Science: Disk with a cast of thousands: Digital imaging and its offspring, the electronic picture library, are making their mark in widely divergent fields, says Bernadine Coverley

SEEING is believing when a director is looking for just the right cast for his or her next production. Instead of poring over Spotlight, the theatrical world's directory, producers and casting directors can now key in their requirements to Showbase, UK, a casting database set up in Britain two years ago.

Lorne Magory, one of the founders, demonstrates: 'Say we need a young actress, a French speaker with fencing skills, aged between 18 and 30' - and up comes a list of 17 suitably qualified candidates. Select one, and at the touch of a space bar her image appears on screen and can be printed out.

Electronic picture libraries such as Showcase are easily possible with digital image handling and the storage capability of the laser disk, but they are only now creeping into common use. As with textual information, access to an electronic picture library is immeasurably quicker than taking out a book or file, checking the index and turning pages. Stills can be searched and put up for comparison and the advent of Sony's pocket-sized CD Rom electronic book, which costs about pounds 350, means that wherever you are you can look at, read and listen to recorded information. 'If I were an agent in the Beverly Hills Hotel, I could run through a database on my Discman and pull up photos for a casting meeting or audition shortlist, just like that,' says Mr Magory, who is also a television producer.

Mr Magory and his partner, Christopher Lapina, combine the creative and the technical, Mr Magory with his experience as a director and producer, and Mr Lapina with his information technology consultancy and sound engineering background. They developed Showbase and built up a clientele that has casting directors on one side and 3,000 entertainers on the other, and includes advertising agencies such as Ogilvy & Mather. With voice-overs added to the package and a growing number of photos that can be reproduced on screen, they feel confident enough to promote their product in the United States.

The partners also plan to expand into Europe. Mr Magory explains: 'It will never replace auditions, but with more and more European co-productions, making a shortlist will be a lot easier. Information needs to travel so fast that this will really score. Eventually, there will be phone-link access to photos, although now we send a disk that is updated every two weeks.'

Their experience illustrates the fact that quality image reproduction on disk, as opposed to film or video, has only recently been taken up outside broadcasting companies. Images need a lot more electronic storage space than text and the cost used to be about 25p per picture. Now it is cheaper and data can be compressed into a small space through optical disk storage. Thousands of pictures can be stored on an optical disk, and with digital imaging the quality will not diminish.

Large broadcasting companies have been pioneering the use of digital imaging for some years. TVS was the first customer for a system called Gallery 2000, from Logica Space and Communications Ltd, which manages 50,000 pictures with a four-second retrieval. The BBC has had an electronic file of stills, Slidefile, on several sites. Austrian Broadcasting stores thousands of pictures accessible to news journalists and programme-makers in all parts of the building with one-second recall. In such big institutions the technology that allows television news journalists to access and compare stills directly has long been more cost-effective than sending someone running down corridors to and from a library.

Not all broadcasting initiatives are successful, however. The BBC's own electronic directory of actors, called Lasercast, was finally laid to rest six months ago, after several management buyouts and three years of effort. But when technical developments are accompanied by lower prices, organisations as diverse as art galleries and local police authorities get interested. Police have been testing out databases for mugshots, and art and authority meet when reference is needed for insurance and identification of stolen art and antiques. The National Art Library at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London started a section for CD Rom and video discs two years ago. A program called Impressionism, for example, published in 1991, has a sophisticated search facility that allows researchers or art historians to find paintings by subject, owner, gallery, title or artist.

Douglas Dodds, the head of collection management at the NAL, says: 'We have a long-term obligation to acquire art publications as records.' He speaks enviously of the National Gallery in Washington's CD Rom publishing ventures. Fans of Marilyn Monroe can gaze on every image recorded by artists with a quick search through Notable Americans, a CD Rom released in 1990.

The videodisc, an earlier system on the Apple Macintosh, provides a higher-quality image and includes stills and video sequences. One 30-minute videodisc, Vienna, contains 15,000 still pictures and motion footage plus English and German sound-tracks. A selection of stills can be compiled from the material to make a slide-type presentation and can be printed out if needed.

The Vasari laboratory system takes the possibilities of electronic manipulation of paintings a step further than simple record-keeping for researchers. Since the original research project, which was funded by the European Commission and completed this year, the art world has taken up the challenge of digitisation. The National Gallery in London is using Vasari in scientific analysis to improve techniques in the conservation and restoration of paintings, and Birkbeck College in London has established an MA in art history and computing.

The Micro Gallery in the Sainsbury wing of the National Gallery is perhaps the best-known electronic picture library system. Neil Aberdeen, a spokesman, says: 'The impetus for our Compact Disc Interactive and CD Rom publishing plans came from having such an important computer resource.' The Design Museum in London also has a catalogue of its collection on CD Rom allowing searches for name, period and style.

Rama - remote access to museum archives - is the next development in electronic imaging supported by the European Commission. The Victoria & Albert Museum, with seven million objects to record, is assessing the possibilities of a disk catalogue.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: .NET Developer / Web Developer

£35-45K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer / Web ...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Manager - Plasma Processing

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Commercial Manager is required to join a lea...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

£18000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first ...

Recruitment Genius: .NET Web / Software Developer - ASP.NET

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Small and agile digital marketi...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders