Monday, September 08, 2008

Another thing about CHEERS you didn't know


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:


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.


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.


Geoff said...

The set/art director likely could have created the proper look if they had designed the set from scratch with tape in mind. But there are few examples to really compare the impact of a switch.

"Newhart" started out on tape, then switched to film for its second season and onward. Aside from that, the only MTM show to be shot on tape was "WKRP" because the music licensing was cheaper that way for some reason.

As for "All in the Family", which began the tape trend, Norman Lear said he was trying to recreate the look of a live teleplay.

I have now exhausted my knowledge on the subject. I live to serve!

Anonymous said...

I know I find that first NEWHART season almost unwatchable and unlistenable, whereas, from 2 on, it's one of the great sit-coms ever.

Of course, losing the annoying next door neighbor, Kirk the pathological liar, and acquiring Stephanie and Michael, helped a lot too. But even Tom Poston couldn't help the mushy look of season 1.

Anonymous said...

Brandon Tartikoff once wrote that NBC kept "Hill Street Blues" because research showed that viewers with cable watched it. NBC claimed that it was keeping a low rated show it felt had potential.

For you young folks, cable was pretty new back then, so they figured with about 30-40 channels, it was worth keeping if they chose it over "Mayberry RFD" reruns.

Ken, could you speak to NBC also saying that about "Cheers"? I mean great show, but there are great shows all the time that don't get the network attention or saving that NBC gave some shows back then. What's the story with that?

Anonymous said...

I think the list of great shows that almost never made it, shows what William Goldman said about Hollywood is equally true of TV networks: nobody knows anything.

Which is of course true. Although some people know less nothing that others.

Rays profile said...

That's almost a blog in itself - great TV shows that never got a proper chance or never found an audience, or had great ideas but were overtinkered with...

rob! said...

Cheers had one of the best sets ever on TV. glad to hear the Charles' Bros. stuck to their guns and kept the show looking classy.

Tom Quigley said...

I can't imagine CHEERS on tape. It probably would have become another NIGHT COURT, with the whole premise being all these weird characters popping in and out of the place for no other reason than to deal with their inadequacies, bury their troubles and find companionship -- wait... Wasn't that what the show was all about anyway?....

I think I mentioned once in a post the one chance I had to actually be standing on the CHEERS set... For me it was nearly a religious experience... The dark mixture of brick and wood and the color scheme just enhanced the whole atmosphere and feeling of the show, and it made even more of an impact seeing it for real.

Michael Taylor said...

Fascinating post, particularly since just about every sitcom is now shot on digital tape.

One correction: a tape show is not usually easier or quicker to light than a film show. The nature of tape poses a slightly different set of problems for the lighting crew, that’s all. We might need fewer big lamps to properly light a set, but we'll use lots of small ones -- and small lamps generally require more time-consuming tweaking than large ones.

Each camera on a tape show typically has just one camera operator pushing his camera around on a "ped", rather than the old film practice of having a dolly grip move the camera while a first assistant cameraman (or woman) pulls focus. This saves the producers money at the cost of quality -- there's no way one person can do three jobs simultaneously as well as a good three person dolly/camera team. But the bottom line these days is saving money, not improving -- or even maintaining -- quality.

There are exceptions, of course. If you happen to be Jim Burrows, you get to have those three man camera/dolly crews anyway, even when you're shooting tape.

me said...

The Trio network usta have a series called "Brilliant But Canceled."

I couldn't imagine Cheers being taped. The whole point of Cheers was a bar that was supposed to feel warm and inviting, and that has never been tape's strong suit.

"Tape is what reality looks like, film is the stuff of dreams."

Steely Dan said...

I hate, hate, HATE videotape. I love "Newhart," but as an earlier poster wrote, the first season is almost unwatchable because of how ugly the videotape makes everything look. Film may cost more, but it pays dividends long afterwards.

Max Clarke said...

As Johnny Carson used to say to his guests, "I did not know that."

I never noticed on my Cheers DVD that it was filmed and not taped. I don't have a tv, so there isn't the chance to compare tape and film the way connoisseurs do.

Now that you mention it, though, there is a richness to the colors which is striking, I noticed that from the first episode. You see that in the colors of the wood in the bar and in the clothing of the cast, even in the glass they used by the stairs and in the pool room.

Anonymous said...

And then you had BBC shows (I first noticed it with Tom Baker's Doctor Who) which used video tape for interior sets in the studio, but switched to film for exterior recording.

It was common enough that they made a gag of it in an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus: Michael Palin exited through a doorway on the set on tape, then entered the next scene through the 'other side of the doorway' to an exterior shot, and jumped in startlement, crying "Oh! I'm on film!" before going on with the scene.

Anonymous said...

Or shows that use both for effect - like the Larry Sanders Show which used film for the "behind the scenes" stuff and tape for the scenes rthat were the "actual" Larry Sanders Show that would be seen by the public had it been a real (not reel) show.

Peter Lynn said...

Maybe they got enamoured with the new medium after they made their feature film, but Trailer Park Boys switched from tape to film in its most recent season, and it was really jarring. It ruined the cheap documentary look that was part of what made the show so great.

Anonymous said...

Is there a technical explanation? If you use the same lens for tape or film, is it just a matter of the amount of 'optical bandwidth' which is not available on tape - and presumably is available now on 'disk'? Or is it still the same?

odocoileus said...

Less bandwith is it.

Old style video tape, the kind referenced in the Cheers story, captures less contrast, depth of field, and range of color than film does.

High definition video has much more contrast, depth of field, and range of color than old style video.

Whether it equals film is a subject of debate. What is true is that you can use hi def to get a high quality look without some of the cost of film. Hi def has its own special problems, though, so using it is more time consuming and expensive than old style video.

The Bernie Mack Show shot in 24 frame hi def video, and it gave the show a look that was close enough to film and worked quite well for a single camera sitcom.

Baylink said...

It's not even the bandwidth.

It's two things: 24p instead of 60i, and the gamma curve and knee.

It's difficult to explain, to people for whom it isn't obvious by inspection, but the brain sees that there are only 24 new pictures a second on film and HD productions, and somehow goes into "suspension of disbelief" mode, in a way that 60i video originated programming just doesn't seem to do.

At least for me.

People tend to incorrectly compare 24fps film and 30fps video, but video *isn't* 30 pictures per second, as I imply above, and the 2.5:1 difference in frame rate is easy to spot if you know what to look for.

Garry Shandling's Show (and any other show that paid respectful attention to the issue, like TV101 or Breaking News) demonstrates this nicely.

genstai: the Italian ... nah; can't make this one funny.

G. Stein said...

Baylink described the frame rate half of the equation perfectly.

To elaborate on what he said about the other primary element of what makes film better looking than video ('gamma curve and knee'), think of film as having an "audio compressor" built into it for its visuals. The more light you expose to film through a camera's lense, the greater the film's resistance becomes to capturing it. An example by the numbers:

Brightness of "1" into camera lense:
...brightness of "1" captured by film
Brightness of "2" into camera lense:
...brightness of "1.875" captured by film
Brightness of "3" into camera lense:
...brightness of "2.75" captured by film
Brightness of "4" into camera lense:
...brightness of "3.5" captured by film
Brightness of "5" into camera lense:
...brightness of "4" is captured by film

Get the idea?

Just as audio compression makes music sound "bigger and more surreal", film's optical compression properties produce the same effect for the eye.

Video has no similar compression effect. Therefore it's the visual equivalent of uncompressed audiophile recordings: very "live and authentic."

Which makes video technically harder to light for than film. Without any brightness compression, you need very good lighting control or else excessively bright objects will overexpose and "white clip" (the literal voltage equivalent of audio clipping). And since no set lighting can be absolutely perfectly controlled, the brightness of many things does in fact end up near the top of video's legal brightness range, or even exceeding it and clipping after all. Hence why video is also said to have a "harder" look than film.