Video Colour Image Processors

Dan Sandin's Image Processor

Dan Sandin's Image Processor

During the period beginning in the late 1960’s and in the decade that followed, a number of innovative artists sought to explore the potential of colour video imagery during the early period of the genre by developing and constructing their own electronic image processing tools. These artists designed and built their machines for various reasons, but all of them sought to explore notions of colour and form within the electronic moving image that were outside the capabilities of the technology available to them at the time. Artist /engineers such as Eric Segal, Dan Sandin, Stephen Beck in the USA and Richard Monkhouse and Peter Donebauer in the UK developed sophisticated colour analogue image processors for their own work; these electronic tools were also used by other video and filmmakers to produce works that display a particular and distinctive approach to colour imagery.

Although broadcast colour TV had been in existence since the mid-late 60’s (earlier in the USA), this technology was not generally available to artists who wished to experiment with the medium. This paper will discuss some of the key artist/engineers, the tools they developed and their approach to exploring the capacity, scope and range of electronically generated colour in film and video work made during this period.

1969-70: Earliest known video synthesiser.

The earliest colour synth was developed by the Korean born artist Nam June Paik in collaboration with Japanese electronics engineer Shuya Abe in 1969. It was a self-contained unit built expressly and exclusively to add colour to a monochrome video image and to distort the conventional TV camera image. Influenced by the development of audio synthesizers produced in the early 1960s by pioneers such as Robert Moog, video synthesizers drew on the fact that the same analogue electronic processes produced both audio and video signals. Extending a dialogue that they had begun in Tokyo in 1964, Shuya Abe and Nam June Paik began building the machine in 1969 at WGBH-TV in Boston. Frustrated by the difficulty of working in the conventionally designed TV studio, Paik conceived of a video studio compressed into a piano keyboard:

The editing process in VTR is very clumsy, worse than in film. I wanted a piano keyboard that would allow me to edit seven different sources: bang-bang-bang, like that- real time editing. The first thing I thought of was seven cameras with seven sources that could be mixed instantly by a console. So the machine has two suites: the piano keys for instant mixing and also a tiny clock that turns the color around, from ultra red (sic) to ultraviolet. The player can change the colors. The seven cameras are keyed into seven different colors themselves: one camera makes only red, another only blue, another so and so. The seven rainbow colors are there. Mixing them together makes what you see. 1

This (synth) will enable us to shape the TV screen canvas

* as precisely as Leonardo

* as freely as Picasso

* as colorfully as Renoir

* as profoundly as Mondrian.

* as violently as Pollock and

* as lyrically as Jasper Johns.

The completed and functioning machine, initially dubbed “The Wobbulator” by Paik was first used during Video Commune, a four hour broadcast from WGBH in 1970, in which standard camera images were distorted using the multiplicity of controls available on the synthesizer. Paik described some of the features and complexities of his machine to the American critic Lucinda Furlong:

The console can distort the pictures once they come in from the cameras. Inside there are many delicate devices. He (Abe) put many controls into the console- contrast controls, brightness controls, color contrast controls. Every knob on it is functional, and there are sixty of them. 2

I always wonder why it took Eric to introduce this new image so convincingly….Something extraordinary happened when we saw that flaming face of Einstein at the end of the corridor. For us, something ominous, for me, something finally free of film.

Woody Vasulka.

In 1969 Eric Seigel showed his videotape Psychedelevision in Color at the Howard Wise Gallery in New York as part of the celebrated and pioneering exhibition “TV as a Creative Medium”. Seigel, who had been experimenting with television and video since the mid-1960s had, with encouragement and finance from Wise, built a crude video colourizer to add colour to an existing black and white television image. Psychedelevision in Color was essentially a reworked monochrome image that used video feedback and colorized effects to break down and distort a photograph of Albert Einstein. With further funding from Howard Wise, Seigel began work on a more sophisticated video synthesizer in 1970.

* PCS (Processing Chromance Synthesizer)  (1968)

* EVS (Electronic Video Synthesizer) (1970)

* Dual Colorizer (1972)

Although Seigel completed his prototype synthesizer, it was never marketed, as he and Wise differed on how it should be developed. Wise sought a manufacturer to build it under license, but Seigel was afraid that his design would be stolen, and preferred to build it himself. Seigel’s synthesizer was never manufactured, although the colourizer was briefly marketed, with ten units sold at approximately US $2,400 each.

Direct Video Synthesizer (Zero & One) (1971)

Video Weaver (1974)Around 1968, whilst experimenting with the sonic generation of oscilloscope images, artist/engineer Stephen Beck began seeking more precise methods of controlling light.  His first attempt to build a device was the “Number 0 Video Synthesizer”, used in collaborative performances with electronic musician Salvatore Martirano.In 1970 Beck was invited to be Artist-in-Residence at the National Center for Experiments in Television (NCET) in San Francisco.3  Whilst at NCET Beck completed his “Direct Video Synthesizer” and used the new instrument to produce a series of tapes called Electronic Notebooks. Intended as both documentation of the technical research and works in their own right, these tapes were made by artists and composers including Don Hallock, Bill Roarty, Willard Rosenquist, Bill Gwin and Warner Jepson as well as by Beck himself.  The Direct Video Synthesizer, intended as a performance instrument, was designed to produce video images without a camera. Beck saw his machine as an “electronic sculpting device” designed to generate four key aspects of the video image- colour, form, motion and texture. In a subsequent version, Beck extended the scope of the device to include circuits to generate the elemental images of air, fire and water. Beck’s stated concern was to open up television as an expressive medium and to go beyond the manipulation of the conventional camera image to produce non-objective imagery.

Extract from “Video Weavings”, (1974)

Because of the architecture of the electronics, the Video Weaver could generate millions of display colours, many of which exceeded or violated the strict NTSC technical values for broadcast or recordable video signals. As with many of the Beck Direct Video Synthesis colours, including negative colours, images seen in performances contained colours that could not be broadcast or recorded.

* Image Processor (IP) 1972-74.

* “Classic” IP: formed from a wall of modules stacked 3 high, by 8 wide.

* Sandin made the plans and parts list available free of charge to anyone who wished to build it.

Like Eric Seigel and Stephen Beck, Dan Sandin was interested in light shows and kinetic art. Initially working with conventional colour photography, it occurred to Sandin who was a trained physicist, that he could achieve more interesting results using electronics. Through his experience with light shows, Sandin was familiar with the Moog (Mogue) sound synthesizer, and he began to speculate about the potential to create a video equivalent around 1968

* Dan Sandin demonstrating his Image Processor (IP) in 1972

Securing a US $3,000 development grant from the Illinois Arts Council, Sandin developed his image-processor over the next three years. His proposal had been to develop an affordable programmable video-processing synthesizer combining a number of important functions including keying, fading, and colourizing into one unit. The “Sandin Image Processor”, or I.P. was designed as a set of stackable modules, which could be reconfigured depending on the function or image processing required. Like Beck’s “Direct Video Synthesizer” the Sandin Image Processor was designed for use in live performance situations. Unlike other artist/engineers, however, Sandin made a decision to make the plans for the I.P. available for others to build. Sandin and video artist Phil Morton, founder of the video programme at the Chicago Art Institute, spent over a year preparing a parts list and circuit diagrams for plans that were made available to anyone who wanted them.

* “A 5 Minute Romp thru’ the IP” (extract)

* EMS Spectron

Richard Monkhouse is a self-taught electronics engineer. After graduating with a Masters degree in Natural Sciences from Jesus College, Cambridge in 1972, Monkhouse worked on government defence projects for a year at Marconi-Elliot Avionic Systems before joining EMS Ltd. (Electronic Music Studios), a London-based company specializing in the manufacture of sound synthesizers, initially involved with the design of a video display component for a new audio instrument:

Nobody else at EMS had much expertise in video and I was, if you like, a promising newcomer/ slave. I was given the job of designing some video sync. circuitry. So I got a colour video monitor and a sync circuit and I started to plug direct RGB video signals from the digital timing circuit into the colour monitor. I suddenly realized how amazing pure colour video imagery actually is. In fact I got so excited by the pure colours that I was getting that I damaged the Trinitron monitor feeding in stronger and stronger colours, I heated up and bent the masks! 4

* EMS Spectron

Intrigued by the visual quality and purity of the colour images he had been able to produce, Monkhouse developed a prototype video instrument that went much further than simply generating coloured stripes and squares. Monkhouse’s prototype, initially named the “Spectre”, generated considerable interest at EMS, and was soon taken up by the company director Peter Zinovieff. 5 The machine was capable of taking a monochrome video camera feed, colourizing the image to eight levels with digital control of colour brightness. After further demonstrations in the UK, a colour encoder was added, enabling the output of the Spectre to be recordable.

David Kirk, reviewing the Spectron the following year, also discussed the machine in some depth, considering its uses and potential market:

This is the most fascinating tool that could ever be offered to the abstract artist whose imagination is better than his brushwork. More important, it is the ideal basis from which to commence a study of that relatively new art form: electronic painting. Fabric design, television special effects, perception studies, and ‘the ultimate discotheque light show’ are among the applications suggested by the manufacturer. I could add to ‘perception studies’ my own suggestion of ‘post-perception studies’ since working with the Spectron has greatly increased my hitherto limited ability to ‘see’ colour images with my eyes closed. 6

* Extract from l’eclipse (1978) by Robert Cahen, using the  EMS Spectron

French video artist Robert Cahen systematically explored the capabilities of the Spectron in a series of videotapes he made in the late 1970s. Initially working with the an early French video processor called the “Truquer Universel”, Cahen turned his attention to the Spectron which he discovered whilst working at the INA (Institut National de l’ Audiovisuel), producing Sans Titre (1977), L’Eclipse (1979), Trompe- l’oeil  (1979) and L’ent’apercu  (1980). Cahen was especially interested in the Spectron’s capacity to generate an electronic weave of imagery to produce a kind of “curtain that gives a craving to see what is hidden behind.” In fact, at this time Cahen was so entranced with the machine and its capabilities that he was dubbed “Spectroman” by his colleagues at the INA! 7

* Videokalos Image Processor (1978)

* Completed commercial version

In 1974 video artist Peter Donebauer, interested in the potential of the Spectron, visited Richard Monkhouse at EMS in Putney, south London. This initial meeting was the beginning of a collaboration that lasted many years and included the building of several video instruments and a tour of live video/music performances. With the intention of finding a way to continue the abstract video work he had been producing using the colour TV studio at the Royal College of Art, Donebauer was seeking a machine that shared characteristics with the Spectron. Essentially he wanted a compact, affordable camera processing instrument which combined some of the basic features of a conventional studio video mixer capable of cross fades, a keyer and a video wipe generator, a multiple colourizer plus a “genlocked” sync. pulse generator and encoding/decoding cards. Agreeing to work together, Donebauer and Monkhouse set out to design and build such an instrument. They pooled ideas and expertise:

What was really needed was a specially-built image processor that would allow the functions of complex colourization, keying and vision mixing in the same console, preferably utilizing cheap monochrome cameras as inputs and playable as an instrument. 8

* Videokalos Image Processor (1978)

* Interior of Prototype (1976-77)

The “Videokalos Image Processor”, designed during 1975 in collaboration with Richard Monkhouse was intended as a ‘live’ performance instrument, providing even better ‘real time’ control than the TV studio. According to Donebauer it had more precise colour mixing and allowed greater control of video feedback images because the entire unit was self-contained. In the RCA television studio for example, the vision-mixing console had been in a separate room from the engineering control area where he worked, requiring an additional operator. Using the Videokalos, Donebauer was able to control the entire process himself.  Although the Videokalos IMP did not redefine his work, it did enable Donebauer to produce new video work in other locations. The main intention in building the Videokalos was to gain the same level of control as he’d had in the studio, but with simpler means.

* Extract from Merging-Emerging (1978)

Although most of the videotapes Donebauer produced in the period between 1973-1983 were performed ‘live’, they were performed largely for tape. The first complete videotape to make use of the Videokalos IMP was Merging-Emerging (1978). Recorded in real time, with no subsequent editing, Merging-Emerging was produced using a procedure in which all the participants- had visual and aural feedback that enabled them to modify and adapt their contributions during the recording session.


During the decade between 1968-78, which could be considered as the defining period in the development of video art, there was significant research activity amongst artists working with video to develop, and invent video imaging instruments or synthesizers for the exploration of the potential of the medium as an art form. This first generation of video artist/engineers that I have been discussing: Nam June Paik and Shuya Abe, Eric Siegal, Stephen Beck, Dan Sandin, Richard Monkhouse and Peter Donebauer, all developed machines to electronically manipulate colour imagery by transforming monochrome video signals in real time- often live and during the production rather than during post-production. The work of these pioneers is important because in addition to exploring the potential of video as a means of creative expression, they developed a range of relatively accessible and inexpensive image manipulation devices specifically for ‘alternative’ video practice, and paved the way for the acceptance and recognition of video as a fine art medium.

1 Davis, p. 150.

2 Ibid, p. 151.

3 Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, NCET was set up in  1967 as an experimental TV workshop at the Public Broadcasting Station (PBS) at KQED in San Fransisco.

4 Richard Monkhouse, in conversation with the author, 23/5/2000.

5 After the first 3 machines were built, EMS changed the name to Spectron for “European marketing purposes” In all, 15 Spectron video synths were built and sold. (Monkhouse, 23/ 5/ 2000)

6 David Kirk, “Focus”, Video Magazine, London, 1975.

7 Robert Cahen, in an e-mail to the author, 06/06/05.