Film and Television

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What visual film techniques are used in contemporary TV?

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Visual film techniques are methods by which camera movements and maneuverings convey the meaning of the scenes. Some of these techniques that once were exclusively used for film, like Hitchcock's vertigo shot, are now finding their way into TV productions. You may have noticed on highly technical shows like Burn Notice, White Collar, or Flash Forward, a camera technique whereby the subject stays stationary while the background moves dizzingly away (and sometimes forward again!). This is a vertigo shot and was innovated by Alfred Hitchcok for his famous film Vertigo, with James Stewart.

Many TV shows, like The Dick Van Dyke Show, Cheers, Full House, and Hot in Cleveland, are actually filmed onstage before a "live studio audience," like a theater production, thus have a limited scope for visual film techniques. Since The Great Train Robbery broke the rules, silver screen film has not been thus limited to a proscenium. TV shows like Charlie's Angels took TV filming out of doors, following in film's footsteps and borrowing some of movie's film techniques.

Some other specific film techniques used in TV today are distance shots, angle shots, dolly and tracking shots, close-up shots, and lighting effects. The pilot episode of White Collar exemplifies some of these. It opens with many cuts in a montage series of extreme close-ups of Neil cutting his hair and shaving. Further shots incorporate angled shots, with high shots (looking upward) of medium or close-up shots and with crane shots of the space Neil is in.

Lighting in this montage segment (which points out the role of precision editing in visual effects) is side-lighting mixed with top-lighting. After Neil walks out, a series of pans, dolly shots, and tracking shots take him from the inside of the prison to the outside where we see him in an extreme long shot followed by a depth of field shot with Neil in close-up and the focus on the prison in the background.

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This is a great question. Undoubtedly, film and television influence each other. Let me give you three ways in which film has influenced television. 

First, from a budgetary point of view, television is spending a lot more money. Hence, these big budgets are producing some great shows. For example, last year the the TV show Terra Nova spent over four million dollars per episode. This is something that movies do. 

Second, on account of these big budgets and profits, many actors that would only appear on the silver screen now are making their way to television. This fact alone is blurring the distinction between television and movies. The advent of many cable channels is doing the same. Films no longer have a monopoly on large productions. 

Third, due to computers whatever types of special effects that were only reserved for film can now be done on television with minimal costs. So, in terms of technical work, there is virtually no difference between television and movies. The perfect example is the show Terra Nova. The dinosaurs in this television show are as realistic as Jurassic Park. Even seven years ago, this would not have been possible. 

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What visual TV techniques have become common in contemporary film?

Probably the most common television technique used in film today is the adoption of faster frame-rates. For years, cinema used the 24 frames-per-second standard, resulting in a specific visual quality that is widely recognised as "filmic." Television started with film but soon switched to a largely video-format, because of the lower cost; most video cameras recorded at a standard 30fps, giving television a different visual quality than film. This is most obvious in multi-camera sitcoms, where there is a minimum of post-production on the final image.

Today, because of the rapidly-decreasing cost of digital film and video, many low-budget films are shot on digital video and processed to film, whether 35mm or digital. Depending on the processing, the resulting image may have a smoother speed or higher resolution. This allows both cheaper and faster shooting, and as the formats increase resolution and adaptable frame-rates, the line between "TV look" and "movie look" is blurring.

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