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View Full Version : What's the deal with the way soap operas are shot?


Anaamika
08-04-2009, 11:35 AM
Please help me and tell me I am not insane. When you watch a soap opera as opposed to a movie there is a substantial difference in the "quality" of the filming. Not so much that it's better or worse but the soap opera looks more stark somehow.

I was reminded of this when I was re-watching some X-Files and they switch back and forth between this starker shooting for the creepier shots and then go back to what seems like the more "movie" style?

It's almost like the soap operas aren't touched up at all and everything else is. I don't know how else to describe it, I'm pretty clueless about movie/TV making in general.

Am I just talking out of my ass?

Miller
08-04-2009, 12:00 PM
I know exactly what you mean. I don't have an explanation for it, but I know what you mean.

kunilou
08-04-2009, 12:04 PM
No, you're absolutely correct. Soap operas are shot as video, while movies are shot on film. Film has a "softer" look, and depending on the cinematographer, you can do things with film (contrast, color saturation, etc.) that wouldn't be done on the assembly-line production of soap operas. There's also the element of lighting; movies tend to be lit with much more detail than a soap (or sitcom) which usually tends to have the entire set lit more or less evenly.

Biffy the Elephant Shrew
08-04-2009, 12:08 PM
I was reminded of this when I was re-watching some X-Files and they switch back and forth between this starker shooting for the creepier shots and then go back to what seems like the more "movie" style?


I don't know about X-Files, but you see this a lot on Monty Python's Flying Circus, where the studio shots are generally on videotape, and outdoors shots are on film. At least once or twice a character comments on the difference.

mswas
08-04-2009, 12:12 PM
Soap Operas are shot with minimal camera angles on video because they are producing 5 shows per week.

That's not all they save on budget.

My friend was a recurring character on Guiding Light, and she told some story about how the nasty green room got updated once when CBS used the studio for some big event, and as such they got a nice green room out of it. ;)

kenobi 65
08-04-2009, 12:13 PM
I don't know about X-Files, but you see this a lot on Monty Python's Flying Circus, where the studio shots are generally on videotape, and outdoors shots are on film. At least once or twice a character comments on the difference.

I used to notice the same thing on BBC productions that they would show on Masterpiece Theater back in the 1970s...it makes me wonder if that was standard practice for the BBC back then (videotape in the studio, film outdoors).

WAG here, but I also wonder if part of the video quality of soap operas has to do with their narrow production window. They have to crank out 5 hours of content (well, less commerical time) every week. Might not leave a lot of time for lighting set-up, or post-production work.

Shawn1767
08-04-2009, 12:24 PM
Also, if you ever notice those "behind the scenes" types of footage when shooting on a movie set, the behind the scenes is usually shot on videotape and it never looks the same as the movie. They could be shooting a scene and from behind the scenes (on videotape) it looks pretty stark and cheesy, but the film version looks better. I think it also has to do with the frame rate. The film frame rate is lower (about 24 frames per second) vs. video (almost 30 frames per second).

And some TV shows are shot on film which is why they look different than other shows shot on videotape.

Baal Houtham
08-04-2009, 12:30 PM
I's not a cinematographer, but I've taken a lot of professional still portraits.

When I photographed a person (or object) in a precise manner I try to make the lighting interesting by using back lighting, low angle lighting, moderately high contrast etc.

OTOH if I'm photographing a large group of people or several groups of people in quick succession I use bland, even light. Dramatic lighting could burn out a shiny bald head, or turn a woman's crow's feet into deep crevices.

In movies the director has the time and the budget to use interesting light in every shot. In a soap opera, they want to make sure that everything is decently lit even if the actors mess up their blocking. Better safe and boring, than interesting but unusable.

gotpasswords
08-04-2009, 12:59 PM
Also, if you ever notice those "behind the scenes" types of footage when shooting on a movie set, the behind the scenes is usually shot on videotape and it never looks the same as the movie. They could be shooting a scene and from behind the scenes (on videotape) it looks pretty stark and cheesy, but the film version looks better. I think it also has to do with the frame rate. The film frame rate is lower (about 24 frames per second) vs. video (almost 30 frames per second).

No - if anything, the film suffers in translation from 24 fps to 30 fps to be shown on TV.

There's just worlds of difference between tape and film - a feature film will go through painstaking manipulations in post-production collectively called color timing to suit the director's vision, be it soft and dreamy, hard and edgy, plain, or whatever. Those "behind the scenes" things are done in a more "verite" style - someone shoots tape and it's used as-is without hours of tweaking.

Have a look at the deleted scenes from just about any movie on DVD - very often, these scenes got cut before the final color timing and post production was done, and they look wildly different as a result.

I'm not sure if it's an insult to film or a compliment to tape to say that "raw" film looks about the same as video. I do know that film has gobs more raw information to work with than tape - more image detail, more colors, a wider usable contrast ratio and so forth.

jayjay
08-04-2009, 01:07 PM
The old (pre-Eccleston) Doctor Who had the same contrasts between indoor and outdoor (video vs. film), so I think it was a BBC thing of the era.

Freudian Slit
08-04-2009, 01:18 PM
The Twilight Zone episodes that are shot on video (maybe five of them?) look pretty different. Also, somehow more "real." Like we're watching a home movie or a behind the scenes thing rather than an episode.

choie
08-04-2009, 01:37 PM
I'm kinda surprised that people have to be told about the differences between video and film. The visual style is so incredibly different to me -- tape looks more like real life, film has sort of a filtered/softer look.

It's not just soaps. Most US and UK sitcoms of the seventies, eighties and well into the nineties were videotaped, using multiple cameras. It is vastly less expensive and requires less post-production work. These days, more and more comedies are filmed with a single-camera via multiple takes (to get different shots, such as reaction shots or anything from a new angle), then edited together seamlessly.

Of course, sticking to soaps, several of them tend to have their own "look." Young and the Restless is notorious for having darker sets and lighting; everything seems more elegant, jewel-toned, a bit more sophisticated. (No comment on whether this is matched by the writing!) Days of Our Lives has a bright, pastel, heavily-filtered look, which not coincidentally began when Deirdre Hall's "Marlena" returned to the show in the mid-1990s. My guess is it has two reasons: a) to make Marlena look like a viable romantic lead able to get pregnant (instead of a woman nearing 60) and b) to prevent numerous hospital calls relating to Kristian Alfonso's scarily prominent neck cords. Guiding Light relatively recently went to a filmed look in a desperate attempt to be relevant, for all the good it did 'em (RIP GL). The ABC soaps (All My Children, One Life to Live, and General Hospital) are all "of a piece," and seem warmer, earthy, even when GH is focusing endlessly on violent mob whores Sonny and Jason. Though AMC tends to be a bit brighter than its two compadres.

msmith537
08-04-2009, 02:21 PM
IIRC, video also requires more light than film which makes film more suitable to outdoors. Film is much more expensive though.

Anaamika
08-04-2009, 02:40 PM
Well, I do know the difference between video and film. I just never knew that's why. Meaning, when I see it, I know it - otherwise this thread would never have been, but I never knew why.

Plus you'd have to know something about film, wouldn't you? I've never taken a single film or photography class, never delved into that world at all. I am content to just sit back and enjoy the results.

But that being said - awesome! It's so good to know I'm not crazy. I have often wondered but not enough that I remember when I get to a computer and ask.

Thank you, all!

Freudian Slit
08-04-2009, 03:03 PM
I knew about it, too, but after I was told. Now it's more obvious, but initially I just knew that they look different but I couldn't pinpoint why.

ivylass
08-04-2009, 03:34 PM
Some sitcoms were filmed...Cheers, IIRC.

gang green
08-04-2009, 03:43 PM
It's not just the video/film thing, it's the sound.

I think soaps tend to record audio live. I don't know for sure, but they all have this background hum added to a vague coffee-can echo. I find it incredibly annoying, especially when added to the stark, uninteresting lighting.

Soaps are bleh.

garygnu
08-04-2009, 04:01 PM
A lot of the focus so far has been on the depth of field differences between film and video, but I think the bland, even lighting has more to do with it.
There are 35mm lens adapters (http://letusdirect.com/cart/letus-adapters.html) for video cameras that produce a depth of field that's pretty indistinguishable from film. Does anyone (Cartooniverse?) know if the soaps use these?

purplehorseshoe
08-04-2009, 04:09 PM
Seems like when Entourage was doing the story line with Vince acting in the "Smokejumpers" movie, and they cut from showing the show itself to showing the movie-within-the-show, the whole "look" of it all was immediately different. (Other than, of course, suddenly narrowing to the movie's aspect ratio, with a black bar at the top and bottom.)

Same with the Japanese commercial Vince filmed with Drama. When the showed the actual ad itself, within the show, the "look" was different to me.

But I wouldn't have been able to articulate why, without this thread! Thanks for all the video/film info, Dopers!

Fear Itself
08-04-2009, 05:01 PM
Soap Operas are shot with minimal camera angles on video because they are producing 5 shows per week.

That's not all they save on budget.

My friend was a recurring character on Guiding Light, and she told some story about how the nasty green room got updated once when CBS used the studio for some big event, and as such they got a nice green room out of it. ;)
That's the one that is always shooting in outdoor locations like parks, presumably because it is cheaper than a studio. I think this is their last "season"; CBS cancelled them recently. (http://soapcentral.com/gl/news/2009/0724-cancelled.php)

Argent Towers
08-04-2009, 05:24 PM
Once for the hell of it I found an old videotape from 1987 that my parents had taped of soap operas and my friends and I watched it. My God, the people on those shows looked absolutely HAGGARD. All the men looked like raging alcoholics with craggy, prematurely wrinkled faces and crow's feet around their eyes and looked like they couldn't wait for the cameras to stop rolling so they could grab their bottle of Scotch. And the women - they all looked like streetwalkers, with caked-on makeup and overdone hair and the early stages of alcoholism, cocaine abuse and premature aging showing through the whole facade. All of them looked and sounded absolutely miserable, like being on the soap opera was some kind of degrading act. It was unbelievable to watch, the cheapness and tawdriness of it all, including the sets, the lighting, the camera angles, etc; it was like a bad high school play, but with tragically over-aged actors.

And, Jesus Christ, the commercials were so different back then too.

lissener
08-04-2009, 06:11 PM
A lot of the focus so far has been on the depth of field differences between film and video, but I think the bland, even lighting has more to do with it.
Yes, this is a big part of it; they all look like they're lit with banks of fluorescent lights. This was also just kind of the lighting style of the 60s and 70s. Look at episodes of major network dramas from that era. They were filmed on film, not video, but they all have that same over-lighted look. Check out an episode of Mission: Impossible. Even Roots--check out the scenes supposedly filmed in slave cabins: everyone has 7 or 8 distinct shadows.

MOIDALIZE
08-04-2009, 06:25 PM
But that being said - awesome! It's so good to know I'm not crazy. I have often wondered but not enough that I remember when I get to a computer and ask.



Me too! I'm glad one of us finally remembered.

BiblioCat
08-04-2009, 08:30 PM
Scrubs is shot on film, but some of JD's fantasies are purposely shot on videotape.
In the very first episode, he has a fantasy of him and Elliott being married, complete with a laughtrack and the different look.
In the episode, My Life In Four Cameras, the show switches from its usual format to one where JD imagines what the hospital would be like as a sitcom, and the difference in the whole 'look' of the show changes. The difference is quite glaring.

ianzin
08-05-2009, 07:07 AM
One of the differences between video and film is the contrast ratio. In simple terms, this is the range that the medium can accommodate between the brightest part of the image and the lowest. It also pertains to how faithfully the medium can record information about those high and low points and all shades in between.

Film has a much higher contrast ratio than video. When film is well used, and you have a well-lit scene and a good cinematographer, the film stock can faithfully record the brightest and darkest parts of the image, and all the fine shades in between. Video has a lower contrast ratio. If you aim a video camera at a scene that contains both very bright and very dark elements, the tape will tend to favour one or the other - so you either get the brighter parts faithfully represented but the darker parts all crushed together, or vice-versa. The video tape will also tend to preserve fewer shades of light and dark in between these extremes, so that everything is represented by, say, a dozen intermediary shades or 'bands' of luminosity as opposed to fifty on film (simplified example).

This does give rise to problems when some films are inexpertly transferred to video, for example when being prepared to be shown on TV. Many films of the Star Wars era used black composite mattes to layer one element (such as a spaceship) on top of another (such as a planet background). See the scene on film, at the movie theatre, and it looks great. See it on TV, and you can see the matte lines surrounding one or more of the elements. This is because some fine gradations of shade are lost in the process, and some 'clipping' occurs - the background element gets rendered at one level of luminosity and the foreground element gets rendered at a different level, so the difference is suddenly noticeable.

This isn't as much of a problem now, because the technology has advanced all round and people in the industry have become smarter at eliminating the problem.

Koxinga
08-05-2009, 07:21 AM
Some sitcoms were filmed...Cheers, IIRC.

I seem to remember that Newhart was on video in its first season and on film starting from the second (or some subsequent) season, presumably as it became apparent that the show would survive and merited a bigger budget. Or maybe it was some different type of video format? It looked a lot less cheap, anyway.

And call me crazy, but haven't there been some sitcoms that started on film and then transitioned to videotape? I'm thinking specifically of Happy Days--though I've never figured out if the show was even supposed to be a sitcom in its early days.

BiblioCat
08-05-2009, 07:40 AM
I And call me crazy, but haven't there been some sitcoms that started on film and then transitioned to videotape? I'm thinking specifically of Happy Days--though I've never figured out if the show was even supposed to be a sitcom in its early days.
I think the sitcoms that are done in front of a studio audience are taped, and the ones that are not (Scrubs, My Name Is Earl, The Office, for example) are filmed. IIRC, the first season of Happy Days was not filmed in front of an audience. The later seasons have that videotape look, with the harsh lighting.

Anaamika
08-05-2009, 08:05 AM
I am learning so much....thank you all. I know that sounds a little corny but I don't really know what questions to ask. Merely reading what you guys have written is interesting.

Ximenean
08-05-2009, 09:34 AM
Regarding the difference between 1970s British and US TV shows, part of the reason is that there were no affordable portable video cameras at the time, so film was the only option on location. The BBC used economical 16mm film cameras for that, but because it was relatively low quality, and because they already had the facilities, they would use higher quality video cameras in the studio.

American shows were often made by film studios, who were naturally set up for film in the studio as well as on location. And I believe that they often used higher quality 35mm too. So for them, there was no need for those jarring British-style transitions between film and video. US shows of the time such as Taxi, Mork & Mindy, Cheers could be shot entirely on film at decent quality.

It's funny how it has come full circle - in the early '80s, portable video cameras became available, and suddenly many British productions were shot entirely on video, on set and on location - things like Auf Wiedersehen Pet and later episodes of Tales of the Unexpected. And now, they still shoot on videotape because it's more economical, but go to great lengths in post-processing to make it look like film.

Personally I miss those all-video productions of the'80s. In the right hands there could be a sort of dreamy hyper-real feel to it that you don't get from film.

Hampshire
08-05-2009, 10:03 AM
The best show that used the mix of video and film was The Larry Sander's Show. It was shot mostly on film but when they would be taping the show they switched between video and film. So when the show was being viewed "live" you would see it on video. Then when they would cut to commercial everything went back to film.

PRNYouth
08-05-2009, 10:06 AM
I think the sitcoms that are done in front of a studio audience are taped, and the ones that are not (Scrubs, My Name Is Earl, The Office, for example) are filmed.
I think this is not the case. A friend and I went to a "taping" of Two and a Half Men" a couple of years ago, and they shoot on film, with video assist -- meaning (as I understand it) a smaller video camera is attached to the film camera and tracks and zooms with it so that the director, production crew, and audience can see it on the monitors, but the final product is film. (I'm happy to be corrected on any points where I'm wrong.)

As pointed out earlier, "Newhart" was on film for much of its run. I believe "Everybody Loves Raymond" was shot on film as well. In fact, according to this link (http://www2.macleans.ca/2008/09/30/is-it-time-for-sitcoms-to-go-back-to-videotape/), most all network sitcoms are shot on tape. It's an interesting take on whether or not they should go back to video.

Again -- I'm willing to be corrected!

PRNYouth
08-05-2009, 10:19 AM
In fact, according to this link (http://www2.macleans.ca/2008/09/30/is-it-time-for-sitcoms-to-go-back-to-videotape/), most all network sitcoms are shot on tape.

No .... I mistyped. Most all network sitcoms are shot on film.

gotpasswords
08-05-2009, 10:40 AM
A lot of the focus so far has been on the depth of field differences between film and video, but I think the bland, even lighting has more to do with it.
There are 35mm lens adapters (http://letusdirect.com/cart/letus-adapters.html) for video cameras that produce a depth of field that's pretty indistinguishable from film. Does anyone (Cartooniverse?) know if the soaps use these?

Depth of field is a lens issue and relates to how much of a given scene is in focus. The lens brings an image to a point inside the camera called the image plane, and it doesn't care if there's a CCD or a piece of film there. The main control over depth of field is the lens aperture - close the iris down to something small like f/22, and pretty much everything in front of the lens will be in focus. Open it up to f/4, and the depth of field goes down to a couple of inches.

As for that adapter - interesting gizmo that almost looks like it's in search of a problem to solve. It just lets you use old manual-focus 35mm SLR lenses on a motion picture camera. Apparently, its main goal in life is to let someone with a collection of old lenses use them instead of spending thousands and thousands of dollars on new lenses.

Cleophus
08-05-2009, 12:03 PM
Depth of field is a lens issue and relates to how much of a given scene is in focus. The lens brings an image to a point inside the camera called the image plane, and it doesn't care if there's a CCD or a piece of film there. The main control over depth of field is the lens aperture - close the iris down to something small like f/22, and pretty much everything in front of the lens will be in focus. Open it up to f/4, and the depth of field goes down to a couple of inches.

As for that adapter - interesting gizmo that almost looks like it's in search of a problem to solve. It just lets you use old manual-focus 35mm SLR lenses on a motion picture camera. Apparently, its main goal in life is to let someone with a collection of old lenses use them instead of spending thousands and thousands of dollars on new lenses.

Not quite. Depth of field is affected by the lens aperture and the physical size of the subject projected on the imaging medium. Since a 35mm frame is larger than the CCD in most video cameras, the projected image is larger and the depth of field is less.

The adapters have a mount for a lens and a ground glass the same size as a 35mm frame. The lens projects onto the ground glass, allowing 35mm-like DoF effects, and the video camera records the image from the ground glass.

I think framerate is a significant factor in the soap opera effect. Motion looks much smoother, an effect that I see duplicated if I turn on motion enhancement on my HDTV. The TV adds interpolated frames to 24 fps source material and, to me has the side effect of making film look way too smooth and like a soap opera.

DanBlather
08-05-2009, 12:25 PM
Soaps are show with multiple cameras (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiple-camera_setup). For example they will have cameras on both actors during a conversation, and in addition may have a third which shows both of them. This is done to avoid having multiple takes for each scene. Because of this they need to set up the lighting differently; it's a compromise so that all camera positions have decent lighting. In contrast, a movie or TV show shot with a single camera can optimise lighting for each camera position.

garygnu
08-05-2009, 12:47 PM
...The adapters have a mount for a lens and a ground glass the same size as a 35mm frame. The lens projects onto the ground glass, allowing 35mm-like DoF effects, and the video camera records the image from the ground glass...
Thanks. I hadn't looked too deeply into how they work yet, just that they do.

Last year I worked on two short movies, both shot on the same HD video camera, but one with and one without one of the adapters in question. The movie that used the adapter has a much more professional look than the one without.

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