The Other Tech

Originally published in Videography February 2002

The biggest differences between film and video or movies and television may have nothing to do with technology — and everything to do with technique.

Two questions: If a manufacturer managed to reduce all of the electronics in a mobile teleproduction facility down to a single chip, how big would its enclosure be? And how was 100 Centre Street shot? The answers may reveal much about digital cinematography.

There’s certainly a large quantity of electronics in a typical TV truck, and it takes up quite a bit of space. Given the rapid advances in chip technology, it is possible to envision a day when all of that signal processing could fit on a single, highly complex, ultra-large-scale integrated circuit.

As with any other chip, it would require a power supply and signal connections, but it would also require more. How much more?

The size of a notebook computer is determined more by the screen and the keyboard than by the processing electronics. What are the equivalents of the screen and the keyboard in a TV truck?

Well, screen is still an applicable word. In the control-room section of the truck, the director needs to see images from each camera, graphics device, and playback system simultaneously, as well as larger representations of the show being aired or recorded (“program”), perhaps the next shot up (“preset”), and perhaps potential effects (“preview”). The associate director needs to see those as well as clocks and perhaps what is appearing on the teleprompter. The technical director usually wants to see all of the above, the various outputs of the production switcher and effects devices, images from each recording being made, and, perhaps, some signal-monitoring screens. That means that there needs to be a fairly large wall of images, no matter what technology is being used to display them.

How does the technical director switch the show? With something akin to a keyboard. More than a quarter-century ago, Dynasciences introduced a video switcher the control panel of which was only 7 x 10 inches. One selected a camera with a keypad, selected a type of transition from the current camera, and then initiated the action. It doesn’t appear to have ever been used in a single television show. The sequence of punching camera, 3, cut, enter just doesn’t seem appropriate to the time-constrained atmosphere of multicamera video production.

In modern control rooms, whether they’re in trucks or buildings, the technical director sits in front of a giant control panel. Lift up the panel and there’s usually very little underneath.

Technology has evolved. But humans haven’t — at least not as fast. It’s still necessary to have a large control panel to properly switch a complex multicamera event. That large control panel may be considered similar to a notebook computer’s keyboard.

Then there’s the equivalent of the computer’s disk drive. Video and audio can be digitized, and both tape- and disk-based data recording media have already been reduced to near postage-stamp size. But that reduction hasn’t affected video and audio recording in a mobile teleproduction facility. A DVCPRO cassette is a tiny fraction of the size of a Betacam SX cassette, but the full-capability recorders for either format are of approximately the same size.

It’s likely that a video recorder using a postage-stamp-sized medium would be no smaller. It would still need room for the time code display, the audio-level metering, the large jog and shuttle knob, the level controls, the headphone jack, the easily accessible record, play, and stop buttons, the many signal connections, etc. When the associate director says “Roll tape!” there isn’t time to find a tiny, stylus-activated button and to use a separate computer to read time-code numbers.

Then there are those tiny recording media. Where does one put the human-readable label? If there are ten isolated recordings of each take, and the director suddenly wants to see last Thursday’s shot of the sixth take on camera three, how does one rapidly find the right postage stamp? A desk surface is necessary for sorting media, and the recordist also requires extensive video and audio monitoring.

Like the technical director, the audio mixer needs a control surface that may be easily and rapidly glanced at and adjusted during a live mix. Many computer-assisted audio mixing consoles provide “moving faders,” controls that move up and down as if being pushed by human hands, just to help the audio mixer rapidly grasp the state of the console.

Aside from a large control surface (and still more audio and video monitoring), audio mixers require an appropriate acoustic environment, and that can mean a significant amount of space. Video operators (those who adjust the look and color of the camera imagery) also need control surfaces and monitoring, and they, too, need a special environment — a dark one, requiring separation from brighter-lit areas.

On many shows a lighting director will operate inside the truck, perhaps with computer monitors displaying dimmer status and cues. Some shows require script supervisors, score readers, slo-mo directors, production assistants, and the like. All of those people need work surfaces, chairs, lighting, intercoms, and air conditioning. The director needs some distance from the monitor wall. There also needs to be somewhere to store cameras, lenses, and cables.

As a result, as advances in electronics make equipment smaller and smaller, television trucks have actually been getting bigger and bigger — to accommodate all of the human work required in a major television production. It’s not the technology that determines the size of the facility; it’s the technique.

Of course, moviemaking usually has no equivalent to a television production truck. There are no video operators to control the look of the images on the fly. There is no technical director to “edit live.” And yet sometimes video techniques are applied to film.

Video taps carry viewfinder images to monitors and, when multiple cameras are used, perhaps even to a switcher that can be used to generate an instant rough cut. Multiple film cameras? Sure!

The huge size and weight of early television cameras (see sidebar “Point of View”) and the initial lack of any electronic means of recording and editing their signals meant that television was largely live, and live television required multiple cameras. The director needed to be able to cut away while the camera operator swung another lens into position for the next shot.

One of the earliest attempts at television storytelling on a regular basis was Irwin Shane’s Television Workshop, aired live on DuMont television starting in 1943. NBC Television Theater followed in 1945, the same year that DuMont added another dramatic series, Author, Author. NBC added Kraft Television Theater, Theater Guild Television Theater, and A.N.T.A. Playhouse in 1947, but it was the DuMont storytelling additions that year that began to change the look of television. Look upon a Star may be considered the first soap opera and Mary Kay and Johnny the first situation comedy.

I Love Lucy, perhaps the most successful situation comedy in television history, was shot on film, but it was shot with television technique, not film technique. There were multiple film cameras shooting simultaneously, and the shooting took place in front of a studio audience.
Why the studio audience (or, in some shows, a laugh track)? People laugh more easily with others. In a movie theater, there’s an audience to laugh together. Prerecorded laughter is intended to bring the theatrical audience camaraderie to a lone TV viewer.

Of course, not all television shows come with laugh tracks. Dramas don’t. Early television dramas used studio conditions as best they could. In a police drama, the action took place indoors, with lots of dialogue.

When Dragnet moved outdoors to sunny southern California from the inside of a radio studio, it changed from being dialogue heavy to enjoying the cars and locations available to moviemakers. I Love Lucy firmed up the template of situation comedy for decades; Dragnet led the way for dramatic series, no longer short plays –more like short movies.

All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show premiered at almost the same time in the 1970-71 season. All in the Family was shot in video; The Mary Tyler Moore Show was shot on film. They didn’t look the same, but there was no question that both were situation comedies, shot the multicamera studio way.

The action dramas of the period were all shot on film. It was almost inconceivable to do otherwise. A film camera could be mounted on a speeding car. A video camera was not only larger, but it needed an umbilical connection to a videotape recorder.

The move from large to smaller camera imaging tubes made possible the idea of a portable color video camera. RCA’s TK-44P could be worn by a powerful camera operator like a very thick suit of armor; the later TKP-45 could be shoulder mounted. It no longer needed a sideshow strongman as an operator, but carrying it was still not a job for the weak. Of course, those cameras still needed umbilical connections, and there were even fewer models of portable broadcast-quality video recorders (two) than there were of cameras.

Cameras continued to shrink in size through the 1970s, and the portable 3/4-inch videocassette recorder was considered to be of adequate quality at least for news. Separate cameras and recorders spearheaded the electronic newsgathering (ENG) revolution, slowly pushing film out of news operations.

The pushing got harder beginning in 1981 with the introduction of the camcorder, not merely a relatively small and lightweight one-piece image-capturing system functionally comparable to a film camera but also one offering considerably higher quality imagery than previous portable video recorders. In fact, the quality was arguably better than that of studio recorders.

Camcorders offered the first practical component-color video recordings.

ENG paved the way for EFP, electronic field production. High-quality video was no longer confined to a studio or a large mobile teleproduction facility. Videographers could now operate solo, just like some cinematographers. The era of electronic cinematography was proclaimed — too soon.

No one would confuse I Love Lucy with a feature film comedy. Although both were shot on film, the techniques used were completely different. I Love Lucy was shot with multiple cameras; a movie comedy would typically be shot with one. I Love Lucy was shot with a limited amount of time and money; a movie would typically have more of each.

It was that last issue that really hurt the progress of electronic cinematography. Network executives reasoned that electronic cinematography would have to cost less than its film counterpart. Electronic viewfinders would show the director each take, so there’d be no need to re-shoot as much. Being erasable, videotape could be used over and over again and, therefore, cost less than film and its processing.

When the first electronic cinematography tests were run, the idea that video must cost less than film was paramount. The tests, therefore, failed. They would probably also have failed if a film crew was given the same constraints of time and money.

There was no question that video still looked different from film, but that difference wasn’t what made a production successful or not. After all, there were successful situation comedies shot in both media.

The 1994 movie Hoop Dreams was shot with poor-quality video technology but it was still highly acclaimed for its content. Last year’s theatrical feature Dancer in the Dark was shot with video technology that produced images so bad looking that its cinematographer chose to use a vulgar term to describe them in an interview, but that didn’t stop the movie from being praised.

That movie was shot in the DV format, one of video’s least expensive. But it also had fine acting and a compelling story. On television, meanwhile, The Sopranos has compelling stories and fine acting, with enough vulgarities in the dialogue that there’s no need to use them to describe the imagery, which is, in any case, of high quality. It’s shot on film.

To be more specific, it’s shot on ordinary, 24-frame-per-second (24-fps) film. The Showscan film system, used in some motion-simulation rides, operates at 60 fps, the same number of images per second as in ordinary U.S. television. It provides a thrilling sensation of reality, but its creator, director Douglas Trumbull, found it unsuitable for storytelling. It is, perhaps, too real. Its imagery has been described as “video-looking.”

Today, it is possible to shoot video at 24 fps. Solid-state imaging chips capture the whole frame at once, just as a film camera would.

It may well be the case that the development of 24-fps video camcorders had less to do with achieving a film-like look than with satisfying the complex distribution requirements of the digital television era. Some networks sought progressively scanned video (wherein the entire image is captured at once); others sought 1080 picture-carrying scanning lines, previously achievable only in interlaced video systems that split each frame into sequential fields of odd- and even-numbered scanning lines. Camcorders operating at 24 fps offer both.

Whatever the reason for the development of those camcorders, the look of their imagery is closer to that of film-shot imagery than ever before in television history. The next episode of the Star Wars saga is being shot in 24-fps video. So, if video is now good enough for a theatrical feature film, what about “mere” television drama?

100 Centre Street is that drama. There’s no question that the A&E series looks good. There have been comments that certain shots still have a sense of “videoness” to them, but it has also been pointed out that such a look may be intentional. The television critic Caryn James wrote in the January 15 issue of The New York Times that, “It takes about 15 minutes for the episode to pick up steam, which is about how long it takes to get used to the slightly unsettling difference in its look. High-definition cameras create a sharper texture resembling that of news coverage, which makes the action feel more alive.”

Why does 100 Centre Street look the way it does? The best answer is probably that director Sidney Lumet wanted it to look that way. It certainly doesn’t look cheap. It doesn’t look as if corners were cut to force the electronic cinematography to cost less than film.

Neither does Dancer in the Dark, shot not with what some might consider the highest-quality video format, progressively scanned high-definition television, but with one of the least expensive, standard-definition DV. Some parts of the movie do look bad, but they were intended to look that way. As for cost savings from using the inexpensive format, they probably evaporated when the director chose to shoot some sequences with 100 video cameras, each of which was outfitted with an anamorphic lens designed and constructed just for that one movie.

What makes one production good and another bad? There are many factors. There are, of course, the director, the story, the acting, the sets, the costumes, the sound mix, the lighting, and the camera work. All of those involve technique more than technology.

Citizen Kane, released sixty years ago, is considered to have some of the best cinematography of any movie. MASH, released in 1970, is often noted for its extraordinary sound mix. Neither movie made use of any advanced high-definition technology or computer effects. And Hoop Dreams, the highly acclaimed 1994 theatrical documentary, was shot with video equipment much lower in quality than even the least expensive DV camcorder.
The most advanced technology used with poor technique will likely yield a poor result. On the other hand, as the examples noted above should indicate, good technique applied to even poor technology can yield terrific results.

Of course, the very best results may come from a joining of good technique with good technology. In fact, the combination seemingly involves the relationship of all living things and their environment. After all, “tech” away the first five letters, “n” you are left with “ique-ology.”


Point of View

The recent movie Shadow of the Vampire is about the making of the 1922 classic Nosferatu. What’s immediately noticeable is how small the motion-picture cameras were — even before the first recognizable video image of a human face.

That first video image involved a television apparatus that occupied the better part of two rooms. By the 1936 Olympic Games, video cameras had shrunk to something smaller, but the size and weight of a walrus comes to mind. The main function of its mount seemed to have been to keep the camera from sinking into the ground; shots during which the camera moved around were out of the question.

When the zoom lens arrived, it was largely ignored in the movie industry, but it was rapidly adopted by television. After all, a film camera was light and small enough to move anywhere; video behemoths needed the availability of variable magnification from a single location. And that accounts for one big difference between traditional film and video shooting techniques.

Lift your right hand and hold it edge-on in front of your left eye. Close your left eye and study your hand. That’s all a fixed camera would ever see of it. It could zoom in on any portion of the hand and pan and tilt around, but it would never see the other side. That’s traditional video technique.

Now move your head slightly to the left. You should now be able to see the other side of your hand. Even with a fixed lens, the camera can explore by moving. That’s traditional film technique.

You’ll find more in the “Tables and Rules” of The Book of Common Prayer. Look under “movable feats.”


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