I remember when I was at school that every now and then Smash Hits (and probably other magazines) would give away stickers. I remember one series being small, oval shaped things with “exciting” words and phrases printed on them, such as “Cheap Thrill” and - probably - “Disco Rules”.
Anyway, such stickers ended up pretty much everywhere, much to the annoyance of our form teacher (who probably wished we were all slightly better behaved, and weren’t so keen on sticking things on the walls and furniture). Look: we were competing on stuff. Like chairs, desks, and the blackboard.
Moving on to today, stickers have become digital. You can slap them all over messages to your friends on your phones, to add “emotion” and “character” to your messages. Of course, you can’t put a digital sticker on the back of a classmate, but you can lob them at him (or her) over the electronic ether.
Apple added stickers to their Messages app for iOS last year.
They were not creating a walled garden where only a select few “big brands” and carefully chosen designers could play. Anyone could create sticker packs. That could be YOU.
It was probably just over a year ago that I thought that the person who should be doing this, and who had a ready collection of loveable characters to use, was our very own Mr Biffo.
I suggested this to him. He thought this was a Very Good Idea, but had no idea how to go about this. Thankfully, John Parker (http://8bitartwork.co.uk) - who has an Apple developer account - offered his help and resources to get the idea going. It all sounded very promising and… nothing much happened.
I blame Biffo myself. He distracted himself with Found Footage, and, understandably, a project of that magnitude and scope needed all his attention. The stickers app idea dropped off the radar.
It was October last year that the idea was revived. I was considering bringing the subject up again, but I think it was John who asked if we should actually push ahead with it.
Found Footage was done, and the Digitiser 25th anniversary was becoming the next thing to think about. This seemed to fit in nicely with that, and so Mr Biffo gave us his blessing to get on with it.
John had been experimenting with making a sticker pack anyway, so he had gathered a few Digitiser faces and prepared them as a test.
My involvement was to help convert the images from various screen grabs into something that would work for the stickers app. I like to think forward bit, and I felt that if I was going to do this, that it would be pretty helpful if the images were created in a format that could be useful for other things, so I decided pretty early on that I was going to reproduce them in a modern art-working package.
My first stab at this was an unmitigated failure, or so I thought. I was using a square grid, and worked on a couple of the pictures. They started to look BAD. Well, not too bad, but bad enough to make me stop and think. The reason for this was subtle, but very, very important.
You see, teletext graphics do not use squares exclusively. The space one of those Lego-like character blocks occupies is indeed split into a 2×3 block, but, crucially, the centre row is a little taller. So it’s square, oblong, square.
And, before anyone says “who cares, this is just deep-level nit-picking” (you could be right), that unevenness makes a massive difference. As I worked though the many faces and shapes that Mr Biffo has created while at Teletext Towers, I can’t help think that he was either aware of this, or at the very least using it subconsciously.
So,I started to work on an uneven grid. A couple of tests showed me that it looked right. Actually, it looked (and felt) authentic - and for me, that was important.
I cracked on, with a niggling itch about something in the back of my mind.
We had the Violet Berlin image in John’s initial collection. Violet wrote a column every so often for Digitiser, initially as part of the Panel 4 line-up. However, it wasn’t called Panel-4 for nothing. There were three other faces to look for. The itch was to try to find the others.
I’m a bit of a completionist, and I felt that I had to try to get as many of the Panel 4 faces that I could. To fail would, in my mind, make the collection we’d eventually offer just a little less valuable. So, off to Google for some searching fun.
First stop was the Teletext Preservation Project, which has a pretty good collection of screen shots. There’s about three years’ worth of Digitiser there, and quite a few characters, that were not part of the initial set of sticker candidates, turned up. I pondered this, and decided (possibly foolishly) that, yes, I should possibly pick up any that we did not have and convert those too. Completionist, remember?
Bloody loony more like.
And so began a few hours of sifting through that collection of pages, sniffing out anything that we had not already got. I found Stuart Campbell’s likeness there. So that was one fewer Panel 4 face to worry about.
For some reason, which you will discover in a little while, I thought that Dave Perry was one of those I was looking for. I certainly remember there being a face with a colourful, patterned head, and Mr Perry was well known at the time for his bandanas. I asked about him, but, no, I was told, he was “the enemy” at the time, and so was not a Panel 4 person.
That threw me off - I now had two more to find, and no real names to go on. Google had thrown up a couple of clues, but nothing definite.
More Googling, and, eventually a break though - a Digi Wiki had given up some hint of a name or two. The key with Google searches seem to be to change the order of words, try different phrases, leave stuff out. Eventually you hit a set of results that is useful.
I found two more archives, and these were really doing the business as far as I what I needed.
One was Al’s Website, which, while basic, has a lot of archived teletext organised in date form. The other was Dan Farrimond’s Teletext Art site which, again, has a massive collection of archived pages (recovered by Jason Robertson) from a number of channels.
Both these sites appear to contain almost raw data from various VHS sources, and there’s a lot of corruption in some of the pages, but both were valuable sources for this sticker project.
And… and …
Success! I managed to find the other Panel-4 faces! Okay, they were a bit mashed in places by the inevitable corruption caused by being de-archived from VHS tapes, but one by one, the missing Panel 4 people were revealed.
Adam Porter, with his curly yellow hair, Tony Mott, with his Borg-like head (which was the source of my Dave Perry confusion), and a surprise - another Panel-4 contributor who I had forgotten about: Leslie Bunder. Probably because I don’t think he wrote that many.
All of those, plus a cornucopia of other characters from the Digitiser era, including what I think is every iteration of The Man that I could find. I had quite a collection to process, and some were corrupted.
Corruption in a teletext page looks like a load of random characters. It happened at broadcast time too, and you’d get a screen, or a portion of a screen, full of what looked like junk. Sometimes, a command character (which told the decider what colour to use, or whether to use a graphics character) would be lost, and what followed would appear to be junk.
Another choice to make. I needed to get the final image looking like the original. I could guess and draw what I though should be there, and I expect it would look OK, but it would not be accurate recreation, and the final image would not be as close to the original as I would like.
However, there are clues in the corruption, and as I have a teletext blocky graphics font, I thought I’d see what happened if I typed in the apparently random characters using it.
What I got was samples of teletext graphics that looked like they belonged in the original design. The letters were correct, but the system had not been told to use the graphics character set. With that in mind, I could use the corrupted images to give me the clues I needed to fill the gaps. Any “making it up” would be kept to a minimum.
I feel I have to apologise to John for my constant stream of “I found more” messages.
Every time I dumped a few more in the Dropbox folder we were sharing, I knew he had to deal with them - dropping them into the project after processing them so that they worked in that environment. He has the patience of a saint. You’ll see how that manifests itself later.
However, we got to the end. I felt that I had exhausted my sources. I could keep digging, but I’d probably not turn up much more than I already had. So a halt was called.
I did feel, though, that there were a few images which looked wrong as a sticker on a phone screen, and that some outline thickening was in order.
We ran a test with one, and agreed that actually it would be the right thing to do. I was very mindful that it meant more for John to do, and if he had said “no”, I would not have pursued it further. We were, happily, in agreement, so that final bit of fettling was done.
Mr Biffo was very happy with the results. I think as builds to test were being released that he was giggling like a school kid. I hope so - seeing them on a phone and using them in messages made me smile.
We had one final hurdle: getting it past Apple’s gatekeepers, and we had a feeling that Apple would throw it back at us because of one single image we had included. We all knew what that one was too, and while the original did not work at all well as a sticker, John had thoughtfully cropped it so that the most contentious part was kept.
Turner the Worm Being Sick, and the rest of the gang, was being sent to Cupertino for review. The age rating had been upped because of the potential for crude humour and stuff like that, so we were at least letting Apple know that we had something that was a little close to the knuckle.
We waited. Had we all been together in the same room when John submitted the app for review, I expect there would have been a lot of nervous laughing. Apple are very keen to point out that they don’t let any old stuff in, and while they don’t say what won’t get let through, their mantra is “we’ll know it if we see it, and so will you”.
Unsurprisingly, John reported that it had been rejected. Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t for the reason we thought (which was somewhat disappointing). They rejected it because they were questioning whether we had permission to use Digitiser’s images.
They were, rightly, wanting to stop any copyright infringement. Mr Biffo had to put his sensible hat on for this. He tried a web page with a message to Apple giving John and I permission to use his images. Sadly, that wasn’t enough t convince Apple. John had been asking them questions about this - what was needed to prove that we could use these images. I don’t think the answers were that helpful. Another case of “we’ll know it when we see it”.
The second attempt was a PDF of a letter from Mr Biffo saying much the same thing as the web page. This time it looked a little more official, because it had phone numbers and real world addresses on it.
We waited. And, because it was Thanksgiving, we waited some more.
John finally announced that the app had been approved. We had cleared the hurdles. We could unleash the Digitiser stickers app!
Mr Biffo announced the thing to the world, and - looking at Twitter - the initial reception was very positive.
What has pleased me the most with this is that there is now a collection of Digitiser characters (and a few extras thrown in for good measure) together in one place for the first time in a very long time. There may well be more, and one day I hope we can add to this collection when more are found.
All of us who worked on this really hope you enjoy using them, and confusing what friends you may have left by sending them a “Roaming Thomas” or two.
Right now, this is iOS only. We are hoping to get something together for Android users too, but that’s a platform made up of a very different load of fish in a very different type of kettle. We’re all solely iOS people, which does hamper our efforts.
Bear with us (thankfully, it’s winter and he’s sleeping, so as long as we tiptoe around the kitchen and don’t wake him, we’ll be fine). We’ll get there.
THE DIGITISER STICKER PACK IS AVAILABLE FROM THE APP STORE NOW!