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Children's BBC: The Acorn years

By Chris Williams. Published: 19th Oct 2005, 14:15:52 | Permalink | Printable

Plenty of nostalgia to warm your Autumn frozen toes

Original ident produced with a BBC B microcomputerThis year marks the 20th anniversary since Children's BBC began using the familiar format of sitting a presenter behind a live camera in a small continuity suite, dubbed the 'Broom Cupboard'. Prior to this move in September 1985, and for several years after, the BBC used Acorn kit to produce their broadcast graphics and animations.

For a happy trip down a long memory lane, we caught up with Chris Poole, who produced the early ident graphics using a BBC B and later an Archimedes. Bonus marks will be awarded to anyone who remembers titles such as Pro Artisan and Renderman.

Which animations did you design, and when were they used? What did they look like?

Big open quoteI modified the original BBC Micro animation (see above) by changing the colours, font and music. The BBC Micro animation just used a 16 colour mode and basically reset the colours to black for the start of the animation and then set each one in turn to get the "B B C" and "Children's" to appear, followed by a bit of sequencing for the sparkly bits - very high tech. I looked up an invoice, and it read something like: 'September 1987, invoiced BBC Presentation Department for Revamped BBC B computer animation including new style BBC, redrawing "CHILDREN'S" in new type face, change colour scheme, produce new musical sting and hardware to the vale of £5.55'.

I also did a simple 'Write to us' animation that Philip Schofield used for a while on the BBC Micro. This was all done in BBC Basic, and it animated an envelope opening and the address to write too, which was then printed on. Incredibly simple stuff but it was all done for fun.

Then again in 1989 I was asked to do some more animation, but this time for the Archimedes computer; a variety of animations, including menu backings, CSO versions for trails and also presenter versions.

The music was captured into the Archimedes in stereo with a 5 second version and a 52 second version, which was used as a bed under the opening for what's on today etc. Each one could then be selected from a menu screen which then sat the Archimedes on a still of the first frame until it was triggered via a button that that was wired across the mouse button, I believe.
Big close quote

Still from video showing CBBC logoStill from video showing CBBC presenterStill from video showing generic background
Click for larger: Typical Acorn Archimedes generated title sequence graphics from 1989

Could you describe the hardware and software you used? Was any of it 'homebrew' and developed in house?

Big open quoteI wrote the control software in BBC Basic; it had a very simple menu page which offered various different sequences which were were selected using the Function keys. Again, the animations were started by pressing a button that was connected across the mouse button, I think, or maybe it was the 'enter key'. It's amazing what you forget after 20 years.

The 1989 animations were done using Pro Artisan as individual frames and then compiled into a video file using some freeware code, although I can't remember what it was exactly, but it took the first frame and then stored the changed for each subsequent frame - a delta file - thus compressing the video to a reasonable size. This was done in two parts, the first bit being the logo animating on and then a second file which looped round continuously, for the closing animation there was a third file which was the opening but compiled backwards.
Big close quote

What steps would be taken to design an animation? For example, would it begin life on a drawing board, and then redrawn onto the screen some how?

Big open quoteThe original design for the Archimedes was to have a 3D rendered animation using Renderman. This was never finished, and I have all the individual frames but no way of getting them into my PC, as sadly I gave up using my Archimedes. A week before it was due to be delivered there was a change of plan and it was decided to keep the design closer to the old BBC Micro look, so in conjunction with the graphic designer, Bill Wilson, I used traditional frame animation using Pro Artisan to manually draw each frame. Actually I created the last frame and then erased sections to get the animation effect and used the gradient fill to get the golden sheen that runs through the logo. Various versions were done at different sizes and with different back grounds so that the menus, CSO (colour separation overlay) versions could be used.
Big close quote

Nowadays, computer generated graphics are everywhere, but they weren't quite as common in 1985. Where did you get your inspiration from, when designing or animating the graphics?

Big open quoteI have always loved computer animated sequences and even wrote my own 3D animation code in BBC Basic to animate the Breakfast Time logo - it was eventually done traditionally but I always felt it should have been computer generated. I now use trueSpace from Caligari for 3D animation, because it can render at any resolution and the PC can playback multiple video and audio tracks in real time. It's amazing how things change in 20 years.
Big close quote

What kind of systems are used today, as compared to the 1985 era?

Big open quoteToday things are either played off servers. In the days when CBBC started they didn't have the budget for a VT play in, even for titles, so that's why they used the BBC Micro and later the Archimedes. If you watch News 24, the titles and lower third captions are all rendered live in 3D using a Linux machine.
Big close quote

Chris Poole is now a Production Business Manager in BBC Television News Programmes. Acorn microcomputers continued to be used into the 1990s, using in-house developed software that enabled studios to communicate with each other. They also played many roles, from scheduling programmes to authoring Ceefax pages.


Children's BBC history and CBBC now Thanks to Peter Price for his help with this interview. Images are © BBC.

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Is there any chance the original code and bitmaps can be retreived, as they'd all run on todays machines, and it would be facinating to see them again "live". I'm sure there would be plenty of volunteers to help retreive data from any old machines or discs Chris may have lying around.

 is a RISC OS Userdruck on 19/10/05 2:32PM
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ProArtisan was written by the late Jon Warmisham - art lecturer at South Trafford College - and Frank Dart - maths teacher at Sale Grammar School. The last version - ProArt 24 - was published by Clares until taken over by APDL. Early version of ProArt included the provision to produce 'magic eye' pictures but this was dropped for the last version after Frank found that only 2 or 3 of us in the staff room could see the pictures. It's still the best art package for RISC OS (as opposed to graphics manipulation applications).

 is a RISC OS Userjc on 19/10/05 5:28PM
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Many aeons ago I wrote in to CBBC (about something computery) and they replied by sending me a 5 1/4" disk with the original animated BBC B logo as in the picture above. I didn't have a disk drive at the time and had to take it in to school to watch it. It must have been the modified version, since I remember thinking that it didn't use colour mapping for its animation. I'm pretty sure I still have it somewhere!

For me, at least, it was a real inspiration to see what CBBC were doing with BBC computers (and later the Archimedes). I loved the animated graphics.

And I can't have been the only one. If I remember correctly, Blue Peter ran a competition for someone to design a new animation, and a train producing letters as smoke won.

Phew. I'm all nostalgiad out now.

 is a RISC OS Userflypig on 19/10/05 7:25PM
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I wrote to the Beeb asking if I could have a copy of the animations to run on my Beeb B at home. Their reply was something along the lines of "thanks for writing but the program is a complicated mix of machine code and BASIC which wouldn't be useful in your trying to learn programming" or something like that. Aah, nostalgia.

 is a RISC OS Userjms on 20/10/05 11:01AM
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Earlier this month we supplied the BBC with some replacement RiscPC parts which they said they needed urgently for use on the Childrens Chanels, they mentioned that they wouldn't be able to fit them during the day as they are in use whilst 'live'. IIRC they didn't need any PSUs as they are in racks, AVS/Millepede units?

 is a RISC OS UserCJE on 20/10/05 11:57AM
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