Does Film Look More Real Than Tape?

by Jaime Weinman

videotapeThe question of film vs. videotape is increasingly becoming irrelevant as HD starts to take over everything, but some shows are still recognizably one or the other, and this Ken Levine post caught my eye:

Back in the days when some multi-camera shows filmed while others taped, the taped shows never looked real. They always looked like you were watching a play. They featured stark lighting and a very flat look. The sets looked like, well… sets. Audiences were used to film – either on TV or at the movies. So multi-camera filmed shows felt more real. So real that CHEERS had to announce that each show was filmed in front of a live studio audience. Otherwise viewers didn’t believe the laughs were real.

I’ve heard similar things said by other TV professionals, that video looks fake and film looks real. As a non-professional viewer, though, my impression was exactly the opposite. When the networks had both video and film shows, the taped shows looked more “real” to me than the filmed ones. Yes, the sets were more obviously artificial in the harsh video lighting, and one of the reasons professionals tend to prefer film is that it creates more verisimilitude: the Cheers set looked like a bar on film, whereas on tape it would have looked like a studio set with some chairs and a big, weird speed-bump in the middle. But I always felt that the action, and the people, seemed more believable in taped shows. The “live” look of tape (since it looks the same as a live broadcast) made it seem like the action was happening there in front of me, while film had a sort of distancing effect. Most of our TV-viewing time, outside of prime-time, is spent watching shows that are either taped or live, so videotape conveyed the impression that these were people talking in front of you, just like the local newscaster or weatherman, while film conveyed the impression that these were actors on a soundstage.

That’s one of the reasons it was easier to believe that the audience laughter was real in a taped show, because it felt like it was happening live and nothing was dubbed in after — even if it was. The other reason was that for technical reasons I’ve never fully understood, sound recording used to be more distant and reverberant in film, making everything sound a little fake — even if it wasn’t. Some of this still applies today: people complain about “laugh tracks” even on filmed shows that have real live audiences, while few people object to the audience laughter on The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live. There’s something about tape that makes us accept what we’re seeing and hearing. Just imagine if Cronkite had done the CBS Evening News on film. Would anybody have believed a word he said?




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Does Film Look More Real Than Tape?

  1. I've always wondered why many news reports from certain remote locations outside North America — typically Africa and parts of Asia — have a noticeably different video quality than those shot closer to home. I presume it's because they are sent by costly satellite uplinks and have to be compressed, digitally. Even so, video technology has advanced sufficiently in recent years, and bandwidth is affordable enough, that I see no excuse.

    I wish I could point to some examples of this (if the difference would even be perceptible in a YouTube video). Does anyone else know what I'm talking about?

  2. Similarly Jaime, I think you've hit upon a generational thing without realizing it.

    See for the first generation of people who grew up watching TV news, or who were already adults then, news footage WAS filmed. Hence, "film at 11." But around the time we were coming of age and starting to become aware of the news, the switch to lower cost videotape in the field was complete because they finally had cameras that were reliable and portable enough. So we equate "real" with "videotape" in a way that an earlier (and probably later) generation doesn't.

    In our heads, live = the look of videotape, but if you watched the Vietnam war in your living room, that was film.

    And we've come full circle. It's truly odd, and a little maddening. I bought my parents an HDTV last year and they've got the cable HDTV channels, and they rarely bother to watch the program on them. On the weekend I asked my mother "why" and she said that the HDTV channels gave her a headache, because they were "almost TOO lifelike." She doesn't like how sharp they are. They don't look real to her.

    You just can't win sometimes. :)

    • Excellent point. My association of videotape with "reality" is so automatic that (as you say) I didn't even realize it, though film has been "reality" for other generations.

  3. I don't know why it won't let me post a comment — I've tried to explain the answer to SADSACK above, but it won't let me post it. It keeps deleting it. I tried.

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