Saturday, April 09, 2016

Another thing about CHEERS you didn't know

CHEERS IS FILMED IN FRONT OF A LIVE STUDIO AUDIENCE

You hear that at the top of every show. But most people don’t know that after six or seven episodes that almost changed. That disclaimer almost became:

CHEERS IS TAPED IN FRONT OF A LIVE STUDIO AUDIENCE

As has been chronicled almost to death, CHEERS got off to a slow start (if you believe “dead last” is considered slow). And it was an expensive show to produce. All those lemons that Teddy cut each week alone! But one of the big ticket items was that the show was filmed rather than videotaped (like ALL IN THE FAMILY or the more highly regarded SILVER SPOONS). Tape is cheaper than film, it requires one operator per camera not three, is edited primarily during the show not after, easier to light, post production is less complicated, and the turnaround time is less.

Paramount and NBC were losing tons of money on CHEERS and it was on the brink of cancellation. So the studio felt if it could be produced cheaper NBC might have more incentive to pick CHEERS up for a back nine.

They went to Glen & Les Charles and Jimmy Burrows and asked if they’d consider flipping from film to tape. They agreed to at least make a test scene.

A first rate tape crew was enlisted to light the set. Video cameras were wheeled in, and Jimmy directed a scene. It featured everyone from the cast, and there was a lot of movement so we could view every angle of the set. It went through post-production, was color-corrected, and made broadcast-ready.

The Charles Brothers, Jimmy, my partner and I, and our line producer Tim Berry sat down and watched the test.

GAAAAA!

It was horrifying. All the warmth and depth of the set was completely obliterated. The rich colors became day-glo. And this dark, rich bar setting suddenly looked like a police station.

It was like those photos of Britney Spears without make up.

To Charles-Burrows-Charles’ credit the experiment ended right there. I don’t know if a copy of that test still exists. My guess is Glen Charles backed over the tape with his car in much the same way Tony Soprano had Phil Leotardo whacked in the SOPRANOS finale.

Ironically, if they had agreed to switch to the tape format I think it would have caused the show’s cancellation, not prevented it.

Ah, the little decisions producers have to make every day.

This is a re-post from four years ago. 

29 comments:

BA said...

Video tape is really a harsh flourescent bulb. Gearge Carlin's sitcom from the 90s switched to tape for the second season and it looked like shit (or maybe that was Carlin's bile toward Sam Simon?).

J Lee said...

Outside of the Norman Lear shows that dealt with real-time political issues and were going for a 'live' look, and the not-as-topical, but going for seedy look of the 12th Precinct in "Barney Miller" nothing looked/played better on tape in the 70s and 80s than it did on film. The first, taped season of "Newhart" versus the remaining seasons on film is probably the best example of the difference (and it's interesting to speculate if "WKRP" would have fared better in the ratings if MTM and CBS had committed to film on it instead of videotape).

Jeff Alexander said...

Ken:
You are probably aware of this, but Twilight Zone in the early 1960s did go from film to videotape for several episodes. The results were, in fact, rather ghastly. Considering the format of the Zone, videotape (which at that time made the shows resemble a kinescoped soap opera) did almost work in favor of a few episodes. But the better episodes are the filmed ones, not the taped ones.
I can certainly see, however, how videotape would have hurt the Cheers format. Even in All In the Family and certainly Barney Miller, the overly lit sets somehow detracted from the reality that the producers were trying to put across (ironically, it certainly didn't hurt the other-worldly shenanigans of Three's Company!).
Thanks for the information!

Joseph Scarbrough said...

This is one of problems I have with SANFORD AND SON, particular in the later seasons, the video tape. Video tape was still so primitive back then, and it really shows whenever you watch a video tape show prior to the late 80s (when it did start to slowly improve): it's so bright that, as Ken says, it makes all of the scenes look like they take place in a police station, or a school classroom; a lot of the times, the actors or props look like they're being washed out in light; and in the case of S&S, any white people they had on the show looked "neon white," as Sweet Daddy Dee would put it.

In fact, here's some trivia for people: some of you may know that Oscar the Grouch was originally orange instead of green in 1969, but did you know he was actually meant to be purple? Jim Henson had designed Oscar to be purple, but those early video cameras couldn't register the color purple very well and made him look more like a washed-out magenta, so he became orange instead.

But as far as tape being an inexpensive alternative to film, this is one of the reasons Sid & Marty Krofft switched to tape after H.R. PUFNSTUF, to try to cut costs since they were always millions of dollars overbudget. H.R. PUFNSTUF looks great on film, but other Krofft shows on tape? Not so much. Especially THE BUGALOOS, that show hasn't aged well at all with its fuzzy picture, darkened contrast, and muted colors. This why I'm glad that altogether tape was rising in popularity in the 70s, that some shows like M*A*S*H and THE ODD COUPLE stuck to film.

Andrew said...

"...in much the same way Tony Soprano had Phil Leotardo whacked in the SOPRANOS finale."

Aw, man! Spoiler alert!

Geoff with a G said...

"Another thing about CHEERS you didn't know." Well, since I've been reading the blog for over four years, I did know!

Rashad Khan said...

If the writing and acting are good, then you can overlook the cheap lighting. But if they aren't good, then it's all you can do NOT to notice.

Johnny Walker said...

I wish I could go back and make my favourite British sitcoms shoot on film. Monty Python (the interior stuff) and BlackAdder would seem a lot more timeless if they did.

Paul Duca said...

J. Lee...WKRP had to be on tape, or the music royalties would have been prohibitive.

Andy Rose said...

Modern digital cameras can faithfully recreate the film look (at least well enough that you can't really tell the difference on a TV). But multi-cam shows that are designed to look like film (such as The Big Bang Theory) still tend to shoot in a film style, with full cinematic lenses, Chapman dollies, and two assistants on each camera. No particular reason for it I know of except tradition.

When the "Filmlook" process of electronically trying to make tape look like film was first developed in the early 90s, The John Larroquette Show tried using it to save money. It looked awful, and made me literally seasick.

Peter said...

I love watching reruns of shows like Columbo and Murder She Wrote, as they're from an era in which dramas were shot on film. You can see it in the filmic grain. Now, with everything shot in HD video, they all look antiseptic.

Kyle Burress said...

Something I've always wondered: Why did Nicholas Colasanto never do the intro? It seemed like everyone else did.

Daniel said...

I have trouble watching videotaped shows. They're just garish and they hurt my eyes. I think that's why they generally don't have the following that a lot of filmed shows do. The one series that I can make an exception for is "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and that's just because the quality of the writing and performances is so superior that I can overlook the aesthetic inferiority.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

I agree with some of the points that you guys are making regarding traditional film vs. today's digital and "HD." I've mentioned this before, but I actually do have an HD camera, but because I much prefer the look of film, I often adjust the look in post, such as adding a little hint of noise/grain, as well as adjust the color correction (brightness/contrast, and saturation) to give it a technicolor look . . . I just have to remember I need to render and export at 24fps instead of 29.97. And, as I mentioned when Ken recently did a post about widescreen, I frame and edit the footage in 4:3 instead of 16:9 - it still comes out in HD, because the height of the resolution is still 1080p, that width is just 1440 instead of 1920.

But just to see how well film still looks today, take a look at this film roll a guy shot and uploaded to YouTube - using a vintage Kodak camera and everything:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O7ixOoCbeWI
Even thought it's actually compressed footage (because his computer didn't have the power to fully convert the filmed footage at its full resolution), it still looks much better than digital or HD.

Klee said...

I remember the first season of Newhart being video-taped, the show improved so much once it changed format and, of course, cast additions too.

Gary Theroux said...

So Ken -- when are you going to write the definite backstage at CHEERS. FRAISER, WINGS, etc. book? You could even highlight the episodes you cast me in. Oh right. There weren't any. So THAT was the secret of your success!

cd1515 said...

I suppose I'll sound like management here, but what percentage of viewers would ever notice this or care?

Unknown said...

Ken, most of the sitcoms shot since about 2000 have all been shot digitally on HD, and I think they come very close to reproducing the same look of film in the 1980s and 1990s. I worked on about 50 sitcoms over the years for Technicolor, and I think the HD shows are actually a lot cleaner than the film shows. I totally agree that the standard-def TV series of the 1980s and 1990s are pretty ugly and hard to look at today. But it's a different world now.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

What I found jarring when I first saw British sitcoms of that period was that the outdoor scenes were filmed even though the indoor ones were videotaped. I'm not sure why that was, but the abrupt change in quality of the picture was jarring. One second you'd be watching Felicity Kendall and Richard Briers sit in their nice, flat-lit kitchen, and the next they'd be all grainy out building the pigsty. I really wondered at the time why they didn't just pick a technology and stick with it.

wg

Johnny Walker said...

Wendy, it was simply cost. Video was cheaper to shoot on... but it was impractical to video on location -- the equipment was much bigger and more complex, so exteriors were shot on film.

There's a great article about it I found while checking my facts, that goes into more detail, too: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/VideoInsideFilmOutside

Mike Clark said...

One of the rare sitcoms that achieved a "film look" on videotape was SOAP. The lighting was very soft, the background colors muted (to make the actors pop) and diffusion was used on the video cameras. One other note: All NTSC seems to look awful when viewed on modern HD sets.

gottacook said...

Regarding Monty Python, isn't it true (it's been decades since I've seen it) that And Now for Something Completely Different consists of selected segments from the first two series of Flying Circus reenacted and shot on film?

Andy Rose said...

British productions are also creatures of habit. My recollection is that the first season of Absolutely Fabulous did outside scenes on film, and that was in 1992.

These days, there are people who will tell you that film still looks better than digital, just like there are people who will tell you vinyl sounds better than a CD (and if you think that, fine... I'm not interested in a discussion). But 24 fps digital with proper color correction has become indistinguishable from film for 99.9% of people.

When he made Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan shot it on film because he always assumed that film was better, and he wanted a visually impressive show. When they started making the spinoff, Better Call Saul, the AMC people gently told Vince, "Hey, we know you like shooting on film, but you should know it costs an extra $150,000 per episode. You really think it's worth that?" So Gilligan arranged to have his DP Arthur Albert shoot four identical test shots in New Mexico. One film camera and 3 digital ones. They screened them in the biggest projection room they could get their hands on, and ultimately Vince and Arthur (who's been shooting on film for four decades) had to admit they couldn't tell with certainty which one was film. So Better Call Saul is shot with digital cameras, and Gilligan freed up an extra million bucks a season he can spend on things that will actually show up on screen.

Joseph Scarbrough said...

@Mike Clark How high is your resolution? My set is 720p LCD, and older shows filmed in NTSC (properly restored, that is) look absolutely wonderful: HOGAN'S HEROES and H.R. PUFNSTUF, in particular, are bright, vivid, and rich in color. The only time they look bad is when optical effects are used: on-screen titles, scene transitions, cropping and zooming, etc.

@Andy Rose The difference I can tell is digital has a slight blur to it, and some obvious motion pixelation that isn't present on film (unless it was compressed poorly). I think the example you mentioned is more evidence of networks wanting their own way and wanting to take away more creative control and freedom from the creators. You say film can't show things on screen like digital can, but, heh, film resolution is actually higher than digital HD - it's just often compressed for obvious reasons. Like the video I linked earlier? That film roll was compressed down to 720p because the guy who shot that footage didn't have enough computer power to actually transfer the footage at 2 or even 4K.

While we're all still on the subject, here's what Tarantino had to say on the comparison between film and digital:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BON9Ksn1PqI

Johnny Walker said...

There's a world of difference between 80s video and modern digital, though :)

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Andy Rose: I was listening to the latest BCS podcast last night, and Gilligan was saying he'd really like to see BREAKING BAD shown on huge cinema screens. The image quality is certainly good enough for it - and those stunning views of the southwest. Even if I didn't want to watch the show I'd probably watch it for the scenery.

wg

James Van Hise said...

Maybe it is a cultural thing, but from the sixties through the eighties, the British show Doctor Who was shot on tape and I always thought it looked so cheap it might just as well have been staged in a high school auditorium. But the Brits loved it. To make matters worse, while interiors were shot on tape, exteriors were shot on film, which made for jarring transitions. I don't know if it was an experiment or what but one 5 part episode was all shot on film which showed what it could have been. It didn't go all film until the modern revival of Doctor Who of just a few years ago (although the show had been defunct for more than a decade before the revival). Occasionally BBC America will have a special showing of a very old videotape episode and it is strange to see.

Andy Rose said...

@Wendy: The only downside of cinematic screening of Breaking Bad is that while it was they did a handful of POV shots with a small $800 DSLR camera. The quality difference sticks out even on television, and I would imagine it would look stranger on the big screen.

@Joseph: Just to be clear, Gilligan didn't lose any money from his budget by switching to digital. He simply decided it would be better for the series to take the money he would have been spending on film stock, developing, and telecine, and instead using that money for other things, like better visual effects and more speaking parts.

Time and money are finite, so you have to balance out competing interests. When The Greatest American Hero came out in 1981, the producers knew they would need a lot of blue-screen flying shots, but the traditional optical film method was labor-intensive. It also produced pretty bad results unless you had a lot of time to work out the kinks, and they didn't have that time on a television schedule. So they wound up taking their 16mm film footage, converting to video, doing the composite with an Ultimatte chroma-key system, then converting that effects shot back to 16mm for negative cutting. The result was that the picture was less sharp during those flying scenes, but it also saved money and eliminated matte lines, and Stephen J. Cannell thought that was a fair trade-off.

Carson Clark said...

One of the pluses of film shows is that you can go back and get an HD print off of them. You can't do that with the videotape of the 70s and 80s. So there are now HD prints of I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, Cheers, etc, but there will never be an HD print of All in the Family or The Golden Girls.