Style and the Camera: Videography and Cinematography

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When we look at television, our gaze is controlled by the "look" of the camera. What the camera "saw" on the set or on location during a production, we now see on our television screens. The camera's distance from the scene and the direction in which it is pointed, among other factors, determine what we will see in a television image. In essence, our look becomes the camera's look and is confined by the frame around the image. To understand the camera's look, it becomes necessary to understand the aesthetic, economic, and technological factors that underpin the camera's perfunctory gaze.

The camera, although a mechanical recording device, does not neutrally record images. The camera fundamentally changes the objects it records: three dimensions become two; the colors of nature become the colors of video or film; the perimeter of the camera frame delimits the view. The recording process of film and video could more accurately be thought of as one of translation, where the three-dimensional historical world is translated into the two-dimensional "language" of televisual images. This camera language is a major part of the visual style of a television program. It works in conjunction with mise-en-scene ( section 5) and editing ( section 7) to create a program's overall visual design.

Almost everything we see on television began its trip to our homes by being recorded by a camera. It would be wrong, however, to assume that this camera is always a video camera. Indeed, many television images were originally created by a film camera (although everything on TV these days is edited digitally if not done live). Soap operas, game shows, some sitcoms, musical variety programs and specials, news programs, talk shows, and most locally produced commercials are shot on videotape or broadcast live using video cameras. In contrast, prime-time dramas, some other sitcoms, MOWs, music videos, and large-budget, nation ally broadcast commercials are all currently recorded originally on film. The distinction is not merely technological. Even though these images all come to us through the television tube, there are still discrete visual differences between material that was originally filmed and that which was videotaped. Each technology affects the visual style of television in different ways. Each might be thought of as a separate dialect within the language of televisual style.

This section concerns the components of video and film camera style, the elements of videography and cinematography that record an image and affect our understanding of it. In simplest terms, videography designates the characteristics of the video camera while cinematography refers to those of the film camera. The person overseeing the video camera is the videographer; the corresponding person in charge of the film camera is the cinematographer. Typically, in contemporary production, videographers and cinematographers leave the actual handling of the camera to the camera operator, who is not credited as a full-fledged cinematographer/videographer. Videographers, cinematographers, and camera operators, all operate under the guidance of the program's director.

The director designs the program's overall style, with the videographers and cinematographers working within the specific province of camera style.

On the most basic level, camera-style characteristics are shaped by techno logical considerations. For instance, one could not have recorded videographic images in the 1890s, before video was invented. But we should be wary of overemphasizing the importance of technology to videography and cinematography. As we have seen in our discussion of mise-en-scene in the previous section, the ways that video and film technologies have been used are always shaped by aesthetic convention and economic determinants. The aesthetic conventions of composition in European oil painting, for example, greatly influence the composition of TV images. And economics principally determines whether a program will be shot in film or video-with less expensive (and less prestigious) programs being shot on video. Thus, technology, aesthetics, and economics merge together in determining camera style. To fully understand videography and cinematography we must remain alert to each of these three counterbalancing elements.

In many respects, video and film share basic camera principles. In U.S. television today the two formats have begun to resemble one another more and more--especially as high-definition television (HDTV) is more and more widely implemented. It is with these shared principles that we begin our study of videography and cinematography. Even so, there do remain some important distinctions between video and film, and they will be considered toward the latter part of this section.


The Camera Lens

Fig. 1 The Physics of Focal Length

The earliest "camera," the camera obscura of the eighteenth century, had no lens at all. It was merely a large, darkened room with a hole in one wall. Light entered through that hole and created an image of the outdoors on the wall opposite the hole. Very little could be done by way of manipulating that image.

Today's camera lens, the descendent of the camera obscura's hole-in-a-wall, permits a variety of manipulations-a catalogue of optical controls that the camera operator may exercise.

Chief among these optical controls is focal length. One need not be a physicist to understand focal length, although sometimes it seems like it. The focal length of a lens, usually measured in millimeters, is the distance from the lens' optical center to its focal point, which is that spot where the light rays bent by the lens converge before expanding again and striking the film or electronic pickup at the focal plane (Fig. 1). This definition, however, tells us very little about the images that result from lenses of different focal lengths. In more familiar terms, the three conventional types of focal length are:

1. Wide angle (or short)

2. " Normal" (or medium)

3. Telephoto (or long or narrow)

The reader may already know these terms, but it is important to recognize the different and sometimes subtle effects these focal lengths have on the image.

The wide angle lens gives the viewer a wide view of the scene, and it also heightens the illusion of depth in the image. All television images are two dimensional, of course; there is no true depth to them. They have dimensions along only two axes: horizontal and vertical (left and right, up and down). Using principles of perspective developed in the Renaissance, however, the television image creates an illusion of depth (back and forth). Because of this illusion, some objects seem to be in front of other objects; the space seems to recede into the image. A wide angle lens increases that illusion of depth. Objects filmed with a wide angle lens seem to be farther apart from one another than they do with normal or telephoto lenses. In Fig. 2, which was shot with a wide angle lens, the distance between the front and the rear of the piano is elongated, giving the image an illusion of great depth.

Fig. 2; Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Fig. 5; Fig. 7; Fig. 6

The telephoto lens gives a narrower view of the scene than a wide angle lens, but magnifies the scene (brings it closer). In Fig. 3 the same piano as in Fig. 2 has been shot with a telephoto lens. Compare how the distance between the front and the rear of the piano appears. Telephoto lenses are widely used in sports coverage, to get a "closer" view of the action (Fig. 4). Just as the wide angle lens heightens the illusion of depth, the telephoto lens diminishes it. Thus, the illusion of depth appears to be compressed in telephoto shots. The pitcher in Fig. 4 appears to be much closer to the batter than he would to someone sitting in the bleachers because of the compression of depth by the telephoto lens. The longer the lens, the more compressed the depth will appear.

The so-called normal focal length lens is medium-sized in comparison to both wide angle and telephoto. This is the lens that has come to be accepted as "natural." However, the normal focal length does not actually approximate the human eye's range of vision (it's narrower) or illusion of depth (it's shallower). Rather, it creates an image that, to the Western world, seems correct because it duplicates that style of perspective developed during the Renaissance of the 1500s. Camera lenses that create images suggesting Renaissance perspective have come to be accepted as the norm, while wide angle and telephoto lenses are defined as deviations from that norm.

Fig. 8

Film and video cameras may be supplied with individual lenses of different focal lengths. More commonly, today's cameras come equipped with a zoom lens, which in optical terms is a variable focal length lens. With a zoom, one can shift immediately and continuously from wide angle to telephoto without switching lenses. To zoom in is to vary the focal length from wide angle to telephoto, getting increasingly "closer" to the object and narrowing your angle of view (Figs. 5-6). To zoom out, in contrast, is to vary the focal length from telephoto to wide angle-thereby getting "farther" from the object as the angle of view widens. Closer and farther are misleading terms when referring to the zoom lens, however, because the camera does not get physically closer to or farther from the object it is recording. Thus, to be accurate, the zoom really just magnifies and de-magnifies the object. The point-of-view from which we see the object does not change.

A characteristic of the camera lens even more fundamental than focal length is its focus. On television, the image is nearly always in focus. Only perhaps in sports events do we see occasional out-of-focus images as the camera operator struggles to follow a fast-moving athlete. However, in most televisual images there are areas of the image that are not in focus, parts that have been left out of focus to de-emphasize them. Camera operators can selectively focus parts of the image and unfocus other parts. In other words, they can use focus for specific effect.

The selective use of focus is facilitated by the photographic phenomenon of depth of field (Fig. 8). (Care should be taken not to confuse depth of field with the illusion of depth previously discussed.) Depth of field is the distance in front and behind the focus distance that is also in focus (the focus distance being the distance from the camera to the object being focused on). If a lens is focused at 10 feet, as in Fig. 8, some objects nearer to and farther from the camera will also be in focus. This range (say, 8-14 feet in this instance) is the depth of field.

Typically, the range is approximately one third in front of the focus distance and two thirds behind it. The camera operator can manipulate depth of field to influence our perception of an image-decreasing the visual impact of parts of the frame by rendering them out of focus and indistinct. A small depth of field-so that just one plane (foreground, middle ground, or background) is sharply focused-is termed shallow focus. In Fig. 9, the director has chosen to emphasize the foreground leaves by blurring the background. The shallow focus of this shot is further manipulated by shifting the focus from foreground to background, which is known as racking or pulling focus (Figs. 9- 10). Rack focus is frequently used in inexpensive television productions to add some visual interest to a shot without changing to a new camera position and revising the lighting setup.

Fig. 9; Fig. 10

Shallow focus sounds confusingly similar to soft focus. However, in a soft focus shot the entire image, not just a single plane within it, is slightly out of focus. Soft focus is often used in conjunction with special filters and lighting--and even Vaseline on the lens--to create an image that conventionally signifies romantic attraction, vulnerability, sweetness, or youthfulness (concealing wrinkles in an actor's face) in a character. In Moonlighting (1985-89), for example, Cybill Shepherd was frequently shot in this fashion.

Focus does not have to be shallow or soft, however. In deep focus shots, all planes of the image are in focus.' In one shot from a commercial for GEICO insurance, deep focus enables the viewer to see a pregnant woman in a wheelchair in the background while a young man speaks on the phone in the foreground (Fig. 11). The background establishes that he's in a maternity ward even though, in the phone conversation, he's pretending not to be talking about his wife giving birth. Deep focus is often used in conjunction with deep-space blocking, where background and foreground interact with one another. Deep focus is not absolutely necessary for deep space, however. In the My So-Called Life illustration previously discussed, the space is deep, but the focus is shallow (Figs. 33-34).

Fig. 11

Deep focus has been heralded by film critic Andre Bazin as a major advance in the realism of the cinema. He argues that:

• Deep focus is more like the human perception of reality (we mostly see the world in deep focus).

• Deep focus preserves the continuity of space by maintaining the visual connections between objects in their environments.

Bazinian realism could also be applied to television (although his theories have had minimal impact on television aesthetics), but with caution. The smaller size of the television screen is a major impediment to deep focus staging of action.

The background actors/objects can become so small as to have negligible impact on the shot's meaning.

Camera Framing

The framing of a shot, at a most rudimentary level, determines what we can and cannot see. In the early years of television (the 1940s), camera operators tended to choose a distant view of the action, which showed the entire setting. This framing was based on an aesthetic assumption (inherited from the theater) that the "best seat in the house" would be in the center, about seven or eight rows back, where one could see all of the action at once. Also, early television cameras were large and cumbersome, which made it difficult to move them around a set to achieve a variety of camera positions. Soon, however, camera technology improved. Television directors discovered the impact of a variety of framing and began incorporating the close-up in their television programs.

Since the "invention" of the close-up, television directors have developed conventions of framing. It is possible to chart television's conventional framing with the human body as a standard, since that is the most common object before the camera. (The conventional abbreviation of each framing is included in parentheses.)

1. Extreme long shot (XLS). The human form is small, perhaps barely visible. The point of view is extremely distant, as in aerial shots or other distant views (Fig. 12).

2. Long shot (LS). The actor's entire body is visible, as is some of the surrounding space (Fig. 13).

3. Medium long shot (MLS). Most, if not all, of the actor's body is included, but less of the surrounding space is visible than in the LS (Fig. 14).

4. Medium shot (MS). The actor is framed from the thigh or waist up (Fig. 15).

5. Medium close-up (MCU). The lower chest of the actor is still visible (Fig. 16).

6. Close-up (CU). The actor is framed from his or her chest to just above his or her head (Fig. 17).

7. Extreme close-up (XCU). Any framing closer than a close-up is considered an XCU (Fig. 18). In actual video and film production, these terms are imprecise. There is some variation between shooting for television and theatrical film shooting, with the former tending toward closer framing to compensate for the smaller screen. What one director considers a medium close- up, another might term a close-up. Even so, the above terminology does provide some guidelines for discussing framing.

In fiction television, the long shot is-among other things-used for positioning characters within their environment and can thereby construct aspects of those characters. A long shot of a woman in a newspaper office, a prison cell, or a convent could establish her as a journalist, a convict, or a nun, respectively. The GEICO ad contrasts the man's phone conversation with the setting behind him (Fig. 11). Environment feeds our understanding of character, and the long shot facilitates that understanding. A long shot that helps to establish character or setting is known as an establishing shot. It often inaugurates a scene.

Fig. 12

Fig. 13

Fig. 14

The medium shot is frequently used for conversation scenes. The framing of two characters from about the knees up as they begin a dialogue is so often used that it has been designated with the term two-shot (Fig. 15). (Similarly, a three-shot frames three characters). The medium shot can establish relation ships between characters by bringing them into fairly close proximity.

For some, the close-up provides the "window to the soul" of the actors/ characters, a gateway to their innermost emotions. Romantic hyperbole such as this aside, the close-up functions both to emphasize details and to exclude surrounding actions, channeling viewer perception. It thus exercises the most extreme control over the viewer's gaze.

The aesthetics of framing follows certain conventions of function. The close up is the dominant framing in television programs such as the soap opera, where the emotional states signified by the actors' faces are stressed. Television soap opera's reliance on the close-up has coincided with the evolution of its acting style, which favors the human face over larger gestures. Television sports and action genres, in contrast, place more emphasis on medium and long shots- to facilitate the movement of automobiles, planes, and human bodies through space.

Fig. 15

Fig. 16

Fig. 17

Fig. 18

Fig. 19; Fig. 20

Fig. 21

Camera Height and Angle

In most television shots the height of the camera matches that of the actors' faces. This camera height is so ingrained in our understanding of camera style that eye level has become synonymous with "normal" height. It becomes trans parent to the viewer, taken for granted. Variations on this height consequently become important, apparently signifying something about the characters. The two principal variations on eye-level camera height are:

1. Low angle-in which the camera is lower than the filmed object (Fig. 19).

2. High angle-in which the camera is higher than the filmed object (Fig. 20). It has become a truism in television production manuals to observe that a low angle-where we look up at an actor-makes a character appear stronger and more powerful, while a high angle-looking down on an actor-weakens the character's impact. We can see the commonsensical basis for this assumption: When looking up at an object, it tends to appear large; and when looking down at it, small. But in actual television programs this use of low and high angles is much less systematic. In Fig. 21, from thirtysomething (1987-91), Bree Ann Pratt is shot from a low, supposedly empowering angle; yet she is crying and vulnerable at this point in the story. (In addition, the mise-en-scene traps her within the staircase.) Obviously, the low camera angle is not enough to make her a strong figure.

Stylistic elements such as camera angle do have meaning, but those meanings are always set within the context of the program and general aesthetic practice. Consequently, it's impossible to generalize about the "vocabulary" of television technique, where technique A = meaning B. Technique A does indeed have meanings, but only when considered within the entire textual system of a program.

Camera Movement

Film cameras had been around for 20 years or more before tripods and dollies and other mechanical devices were developed that permitted the movement of the camera. Early films initially had little or no camera movement because of this technological limitation and because the camera operator had to hand crank the cameras, thus making their turning or movement awkward. When cameras finally did begin to move, they were limited by the practical aesthetics of early directors. Little use was seen for camera movement beyond following character action and panoramic views. Filmmakers gradually expanded the use of camera movement, and by the time television arrived, film camera movement was smooth and relatively frequent. Early television cameras, because of their enormous bulk, were as stationary as the first film cameras. Also, initial studio-based television was constricted in its camera movement by lack of space. Before long, however, television developed its own uses for the moving camera.

Principal among the functions of the moving camera are:

• To establish a space, a particular area.

• To establish a relationship between objects/actors in a certain space.

• To follow action.

• To emphasize/de-emphasize one portion of a space, or an object/actor within that portion.

To achieve these functions, a variety of camera movements have evolved.

Panning and Tilting. The most rudimentary camera movement de rives its name from the affection for broad, "panoramic" views in early motion pictures. The pan is when the camera twists left and right, on an imaginary axis stuck vertically through the camera. The camera support-the legs of the tripod-does not move in a pan; only the tripod head turns. Similarly, in a tilt the camera twists up and down on an axis stuck horizontally through the camera. The camera height does not change; only its angle of vision.

Several other camera movements depend on the movement of the entire camera support rather than just the tripod head: dollying/tracking/trucking; craning/pedestaling; hand-held; and Steadicam. Camera technology provides the names for these movements, rather than the actual direction of the movement (as in "tilting") or what is represented (as in "panning" over panoramic views). Thus, the conventionalized method for viewers to describe these movements is to refer to presumptions of the technology used to create them.

Dollying, Tracking, and Trucking. In television there are several terms used to describe the sideways and backward/forward movement of the camera. Principal among these are dollying, tracking, and trucking. Each of these differs from the pan in that the entire camera support moves, rather than just the tripod head. It's like the difference between twisting one's head left and right-the human equivalent of panning-and walking in one direction or the other-human dollying.

The dolly shot is named for the device that creates it, the camera dolly- a wheeled camera support that can be rolled left and right or forward and backward. Similarly, the tracking shot earns its name from small tracks that are laid over rough surfaces, along which the dolly then rolls. In practice, "tracking" is such a broadly applied term that it may be used to refer to any sideways or backward/forward movement, even if actual dolly tracks are not involved.

In addition, in television studio production sideways movement is sometimes called trucking or crabbing, and a semicircular sideways movement is usually called arcing. Many of these terms are used interchangeably. Also, dollying need not be in straight lines that are either perpendicular or parallel to the action; dolly shots may move in curves, figure eights, and any other direction a dolly can be pushed or pulled.

To most viewers, dollying in or out is indistinguishable from zooming in or out. There are, however, important visual differences between the two techniques. Even though it takes a practiced eye to recognize them, the differences may generate disparate perceptions of the objects and humans that are presented.

When camera operators zoom in or out, they change the focal length of the camera and magnify or de-magnify the object, but the position from which the object is viewed remains the same. The point of view of the camera is thus constant. In contrast, when camera operators dolly forward or backward, the position from which the object is viewed shifts. And because the point of view changes in the dolly shot, we see the object from a different angle. Parts of it are revealed that were previously concealed, and vice versa (see Fig. 7, taken from the ending of a dolly-in shot that begins at the same position as the zoom in of Fig. 5). In Fig. 7 we see the entire picture on the wall behind the pianist, where at the start of the dolly (Fig. 5) it is partially blocked. Contrast this with the zoom in on the same subject matter (Fig. 6). At the end of the zoom in, the picture is still obscured and the piano-top strut still crosses the actor's face. Even though the subject matter is enlarged, it is still seen from the same point of view; the camera is still in the same position as at the start of the zoom.

Moreover, because we have changed the focal length, we also change the image's illusion of depth. Everything looks flatter, more compressed as we zoom in. In Fig. 6, the actor looks squeezed between the piano and the wall-especially when compared with Fig. 7.

Thus, although the zoom and the dolly share the quality of enlarging or reducing an object before our eyes, they differ in how they represent point of view and the illusion of depth. Consequently, they serve different functions on television. For example, camera movement-not zooming-is conventionally used when the viewer is supposed to be seeing through the eyes of characters as they move through space -say, as killers approach their prey. Zoom shots do not conventionally serve this function, because they do not mimic human movement as convincingly as dollying does. Zooming, in turn, is more common in contemporary television production as a punctuation for extreme emotion.

In soap operas, camera movement is fairly limited and zooms-in function to underline character emotions. In this case economics blends with aesthetics.

Zoom shots are less time-consuming to set up than dolly shots are and thus are less expensive. Consequently, the modestly budgeted soap operas favor the zoom.

Craning and Pedestaling. A camera crane or boom looks just like a crane on a construction site, except that there is a camera mounted on one end. A camera pedestal is the vertical post of the camera support. Cranes and pedestals are the technology that permit the upward/downward movement of the camera, and those movements-craning and pedestaling-take their names from that technology. Thus, in a crane shot, the camera is swept upward or downward.

Additionally, since the crane is mounted on wheels, like a dolly, it can also be moved in all the directions a dolly can. A pedestal shot is one in which the camera is raised or lowered. The crane or pedestal movement is different from the tilt: in a tilt, the tripod head is twisted up or down -as if the camera were nodding-while in craning and pedestaling the entire camera body is moved higher or lower.

Crane shots serve a variety of functions. Typically, a crane down may be used first to establish a location with a wide angle shot from up high, and then particularize one element of that location by craning down to it. And cranes up are often used to end sequences or programs. Craning up and back from characters at the end of a program, we are literally distanced from them at a point when we are about to leave the characters' story.

Hand-held and Steadicam. A hand-held shot is one that was filmed just as the name implies: with the camera held in the operator's hands instead of being placed on a camera mount. As a consequence, the hand-held shot is noticeably unsteady-especially during quick movements when the camera operator is running. A large percentage of news and sports videotaping is done with hand-held cameras: shots from the field of play in sports shows (e.g., courtside shots at basketball games); documentary footage of automobile crashes; murder suspects leaving a courtroom; and so on.

We might think that hand-held shots would be avoided entirely in the more controlled camera style of fiction television. Even though the majority of camera movement in fictional programs is not hand-held, hand-held shots do serve several narrative functions. First, hand-held work is used to create a documentary feel, to signify "documentary-ness," within works of fiction. Many episodes of NYPD Blue include noticeable hand-held camerawork-signifying the program's "realism?' Second, hand-held movement is often used when we are seeing through a character's eyes-as was mentioned above regarding dolly shots. Indeed, hand-held camera is more frequently used in this situation than dollying because hand-held is thought to more closely approximate human movement. After all, we all have legs like a camera operator, not wheels like a dolly.

The Steadicam is a registered trademark for a piece of technology that has come to identify a style of camera movement that closely resembles hand-held.

The Steadicam is a gyroscopically balanced device that straps to the operator's body. The resulting motion is as smooth as that produced with a dolly. It is conventionally used in situations where stability is desired but economic and technical practicalities dictate that dolly tracks cannot be laid. ER (1994-) was among the first TV programs to use a Steadicam on a daily basis. Its camera operators move through the sets in ways previously reserved for feature films.


As we have seen, video and film utilize many similar techniques: photographic technology that originated in still photography (focal length, depth of field, etc.) and aesthetic presumptions about framing, height, and movement of the camera. As a result of digital convergence the two media are becoming closer and closer. In the near future, convergence will be complete and the differences be tween film and video will be erased. For now, however, important distinguishing characteristics remain.

Aspect Ratio

Fig. 22 Aspect Ratio 2.35: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85: Masked Widescreen 1.78: HDTV 1.33: TV and Pre-1952 Cinema

After World War II, the TV frame stabilized at a size of 4 units wide by 3 units high-the same dimensions as movie screens of the time. That is to say, a screen 4 feet wide would be 3 feet high; a screen 16 inches wide would be 9 inches high; a screen 40 feet wide would be 30 feet high; and so on. Its width compared to its height is thus 4:3, which may be reduced to 1.33:1 or simply 1.33. In technical terms, this is TV's aspect ratio. The recently established standard for high definition television (HDTV) requires a wider image. Its standard width is 1.78 to 1, although it is normally identified as 16 to 9. Theatrical film's aspect ratio is wider still and consequently when theatrical films are shown on television, the video frame cuts off portions of the cinematic image. In other words, when we watch a theatrical movie on television, we see only a part of the image that the viewer in the theater sees. Since theatrical films still form a significant portion of television programming and since more viewers experience theatrical films on videocassette and DVD than in theaters, it is important to understand just how the video frame modifies the film frame. The major TV and film aspect ratios are diagramed in Fig. 22.

The elongation of the film frame was originally realized as a response to the perceived threat of television in the decade after World War II. Film producers reasoned that theatrical films must provide viewers with something they cannot get from television. How else could they coax customers away from their television sets? Thus, in the 1950s film studios attempted a variety of technological lures: color, 3D, stereo sound, and wider screens. Widescreen, its advocates maintained, presented the viewer with a larger and grander and more over whelming image. (Its detractors claimed that it was only suitable for filming snakes and dachshunds.) These new, wider screens had aspect ratios of 2.35:1 and 2.55:1, almost twice as wide as the standard ratio of 1.33:1. At first, widescreen was used principally for travelogues such as This Is Cinerama (1952) and lavish productions on the order of The Robe (1953). But by the 1960s widescreen films had become quite commonplace.

Fig. 23

Fig. 24

Fig. 25 Masked Widescreen

The first commonly used widescreen process was based on an anamorphic lens and is best known by its trademark labels: CinemaScope and Panavision. During the shooting of the film, the anamorphic process uses a special lens that squeezes the image. If we were to look at a frame of the film itself, everyone and everything would appear skinny (Fig. 23). When this film is projected, the process is reversed; it is projected through an anamorphic lens, which un-squeezes the image and presents a broad, wide view (Fig. 24). The 'Scope frame thus achieves an expanded aspect ratio -specifically, a 2.35:1 ratio.

The second, more common, widescreen process is created through masking and does not involve the use of a special lens while shooting or projecting. Masked widescreen is created during the projection of the film, not the actual filming. A regular 1.33 frame is used, but horizontal bands across the top and the bottom of the frame are "masked" (blackened). As is evident in Fig. 25, the frame within the frame is wider than the old 1.33 ratio. This widescreen frame-within the-frame-with a ratio of 1.85:1 -is enlarged to fill the screen. Thus, masked widescreen (1.85) is not as wide as anamorphic widescreen (2.35), but it is still wider than the pre-1952 film standard (1.33); more important, it is also wider than the old television and the HDTV standards (1.33 and 1.78, respectively), as illustrated in Fig. 22. Currently, masked widescreen is the predominant format for theatrical films. Approximately 90% of contemporary films are presented in the 1.85 aspect ratio.

Television has adopted a variety of strategies to present widescreen theatrical movies with a minimum of viewer annoyance. The greatest widescreen challenge to TV's ratio is the anamorphic frame's 2.35 width. In other words, television has had to find a way to fit an anamorphic film's extra-wide image into the skinnier television screen. Two processes have emerged to deal with the conversion from 2.35 to 1.33 (or 1.78): letterbox and pan-and-scan or scanning.

Fig. 26; Fig. 27

Fig. 28; Fig. 29

Letterboxing, the less frequently applied option for converting anamorphic films to video, preserves most of the original image, but shrinks it. This pro cess closely resembles widescreen masking for the theater, in that the tops and bottoms of the video frame are blackened. In letterboxing, the anamorphic film frame is reduced and fit into the frame-within-the-television-frame. A small amount of the left and right sides of the anamorphic frame is sacrificed, but it is considerably more similar to the original framing than is a pan-and-scan version. In Figs. 26 and 27, from a letterboxed version of He Said, She Said (1991), the reader may see how the anamorphic frame from the original film has been shrunk and placed within the television frame. Most of the width of the original composition has been maintained (see Fig. 24). We can see both Dan Hanson and Lone Bryer on opposite sides of the frame as she bounces a coffee mug off his head.

Fig. 30

The pan-and-scan process, in contrast, reduces the 2.35 anamorphic frame to television's 1.33 by selecting the most "significant" part of the frame and eliminating the rest. Figs. 28 through 30 present a pan-and-scan version of the same He Said, She Said shot discussed above. Compare the pan-and-scan Fig. 28 with the letterbox Fig. 26. In the pan-and-scan version, Dan fills most of the frame and Lone cannot be seen at all-quite a difference from the original film! In addition, pan-and-scan can affect both camera movement and editing.

The pan-and-scan frame need not remain fixed on one portion of the original frame. It can slide or "scan" left or right across the original. For example, in the original He Said, She Said shot above, the camera stays still as the coffee mug sails across the frame (Figs. 26- 27). In the pan-and-scan version, however, the pan-and-scan frame quickly scans across the image with the mug as it moves through the original frame, thus keeping the mug centered in the pan-and-scan frame. That is, the frame scans from Fig. 29 to Fig. 30, coming to rest on Dan as the mug beans him. What was achieved with a stationary camera in the original is now presented through the "movement" of scanning.

Further, in terms of editing, the pan-and-scan version can alter the rhythms of the original edit by cutting between portions of a shot-even if there had been no cutting in the film version. Returning to He Said, She Said, we can see how the shot has been edited for the pan-and-scan release. In the letterbox rendering, the mug-tossing shot begins with Dan talking on the left side of the frame, with Lone visible on the right (as in Fig. 26). For pan-and-scan the shot starts with Bacon large in the frame and Perkins completely cut out (Fig. 28). Then, the camera cuts to Perkins (Fig. 29) as she prepares to pitch the mug. What was one shot in the original has now become two. Thus, the rhythm of the original version's editing is completely altered.

In broadcast television, there is an overriding compulsion to fill the image, to leave nothing blank. The visual voids at the top and bottom of letterboxed films thus do not suit the medium, where almost all anamorphic films are panned-and-scanned. In this fashion, anamorphic films are made to conform to the norms of television. Their images are processed until they fully load the TV screen, regardless of the injury done to the original images. However, it should be noted that DVD releases of films frequently feature both letterbox and pan-and-scan versions-allowing consumers to decide whether or not they wish to see the entire frame of the original.

There have been a few, rare attempts by televisual texts to reshape the frame within the standard 1.33 rectangle. In a MicroStrategy consulting commercial discussed later the top and bottom of the frame have been blacked out (Fig. 12.24), as in a letterboxed version of a film. This effect, which can also be observed in some music videos (e.g., Hal Ketchum's Mama Knows the High way, Fig. 31), alters the image's aspect ratio without actually changing the dimensions of the picture tube. Commercials and music videos can also be found that blacken the sides of the image (creating a tall, narrow rectangle), or darken all but a small rectangular or circular portion of the image. Each of these manipulations of the frame leaves blank areas in the image that would not be tolerated in conventional television. The result is an image that looks oddly distinct, that distinguishes itself from "normal" television and thereby captures our attention-which is precisely the effect needed in commercials and music videos.

Fig. 31

Fig. 32

The differences between film and television aspect ratios are most apparent in anamorphic films, but they are also evident in the transfer of masked widescreen films to video. When masked widescreen films-with an aspect ratio of 1.85-make the transition to 1.33 TV, they lose a little from the edges, but not much because of the technique used to create this form of widescreen.

Recall that masked widescreen films use the entire 1.33 frame when shooting, but blacken the tops and bottoms when projected in a theater. On the actual frames of film, however, the areas to be masked are still visible. When transferred to video, the TV frame-which is a rounded rectangle-trims all four edges of the film frame. This maintains most of the width of a masked widescreen image and, coincidentally, it also reveals portions of the film image that are masked out in the theater. Normally this has no major effect, for today's camera operators compose their images with television in mind. Indeed, marked in their cameras' viewfinders is the area that is "safe for television." But sometimes film directors are less cautious about the use of the areas to be masked, in which things such as boom microphones, lights, and the tops of sets may be visible. In Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985), a car is driving past traffic signs at night -or so it appears in the widescreen theatrical film version. In the television version, the bottoms of the traffic signs-hidden in the masking of the original-are visible, and it is revealed that they are actually on wheels (Fig. 32). Pee-wee's car is not moving; the signs are rolling toward the camera.

As viewers, we need to be aware of film's and television's differing aspect ratios to understand anomalies such as the wheeled signposts in Pee-wee's Big Adventure and He Said, She Said's bizarre framing. These odd occurrences are becoming less and less common, however, as the television and film industries become more and more intertwined. HDTV's ratio of 1.78 is not all that different from masked widescreen's 1.85. And many widescreen films--both anamorphic and masked--are now composed with television's aspect ratio in mind. For this reason, even widescreen films tend to position the actors in the center of the frame--for fear of losing them when the film is transferred to video. Thus, the technological and economic necessities of converting widescreen film images to television images generate aesthetic results in the way the image finally appears on TV.

Image Quality: Definition

The more clearly details in an image appear or are defined, the higher that image's definition. Film, standard video, and high-definition video have different levels of clarity. To understand the differences between these media, we must consider some of the technological bases of both film and video.

Definition in film is primarily determined by the size of the grain of the film stock, the specific type of film. The grains are the silver halide crystals that swim around in the chemical soup, or emulsion, that is attached to the celluloid backing, or base, of a piece of film. In fine-grain film stocks the grain is smaller, less noticeable, and the definition is higher. Just how noticeable a film stock's grain is depends principally on two factors.

First, film stocks that are very sensitive to light and thus may be used in dark, low-light situations are grainier than those that are less sensitive to light.

These kinds of film stocks are often used in documentary shooting, for example, where the light level cannot always be controlled.

Second, smaller format film stocks are grainier than larger format stocks.

(Format here refers to film width and is measured in millimeters.) Thus, of the three most common film formats--super-8, 16mm, and 35mm--the largest also has the finest grain, the highest definition. One might think therefore that 35mm's high definition would mean that it is the only film stock used in production for television. This has not been the case. Both economic and aesthetic factors have created specific niches for each of the formats. Inexpensive super-8 (and its immediate predecessor, "regular" 8mm) was the size of choice for home movie makers for over three decades, until the 1980s when low-cost video cameras virtually destroyed the super-8 market. For documentary work and low-budget films 16mm film is used. And 35mm film dominates filmmaking for theatrical movies, MOWs, prime-time television programs, national commercials, and music videos. Super-8 and 16mm-with their noticeably higher grain levels-are still used within 35mm programs to achieve particular effects. For example, the fuzzy, high-grain images of a 1960s family that are used in the credit sequence for The Wonder Years (1988-93) denote "home movies" and connote nostalgia for a bygone era. (Those scenes have been shot in super-8 or 16mm, while the rest of the program is shot in 35mm.) High grain images-particularly black and white images-are also used to connote "documentariness" in fiction programs and have appeared in many music videos and commercials.

Definition in video is not a factor of graininess, since video images are not composed of chemical crystals or grains. Moreover, although video image quality is defined somewhat by the material used to record that image-as do film stocks in the cinema-it is not exclusively so defined. This is because, unlike film, the video image can exist without being recorded in any fashion. Indeed, video images existed long before there was videotape to record them. Film's existence, in contrast, depends on an elaborate mechanical-chemical process that fabricates a piece of film that runs through a projector. It cannot exist with out that recording medium. In contrast, all that television needs to create an image is a camera to produce an image and a television set to receive it. An immediate image may be instantaneously generated on a video screen, even if it is never stored on a recording medium such as videotape. What this means in terms of understanding image quality is that we may separate the quality of the video image from the quality of the video image as it appears on video tape. This distinction would be impossible to make in regard to the cinema because the medium does not exist separate from its presence on a physical strip of film.

At the most basic level, the video image is made up of phosphorescent dots that are arranged in horizontal lines on the TV screen. To be precise, these "dots" are really three tiny colored rectangles--one red, one green, and one blue-clustered together to form a single picture element, or pixel. An electron gun (three electron guns, in most color TVs) in the rear of the picture tube, or cathode ray tube (CRT), fires an electron beam at these pixels, scanning line by line across the horizontal lines of the TV image. The number of scan lines varies in countries that use different broadcasting systems. The U.S. standard was set at 525 lines by the National Television System Committee (NTSC) decades ago.

In the European system, the image consists of 100 more scan lines than it does in North America. And HDTV increases the NTSC number by several hundred lines, depending on which HDTV system is used.

When struck by the beam, the pixels glow and thereby create the television image. The pixels in NTSC television are so large that the scan lines are visible to the naked eye-if one should care to sit so close to the TV. Be cause the video pixels in these scan lines are much larger than the grain in 35mm film stocks, the video image is less clear-has a lower definition-than the 35mm film image (although it is roughly equivalent to the 16mm film image). And, though it may seem somewhat strange, when film images are converted to video signals, they still retain a higher degree of definition than do images originally shot with a video camera. Thus, filmed images on television are clearer and more sharply defined than are standard, non-HDTV video images.



North American TV and Film Resolution


Total lines 525 1,125

Active lines 486 1,080 3,000

Pixels per line 720 1,920 4,000

Aspect ratio (to 1) 1.33 1.78 1.33. 1.85, or 2.35

Total pixels 349,920 2,073,600 12,000,000


What all of this boils down to is that-until recently-filmed images have held much more visual information than video images. If you took a video cam era and a film camera to a football game and recorded the crowd from exactly the same angle, the film shot would contain details that would be blurry or impossible to see in video. Film's higher definition equals more details visible in the image. The aesthetic result of this technological aspect is that TV videographers and directors tend to use more close-ups and fewer long shots-fearing that otherwise viewers will not be able to see important elements within the frame.

The lower resolution of video is one reason why TV tends to be a more "close-up" medium than is theatrical film.

However, the long-standing supremacy of 35mm film is now being surpassed by new developments in video. By increasing the number of scan lines in the video image and decreasing the size and shape of the pixels, the video image may be made much clearer, more highly defined. This is the intent of high definition television (HDTV). The Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) was formed in the early 1990s to set a standard for HDTV-much as the NTSC had set the standards for the North American TV system decades before. In 1996, the FCC accepted ATSC recommendations for digital television (DTV), of which HDTV is one part. As of this writing, the conversion to DTV is proceeding slowly and erratically. Wrangling over the multicasting and enhanced TV issues is delaying its implementation. Even so, the FCC has given U.S. stations and networks the deadline of 2002 to start digital broadcasting.

And by 2006, analog NTSC television is scheduled to be eliminated entirely and replaced with some form of digital television. It seems likely, however, that these deadlines will be extended.

As we consider these new technical developments, the numbers start to get really confusing. But if you look closely at Table 6.1, you'll see that the old (NTSC) television standard contains 525 scan lines, but only 486 of them are visible-due to reasons best understood by broadcast engineers. On each of these 486 scan lines reside 720 rectangles of colored light, the pixels that make up the image. If we multiply 486 pixels times 720 lines, we find that the (North American) TV image consists of 349,920 pixels, which seems like a lot. But it really isn't when you compare it to film, which has the equivalent of 12,000,000 pixels (if, indeed, film had pixels instead of grain). How much closer to 35mm film is high-definition TV? First, the ATSC HDTV standard more than doubles the old NTSC standard of lines of pixels- to 1,125, of which 1,080 are active. Second, it also changes the shape of the pixels.

By modifying the NTSC rectangular pixel into a square one, HDTV is able to fit more pixels on each line-1,920 square pixels instead of 704 rectangular ones.

If we multiply HDTV's 1,920 pixels times its 1,080 lines, we find that its image is made of 2,073,600 pixels-many times more than NTSC's 349,920 pixels.

Consequently, HDTV's image definition is noticeably better than conventional broadcast television, but it still falls well short of film. Remember also that HDTV stretches the screen's aspect ratio from the NTSC width of 1.33 to 1.78, which is quite close to the theatrical film standard of masked widescreen (1.85). Not only is the HDTV image clearer and more detailed than the NTSC image, it's also wider so there's more to see on the left and right.

As digitally recorded and transmitted video evolves, the visual differences between film and video will evaporate. By 2010 it seems likely that everything from TV productions to theatrical films will be recorded digitally and the question of "film or video?" will be rendered moot. Until then, however, the differences among film, NTSC video, and HD video will continue to influence the style of television.

When the video recording process is factored into the image-quality equation, we may see that the different video formats can have a marked impact on image definition. The situation is particularly confusing just now as we are in the midst of a transition to digital formats. Older video formats such as 8mm, 1/2", 3/4", 1", and 2" tape are being phased out in favor of digital recordings on tape of varying sizes. The burgeoning popularity of digital video (DV) is evident in the increasing number of theatrical films (e.g., Star Wars: Episode II), TV programs (especially news and documentary shows), and home "movies" (using digital camcorders) that are being recorded in digital formats. Home videographers, however, are probably most familiar with 1/2" VHS and 8mm videocassette for mats. These formats find very limited use in broadcast television. Like super-8 film, 1/2" VHS tape and 8mm videocassette recordings are sometimes used in videotaped narrative programs to denote home movie-style videotaping. And, parallel to 16mm film, the video formats used in television news are sometimes used in videotaped/filmed fiction programs to signify "news style:' Home videotaping formats also make occasional appearances on television news when "amateur" videotapes of news events (e.g., tornadoes, earth quakes, police brutality) or surveillance videotapes of crimes are broadcast.

The poorer resolution of these tapes--their difference from broadcast-quality tapes-becomes significant in these instances. It marks the tapes as "authentic," as un-posed and spontaneous and supposedly a pure piece of the historical world.

Regardless of how that footage was obtained, it appears to be part of reality be cause we consciously or unconsciously link it with other amateur videotapes we have seen. Thus, the technology (1/2" VHS videotape) creates a visual style (poor resolution images) that carries certain significations based on our association with other videotaped images.

Image Quality: Color and Black and White

There are a few basic color characteristics that are described the same in both video and film: hue, saturation and brightness. Hue designates a specific color from within the visible spectrum of white light: for example, red, green, blue. The level of saturation defines a color's purity-how much or little grayness is mixed with the color. Deep, rich, vibrant colors such as those in a brand-new U.S. flag are said to be heavily saturated. They become less saturated as the weather-beaten flag's colors fade. Saturation is also termed chroma or chrominance in video color. Brightness or luminance in video indicates how bright or dark a color is.

Despite these similarities, video and film take different approaches to creating color images. Video constructs colors by adding them together (additive color). A single phosphor on the TV screen is colored red, green, or blue. The electron gun (or guns) ignite three nearby phosphors and combine their individual colors, thus generating a broad variety of colors. Film, in contrast, is a subtractive color process. As white light from a projector lamp passes through a piece of motion picture film, yellow, magenta (reddish), and cyan (bluish) colors are filtered out of the light. The colors that are not filtered out form the many colors of the spectrum.

Thus, both video and film rely on three-color systems to generate color images. Different video systems and film stocks balance these three colors in different ways. Some are more sensitive to red, others to blue; some appear more naturalistic under sunlight, others under tungsten light (as in household light bulbs). No video system or film stock captures color exactly as it exists in nature, but this is not necessarily a drawback. Rather, it presents a wide range of color options to the camera operator. Color may be manipulated through the choice of video system and film stock, as well as through lens filters and colored gels on the lights.

In the 1980s, long after television had been a strictly color medium, black and-white video and film began to be reintroduced. Although black-and-white images are uncommon in narrative programs, they have been used to indicate dream sequences or events that occurred in the past. In these cases, black-and white's contrast from color has been used to communicate narrative information. It becomes diegetically significant-significant in the world the characters inhabit. Black-and-white is also used in non-narrative television such as commercials and music videos. In these situations the colorless images cannot always be anchored in specific meanings beyond product differentiation. Yes, there have been several commercials in which everything is black-and-white except for the product advertised (a rather obvious use of black-and-white); but there are also black-and-white music videos in which the significance of the lack of color is ephemeral or elusive. In any event, black-and-white video/film is still another option that the camera operator may use to affect the viewer.

Special Effects

Special effects are not, strictly speaking, part of the style of the camera. Very few special effects are achieved solely by using a camera. Rather, most are accomplished by computers transforming the video images created by the camera.

In the animation section we expand on the techniques of computer-generated imagery (CGI) and its manipulation that are available in television production.

Still, a few comments on special effects seem in order at this point so that we do not innocently presume that the images we see on television could not have been somehow processed and manipulated.

Among the first special effects to be developed for television was keying, which is an electronic process, but not a digital one. That is, a computer is not required. In keying a portion of a video image is cut out and another image is placed in that video "hole:' The simplest form of keying is the insertion of letters and numbers into an image, as can be seen in Figures 8 and 16, discussed in terms of mise-en-scene. The text in each case-"NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw" and "13 Fran Curry"--has been keyed into the image using a special effects generator. The process is instantaneous and can be done while a program is broadcast live.

Chroma key is a special type of keying in which a particular color (blue or green, usually) is subtracted from an image and a new image is inserted in its place. Weather forecasters, for example, stand in front of a blue screen, which is transformed into map or radar images. The Weather Channel forecaster in the background of Fig. 33 is in a studio gesturing toward a blue screen. As can be seen in the monitors on the lower left and far right, a map has been created by a computer and inserted into the image behind him, taking the place of the blue screen.3

Fig. 33


This section has been filled with more technological information--mechanical, chemical, electronic and digital -than have the other sections. This is because camera style is inevitably described in technological terms-words borrowing from technological roots for their meanings: dolly shot, anamorphic framing, telephoto shot. To discuss television style, then, it becomes necessary to understand television technology. Technology does not exist in a vacuum, how ever. The use of specific technological inventions-videotape, camera dollies, etc. --depends on the TV program's budget and the aesthetic conventions of the time. Moreover, many elements of camera style are not at all determined by technology. Framing and camera height decisions, for example, do not depend on specific technological devices. Instead, they result from shifting aesthetic conventions.

Technology, economics, and aesthetic convention blend together in the videographer's, cinematographer's, and/or director's manipulation of camera style. The people responsible for visual style choose initially between video (analog and digital) and film, and thereby determine much about the definition and color of the final product. But--regardless of the originating medium--focal lengths, depths of field, framings, camera heights, and movements will be selected to maximize narrative, informational, or commercial effect. Each of these camera-style aspects serves many functions on television, affecting our understanding of a program. As critical viewers, we need to remain alert to the significance of camera-style techniques. We can then understand their function within television and their impact on television's construction of meaning.


Video and film camera style is discussed in many of the readings suggested at the end of section 5. Peter Ward, Picture Composition for Film and Television (Woburn, MA: Focal Press, 1996) addresses the specific principles behind the framing of images with the camera and the positioning of objects and humans within that frame.

The nuts and bolts of digital video production are well covered in Michael Rubin, Nonlinear 4: A Field Guide to Digital Video and Film Editing ( Gainesville, FL: Triad, 2000). The convoluted story behind the evolution of DTV is chronicled in entertaining fashion in Joel Brinkley, Defining Vision: The Battle for the Future of Television (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1997). Joan Van Tassel, Digital TV Over Broadband: Harvesting Bandwidth ( Boston: Focal, 2001) accounts for both technological and economic convergence in contemporary television and related electronic media.

Readers interested in the specifics of film camera technology should consult J. Kris Malkiewicz, Cinematography: A Guide for Film Makers and Film Teachers, 2nd ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989).


1 In the cinema deep focus was not used much until the 1940s, when directors such as Orson Welles and cinematographers such as Gregg Toland began incorporating it.

In Citizen Kane (1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Welles uses deep focus to coordinate simultaneous action on several planes: for example, while a young boy's mother and father discuss the boy's future he (the boy) is visible through a window, playing in the snow in the far background (Citizen Kane).

2 Andre Bazin, What Is Cinema?, ed. and trans. Hugh Gray ( Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

3 On the issue of whether to use blue or green for chroma key, Greg Stroud, senior brand manager and on-air promotions of the Weather Channel, comments, "Most places switched to green walls long ago because talent kept complaining that they couldn't wear blue in their wardrobe. A legit complaint, since blue is a very common wardrobe element. However, the green used in a green wall is very reflective. Because of that, the talent cannot stand very close to the wall or the green reflects back on them, not only giving them an odd skin tone but then keying them out. So to use green, you have to have a very deep studio with proper lighting."

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Updated: Thursday, 2021-05-13 10:54 PST