Trapped in the 4X3 or B&W
“There are no good old days,” admitted Weather Channel reporter Scott Newell. Scott enjoys the flexibility of modern video technology. He reflects on video tape, tape decks and unforgiving linear editing protocols with disdain. Technological determinism is a good thing. As time goes by technology improves. Modernity is a blessing and a curse. Our work, much like the directors of B&W films, is trapped within the extinct format and technology. Many will see our old stories and pass them off as soon as they see the boxy 4X3 picture. Yuck. Old. Has to be bad.
Many students and my brother-in-law refuse to watch Black and White films. They admit to avoiding the films as soon as they see the lack of chroma. It is as if the images were contagious and their brains are zapped of intellect or amusement. Bad…Yuck…boring.
It is a sad reality that modernity pushes our work into a bin, a dust heap of fuzzy standard definition with wobbling control tracks and stark contrast issues. All of us who worked during the analog times of broadcast television have feelings of nostalgia and camaraderie. Code words such as ‘assembly’ edit can bring guttural responses like recurring bad memories. Glen Mabie, former TV producer, now Multimedia Specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire declared, ‘Anyone who assemble edits a package should be beaten. Severely.’ It is a common feeling among a small group of people.
But you would have to be burned once to remember forever.
No one will know that feeling again. Thank God…I guess.
Our life’s work lays scattered before us in prisons of tapes. If you look on this site you will find old work that was resurrected from a few tapes I saved (more to come). Like someone running from a hurricane, only a few survive. It is harder and harder to find places we can play the tapes. When we get a chance to transfer the material to digital format, Scott Newell’s thoughts of old technology echoes in the whining, spinning tape drum heads inside beat-up relics of tape decks. (I can tell you a story about how I had to keep my finger on the slack rod of an old 3/4 deck every time we aired a commercial. It was during my junior year at RIT. A summer job in Canandaigua, NY - Cable 12. The owner bought a used deck that was once used as a nest for either birds or mice. The inside of the deck still had pieces of the nest scattered in the crevasses. Fun times. Don't let me tell you how I was paid in golf balls for overtime.)
Despite the outlier moments previously mentioned, long ago we created good work that now looks shabby and torn like an old sweater left in the attic for too long. Feels like mice again. Now, even I second guess if I had any talent and wonder why I didn’t color correct the shots. We couldn’t color correct back then. We couldn’t dissolve or wipe without a complex series of transfers of material to tapes, and with that came degradation of quality with each transfer. So, we didn’t dissolve.
Audio had to be mixed on the fly between two channels. Natural sound on one, voiceover or soundbite on the other. I preferred channel 1 for my VO and soundbites. Others preferred the opposite. Some old, old school guys would say don’t use channel 1 because that channel is too close to the edge of the tape and will get chewed up on the drum head. I didn’t follow that direction.
Non-linear editing changed my brain. It was a quantum leap for all of us and was a catalyst for today’s multimedia environment. If you told me back in 1989 that one day we’d edit on computers and you can move video around like coins on a table, I’d say you were sniffing glue (or you put your nose too close to the drum head when the rubber/plastic heated up). After days and hours of editing, I believe I can think in non-linear. It’s a strange feeling. A lot like when you play video games for too long and get that twitch reaction when you see something that surprises you. Or when you want to hit the reset button after you screw something up. Of course, I can’t think in non-linear ways but I never had the feeling I was messing with reality when editing analog tape. Analog tape required timing out soundbites and plotting out your script like an architect constructing blueprints. You couldn’t go back and re-cut something out of a 22-minute show unless you wanted to take the whole project down a full degradation of quality.
Once we got into non-linear it was like a playground. One time, I edited a show for a producer and we were 20 minutes heavy. 20 minutes! We got lazy. The pre-planning went out the window but creativity rose. It took a few years to get into the flow but we had it down by 2006. Unfortunately, we were still stuck in 4X3.
If you can’t tell a piece was cut in a linear fashion, the editor should be praised. Remember, two channels of audio mixed on the fly plus no effects just straight cuts. It made us better shooters. Trying to avoid jump cuts required us to shoot our b-roll in sequences. Today’s students have a hard time shooting close-up shots. They rely on jump cuts, dissolves or whatever (they think they are artistic...piff). For us old timers, we freak when we see jump cuts. Lazy shooter. Lazy.
We also had to bring a crap load of lights to get a quality shot. Today, lighter cameras and no lights…huh? The acceptance of poor lighting is the result of YouTube amateur hour. The difference between a professional and your mother are two things: Audio and Lighting. Your mom could probably shoot the same shot you can, accidentally, but she could could point, focus and attempt a good exposure. She can’t get you quality audio (and students struggle as well) and lighting is an afterthought for many. If we shot our stories like they shoot today, we’d be looking at dark screens with silhouettes.
Now that I’m THAT old guy who curmudgeonly pontificates, I look at my work like Norman Thayer, from On Golden Pond, who looks at a picture of his younger self. Confused. My work in 4X3 makes me feel like I’ve come home to find out I grew up in a trailer park when I thought I had an estate by the lake. And I brought my friends friends home to brag…”Serious, it was much nicer back in my day. We were the cat's pajamas.”
I tell my students that our profession is like ‘making sandcastles’ because the tide comes in and washes it all away. No one remembers what you did and if they see your work later on, it’s decayed and never looks as good as it was when you built it. Our legacy is our professionalism. Our artistic expression and our regard for objectivity define us. The 4X3, Betacams, ¾ inch tape, and linear editing were the best of their time. One day, the work you see today will look as crappy and dingy as ours looks many years after it hit the air.
Don't define me by the shovel or the sand, remember me by how I built my sandcastle and the moment it was proudly displayed on the beach.