970. My stepfather was one of the founders of the Toronto Sun, which launched its first edition on the Monday after the Tely folded on a Saturday. I still recall the “wake” my dad held at his apartment for the Tely, and some of the people there getting angry when they learned that Paul Rimstead burned the last edition at a bonfire in a park!)
In those days, the newsroom was a busy and very loud place, unlike today’s quiet computer and cuble-land environment. Articles were written on ink and ribbon typewriters, and corrections were made with pencil on paper (remember those thick yellow pencils?). Articles were then (I am not kidding!) rolled into containers and sent Dr.Seuss-like by vaccum tube from the editorial department to other departments, and ultimately down to the “composing room” where technicians would read it and copy it onto printing plates ONE LETTER AT A TIME from little block letters made of lead.
This was an astonishing skill that I witnessed as a child. The fingers of these older fellows would fly as they “composed” each newspaper page in hot lead type. And remember the most amazing thing of all — because these were print forms, every word and sentence had to be composed in lead type that read BACKWARDS!
I recall that my father Max (since deceased) was the editor of the Telegram and was famous for being able to compose “directly on the stone.” Remember that the broadsheet papers in those days would have three, sometimes even four, editions per day. There would be a morning, afternoon and evening edition, and maybe one more if there was a huge news story. The Tely, the Star and the Globe and Mail fought almost to the death to get “the scoop” and I recall that it was against the rules to be a delivery boy for more than one newspaper. You were either a “Tely” kid or a “Star” kid. I never did meet a “Globe” kid!) This meant that the newspaper, and especially the front page, was constantly being updated. So, under deadline pressure and not wanting to bother sketching out a new front page layout, my dad would go down to the composing room and give direction to the print technicians, telling them to start an article here or end an column there, with the whole front page layout in his head, he’d direct them to compose the page in hot lead type on the “stone” (an actual stone tablet onto which the lead type was arranged). What an amazing accomplishment!
(I guess I come by my magazine layout trade honestly!)
Of course, as technology evolved, those old typesetters were eventually out of a job, much as I imagine a lot of the older film house staff will have to find new work or retire early these days, unless they can covert their skills with red tape and Exacto knives into skills using a keyboard and computer monitor.
Closing comment: I’m writing this Blog entry on my laptop from a coffee shop with a wireless internet connection that allows me to connect to my company’s server in Toronto. The software will automatically format this entry and post it to our magazine’s website. Who would have thought this possible just a few decades ago, in the era of vaccum tubes and typewriters and yellow pencils?
So, good-bye film house! You will be missed!
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