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Steve Johnson and Simon Knights work on a project at Khaos Digital in Hollywood, Calif.
Melinda Mattox

Modern life is a series of screens. In a typical day, the average person will check the screen on his or her smartphone, study a computer screen, toy with a tablet screen and take in a ballgame or a sitcom on a flat screen. Throw in the occasional movie screen or surveillance monitor, and it’s enough to make you screen, er, scream.

For better or worse, what that all adds up to is a dependence upon screens and an expectation that these electronic canvases will have something visually appealing on them — even if they’re not the primary focus of our attention.

A company called Khaos Digital has not only recognized that truth but is making a nice profit because of it. Located in Hollywood, Calif., Khaos works with television producers and filmmakers to provide on-screen content. But the screens they’re creating for aren’t our televisions, computers or smartphones; they’re for the televisions, computers and smartphones within our televisions, computers and smartphones. Think about it: Say your favorite TV police procedural shows a tech-savvy gumshoe getting a text on his iPhone that says Johnny Lowlife is a suspect in a bank robbery. He looks up Johnny’s rap sheet on his computer. He calls up footage from the bank’s cameras and spots Johnny with a gun. He sees Johnny’s mug on a news report. Maybe later, he does a little light reading on his Kindle to unwind.

  • Image about Smartphones
Khaos Digital owner and founder Mark Marcum on the set of the 20th Century Fox television series Touch.
Arin Artounian
Khaos creates much of the content you see on those simulated screens. Its graphic artists, operating from a nondescript bunker in the heart of L.A.’s mid-city production sprawl, collaborate with a show’s producers to create custom graphics and imagery. The process, which used to be known as Video Playback, is now called Digital Device Imagery (DDI).

Khaos didn’t suddenly emerge from a void like one of its DDI artworks; it evolved and grew over time, taking its current form in the late 1990s. Mark Marcum, the company’s owner and founder, worked for years in TV production before the need for a company like his was even thinkable. According to Marcum, showing content on screens within film and television didn’t become common until the 1980s. He offers up the 1983 computer-screen-laden thriller WarGames as a watershed event, though the practice took place before that.

“Television sets were on a different frame rate than film cameras,” Marcum explains. “If you ever watch an old I Love Lucy or the really old days of Kinescope, there was always a bar rolling through [the television screen]. In the beginning, there was black magic” — a complicated and tedious process conducted by video technicians — “involved in making the film’s shutter and the bar on the TV happen at the same time and make that go away. Guys had to learn how to force 30-frame televisions to run 24 frames a second. Very, very few people could do it. Whenever you saw a TV in a show, there were two or three companies — one of which I worked for — that would go to the set and [create] playback on the TV.”