RUSSELL BROWN interview
Creative Director Adobe Systems
Russell Oh I hope you’re not going to make me talk about Wacom tablets. I’m not a big tablet user you realised but maybe I’m hoping that….
Ric No, no, no. I want to talk to you about PhotoShop.
Russell Okay. Good.
Ric You know a little bit about Photoshop, I gather Russell?
Russell Yes I know that. I can say that for sure.
Ric Let’s start the interview then. So at this point I say welcome, Russell. Welcome Russell Brown. I’d like to … well I’m welcoming you to the Art of Making Marks and just in opening I’d like you to introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about who you are.
Russell Well. This is Russell Preston Brown from Adobe Systems. I of course have worked for Adobe Systems for twenty-two years. This is a rare thing within Silicone Valley. Most people move from company to company and many people have been to Apple, to Adobe, to Apple, to Adobe and back and forth several times. And myself I’ve stayed at the same place. That’s because, if I were to change jobs I probably wouldn’t be hired again. So I have been at Adobe as a graphic designer for the last twenty-two years and have mutated into a Photoshop “guru”, (quote unquote), as they tell me, and I travel the world and demonstrate reasons why you need to purchase the latest edition of Photoshop. And so that’s what I do for a living right now – conferences, special events and tutorials on Photoshop. Is that good?
Ric Yes, that’s fantastic, Russell. Thank you. Well now I guess I’d like to ask you a little bit about your history. Where you came in with Photoshop, what you knew about Photoshop in those days, it’s competitors, ColorStudio possibly, and just wade in through those early days to now.
Russell The early days! In the beginning of time, there was just Postscript, Fonts and Adobe Illustrator, but I had always wanted to play with images directly, but I never had a program to do that and I believe the technology came along and certain programs started to appear. I believe the first one was Grey Paint, and then we all saw Color Studio make its appearance, which it was really quite amazing. I saw an early version of that and of course had played with systems like the Quantel Paintbox. I worked at Atari in the early days and worked on little pixels where you had a paintbrush where the pixels were one centimetre by one centimetre in size and you could paint with big blocks, which was pretty cool. So I had some early exposure to computer painting but nothing quite like the early days when I finally saw John Knoll who came in to Adobe to present and sell to us Photoshop. This was about 1987, if I recall my dates correctly and is the first time I saw Photoshop. Stunned, amazed, I fell to the floor! And then half an hour later when I woke up I realised I had seen the selection tool, the magic wand tool for the very first time and I had seen a soft edge selection which was really quite unique in those times. As I recall the soft edge selection and a mask was new to this level of a program and it was now accessible by the common man, who now could actually combine photos together in a program, an early version of Photoshop, 1987. You didn’t have to have, you know, a hundred thousand dollar computer.
Ric Or a million dollar computer?
Russell Yes millions of dollars to process images. So a new age had begun. The Macintosh had come of age. Colour was now available and along came Photoshop, and off the world began. And that’s when I started to quickly gravitate toward demo-ing Photoshop around the world. I can’t recall the first time I came to Australia. Was that the first time we met?
Ric I actually met you in the US, at a MacWorld show in San Francisco and where I first became aware of your work.
Russell You call it work?
Ric [laughs] Well I’m glad you don’t. It was an amazing thing, watching you get a room of over a thousand people jumping out of their seats with excitement about combining channels and other Photoshop techniques of the times.
Russell I was just thinking as I’m talking yeah, I’m now conscious of the transcribers that are transcribing this conversation as we speak and I’m now talking to the transcriber! Do they feel strange? Go ahead. I just had to talk to them just for a moment.
Ric I don’t know. [laughs]
Russell [laughs] What does a ha, ha, ha turn in to?
Ric Yeah, it will read as ha ha ha.
Russell Okay. Go ahead, I’m sorry.
Ric That’s alright Russell. It only cost me an extra few bucks!
Russell That must have been an early MacWorld show then.
Ric US MacWorld shows in those days as you will recall were huge events. I think around about the same time Kai Kraus was doing his thing with his Power Tools in the little box and I think at that same show you were presenting Photoshop. Kai’s Power Tools was a plug in to make Photoshop do some of the things that you did with lots of techniques, it did it with a press of a button.
Russell Yes. It’s hard for me to remember those tools after all these years. I can’t remember exactly what they did.
Ric Remember something like a fractal explorer which created beautiful mathematical ‘Mandelbrot’ images.
Russell Oh, yes. Yes, it’s all coming back to me now. Thank you I can visualise myself running the dials as we speak.
Ric and so we digress.
Russell Ask those questions.
Ric [laughs] Okay, so just going back to those early applications which you mentioned, was Pixel Paint one that you had come in contact with?
Russell I knew of Pixel Paint and I must have played with it at the time. I just don’t have a major memory of it. It could be just me having a senior moment, as I say, or my brain is fading but I can remember playing with Grey Paint and ColorStudio. Maybe some time with Pixel Paint.
Ric How about Studio8 and Studio24?
Russell Oh my! But by that time I was so involved with Photoshop that I didn’t even look up at the others. Doesn’t that sound crazy? I just didn’t have time to look at the competition because we embodied everything perfectly in Photoshop. [laughs] There was no need to look at any other applications.
Ric Well I just would like to refer back to my previous interview with John Derry to hear your thoughts on this. Not that he’s saying anything bad about Photoshop as he’s become quite the serious Photoshop user these days. He was saying that in those days his recollection was that Photoshop was built for compositing pixels and when he was with Mark Zimmer working on Painter, they were working on the idea of getting pixels ‘blasted’ to screen very quickly. Painter does what it does well and Photoshop does what it does well because of their original architectures being quite different. Would that be a fair statement?
Russell All I remember is well yeah, Photoshop, I used for altering images and those that did work with Painter were either starting from scratch and creating the pixels themselves and then I did see some painting on top of images, but you know I think I recall more original drawings and paintings coming out of Painter then I can recall it being used for photo retouching. Is that correct?
Ric Oh yes absolutely. I think really that’s the defining difference between the two applications.
Russell The brush behaviours were quite unique to Painter and we couldn’t go that direction, I believe, for copyright reasons. They had a special way in which the brush behaved, and they still do to do this day, that made Painter quite unique.
Ric So having said that, Photoshop has some very sophisticated brush dynamic capabilities of it’s own, and of course has always supported Wacom pressure sensitive pens from day one, I believe. You may be able to qualify that for me?
Russell You could qualify it better than I.
Ric Well now of course when you go into the brush dynamics palette while you have a Wacom tablet plugged in, all of the lovely little attributes become available. Pressure and tilt and rotation, all those and more.
Russell Oh, yeah. It’s quite wonderful with pressure sensitivity to take a pattern brush for example and get it to flow with the slightest of pressure, changing the size of the pattern, both opacity and size at the same time is … oh and then, then I just love the possibilities. Me, I love putting makeup on people’s faces and especially hair and with some stylised brushes to stroke a brush and the fibres of the hair move in direction of the Wacom stroke. It’s really quite amazing to start to build beards and hair and of course being slightly bald myself, putting hair on a subject is quite important to me. Oh my, Oh my!
Ric Is this a new feature you’re describing or is this a feature that’s been around for a while?
Russell This has been around for a long time, I think, all the way back. There’ve been capabilities for directional brushes. This goes back to … does that go back to 7 or just to CS?
Ric Oh okay. Now I understand what you mean. Yep, okay.
Russell Oh, see now you understand. The direction of the pattern is aligned with the direction of the stroke of the pen.
Ric Now of course with the Artist Pen feature that could be even more powerful being able to rotate the direction of the stroke with just the angle of your hand.
Russell Oh yeah.
Ric So this is something we must have a quick play with and maybe get an example in this book. Now I remember having a conversation with you while cooking Australian prawns on the barbeque.
Russell I thought those were bugs on the barbie?
Ric Balmain bugs? Well, yes.
Russell Yeah, they were some bugs they had the funniest little tails I had never seen before in my life.
Ric Oh, yes okay that would have been some Balmain bugs, [pause] and some prawns too [shrimp]. And so I asked you a question and I still to this day remember you saying “No, we don’t think the application Live Picture is going to be an issue for us. We just deal with pixels.”
Russell Yes I did say that. I [pause] I felt that - we were dealing with pixels at the time – and I felt that technology was going to get faster. Processing time was going to increase and that Live Picture may have been, you know, it played this role in the beginning of time because there was not the processing strength necessary to process all those pixels so you had to decide, and say let’s process this later. And so my comment was that I felt, and I believe it’s true, I believe the processing speed has come up significantly since those days and now it is possible to work directly with pixels at a comparable speed. There was some pretty amazing things that Live Picture did, and this is a terrible question, but is Live Picture still around?
Ric Well, it is and it isn’t. There is some enthusiast user groups that still use Live Picture. It’s not a supported product anymore. I think part of it got bought by Kodak and partly bought by somebody else and gutted for its technology. I have an interview with Dr Philip George in this book who’s a senior lecturer at the New South Wales University College of Fine Art, and he’s been producing over the past ten years very, very large images still using Live Picture.
Ric He’s just finished his PhD in something like iconology and images shot from around the world where he’s travelled and taken very, very high resolution images. He’s composited images as big as seven gigabytes. He said to me Photoshop still can’t manipulate the images that he creates so that is why he still uses Live Picture to do it. I thought this could be controversial. Russell what is the biggest file you can manipulate in Photoshop?
Russell I don’t have this information. You know, I was never a big user of Live Picture. I never understood how it worked. I knew how the processing was happening, but I’m not a scientist by any way. I think it was described to me once as these little units that it would work on and but I don’t… I will throw the question back to you – why is it that their technology didn’t catch on? What was it about it that people didn’t like? I mean with brushes you could lay in a gradient or brush stroke across images in real time.
Ric Yes I remember working on a poster project for Queensland tourism whereby I could airbrush a texture in real time on a 256 megabyte file using an old Mac Quadra with only 32 megabytes of RAM. Each of the 10 posters was over three Gigabytes in resource files. Pretty big job for the times.
Russell Why didn’t it catch on?
Ric Well I think it’s the same reason as why Photoshop killed ColorStudio. ColorStudio was a big, heavy, professionally orientated product with a very large price tag of around $3,000.00 and Photoshop came along and I think it was under $500.00. Everyone could get it and use it and do things with it. Pretty much the same thing happened with Live Picture. It was priced around about $3,000.00, it had a dongle key and it was aimed at the high-end professional. It was a bit different to figure out than Photoshop and although some such as myself used it successfully it didn’t grab the mass market. The idea was that Kodak were going to incorporate its unique (Blade Runner like) file format technology into image bank libraries. After talking with some rather large image bank companies I realised that the huge amounts of investments in the TIFF and JPG formats were not going to allow them to start changing anything in a hurry. It was almost like it was just some great technology that came along too late. So at the end of the day, pricing, market positioning and also, you were absolutely right, the hardware just continued to get more powerful. It was always my dream to be able to use my Wacom tablets to paint and draw in real time on the PC. I did own a Quantel PaintBox for a while but I could see way back then that the desktop PC was ultimately the way to go. Digital real time airbrushing, retouching, deep etching were techniques used on professional high-end systems and then along came Photoshop on the PC. We all trying to get similar results from much cheaper and underpowered equipment and the selection tool, the magic wand and the very powerful capabilities of channel procedures, all paved the way for sophisticated imagery to be created in the new non real time environment of Photoshop. The transform tool is a great example of Photoshop implementing a style of post processing of it’s own. You’ve been the master evangelist of these techniques for many, many years and now there is a whole generation of digital artist and designers who know no other way. This is why I meet so many digital media professionals that have always used a mouse. But now finally there is a renaissance going on. The time for using a pen on a tablet to brush and to paint has well and truly returned. People are discovering for the very first time that these techniques are possible and, what’s more, the tablet is actually a better form of mouse. Would you like to comment and give us your perspective on this phenomenon?
Russell You were rambling, you were rambling! So what’s the question again and so I get back on track here. I was following you with … so you want to know my perspective on.
Ric On what you thought back then about image manipulation in a non-real time application using channels and the ability to make selections and whatever, as opposed to using a Wacom tablet to brush in effects with masking.
Russell Oh okay. I’m an old school and you know I got started before the Wacom tablet came out and so I’m also that … but you know I’m also new school because you know I played around with the Quantel Paintbox and it was totally brush [pause] brush, brush brush, brush, brush, with a tablet and then along came the mouse so [pause] but I stayed this old school, I’m [pause] [laughs] I’m the stayed guy, I’m the photo retoucher who uses the mouse to this date because I have so much control over it. It’s a terrible admission that I don’t use a Wacom tablet! But I believe in Wacom tablets, it’s the coolest thing and I want a Cintiq.
Ric OK then we must talk!
Russell Yeah, but I got caught up in.. [pause] It’s a trap! You’ve seen it trapping users before? We know how to get down the road in our little old Volkswagen and you guys are offering me the latest Masserati but you’re driving down the wrong side of the street! [laughs]
Ric [laughs] I think you’ve definitely understood my question now.