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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Large Format Printing: White Ink Makes Movie Standees “Pop”

I’ve noticed a new trend in the standees I’ve been installing recently: the use of white ink as a background on clear plastic sheets. And, for that matter, I’m also seeing more use of the acetate sheets themselves as a design element in the standees.

Without speaking to any commercial printing vendors, my initial reaction upon seeing these standees in the movie theaters is that the printers either screen printed a white base onto the clear acetate sheet or inkjetted the white ink as a background.

A Description of the Standees

Two standees and a static cling immediately come to mind regarding the use of a white inkjet background.

The first was a promotion for The Lone Ranger. Two clear front panels facing away from each other at a 45 degree angle presented the two main characters: the Lone Ranger and Tonto. When I looked at the images up close, I could see a background of white covered by a process color image of each of the two characters.

The next standee was a huge lightbox for Ender’s Game. This standee included a series of three transparent graphic images along with two separate light sources and a rotating transparent plexiglass disk. Images had been printed on the revolving disk (run by an electric motor), but when I looked at the back of the revolving disk (visible only to the installer), I could see flat opaque white ink behind all images on the plexiglass disk.

The final standee (not a standee at all but a static cling device for the movie Ice Age) was made with flexible plastic sheeting covered (in the image areas) with opaque white ink and, on top of that, the promotional artwork rendered in 4-color process inks.

Why Would The Custom Printing Vendors Use White Ink As a “Ground”?

Opaque white ink has four qualities that are ideal for such an application:

  1. It has good light stopping power. That is, when you print a white background and then print an image on top of the white surface, any light or images behind the front-most image become less visible or invisible.
  2. It makes colors printed on it “pop.” The white brightens the image printed on the background, enlivening the front-most image. In addition, if the white shows through the front-most image in any portions (intentionally), it will appear to brighten the image due to the high intensity of the white ink. (As a side note, the extreme whiteness is due to titanium dioxide, one of the components of the white inkjet ink.)
  3. It evens out the background. If the background (or lack of a background) will create an uneven surface (in terms of color) on which to print the image, this can be corrected completely with a white background.
  4. It’s non-absorbent. Process inks that might otherwise seep into the substrate are kept on top of the white and are therefore not dulled down by absorption. In the case of the standee (large format printing on acetate), this would not be as relevant, since the substrate is already non-porous, but in other cases it would be very useful.

Comparing a White Inkjet Background to an Acrylic Painting on a Gesso Ground

Back when I was studying fine arts in the 70s and 80s, we used to prime all our canvasses with white acrylic gesso. Acrylic gesso (unlike traditional gesso) includes white acrylic paint and calcium carbonate along with other chemicals. It provides an even, textured base on which to paint in acrylics.

In short, we used gesso in fine arts work for the same reasons that a marketing director might specify custom printing a white inkjet ground onto a clear acetate base before inkjetting the promotional image.

How Did I Know The Standee Images Had Been Inkjet Printed?

I didn’t, actually. Since there was no printer to ask when I was installing these standees with my fiancee, I had to use some deductive reasoning to determine the process used for custom printing the standees.

The two options that came to mind were custom screen printing and inkjet printing. Both would have worked beautifully on the transparent acetate material. Considering the length of the press run (numerous theaters in my city alone, multiplied by a huge number of cities in the US), I assumed the job had been a custom screen printing project. After all, for long runs, custom screen printing is usually cheaper.

That said, all of the screen printed 4-color images I’ve seen at large format print shops have had a dot pattern (rosettes, similar to those of offset printing, just slightly larger in most cases). When I looked at the Lone Ranger standee and the Ender’s Game standee, however, I saw the dithered patterns of (what I assumed was) inkjet printing. (If you look closely at an inkjet print you will see minuscule specs of ink in a random scatter pattern rather than a pronounced and regular grid of halftone dots.)

So that was my assessment: that the standees had been produced on large format inkjet printing equipment using a white ground and then 4-color (or a larger inkset) inkjet printing for the promotional images.

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