A 17 1/2-foot-long cylinder of aluminum, foam and fiberglass rotates as up to 4,400 dots of paint a second are being shot onto a vinyl canvas.
As the big metal drum goes around, a huge painting--a 14-by-48-foot mural of a panoramic mountain scene--slowly emerges. In 6 hours and 15 minutes, the work is complete. It is a billboard in the making.
It is also technology in the making--the product of five years and "millions of dollars" worth of research by Metromedia Technologies, which commissioned Gerber Scientific Products of Manchester, Conn., to refine the sometimes cumbersome and time-consuming billboard painting techniques.
With the new process, Metromedia Technologies--a subsidiary of Metromedia Inc.--hopes to capture the advertisers who have stayed away from billboards because the sharp, accurate colors vital to selling their products could not be reproduced in quantity.
Many of the largest billboards are hand-painted boards, and uniformity could never be guaranteed because each billboard is done individually by an artist, a spokesman said.
"The beer industry, food products, cosmetics . . . high-style apparel and those industries that require delicate colors were never big users of outdoor advertising," said Bert K. Dart, executive vice president of the Metromedia subsidiary. The parent company, which once had wide broadcast holdings, is a Seacaucus, N.J., partnership owned by John Kluge and Stuart Subotnick.
Metromedia Technologies isn't the only company looking to change the billboard business.
Computer Image Systems has a similar computer painting system that's been operational for over a year. Jean Handwerk, art director for the Torrance company, said the MegaPrinter can paint a 25-by-54-foot canvas in three hours.
Ron Dunford, executive vice president of Gannett Outdoor, a major outdoor advertising firm, said the MegaPrinter and the Metromedia system are the only two of their kind. "Both are very new," Dunford said.
Metromedia Technologies has patented its entire system as well as the component parts and anticipates "many spinoff inventions," a company spokesman said.
In the process of preparing the artwork for the machine, the image is translated into a series of colored dots with the help of a computer. An encoded computer tape is then loaded into the painting machine and tells the machine when to shoot which colors. There are four nozzles on the machine, one each for the colors yellow, magenta, cyan and black. They shoot up to 1,100 dots of paint per second each or in various combinations to form different colors.
The mountain panorama can be painted in 6 hours and 15 minutes, Dart said. As for an artist hand-painting the same scene, "At the end of two weeks, he'd still be working on it," he said.
The canvas weighs 100 pounds and can be rolled up and shipped in a light van. You don't need a boom truck, as you would to haul six sections of wood that weigh about a ton, Dart said, and that's where the savings come in. Metromedia Technologies plans to install these machines around the country and sell its services to billboard companies. Dart would not say how much the firm plans to charge the outdoor advertisers for the printing.
Metromedia Technologies has more in mind than outdoor advertising. The company predicts that the computer-painted murals will find a place as backdrops for theater productions and department store display windows.
"Think of political conventions and roasts," Dart said. "Large portraiture is another area we're pursuing." Metromedia Technologies' first portraits--one of Sugar Ray Leonard and another of Marvin Hagler--made their debut in Las Vegas last week when the 10-by-17-foot pictures hung in front of Caesars Palace.