Traditional analog film planning required an investment of time in “Learning the art” of the photomechanical process of page assembly. This process required an apprentice to work for years in training from a “journeyman” planner.
When I began in the industry, in the mid 1980’s, these professional “strippers” as we called them were the most experienced in the shop. They had been working at the company I had joined for an average of 30 years, and they were very skilled at stripping up make-ready film and final.
These Planners, made light of the fact that I was installing computers. When I was running coaxial Ethernet cable, they made jokes about getting the Playboy Channel in the “Mac Department” and they laughed about it. I used to joke back at them that if any of them wanted to learn the Mac, I would be glad to teach them.
We always needed skilled workers because skilled professional Mac-based prepress professionals were rare at that time in digital prepress history. I needed the expertise of a planner more than I needed the fresh-from-university student who knew a bit about “Desktop Publishing.”
There was no shortage of people who knew a bit about the Macintosh, there was, however, a shortage of professional prepress skills in the Macintosh Community.
I would run advertisements in the local newspapers, and get people who knew nothing about running film, but knew a lot about using PageMaker, etc.
They knew about laser printers, but when it came to noticing that the screen angles of separations were all at 90° in film, they could never catch such errors. I quickly found that it was much easier to train a “Planner” to use the Macintosh set of tools than it was to teach a Macintosh user the nuance of film and print planning.
Compounding the issue, we had increasing demand to get pages out of the Mac department, and less time to do so.
As digital page assembly evolved into a truly streamlined and workflow-centric series of stages, we began to institute solutions such as OPI to further increase productivity.
At this point in digital prepress, the computer technology available maximised and was always a bottleneck. We still needed to focus upon how fast a file could clear the desktop workstation to obtain maximum productivity.
This meant that we needed to build a “digital infrastructure” that could keep these operators busy, and that was where money was spent in prepress in the mid ’90s. Eventually, as I have mentioned in this column previously, computer technology caught up and surpassed the needs of a typical prepress facility.
This evolution allowed us to focus upon the files that we sent and composed on our systems… and the infrastructure that built and composed them instead.
Taste of the future
Enter the mid ’90s, and the refinement of the process of prepress production. In this timeframe, we began to get a taste of PDF, PDF workflows, and that holy grail of prepress, Computer To Plate.
It was in these tumultuous times that we as the printing industry began to look at prepress as an adjunct to the printing process, rather than a pivotal role in it.
PDF workflows could mean the eventual death of OPI, and the streamlined approach of customers sending in files that were much closer to being ready to run on press.
Before PDF as a prepress technology, we dealt with the reality that 97 per cent of the files submitted to a print facility for output had to be fixed or prepared for output by a prepress professional.
It had become the foundation of a whole industry of ‘Preflighting’ and job queues to analyse the viability of submitted files. In retrospect, it seemed as though it was backwards to fix problem jobs after they were submitted, rather than to confirm the integrity and completeness of a job by using PDF as a submission platform.
However, PDF alone is not the culprit. In addition to using PDF technology, prepress equipment vendors began to focus on non-user-attended operations and workflows based upon PDF, to feed their latest developments: Computer To Plate technology.
Here we were at a historic first. The vendor community realised that workflow streamlining and “non-user-intervention-required” became a prerequisite to any prepress facility.
As a result, they built workflows that decreased the amount of human-based time and effort required to feed their new CTP devices. However, since burning plates is the final stage of print-production, these solutions needed to make mistakes, and human error a non-issue.
The vendors introduced Apogee, Prinergy, and a host of others to complement their CTP offerings. These workflows brought new automation and queue-based workflows to an industry with a history of building their own workflows.
It was also at this time that the content creation community (ad-agencies, publishers, magazines etc.) was being requested to consider sending in PDF files rather than native application files, fonts, and graphic elements.
This convergence of these two workflow changes is what I look at when I reflect upon “What happened to prepress as an art form?”
So, let’s look at what really happened: A unified file format for submission was implemented (PDF), and workflows were developed that streamlined production to take the human-factor out of the mix.
This is not to say that the expertise is gone, or that the people who run these facilities today are less talented or skilled, but they are users of the solutions today that have little relevance to the skill set they developed over a career.
When I began to hear my prepress clients saying, “Just send us a PDF file” the writing was already on the wall, but automated server-queues and workflows really were there to seal the deal.
Again, I savour the fact that I was witness to this industry when it was an art form. When the skilled tradesmen who were responsible for making the photo-litho process and they were the ones who completed all print-prep.
I love the smell of fixer in the morning, and I still have heaps of film lying around, but I know those days are over, or nearly so, and it keeps me grounded to remember that point in my career.
I felt intimidated when planning a print job in the past, with the amount of care and learning that went into it.
Now, a job submission is so easy, that those without the history lack that perspective of what it used to take to make a page ready to print.
I may miss it, and respect it still, but prepress as an art form, has mainly run its course. Prepress is still part of the process, however, and I still cannot throw out my xacto knives, or t-squares.
The light-table however is long gone, to make room for the computer.