This last week, I was scanning production stills from the largest live production I did in the 1980’s. (I did two bigger ones in the 70’s and another in 2004, which I’ll talk about another time.) What struck me was not the gear – though video cameras then were gigantic beasts which still only captured standard-def images – but four behind-the-scenes shots.
This was an Emmy telecast for WCVB-TV, Boston, in 1981. Three hours, live, networked, with a crew of about 80, 150 on-air guests and live audience around 1,500. It was produced by Hubert Jessup and I was the director. The audience was in the millions.
I’ve always loved directing large, one-time special events. The directing was fun, but the truly exciting part, for me, was setup. I loved working with the whole team to take the vision in my head and turn it into a real, live production. Yes, it was stressful – and I enjoyed every minute.
I clearly remember being moved to tears decades ago, standing in the back of a large church where we were setting up for a live Christmas performance featuring 7 choirs. Huge cables snaked everywhere, crew members hanging lights, setting camera platforms and running audio cables. It was an overwhelming beehive of activity. “All this,” I thought, “came from an idea in my mind.” I still find the power of an idea to be truly humbling.
This was the first shot that caught my eye: my production desk. (Yeah, production facilities have never been opulent…) But look more closely: No computer. No cell phone. No electronics at all – except for a wired, single-line telephone. Oh! And the de rigueur blue plastic case for 1″ video tape.
All production elements were printed and stored in the orange binder. Scripts, rundowns, blueprints, seating charts – all hard copy. I can’t imagine doing any production today without computer support for scripts, drawings and databases.
Thinking about hard copy, this is Katie Tully, the assistant to the producer, juggling multiple binders while answering questions on the phone. While phones are still around, though smaller, having to remember on which printed page critical production information was stored is fortunately mostly in the past.
Television was all analog back then. This is, I think, signal processing to send the signal from origination back to studio master control for distribution. (It was sent via telco dry fiber, with a microwave backup.) Today, all this would be replaced by a single Ethernet cable.
Aside from the video scope (top left) and the monitor (center), I don’t recognize any of this gear. But it was only one small collection of the cases and cases of electronics that were necessary to originate a live show.
This, though, is my favorite shot. It reminds me that one thing never changes: the production table. Every production I’ve ever worked ran on half-drunk cups of coffee and mostly-eaten baked goods. A table covered in floor plans, scripts, seating charts and notes, with the production team that made everything run figuring out how to get it all assembled in time.
This classic production shot reminds me that, while technology changes, it was the efforts of talented people behind the scenes that made television possible back then – and their successors make it possible today. Fueled, as always, by coffee and sweet rolls.
9 Responses to Video Production Evolves – Except Where It Matters
Larry, I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see that someone other than myself has photos such as these in his archives. Thanks for sharing!! – David
For me it was the trim bins, the Steenbecks, the splicers, the splicing tapes at $50 a roll, black leader, white leader, rewinds, cans, lights that weighed a ton each, full coat mag stock, the PeeWee dolly, the million dollar lenses, the Arriflex, the black bags… And that was just for starters. I’d rather sweep streets than go back to it.
And at that time we thought it was the best that ever was.
This is cool to see. I would love to see you shoot some stills from today and comment on it. Part of what I love about today is the democratization of the gear, post-production, and distribution. I became a student and fan of yours because of Final Cut Pro 6 which was revolutionary for me. No longer was I confined by budget and edit bay time. Then moving from 1080i miniDV prosumer acquisition to the Canon 5D mark ii which brought cinema quality to independent productions. And now Youtube brings a worldwide audience to our productions. All of the these innovations ushered the way to truly independent production. They have removed the barriers to entry and now we are only limited by our imaginations.
All true. But, in terms of photos, if we excluding lighting, I’d be taking a photo of a computer and an Ethernet cable.
Tools are easier and ubiquitous – but they don’t photograph nearly as well.
Larry, my fav comment in your article was, “All this would be replaced by a single Ethernet cable.” LOL! Wow. I was in high school at that time but I wasn’t yet in production. I thought my dad’s monster video camera with the ginormous VCR recorder slung over his shoulder was a beast. I can’t imagine working with all the now-vintage gear you had to work with.
Thank goodness I found my production passion in the 2000s when, although still SD, there was much more streamlined equipment and computers! Thanks for the history lesson, Larry!
It is easy to get caught up in the technological rush of today. But it is important to understand from where we’ve come. When I was doing remote video production for live TV, it took myself, a producer, an engineering crew of three, a bread truck filled with gear and half-a-million dollars of equipment to send a single-camera, live interview from location back to the studio.
Today, we can do that with a cell phone. I’m glad for all the changes – but the amount of change still boggles my mind.
Larry, I will say that when things go crazy because of 97 different Codecs, frame rates & compression ratios, for a few seconds I long for the non-computer days & the more “pure” videography/photography creative process, but only until the “non-creative” delays are solved. Yes, I do look back at a stack of 3/4SP U-Matic tapes of footage & wax nostalgic. Making edit decisions perfect the first time because there’s no easily going back to adjust. Well, now that I think about, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.
Life is ALWAYS better in hindsight, because we know how it all turned out. I remember needing to make a musical edit using 2″ video tape and simply could not get it close enough. The machines edited ±1/2 second. The music I was editing had a decided pop that could not be gotten rid of.
I miss those times for a variety of reasons, but today’s technology blows all that older gear out of the water. Though I do agree that there are way too many codecs, frame sizes, frame rates and conversion utilities to keep us all sane.