Saturday, February 02, 2013

The best way to watch MASH

When we did MASH back in the Dark Ages (the 1970’s), it was a pre-digital world. The show was shot in 35 mm film. All of the editing was done by physically splicing film. Today everything is edited on computers. Point and click.  You watch the process on monitors. But back in the ‘70s (when dinosaurs still roamed the earth) the only way we could see a rough cut of an episode was to go a screening room and watch it on the big screen. We couldn’t hit pause or rewind. The projectionist ran the show and we gave editing notes on the fly. If there was something specific we wanted to see we would schlep up to the editing building and watch the scene on a Movieola, which was like a viewmaster attached to a projector. The screen was maybe eight inches. So it’s like our viewing choices were either Imax or iPhone.

Once the show was edited the post production process began. The film was color corrected, the sound fixed, credits added, and of course the damn laugh track was added.

When it was all completed, one of us on the staff had to drive to the lab in Hollywood and screen the finished product one last time just to make sure everything was perfect. I was not the most conscientious watchdog. “My name is spelled correctly?  It's fine.  Send it off.”

But seriously, I was struck by how dazzling the print was. The colors were amazingly vivid.

Then I’d watch the show on CBS the following Monday night and it never looked as good.

Once we approved the final product the show was shipped to CBS. They transferred it to videotape and that’s what they aired. First off you lost a generation due to the transfer. And then for whatever reason CBS’s color was off just a bit. The hue was a degree or two red. Red and green don’t mix and on the air the show always looked just a touch drab. This was true of most CBS shows back then. ABC was super-bright, and NBC had to best, richest color – at least to my eye.

Once in syndication the picture quality of MASH varied wildly. Depending on the quality of the print, what generation it was, the station that was airing it, and the passage of time it could look passable or your grandpa's home movies.

Why do I bring this up? Because the DVD’s of MASH look better than they ever did when they first aired. They look the way I expected after screening the final cuts. I haven’t watched any of the series on Netflix (if it’s even on Netflix) so don’t know how it compares to the DVD’s. But if you want to revisit MASH, the DVD’s are the way to go. And you can turn off the goddamn laugh track.

It always used to drive me crazy watching MASH on the air. I’d fiddle with the color and could never get it right. No one else in America had the advantage of seeing the pristine 35 mm version first so no one knew the difference. And again, it’s not a big thing – but it made me nuts.

Now, finally, after almost forty years, I can watch and really enjoy MASH episodes… except that I can’t

Now I’m constantly thinking “we could do a better joke here”, “there’s got to be a more clever ending to that scene”, “that explanation was a little clumsy,” etc. I’m hoping that somehow in the next forty years technology will fix that too.

36 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nice little post about one of my favorite sitcoms; one that is played endlessly on TV Land, the local MeTV affiliate, and sometimes as filler on Fox-owned WNYW New York. One thing I've noticed - look around the edges of the frame. You see things - the odd boom mike, a stage direction mark, the edges of a lens, especially a zoom lens - that would have been taken care of via "overscan" when seen in 1974 on any CBS station on the family's 25" RCA Color TV. Now that I view on a 42" HD plasma monitor, I see it all.

Michael Rafferty said...

Thanks, Ken, for confirming what I always suspected. The shows on CBS, to my eye, looked different than the shows on ABC and NBC. In the 70's at least, the CBS color was deeper, but less bright, ABC was like colorforms, and NBC was a bit drab.

Jim Grey said...

I've been watching MASH reruns on MeTV most weeknights lately and have noticed that whatever copy it is they're airing looks better than I remember on CBS in the day, and waaaay better than I remember in endless syndication.

Neil D said...

The other bonus of watching it on DVD vs. syndication (I don't know about Netflix, etc.) is that you get to see the whole uncut episode. It was a real treat seeing entire scenes I'd never seen before (or if so, too long ago to remember) in episodes I had otherwise committed to memory. In some cases it even made sense out of dialog that was previously rather puzzling.

And yes, watching it without a laugh track really does take the show to a whole other level.

Weird question: was there some sort of internal decision to give BJ a moustache to make his character a little less fresh-faced and clean-cut, or was that purely Mike Farrel's choice? It always seemed to me that the character got slightly more serious after his first, clean-shaven, season, but I don't know if that's just me.

Anthony Strand said...

It's not on Netflix Instant. I wish it was.

elf said...

Shouldn't MASH have looked dull and drab anyway? The words "bright",
"colorful" and "vibrant" don't exactly spring to mind when visualizing a mobile surgical hospital in the early 1950's. Then again, I'm colorblind so that kind of nuance is usually lost on me anyway.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I ALWAYS watch M*A*S*H on DVD, as opposed to reruns on television, basically like other people have said, the quality is so much better, and the episodes are uncut, as opposed to be butchered up in syndication. Somebody mentioned MeTV, I don't mind their prints so much, they're certainly not butchered as bad as most networks, but one thing that annoys me about MeTV is that they tend to come back from commercial in the middle of the first scene of act two.

And pardon me for saying so, but I wish shows and movies were still shot on 35mm film, the overall quality is so superior compared to today's digital media. Seriously, with digital, you've got some blurs and some fuzzies, and if there's a lot of action, you get some pixelation... not with 35mm film, with film, you get a crisp, sharp, flawless picture (depending on well preservered it is).

Paul Duca said...

Don't you have 8 1/2 seasons where you needn't be concerned about what other people did, Ken?

Mac said...

It's nice to read an article where someone talks about how digital technology has improved things in the TV industry. Usually people bang on about the romance of film (and film editing) as if it was some golden age. You could make unwatchable crap on film as effectively as you can on digital.
I saw a great interview with Roger Deakins (although I can't find the link - I think it was American Cinematographer) where he dispenses with the myth of film's superiority and explains why digital is much better. And if it's good enough for Roger Deakins...

Eric J said...

I often thought the slightly washed out effect was intentional, and fitting. As a viewer, it was never a negative.

Thomas said...

You mention the laugh track - what are your thoughts on those? Maybe you've said this before, but I don't recall.

Cap'n Bob said...

Drab? Olive drab uniforms, tents, and vehicles, of course it was drab.

Johnny Walker said...

Here's a piece of M*A*S*H trivia that I usually trot out whenever someone mentions the show:

Here in the UK it was originally shown without a laugh track! I grew up watching M*A*S*H (whenever I could persuade my parents to let me stay up late enough to watch it) and apparently we were all watching a different show to the US.

Years later, when the UK finally embraced cable TV (actually satellite), lots of shows began being re-run, and M*A*S*H was one of them. I was so excited to be able to watch a show that I loved as a kid again... but I was horrified to discover some idiot had added a laugh-track.

I always saw a lot of Hawkeye's remarks as throw-away comments aimed at lightening the heavy tone of their surroundings, but with a laugh-track, it made every little quip seem like a huge event. It broke my heart watching it that way. And I wasn't alone.

It caused a bit of an outrage among M*A*S*H fans here in the UK, but trips to the internet revealed that we were the exception -- it had always been seen with a laugh-track in the US. And what's worse, Fox were apparently only supplying the "remastered" laugh-track versions to broadcasters... so there was nothing that could be done.

It was fantastic when the DVD added the ability to watch both versions! Kudos to whoever was responsible for that decision. I only wish it was the default option :)

Yah Shure said...

Not long after my family got its first color TV in 1965, I read somewhere that the higher the channel number (or broadcast frequency) the better the color fidelity on the receiving end. Therefore, the upper VHF channels (7 through 13) had better color fidelity than 2 through 6 in the lower VHF band, with UHF besting them both.

Larger and less-spotty coverage areas were possible in the lower VHF band, so when it came to picking affiliates, the networks sought out those on the more desirable channels 2-6. Here in Minneapolis, CBS (4) and NBC (5) were low-banders and looked it, color-wise. ABC (9) was always more vibrant. When KSTP/5 dumped NBC for ABC in 1979, the peacock network instantly lost its patina when it landed at its new home on channel 11. ABC on 5 looked a little dowdier than before.

Since KCBS occupied analog channel 2, this might explain why the M*A*S*H colors in L.A. looked a little less than spectacular.

Roger M said...

One would think with 35mm masters this would be ripe for a bluray transfer.

As long as they kept the orginal aspect ratio and didn't make it pan and scan like Seifeld, that would be the best way to watch MASH

John said...

Whether it was better prints or better equipment, the thing I remember when MASH went into syndication is that the reruns looked far better when I watched them on a channel in a bigger city, like WNEW (now WNYW) in New York, than when I was seeing them off a station in a smaller market, where the prints really did look dark and/or faded. And certain studios seemed to do a far better job getting decent prints out to stations than others -- syndicated shows from Paramount or Fox showed limited deterioration in re-runs; on the other hand, MTM's syndicated film prints looked abominable on both image and sound, even though in the case of "Mary Tyler Moore", those re-runs in New York were on WNBC just before the 5 o'clock news. If the prints look like crap being broadcast on the equipment out of 30 Rock, they're crap prints.

Once you got to the mid-80s, and everything was going out on videotape, even the small market stations had better images. My problem then were the shows were pre-edited for syndication to add in extra commercial time, and sometimes whoever did the editing for the studios did a worse job than Floyd out in Market #150 did when he used to cut the film negative with a single edge blade (case in point -- the station I was watching MASH on in Texas back in the early 80s edited the final show of the third season so that the part taken out was the final tacked-on "Goodbye to Henry Blake" closing tag. They cut it so the rest of the show was intact, the commercial break was between the helicopter taking off and the final OR scene, and the show went to credits on the fade out from Hawkeye and Trapper. When Fox pre-edited the show, they hacked from the middle of the episode, and kept the final ad break and the Henry Blake highlight reel. If you have to take out part of the show to add commercials, the first way was far more effective).

DW said...

I second John's comment on the MTM prints that WNBC-TV New York used in the early '80s. MARY TYLER MOORE and THE BOB NEWHART SHOW looked dark and washed out. Might've been a film-to-tape transfer. Also in New York, ODD COUPLE [Paramount] reruns on WPIX-TV also looked terrible. At least the MTM shows, as put on DVD by their current owner 20th Century Fox look much better than what I once saw on TV.

Ed said...

Ken-

Have you ever watched a re-run of a show you wrote or contributed to and thought there was no way it could have been better? Like it was the perfect show or as perfect as it was going to get?

The Mutt said...

The laugh track on MASH always drove me nuts, even on original broadcast. There was that one "koo koo kookla koo" laugh that you heard over and over and over. It didn't even sound human!

Joey H said...

I agree that NBC always had super saturation. Even the local affiliate where I live has more vibrant colors on their local news.

A_Homer said...

Ken, a semi-related sort of Friday question: I was reading this post:

(http://splitsider.com/2013/02/watching-an-alternate-universe-cheers-that-shelley-long-never-left/#more-24072)

about the alternate ending to Sam and Diane's wedding on Cheers. Were you around for this, or simply can you add any insights behind asking writers for two or three different scripts for one episode, and filming it all (meaning triplicate really)? Was it the equivalent of stunt casting, albeit more work?
thanks

luciuspaisley said...

Neil D - Question regarding the moustache and a bunch of other things have been answered here by the man himself.

http://www.mikefarrell.org/interviews/MASH.html

Karen Hall said...

Your ending struck home to me. I can't tell you how many times I've watched something that I wrote and thought, "NOW I know how I should have written that scene!"

Greg Ehrbar said...

When I was working my way through college at department stores. No matter which store I worked in, the TV departments insistently left every TV on the local ABC affiliate -- even when I would sneak over to switch the channels because something better was on. They would switch it back. Now I know why.

When I worked at in film and commercial production, the film was transferred to tape at a fine facility and everything looked wonderful, but when I saw what I worked on broadcast on the air, it often looked and sounded faded and muddy. The director and producers didn't believe me.

Thanks for clearing up the mystery.

At home, we had a big Sears color console TV that would cut the ends of the picture, so we'd watch "The Ob Newhar Show." A friend of mine with the the same kind of TV used to watch "Get Smart" co-starring "Arbara Feldo."

Mike said...

I'm waiting for the 3D version on BluRay.

Matt Neffer, Boy Spotwelder said...

Funny thing about the laugh track... When the first season of MASH was first released on DVD, I bought it and tried watching a few episodes without it. I found it... odd. I'm not defending laugh tracks. All the single camera shows nowadays are better off without one. But it seemed to me that MASH, at least in those early days, was actually edited around the laugh track. In other words, Hawkeye would deliver his one-liner, and the camera would kind of linger on him, or cut to a reaction shot, and there would be a weird, silent little beat where they had left space for the laugh. The whole effect was kind of jarring and distracting, and it seemed to throw the pacing off. So I turned the laugh track back on. Again, I don't think this is an issue with shows that never had one, but I noticed this with MASH.

Roger Owen Green said...

I never bought the MASH DVD when it was on sale from Amazon - and I DO want it - because more than a few of the commenters complained about the quality of the packaging of the product. Anyone here have the same problem?

Helena said...

When I started watching MASH the other year on Swedish television, I was a little disappointed after buying a British DVD edition, cos I felt the quality of the DVDs wasn't as good as that which was being broadcast on TV. But maybe I was imagining things.

Curt Alliaume said...

@Roger Owen Green: The only solution to the DVD problem is, when you receive the Martinis and Medicine edition, have 36 empty jewel boxes, soft CD/DVD sleeves, or a 48-disk carrying case at the ready. Take all the disks carefully out of the cardboard sleeves, and never put them back in again.

I did that, played a few disks, and no issues. But I'm surprised somebody at Fox hasn't redesigned the package (unless they've only done one manufacturing run and haven't gone back since then).

XJill said...

Ken, love that you posted this on Saturday, which is also the morning I was out hiking to the MASH site in Malibu Creek State Park - cool! Do you have any memories of filming out there??

Matt said...

And not only do the episodes look great, but this is the most PERFECT DVD PRESENTATION of all. You get a 20th Century Fox logo, a few "do not copy" FBI warnings and then you're presented with the episode list. Just like that. It takes just a few seconds. And NO CONTINUOUSLY LOOPING THEME SONG while looking at the episode menu. Thank whomever made the decision!

If MASH were done like a normal TV show on DVD, here's what we'd get:

20th Century Fox Logo

FBI Warning
Interpol Warning
French Warning
Dutch Warning

*The theme song starts.
*Animated helicopter landing animation.
*Sal Viscuso voice over:

"...Attention, All personnel. Report immediately to your TVs for another exciting episode from the 4077th..."

Zoom in on "The Swamp" door...follow through the door as we hear Hawkeye's high pitched laugh...continuing into "The Swamp" and up to a TV where FINALLY the episode list for the DVD comes up.

Thank you, whoever you are, that made the menu on the MASH DVDs as simple as possible!

Matt said...

About the packaging on the MASH Martinis and Medicine collection...

It took me about two seconds to figure out I wasn't going to store the collection in the default packaging. So here's what I did:

I bought a one of those narrow, 50 CD/DVD zip-up binders and transfered the whole set. The booklet fits perfectly in the binder and I keep it right by my TV. Works perfectly. I have the original packaging somewhere in a closet.

Anonymous said...

"I’m hoping that somehow in the next forty years technology will fix that too. "

I hope nobody does: it would take the charme of the 'old days' and turn the most fabolous serie in the world ever (just my opinion ;-) ) into something that wouldn't probably managed more than 4 broadcasts in today's TV-Land.

Paul Duca said...

I used to worry about what could have done better on M*A*S*H...but it was keeping me up nights, giving me worry lines--so I cut it out.

Northwest David said...

I've got one technical gripe with the DVDs (two, if you count why "Our Finest Hour" wasn't re-created to the original full-hour version by just editing in the clips from previous episodes that were removed from the syndicated version of the episode that's on the DVD set; or 3, if you count the error of the DVDs using the opening with Gary Burghoff's credit in the first few episodes after he'd left the show): On the opening and closing shots of each episode that contain credit lettering, why are those shots so DARK??? I mean -- they're really, really dark ... and this is especially noticable on the first cut right after the final credits shots at the opening of an episode, or on the rarer occasions when the tag has a shot that immediately precedes another shot containing the freeze-frame with the final credit text. Why didn't Fox clean up those opening and closing shots within each episode?

--Northest David

Anonymous said...

I bought the seasons of M.A.S.H as they came out on DVD back in 2002-2003 or so. I watch several episodes each night before falling asleep. I think some of the discs need to be replaced soon and I was beginning to look at the newer versions. I was wondering if anyone could tell me about the quality of each newer version, what they might contain that the older versions did not and if anyone knows if digital downloads will be available anytime soon.
Thanks for your help,

Cassie