Classic Computer Magazine Archive ANTIC VOL. 8, NO. 7 / DECEMBER 1989

Showbiz 8-Bit

Pro teleprompting with his Ataris.
By Japji Singh Khalsa.

One day on the video set...

"Hold it! Cut!... That just isn't going to work!" the director says with an edge of irritation.

I sense a change coming.

"We can't use 'Good Evening' -- they may be seeing this video in the morning."

Rough start. I go into edit mode.

"Okay, let's say 'Good day'... no... 'Hello'... no that's too formal... Nancy, what do you think?"

The scriptwriter thoughtfully chews on her pencil for a moment, "How about 'Hi'?"

I liked 'Hi' so I make the change, trying to stay one step ahead of the game.

The director thinks out loud, "Hi?...hmmm...yes, yes, that has some potential. Okay...PROMPTER! we want to change..."

I cut him off, "Already done."

"Great!" he says. I'm sure he must be thinking "Boy, is this guy good"

Good? Yes. But that's mostly thanks to the "state of the art" teleprompter that I'm using. And at the heart of this system is an Atari 130XE 8-bit computer.

But let me backtrack just a moment because some people don't even know what a teleprompter is. A prompter is a system by which the actor -- or in official film/video lingo, the "talent" -- can actually read his script while pretending to have memorized it, looking straight at the camera.

The oldest form of a prompter, to my limited knowledge, was a big piece of white cardboard called a cue card. It was cumbersome and clunky and it was difficult to make changes. Also, most often you'd be able to see that the talent was looking off to the side of the camera reading cue cards.

Eventually someone invented a system with a one-way mirror, where a piece of optical-quality glass with a special mirror-like coating is mounted at a 45-degree angle in front of the camera lens. Mounted underneath the mirror would be either an acetate scroll with the script written on it, or a video monitor displaying the script text.

The talent looks at the glass (into the lens of the camera) and sees the reflected script as it scrolls by. At the same time, the special mirror coating and the angle of the glass lets the camera look through it without seeing the script.

The current state-of-the-art system feeds a digital image of the script to the monitor mounted under the mirror. The digital revolution in prompting started in 1983. A company in Wisconsin wrote a program (for an Apple computer) that was primarily designed for newsroom prompting. The computer displayed the script in large, digital letters on the monitor under the two-way mirror.

The computer offered several advantages over the old systems. It was absolutely silent, the letters were large and legible, and changes could be made with a couple of keystrokes. However, this Apple program never really caught on. A program written for the Atari was the first computer prompter system that made big inroads into the film and video industry.

An Atari 800 with a customized language cartridge was the first highly successful computer prompter. The Atari offered many advantages over other systems. Its built-in graphics abilities made it easier to get color, different font sizes, and most important, a smooth scroll -- allowing the letters of the script to flow smoothly up and down the screen without any jerking or jumping.

The Atari also had a built-in NTSC video port, so it could feed the image to the video monitor without adding expensive video cards or other interfaces. Using a different computer would have required complex programming and most likely would have required expensive hardware changes.

My San Francisco company, Magic Teleprompting, currently has three of those Atari-based teleprompters. Each unit consists of a 130XE, a 1050 disk drive, a color video monitor and a special hand controller that connects to the joystick port. The prompter software itself is a proprietary program sold by Lynn Greenberg of Electronic Teleprompting in Newhall, California. One of my systems includes an Epson printer connected through an 850 interface.

We send prompters up and down the West Coast, each system packaged tightly in shipping-quality, professional cases. Open the case, plug it in, boot up, and it's ready to prompt.

I also have a system set up in my office for entering scripts that are delivered to me before the shoot day. I can either type the script directly into the Atari, or, more and more frequently, the client delivers me a disk with the script on it. The disk is usually in either IBM or Macintosh format. In these cases, I read the file into my Macintosh SE, massage it by taking out any strange characters, and then transfer it to the Atari.

I do the transfer with a null modem adaptor connected from the Mac to and 850 interface. On the Mac I use Red Ryder 10.3 and on the Atari I use Backtalk 1.2 from the Antic Arcade Catalog. By utilizing the XMODEM transfer protocol, I can make errorless 2400 baud transfers.

The Atari system has proven to be quite dependable. Shipped by air freight all along the West Coast, these computers have been through rain, sleet and snow -- and they've been dropped, dragged, or bounced onto the film set. I had to have a disk drive aligned once, so I sent it to the Computer Support company in South San Francisco. It's worked fine ever since.

Many corporate executives, actors, actresses, and politicians unknowingly have the Atari 130XE to thank for making their lines and speeches easier and more comfortable to present.

And we at Magic Teleprompting have the 130XE to thank for making us the biggest and most successful prompter service in Northern California.

Japji Singh Khalsa has been working in the film/video business for over 13 years and is owner of Magic Teleprompting in San Francisco. When not on the film set, he likes to golf, play with his new son, or play fantasy role-playing games.