July 4, 2014

Hit shows from the '90s were shot on film

After regularly tuning in to Seinfeld for the first time in about 15 years, I started to notice how much better it looks compared to either today's digital shows or the video-taped shows from the '70s and '80s. And sure enough, IMDb says it was shot on 35mm film stock.

It doesn't have video's fast frame rate which makes it look more like you're right there in the audience of a live play performance. The slower frame rate stylizes movement enough to distance you from the show's world. The lighting and colors also come out much better than on a typical sit-com from the '80s, which were shot on video.

And it wasn't only Seinfeld -- ER, Friends, Frasier, Murphy Brown, Law & Order, The Drew Carey Show, just to name the ones I checked. Some were still being video-taped if they were in the vein of the '80s sit-com, such as Roseanne and Home Improvement.

Perhaps that's one reason why some people respond best to TV shows of The Nineties (meaning, '93 and after). They probably didn't know it, but just sensed that they had better visual production put into them. Like me, you might not respond to some of them for reasons of tone -- wacky/zany, emo, glib, etc. -- but at least they are nice to look at.

During the 2000s, first it was all the game shows and reality shows that brought the video look back to mainstream TV. Reality-based content calls for greater photorealism in capturing motion, so video's high frame rate won out. Now even the comedies and dramas are leaving film for digital. The Big Bang Theory, about the only 21st-century sit-com to break into the top of the Nielsen ratings, started out on film but switched to digital.

Why didn't they care to shoot all the big shows on film in the '80s? (Some in the action genre were, like Magnum, P.I.) I think TV shows that looked film-y only appealed to audiences once the cocooning climate had set in. Since then the ideal has been to never leave the house. But they still want something cool-looking to watch for entertainment. If the small screen was the new big screen, then why not start shooting TV shows on film?


  1. Eastside School7/4/14, 4:55 AM

    I recently watched some episodes from the 1st season of ER and was amazed at the anti-white indoctrination.

  2. If cocooning caused the shift toward film, does the later shift away have anything to do with social factors?

  3. I don't think so. I don't think they're shooting those digital video shows at the high frame rate that analog videotape used. So it still has the stylized motion, just crappier light and color for cheapo reasons.

  4. Eh, I'm not a fan of 90s sitcom. It is too cynical. Seinfeld is a good example, though admittedly I used to be a big fan and thought it was funny. The older sitcoms used to have some "moral message" of the week, even the really sarcastic ones like MASH. You don't see that in the 90s.

    It is interesting that the BIg Bang managed to break the mold and become successful. I wonder why that is.

  5. I was never a camera person so you teach me something when you say film colors are richer than video. When I see old episodes of Cheers, I'm always captivated by the bright colors, and now I learn, from one of the show's fan-sites, that it too was shot on film. Seinfeld will always be the greatest show ever, because of the reality of the dialogue. Others might call it cynical, but look at the difference: in Taxi, otherwise a great show, Marilu Henner's sex bomb character sleeps with short, bald, squeeky-voiced Walkace Shawn, something that would never happen in real life. By contrast, in Seinfeld we have the following:

    Elaine (to Jerry) - "you don't know how important a man's hair is to women.."
    Elaine (to George) "I'm sorry George but it's true."
    George: (whining): "I knew it."
    Elaine: "I'm sorry George bu

  6. " The slower frame rate stylizes movement enough to distance you from the show's world. The lighting and colors also come out much better than on a typical sit-com from the '80s"

    You say things like this and I just have absolutely not the slightest clue what you are talking about.

    Between Seinfeld and Charles in Charge, I honestly cannot tell the difference in production methods or quality. In fact I'm not convinced that there is any difference that is actually visible. I just don't see it.


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