Sunday, July 4, 2010

Compact Disc Art From The Bronze Age

Back in 1992 I was working at a division of Sony that manufactured compact discs. Originally I was hired as an ink mixer in the screen making department (which is funny, considering my terrible sense of color). Later I graduated to graphic designer, typesetting and designing CD art.

At that time CD text and artwork was (and I suppose still is) screen printed right onto the top side of the disc. Our department prided itself on the high quality of our silk screening. We heard about an upcoming National Screen Printing Exposition (sounds exciting, eh?), and decided to enter samples of our superior work.

That's where I came in. I was heavily into comic books at the time, so of course I saw this as my chance to work on some comic book art and get paid for it at the same time (whether it was appropriate for the occasion or not). I drew up a comic book story to be printed on a series of four CDs, starring Screen Man.

Looking at these discs again after all these years makes me realize how full of screen printing jargon they are, which probably doesn't make much sense to the average citizen.

In the first disc we're introduced to Dr. Pinhole. Why Pinhole, you're asking? We coated our silk screens with UV sensitive emulsion, and sometimes air bubbles would form, causing tiny pinholes in the coating on the screen, much like Screen Man has in the last panel. Pinholes were bad, as they'd allow tiny dots of ink to get through where they shouldn't.

By the way, this first disc was designed to be somewhat self-contained as sort of a proof of concept. I don't think anyone at the factory really understood what I was trying to do, but once they saw this first disc they were all on board. Once everyone got it, I continued with the other three. I have no ideal what Screen Man is crashing through in the second panel. I guess he's coming through the ceiling of some yellow dome-like structure. Hey, give me a break, I only had four panels to tell a story.

Here we see that Screen Man has recovered from the trauma of having a number of large holes punched through him, and has apparently regenerated, Wile E. Coyote style. Dr. Pinhole then introduces his partners in crime, Tension Man and Ultra Violet. Dr. Pinhole may be a psychotic killer, but no one can say he's not polite.

To make our silk screens, we would stretch a piece of synthetic silk to ridiculous levels and then glue it onto a frame. Screen tension was a top priority, hence the name Tension Man. Our silk screens were exposed to ultraviolet light to develop an image on them, and so we have Ultra Violet.

One would think that someone called Tension Man would only add tension to objects, not reduce it, but what do I know? Note that in the last panel, even Screen Man's hair has lost its tension.

Here we see Ultra Violet attacking Screen Man by giving off UV rays. Screen Man doesn't seem to be enjoying it, but lots of people pay good money at tanning salons for the same thing. Note that in this first panel Screen Man's teeth are mis-colored pink. Oops.

Notice that when the villains attack simultaneously in panel three, they all have differently shaped beams. A nice touch or obsessive compulsive attention to detail? You decide. And also note that I forgot to color Screen Man's face. Oops again.

In the last panel, Dr. Pinhole does a little victory dance, declaring that Screen Man has been retired. In the factory, when one of our screens wore out, we would "retire" it from use.

In the first panel, Dr. Pinhole is once again spouting our department's jargon, and he says that Screen Man has been purged, reclaimed and retired. Again, those were all terms for disposing of worn out silk screens.

In panel two, Screen Man flies the villains to the Home For Retired Screens, which makes absolutely no sense, since they're people. Hey, like I said, I only had a limited number of panels.

The last panel features a crowd scene with lots of tiny in jokes. I'm in there, as well as the tiny Japanese lady I used to work with. Charlie Brown is in there too, for some reason. You'll have to take my word for it unless you have microscopic vision.

Once we had the four screens printed up, we had them framed and then shipped them off to the Screen Printing Expo. Our entry won first place in our division, and we won the coveted Golden Squeegee Award. No, I'm not making that up. It was a plaque with a printer's squeegee (spray painted gold) glued onto it. Needless to say it was an illustrious honor.

So how did I create the art for the discs? The same way comic books were made up until the late 1990s-- by using the four color process system.

First I drew the panels and characters at twice the normal size on a piece of illustration board. Drawing things larger and then shrinking them is an old artist's trick-- it helps minimize your mistakes and shaky lines by miniaturizing them. Here's the art for the black plate. It's pretty much just a black and white drawing.

For the Cyan (or blue) plate, I took a piece of Amberlith (which probably isn't even made anymore), and taped it over the drawing. Amberlith is a sheet of clear acetate (that smells vaguely like bananas), with another sheet of orange transparent acetate stuck on top. The special camera we used saw orange as black for some reason.

I then used an X-Acto knife and cut away everything that wasn't supposed to be cyan and peeled it off the sheet. After shooting the amberlith onto film with the darkroom camera, I had a clear sheet of film with various black shapes on it, representing where the cyan ink should appear when printed on the disc (I hope all that makes sense).

I did the same thing for the Magenta plate-- taped a piece of amberlith over the art and cut away everything that shouldn't be magenta.

And I did the same for the yellow plate. The toughest part of this process was trying to get all the colors straight. Screen Man's suit was primarily red, so that meant I had to cut out the shape of his suit on the yellow plate and the magenta plate, because in the four color print world, yellow + magenta = red.

It was as complicated as it was tedious. I did it all myself too, because I couldn't sufficiently explain the process to anyone else in order to have them help me.


This amberlith cutting method was the same way every comic book ever printed was colored, until they began using computers sometime in the late 1990s. Thinking about all the millions of hours of manpower it took to cut colors out of sheets of acetate for every page of every comic book, every month for decades just boggles my mind.

Once we had the four pieces of film, we'd transfer them to silk screens, then send them to the printing department where they'd print each of the four process colors one at a time onto a disc. And in only 500 simple steps, we had our four award winning discs.

There are more adventures of Screen Man to come, as soon as I get around to scanning the discs.

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