Catalog Analysis: Fixed Creative Costs: Color Separations

In the April issue, we looked at the first part of fixed catalog or Internet creative costs — the cost of designing, photographing, and producing catalog or Internet pages. Those aren’t the only fixed creative costs you have to deal with, however. Now it’s time to discuss the final fixed cost in preparing a catalog for printing: color separations. My, how this function has changed — and continues to change — through the years.

Traditionally, catalogers turned over transparencies to the color separator once the photographer had taken all the pictures and the art director or the production artist had sized all the photos. The color separator was then responsible for:

  • scanning photographs;
  • reviewing color output with the cataloger;
  • correcting color to match the product or a predetermined color palette;
  • showing a second (and hopefully final) set of proofs to the client;
  • preparing the film to the printer’s specification;
  • delivering the film to the printer on a schedule established by the printer and the client; and of course
  • quality control throughout this process.

Most color separations were done by individual photograph, but to save money, on occasion photos on a page can be “ganged” together, or placed in position and scanned as a full page or even a spread.

One relatively recent technological advance that helps simplify communications between the color separator and the catalog production artist — and that speeds up the entire process as well — is automatic picture replacement (APR). This technology enables catalogers to use low-resolution images when creating pages inhouse and then have the prepress provider replace them with the final high-resolution images. APR software (typically owned by the prepress provider) saves catalogers the time and expense of scanning to hi-res for page placement.

Managing the color separations process

The flow chart to the right outlines the color separations process. Let’s now go through each step in more detail.

Step 1: Preprint kickoff meeting

With many catalogers, this step never happens, but a formal handoff meeting at the time the transparencies are turned over to the color separator is highly recommended. The art director and the production artist must be involved, along with the key representative of the color separator, usually the person supervising the color work who understands the scope, timing, color requirements, and quality expected.

In the handoff session, each transparency is reviewed, and color expectations are discussed (for instance, “match the transparency,” “match the actual product sample for color,” “lighten the background”). Good communication at this stage saves money and effort further down the road.

Step 2: High-resolution scans produced

The color separator next scans each image at high resolution and stores the image in a digital file. Color “scatters” — the first round of color proofs — are prepared for review by the cataloger. Depending on the nature and detail of the color required, individual proofs are planned, or entire pages are put together for gang-scanning.

Step 3: Low-resolution photo file created for desktop page production

The next step is for the color separator to provide the page production artist with a low-resolution photo or image file to include in the page layout along with the copy. Minor size adjustments are possible at this time in the page production process.

Step 4: Hi-res proofing

While the page production artist is finalizing the page or spread layout, the color separator shows initial proofs or scatters to the cataloger. Usually the designer, the art director, or the catalog manager is responsible for approving the color. If color is critical, as in the case of fashion apparel or food catalogs, I advise having actual product samples available to proof against. Color corrections are suggested at this time, and the color separator makes a second round of proofs.

Step 5: Integration of production files and color separations — producing film

This state begins when the page production artist supplies the color separator with a disk containing the electronic layout of the catalog, including all support files such as logos, graphics, and fonts. Due to the inherently large size of digital graphics files, this disk is usually a zip disk or a writable CD. The separator then marries the electronic file and the high resolution photo images to produce final pages. The entire page makeup of the catalog is now complete. Inexpensive color proofs (called Iris or Rainbow or Xerox Approved) usually are generated for the cataloger to review.

Step 6: Final color proof — high resolution

The last step before composite film is created or a plate is burned from a digital file is for the color separator to produce a high-resolution proof (sometimes called a Cromalin or a Matchprint) of the entire catalog. All parties do a final review.

Step 7: Film or electronic file to printer

The last step of the color separation process is developing final composite film or an electronic file for direct-to-plate printers. An approved hard copy of the high-resolution file is also sent to the printer for use in print proofing.

A new era in color separations

The color separations process, like much of the catalog creative process, has gone electronic and digital. Are color separations themselves going to become a dinosaur, like the typesetting of the 1970s and 1980s, and be replaced by the Macintosh and the PC?

I think so. Look at a streamlined color separation process as it exists today or will exist shortly in most catalog companies:

  • catalog or Internet photography completed digitally
  • images electronically transmitted to the art director’s computer
  • color separations, along with specialized graphic treatments such as shadows, silhouettes, and image resizing, done inhouse using PhotoShop
  • four-color printout done with color copying systems. (It’s important to note that most lower-end inhouse color copiers are not accurate for color, but the copies can be viewed to show presence of color on spreads.)
  • computer color correction done internally
  • final approval of catalog spreads
  • final, approved color file electronically sent to the printer based on agreed specifications
  • increasingly, catalog printers have changed to direct-to-plate technology from the traditional industry standard of film; in these cases, the color separator prepares a final electronic file for transfer to the printer
  • printer develops final color “match print” for print proofing.

Controlling fixed creative costs

The industry average for color separations is about $500-$650 per page, But food, high-fashion, and upscale catalogs spending $1,000 and more per page to achieve the highest quality.

By better understanding the fixed costs of creative, catalog production, and color separations, every cataloger can better control these costs. As we saw when looking at breakeven analysis a number of issues ago (see “Getting to Breakeven,” November 2001, and “Further Breaking Down Breakeven,” December 2001), controlling your fixed and variable creative costs can directly influence your breakeven and profit.

In my next column, we will look at catalog creative variable costs and how dramatically they affect the bottom line.


Jack Schmid is president of J. Schmid & Associates, a Shawnee Mission, KS-based catalog consulting firm.

The $5, $50, $500, and $5,000 Rule

There’s a rule of thumb that is relevant when looking at a catalog’s production cost — and it’s one that is especially important for new and growing catalogers to heed: The earlier you make changes in the creative production process, the less it costs.

While the costs below are not exact, they are probably pretty close estimates:

  • It costs $5 to make a change in layout or copy at the rough stage.
  • It costs $50 to make a change at the finished layout stage.
  • It costs $500 to make a change at the color separation stage.
  • It costs $5,000 to make a change at the printing stage.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, then, to figure out that the best time to make any change in price, item number, copy design or photography is early in the creative process.
JS

Did you miss previous “Catalog Analysis” columns? Don’t worry! You can find them — along with the most up-to-date industry news — online at the Catalog Age Website: www.CatalogAgemag.com

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