There’s so much video being produced today that every video professional is bound to experience the bad graphics syndrome: text that is unreadable; flying video boxes from every direction; or montages that make you seasick. It’s all a manifestation of inexperience, bad planning, unreasonably fast turnaround times, new equipment, and sometimes just downright poor taste. But you can do something about it.
With all the newcomers doing video, a lot of them haven’t had a graphics background or anyone to teach them how to do it. In my earlier days in television, I started out as an audio engineer and never anticipated having to design graphics. As I became more interested in video editing, I did a lot of watching, question asking, and evaluating what I liked and didn’t like. I think anyone in television that enjoys what he or she does never stops doing that. Most often you get your start by learning from others. Fortunately, I had a few good people that helped inspire me, and I’m probably guilty of bugging them with too many questions.
There are basics to design. You’d be surprised that when the simplest things are overlooked, the result can look amateurish. Get a second opinion. If good suggestions are made, be open to making the necessary alterations. Some designers need to be careful to not let their ego get in the way of making a project better. It may not sound like a good idea to start with but even the most unpretentious suggestion sometimes can turn a project around.
One mistake that people often make is using too many fonts or words. I’ve worked with clients doing commercials where they wanted so much information on the screen it looked like a page from a phonebook. Then there’s the person who has a million fonts and wants to use them all on the same screen.
When you work with fonts, limit the number of typefaces on the same page to two or three. You can get away with a couple of fonts – such as when you’re designing a name super with the name on top and the title below in a different font. Be sure to choose two fonts that are compatible. Beware of serif typefaces that have thin descenders because you may have trouble keying them over the video. A font you’re accustomed to in print may not always work in the interlaced world of NTSC. A font that is too small also poses a readability problem.
With all the available graphic tools, you might be tempted to use too many to of them in a single session. For example, doctoring up your fonts with heavy drop shadows, outlines, graduated fills, and other doodads can cheapen a production. Keep it simple. Use everything sparingly and your look will improve. Don’t assume that you have to use a dropshadow every time you use a line of text. Try reversing the background behind a font, black over white or white over black. Avoid colors that crawl on NTSC, such as red against blue or green. Heavy, black dropshadows scream "video," and if you’re looking for a more sophisticated look, try other ways to make the super more readable.
If you’re doing the font work for an entire production, work out the "look" with the producer or director before you start typing in all the name supers and title pages. Everything should have a cohesive look, which means using the same font style throughout. A lot depends on the equipment you have available and its capabilities. Some character generators can produce fuzzy dropshadows, for example, while others cannot.
Another important factor to remember when using text is kerning and leading. Kerning (spacing) the letters in a word too far apart can make it more difficult to read. Viewers can read words more easily if they see the letters as a group. This is not to say that the letters should collide with each other, but I’d rather have them almost touching than to have too much space between them. Tight kerning has been proven to be more readable. The exceptions would be moving text. Where kerning a word by tightening or loosening the spacing is part of the effect.
The same goes for too much leading (the space between lines of text). If you have too much space, it can appear as if you want each line to be read as a statement instead of a sentence. On a monitor or screen, viewers often don’t have much time to figure out the sea of characters being thrown at them. The layout should be obvious without insulting their intelligence.
Keeping the text away from the background to make it more readable involves many techniques. You can add a box or band of color behind the text, but this has to be done tastefully or it can look like a Band-Aid. The box should precisely fit the text, and sometimes you can use a gradated opacity fill. If you have the means, the color band can be filled with a moving pattern, video, or graphic, as long as it doesn’t compete with the text.
If the background is too complex or completely motionless, it can compete with the foreground text. Normal techniques for improving the readability of the text would include trying different colors, adding a slow push or pull on the text, defocusing the background, or decreasing the luminance. All of these techniques help, but you need to avoid a bad background if at all possible. Interestingly, even a complex background can be used if it moves slowly in some way. This keeps the area behind the text changing, so it seems to float over the background, thereby making it more readable.
Another problem is getting the text on the screen in the first place. Beware of using cheesy DVE effect that are readily available in most edit suites. Trails, sparkles, and 3D perspective moves can get you into trouble really fast. Your piece could end up looking like a monster truck rally or a low-budge car commercial with a shouting announcer. More effective ways are simple moves, actual text animation, or a dissolve. Don’t get hung up on a new effect and run into the pitfall of overusing it.
Selecting the right graphic effect can be a difficult task. Sometimes it’s knowing when not to get too fancy that can prevent a job from looking cheap. Motion pictures, while they use a lot of expensive effects, use them only where they make sense. You don’t often see scenes flipping or pushing in from all sides. Cuts make up the majority of edits in a movie.
That’s why I use DVE effects sparingly. I try to plan out the effects for each job so that it doesn’t end up looking like I was showing off all of the cool stuff in the same project. I’ve found that the effects that look the best aren’t often found in the DVE at all. They have to be created by layering video, masking or colorizing images, and trying to make video have more of a film look. It’s easy to make video look like video. It’s more difficult when you need to add sophistication. Page turns, oil drops, reshaping the video, cornerpinning, stamping, flips, squeezes, and spins all need to be used sparingly and with purpose.
If you’re creating a full-page graphic, probably the most important element is the background. You don’t want it to conflict with the readability of the text. Also, it may look good on your RGB monitor, but how does it look in NTSC or finally on VHS? Large areas of red should be avoided. Red on VHS will always bleed. Because most industrial projects eventually end up on VHS, you’ve got to produce with the finished product in mind. Recently, I saw in instructional video that was obviously created on a computer and imported to video where green text was place over a background that used a purple gradient. It was annoying to watch for an extended period of time. And the background hummed in NTSC.
One problem that has emerged since background graphics have been created on computers is "humming." Flickering or humming places in a graphic are always caused by one pixel-wide lines somewhere in the image. In NTSC, a one-pixel-wide line is too thin to display properly because of the way video is interlaced. Interestingly, even one-pixel-wide dropshadows of a highly contrasting color can also hum in NTSC. Humming can occur in underlines, thin graphics, or even gradated blends created in 24-bit color.
A gradient is made up of hundreds of tiny lines – each line a slightly different color to create the effect of a blend. Singularly, these lines are only one pixel in width. You can end up with the simplest background that rings and chatters once it is transferred to NTSC.
The easiest way to fix this type of a problem is to avoid anything less than two-pixel-wide lines in your artwork and backgrounds. If you need to use a gradient created in Photoshop or other paint programs, you can use this simple fix; use Photoshop’s Blur filter once, and it will usually fix the problem. The Blur filter "fuzzes" all of the thin lines in a gradient just enough to keep it from humming in NTSC without ruining the effect. If only a portion of the graphic has a problem, use the lasso tool and select the problem area and treat it with one hit of the blur filter. Normally, you’ll need to feather the edge of the lasso tool by one or two pixels to create an invisible edge.
The temptation always exists to create a breathtaking background, only to end up typing over the entire page with text. This results in sensory overload – too much information on the screen at one time. The same goes for print. Layouts that could have been more effective have been spoiled by clutter. Many people are turned off by having to read so much material and will pass over it for something a bit more intriguing visually. We’ve all seen the ads where the majority of space consists of a captivating photograph with minimal text. Those are the exemplary ads because they get your attention. They speak without words. Open space in a frame is important. Don’t feel like you’ve go to get your money’s worth by overcrowding.
In the ‘80s, it was a common occurrence to fly video boxes around the screen. The opening to The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson may have started that trend. Since it’s ten times easier to do a multilayerd effect like that today, the temptation exists to overdo it. Pushing flat video boxes around the screen is no longer all that visually stimulating. If you have to do it, add depth to the images by using cast shadows, various aspect ratios, or matting irregular edges to the boxes. Have the background doing something interesting without detracting from the foreground objects.
Centering images is also less interesting than placing them slightly offset. Take into consideration the safe action and safe title areas so an important graphical aspect doesn’t end up falling off the edge of the tube.
A different story altogether is animated graphics, but speed and pacing affects everything. It’s important to not let things go by so fast that the viewers’ eyes can’t register on what’s really happening. In video camera work, that’s something analogous to what some call "firehosing." You need to let the animation develop, lingering a bit in the areas that are especially beautiful or complex. This is where a few motion studies in wireframe are worth toying with before the big render. Linear keyframes are not always that effective because they can make the animation look too computerized. Objects tend to snap from one position to another. Cubic keyframes or animation systems that have adjustable acceleration curves can help ease motion effects. As odd as it sounds, the type of music that goes under the animation can either help or hurt it. I’ve seen some reasonably good animations that have been killed by a bad soundtrack.
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut. A client may ask for the same type of effect again and again – so many times that the effect may have already slipped out of style. Video is a trendy business. It’s important to stay energized. I highly recommend ordering a copy of the Broadcast Design Awards reel each year a take the time to sit down and watch all the entries. Occasionally, you’ll find a totally different look from France or England that may inspire you creatively. Or, go home and pop a tape in your VCR and record a few things you may want to examine later that you particularly liked.
There are times when corporate management may not want to look "cool." They want it plain and simple – marble and brushed aluminum – many times to a point where a piece can become so stodgy that it loses its effectiveness. That’s where you need to demonstrate some captivating alternatives.

Rick Shaw is managing director of Z Post, a post house in Atlanta that specializes in nonlinear editing and digital media production for a variety of broadcast and corporate clients. Shaw can be reached at