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Ric Holland's Blog

Ted Blore interview

Ric - Ted Blore,  welcome to the Art of Making Marks.  So firstly just to kick things off I’d like you to introduce yourself, tell us about who you are and what you do.

Ted - I’m a traditionally trained graphic designer that basically fell on his feet with computers at an early stage and when the first Qantel Paintbox came to Australia I was lucky enough to be the first artist to work on it and to that end I’ve been retouching on a digital level ever since.

Ric - So describe for us exactly was a Quantel Graphic Paintbox.

Ted - It was a British engineered device worth around a million dollars to purchase about 20 years ago.  It was hardware based system instead of having software applications installed on it. The beauty of the hardware based system was that the airbrushing tool in particular could work in what’s called real time which no PC based computers could do in those days. Even NASA was actually quite envious of the grunt in the thing back then.  To look at it these days if you quote the numbers compared to even a G5 or something like that it’s actually very funny but in its day it was definitely the ‘ants’ pants’ and we put conventional dark room film retouching out of business effectively over night.

Ric - …and it came with a Wacom tablet?

Ted - It certainly did but Wacom tablets have changed a lot over the years obviously.  The tablet in those days probably weighed the best part of eight ounces, it had a cord hanging off it that we used to throw over our shoulder for convenience and you ended up basically with a bit of a ‘tennis elbow’ type condition from working on it and using the interfaces flick on and off method of changing menues.  But having said that if the Wacom hadn’t been available it would be safe to say that the Paintbox really wouldn’t have existed the way it did.  The reason the Paintbox was so successful was because it was as close to real time painting and image manipulating as was possible in those days..

Real time air brushing with pressure sensitivity as well, so with true pressure sensitivity actually allowed true fading of the air brush effect and didn’t create any bad looking ‘stepped’ effects.  The Paintbox actually had a dedicated hardware card for everything in it so upgrading was expensive.  The air brush was a card, as was the screen refresh.  Effectively the way it worked was that it had two screens, it had what we called a restore function where you could save a picture behind in the buffer space and actually use the airbrushes to pull pieces of that picture back through onto the working image.  So it was very dexterous in that respect.  The only problem being that it didn’t actually have a command set in it for undo so really you thought twice before hitting the save button type because once committed there was no going back.  It was a steep learning curve from that point of view.  We used to charge, in those days, 20 years ago, $500 per hour and people were willing to pay it.  We had people coming from literally all over the world, Japan, America, Singapore, etc because they were fairly scarce systems around the world and similarly too there wasn’t a lot of people that could actually make them work to their full potential and once again the Wacom was really the key integral human interface to it.

So yeah I guess they were the good old days of digital image manipulation if you can say that.  There was affectively two or three upgrades to the system over it’s six or seven year life span.  Eventually Quantel bit the bullet and went software based and came up with a desktop PrintBox system which was basically backed up by a Macintosh and to that end it was sort of the death of Quantel prepress systems eventually, after that really Macintosh took over the prepress and print market.  Towards the end of that era it actually got to the point where I worked that we had a Macintosh running Photoshop sitting beside the PaintBox taking away more and more of it’s work. I was actually putting pictures that I’d made in Photoshop back onto the Paintbox because that’s where people wanted to see them and as soon as they left I did all the corrections back on the Macintosh.

In that transition between using the Paintbox and the Macintosh we didn’t have a Wacom tablet set up on Mac and I was trying to re-touch without a tablet so I ended up getting RSI in my wrist and ended up with a wrist brace. I had to get acupuncture and really I’ve had a click in my wrist every since.  And to that extent I could safely say that if it wasn’t for Wacom I wouldn’t have a career.  I couldn’t have done my job for the last 20 years without a pressure sensitive pen and the interface it allows.

Ric - So basically your saying with the amount of work that you’ve done and if you were only able to use a mouse then it would have ended your career?

Ted - Oh very quickly, very quickly.

Ric - But then by the same token you probably couldn’t have been able to do the work that you did with a mouse anyway?

Ted - No, it’s physically impossible.  The other day for instance I was doing a job for an agency and the nature of the job was that there were very large files, 35 metre print posters.  The deadlines were such that we were bouncing pictures on the internet backwards and forwards to the clients trying to get approval so it became necessary for me to actually go down to their studio and work on one of their Macintoshes even though it was as slow as wet week.  I was there for an hour before I just spat the dummy and walked out, back to my studio, grabbed my Wacom went back and plugged it in.  It was ironic because later on that afternoon I actually had to go out and take a brief for another job and when I got back one of the designers had moved onto my Macintosh and taken over my Wacom.  I actually had trouble getting it back.  It was the first time they’d ever used one and they were sold on it.  It only took them the best part of an hour I guess to adapt and after that there was no going back.  And I’ve often said once you’ve been spoilt by using a tablet then there is no going back.  I mean you just can’t imagine using a mouse anymore.

Ric - Well now out of a lot of the people that I’ve interviewed my next question is, so what tablet are you using now.  Interesting that you still have one of the…

Ted - ‘If it isn’t broken then why fix it’ is what I like to say. Yes it’s a great big early intuos tablet probably Intuos one I suppose.

Ric - You obviously like using big tablets?

Ted - I’m actually quite happy now that Macintosh has come to the party and made their Cinema Display screens the same size as the Wacoms’, it’s about time!  Well the trick I believe with Wacom tablets is it feels more natural to draw one to one than to try and teach your hand how to draw in ratio.  My last employer tried to give me a little Wacom and I just couldn’t use it.  It was just impossible to get used to the idea of drawing small and everything being amplified on the screen.  So the having a one to one ratio from tablet to screen is much more natural for me, it’s almost like drawing normally once you get used to the eye to hand coordination.  I mean so many people come in and look at me working and say ‘how do you know what you’re doing on the screen?  I can’t see anything happening on the Wacom’.  And it’s like ‘well no you don’t actually look at the Wacom you look at the screen.’

Ric - Well Ted after all you have been using a large tablet and large screen together since the early days with the PaintBox so it is a case of not teaching old dogs new tricks don’t you think?

Ted - Yeah and that’s why I’m good at the Playstation apart from anything else it comes in quite handy.

Ric - So then just getting back to telling us more about what you do, Firstly would you call yourself a  retoucher, or a designer?

Ted - I’d have to say I’m a retoucher first and foremost.  I was trained as a graphic designer originally, that was back in the days of wax type and gumbo rubbers and doing things with scalpels and then we got our first Mac Plus and we looked at it and thought won’t it be great when somebody can actually print this out and that was just black and white.  And then Photoshop came out, I’ve seen the whole progression just as you have. I still do a bit of type setting and stuff when I have to, because you have to be a jack of all trades but definitely first and foremost I’m a retoucher.

Ric - But interestingly you’re a retoucher who in a sense was trained digitally, so you haven’t come from the darkroom days of dies and acid baths. You embraced the digital tools from day one.

Ted - Correct.  At Trannies, the second place I worked for with the second PaintBox in Australia, actually had a bank of retouchers at that stage when they first bought the Paintbox and fair testament to them it was a very brave move to spend a million dollars on affectively untried hardware, especially when they were at that stage one of the best Pro Labs in the business at what they did as far as retouching goes.  They had the best conventional retouches, they had dark rooms coming out of their ears but within six months really all the retouches had to do was retouch our outputs. In those days we actually recreated film transparencies where we had very expensive digital transparencies writers and because of the colour calibration and the nature of the film itself there was always a bit of re colouring to do, but that’s all they did.  The actual retouching was done on the PaintBox and they basically just colour balanced the outputs.  Really that was the death of a craft for them. I actually tried to retrain a couple of those guys but I guess you’re either digitally inclined or your not.  They were obviously too used to their sable brushes, inks and dyes to be letting go of all that.  So some of them now still working in the industry would be doing digital printing or enlargers and things or have changed careers completely who knows.

Ric - Yes the digital Pro Lab Vision Graphic that I used to be involved with has evolved into a digital display company last time I spoke to my ex business partner. So has the type of work that you are asked to do changed a lot for you?

Ted - It’s certainly harder these days because anyone with a Mac or PC with Photoshop and a Wacom tablet can call themselves a re-toucher and to that end the industry will accept a lot lesser standard than they did when this technology first came out.  When we were charging $500 an hour people expected $500 an hour of quality work! There’s still a market for the top end of re-touching in that you get what you pay for. But having said that every time Photoshop comes out with a new version and trick set if you like, be it drop shadows or quick masks or whatever, it will take over one of the tricks that I spent 20 years perfecting.

Ric - Smart Objects I felt was a was a big one.

Ted - Yes that’s a biggy!   Part of the skill set you aquire over time is knowing what the client wants, being able to read between the lines, being able to second guess what they need.  Some times you just have to say to them that this is what you need not what you want.  And to that end obviously after 20 years I can second guess most clients as far as that goes and I’ll ask those cutting questions when I get the brief to avoid the usual problems later on. The way I work is fundamental to the outcome in that you’ve got to allow for all the corrections and changes and a big part of the job is just that, being able to undo things very quickly and take steps back without having to start all over again. 

Ric - Yes and thank God for the concept of layers to arrive when it did.

Ted - Exactly.  I mean that changed my life as well.  The Paintbox didn’t have anything like Vector Paths.  We used to virtually have to draw stencils by hand and draw around things whereas with Paths in Photoshop saved all that work.

Ric - John Derry calls these things his ‘safety net’ which I totally agree, it’s flying now with a net. Russell Brown also presents the concept of working with a ‘no destructive’work flow.

Ted - Yeah, well just having undo’s what a concept!  As I said Paintbox didn’t have any undo command so I often would have to say to clients ‘I hope you like it that way because it’s done now.’

Ric - Could you just tell us a little about a typical job you would work on these days and what things to take into consideration.

Ted - A typical job, well I tend to liaise a lot more with photographers these days and to that end you actually replace photographers a lot more these days. Oops sorry guys!  The digital age is a wonderful thing but only for some of us.  These days I can afford to work experimentally, I can literally change the light set up from one side to the other and still have all the images in register because they are digital from the beginning.  It means that you can afford to cover myself and say right well I’ll have one shot for the exposures for the darks and one for the highlights, I’ll see what it looks like this way, and then that way.  And very quickly you can change the whole feel of a shot.

Ric - And of course they’re shooting raw, and get a wider dynamic range.

Ted - Yep and to that end I always insist on getting the raw files myself.  Unfortunately, once again any man with Photoshop and a Wacom considers himself a re-toucher and photographers are probably the worst offenders of that in that they do tend to do a bit of re-touching themselves and therefore think they know everything about it.  I’ve seen more photographers stuff a job before it was started because of the way that they’ve approached or even opened the raw files, because they’ve over-sharpened them or over exposed them or blown the highlights out just to get that contrast range in.  I can’t do anything with the image after that’s happened.  Once it’s gone it’s gone.

Ric - If there’s no image information to work with then that’s that.

Ted - That’s right.  It’s dead.  You put a whole in the picture it’s now a whole in the picture.  So I always insist ‘okay if you want to do your bit sure give me your re-touch pictures, I’ll use that as a reference but I want the raw files’.  And it gives me total control and I can take care of the sharpness.  And as anyone knows who’s done any serious re-touching the last thing you want is unsharp masking on a picture whilst you’re working on it, you can always do that later.  But working on it with sharpening on it… you’ve got to have seen where you’ve been.  It’s like leaving footprints in the sand.

Ric - So do you hand over the whole digital project, or what’s your final result?

Ted - I’ll give people .wav files to the point where it’s manageable for them, if there’s an element and they need to move around for different layouts, they can have that as a layer.  But I don’t hand over the working files for several reasons. I don’t want to show too many people my tricks, I’ve spent 20 years of learning it, it’s affectively intellectual property as far as I’m concern.  But the main problem is that if you give someone the layered file and they start playing with it they’re going to break it, there going to leave something off that should be on, they’re going to turn a stencil off that’s detecting something else…a bit like a game of chess, you know you have all your pieces set up and you move the wrong one at the wrong time and the whole place comes to pieces.

I actually had a client this afternoon ask me for a layered file and I had to quiz her on it and say ‘well when you say layered file what do you mean?’and all she wanted was literally the shadow separate to the background separate to the picture in front.  If I had I taken her on her word she would have got 110 layers.

Ric - Thanks Ted for share those insights with us on the Art of Making Marks