Have you ever wondered why every sitcom you watch looks . . . identical? Well, the reason why is more intricate than you might think.
Cover image via Vox.
I Love Lucy. Cheers. Seinfeld. What do all of these shows have in common? Well, they are some of the most influential sitcoms of all time, and together they span many years, yet for some reason, the lighting in each seems identical. The reason why is because . . . well, it works. If something ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s also part of what audiences have come to expect.
The best way to understand the origin of sitcom lighting is to simply take a look at its history and learn about a man named Karl Fruend.
Origins of the Sitcom Lighting System
Image via Vox.
Karl Fruend, a German cinematographer and director, came to Hollywood in the early 1920s to make movies. He was involved in influential films like Dracula, Metropolis, and The Mummy. His pioneering work on these films involved his use of lighting with stark contrast and beautiful, cinematic shots. So what made him switch over to the sitcom? Well, he believed that the sitcom had the potential to become a great storytelling tool.
He began work on I Love Lucy and created the recording process called the “Three-Camera System.” This system uses three cameras simultaneously recording at three different angles — one captures the wide shot, and the other two capture close-ups. The three-camera system enabled the taping of live shows like a news broadcast — due to the ability to switch between cameras with a switchboard. The one problem with this set-up, though, is that you need consistent lighting for each camera. So, to solve this problem, Fruend used a large-scale lighting system that flooded the set with light. This way, no matter where the actors moved on set, they would still be lit the same.
Difference Between “One-Camera System” and “Three-Camera System”
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Most other narrative shows (other than sitcoms or live shows) use the “One-Camera System.” When you’re using only one camera, you only need to light according to that camera’s needs, which gives you ample opportunity to tailor the light to the shot. You can get a lot more creative with this style and get shots that look more cinematic. One word I would use to describe the one-camera system is “contrast.” There is a stark difference between the subject and the background, colors, and setting.
With a three-camera system, the sheer amount of light blasting the set limits contrast. That’s why everything looks in focus in a sitcom — there’s no room to get too creative with the shots. Since the system has been around for so long, the flatness of the image has become a genre convention. It’s familiar and comfortable, and it showcases the actors’ performances rather than the shots themselves.
Why It’s Still in Use Today
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There really is just one answer for this question, and that’s time. Shooting a sitcom involves a lot of moving pieces — you’ve got a live studio audience, a limited amount of time on set, and a certain number of shots you’ve got to hit that day. To record a show with such tight time tables, the three-camera system offers ample coverage of every take without requiring you to reset after every shot to move lights around. The three-camera system is a tried-and-true way to streamline your shooting schedule.