Why so many sitcoms look the same


Frasier and Friends and Caroline in the City
and Murphy Brown and I Love Lucy all have one thing in common. No, it’s not all the audience laughter. They all kind of look…the same. And the shots and lighting all are kinda the
same. These are three camera sitcoms, with very
familiar camera angles and lighting. And the guy who perfected the style of light
that would one day shine upon Urkel’s face? “Did I do that?” It’s Karl Freund. The same guy who made…this. He was the German cinematographer behind the
look of “Metropolis,” the 1927 classic. And there was actually a good reason that
a genius decided that going from this to this was a challenge worth betting his
career on. This right here is cinematic history. It’s from 1924’s “The Last Laugh.” For this movie, Karl Freund invented what
was probably the first dolly shot in history – that’s when a camera moves on a cart or
a track. When Freund moved from Germany to Hollywood,
he continued to make visual masterpieces from directing the original “The Mummy,” to
being the cinematographer on “Dracula.” This scene from Dracula is emblematic of his
work, with shadows and light serving as powerful tools in the scene. With 1937’s “The Good Earth,” he won
an Academy Award for Cinematography. Freund’s art came from powerful imagery
and stark contrasts, like in this scene from Metropolis. I Love Lucy looked good – but pretty flat. That’s why it’s so surprising that he
thought it could be a breakthrough. We know Freund was nervous about making a
transition from movies like this to television filmed in front of a live audience. Traditional movie lighting wouldn’t work in
that environment and on a tight TV schedule. Here’s why. Dramatic lighting is cool. But if I move, the way people move in sitcoms,
I lose the light and the shot. You also can’t reset and move that light in front
of a live audience. The shot also has to be lit so that it can be shown
by three different cameras at the same time. That challenge appealed to Freund, and, laugh
track jokes aside, he wrote that a live studio audience had “an astonishing effect in stimulating
performers.” There were earlier experiments with live taping,
but Freund perfected it. You can see how he did it in I Love Lucy’s
very first episodes and in this on set picture. First, he put three cameras on his trademark
dollies – which is why these are called three camera sitcoms. Usually it has one camera in the middle, for
wide shots, and two on the sides for closeups. You can see it here, as well as in the tape
he used to mark the cameras’ positions. This is how it worked — letting cameras
move on the fly, without relighting. Cameramen coordinated at all times using headsets
and they were connected to the control room. To light this set up, Freund used an overhead
grid of lights like these and even put floor lights on the bottom of each camera to flatter
actors’ faces. This? This is not like I Love Lucy. He also placed microphones around the set
so they wouldn’t get in the way. Lucy and Ethel could bounce around the living
room without needing to stop taping — or stop the laughter. All of this let them keep a strict shooting
schedule with minimum reshoots after the show. For Freund, all this visual work was in service
of making one sound possible. This is still kind of how it’s done today. Freund’s tricks established a template for
the three camera sitcom that’s still in use today. As you can see it in “Vox”
– the first workplace sitcom where people actually work. Anyway, as you can see, there’s no need
to relight Dean as he crosses the room in this scene, only to be ignored by Ashley, because she’s too busy working. Freund’s techniques did have drawbacks,
some of those drawbacks are visible in today’s sitcoms, and some are specific to the time
in which he worked. He had to put darker makeup on his actors
so they wouldn’t be blown out by the lights – and you can see it on Lucy and Ethel here. In this scene, they were probably wearing
pastel clothing as well, because nothing could be too bright — film processing gave everything
higher contrast than normal. Even today the three camera sitcom has
a less adventurous look — as you can see as AJ and Ashley go through all their unread emails. It affects focus, too – look at the Big Bang
Theory next to its prequel, Young Sheldon. Big Bang Theory, the 3 camera sitcom, looks
pretty much like I Love Lucy. There are very few, or faint shadows, everything’s
in focus, and the camera angles are familiar. Young Sheldon is single camera, like a movie,
and that allows it to have light and shadow and a gorgeous blurred background. But Freund’s innovation did help a live
audience — and us — see Friends, and Seinfeld, and Frasier. As he wrote in 1953: “To have had the opportunity
to play a part in the success of the I Love Lucy show, which is now the No. 1 rated Television
show in the nation assures me the efforts to overcome the handicaps have not been in
vain.” Karl Freund was a genius. And sometimes even genius has a sense of humor.

32 thoughts on “Why so many sitcoms look the same”

  1. Set lighting is just one part of everything that goes into a TV show. Watch our video to see the entire process from start to finish: http://bit.ly/2Ji191l

  2. So what even is the show "Real Time with Bill Maher"? It's a panel discussion show, it's a comedy show, it's a punditry show. I guess Maher was the first political comedy show with "Politically Incorrect" in 1990, but he also included panels with people as different as Anne Coulter, Salman Rushdie, Henry Rollins, and Jerry Seinfeld. No other comedy show does this. The Daily Show is close, because it has correspondents, but it does not play things straight like Real Time does. It is not quite a serious news show, it's a political comedy/pundit show with a discussion panel. That is it. I used to think it was really dry. After the Trump era I got into it, because it hosted Michael Moore a good deal.

  3. I never, NEVER would have guessed in a million years that the look of sitcoms and the look of Metropolis could be attributed to the same person…

  4. I thought this was gonna be about why basically every sitcom takes place indoors and on sets of living rooms. I remember as a kid getting feeling depressed and wierded out watching so many sitcoms where they never showed characters go outside. One of the reasons why Seinfeld was such a breath of fresh air

  5. Oh dear. It’s very embarrassing to hear that a dolly shot was invented for The Last Laugh. We have examples from 15 years prior if not earlier

  6. Back in the '90s, I was in a very famous TV show (Ooh)
    I'm BoJack the Horse (BoJack!), BoJack the Horse
    Don't act like you don't know…

  7. Think of what I call a "Sofa Sitcom" more like a Broadway play. Instead of being in a theater, the "theater" is your television screen. Much of the teleplay in sitcoms centers around the living room sofa thus, the lighting and camera shots look the same. I figured that most people knew that.

  8. the cinematographer who did metropolis was literally the LAST person artistically who I would have thought went to television to invent the modern standard sitcom schtick

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