— When the lights go out at home, most people reach for candles. When the lights went out at ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” on June 22, the late-night host reached for his laptop.
He didn’t have much choice — his audience was warmed up, the guests were green-roomed and all was set to go when the power cut out at Kimmel's studio. OK, so there was some partial juice — microphones and lights were working just fine — but those big, heavy cameras used to film most studio-based television for the past several decades were as dead as dinosaurs.
It was time to wing it, and thanks to some fairly common, consumer-ready newfangled equipment, Kimmel made it work surprisingly well, filming the entire thing on his MacBook’s webcam. He was genially cranky throughout (“I promise nothing terrible like this will ever happen again,” he said) and the production values were far from ideal (the widely-varying audio levels being the most challenging part of watching the episode).
But this one-of-a-kind show had a unique edginess to it, first because this kind of homemade look actually aired on a major broadcast network, and second because it made use of technology that was never designed to create television.
And by doing so, Kimmel put himself on the forefront of the changing look of TV. Amidst all the hype about high-definition clarity and 3-D effects, watching his degraded, low-fi webcam picture was exciting. As viewers adjust to questionable camerawork as they spend hours in front of the computer watching Internet videos, and consumer-available technology becomes cheaper and more accessible to the average Joe or Jane, the lines between the pros and the amateurs begin to blur.
That makes for an exciting shift in telling a story on the small screen.
There have been variations on this theme for some time now. Craig Zisk, who executive produces Showtime’s “United States of Tara,” said he’s integrated Flip camera tech into the making of two key series he’s worked on: “Tara” and “Weeds.” Both shows featured character-filmed segments or video diaries, and he said using the Flip cam for such moments gives the show a documentary feel.
It’s something of a backward glance for a producer who only recently started using digital to make his TV shows.
“Five, six years ago the thought of shooting a series on digital scared me,” he said. “I couldn’t imagine anything looking as good as film. ‘Weeds’ was the first show I ever shot in high-definition. I was worried what the show would look like — but the technology has grown exponentially.”
Over at Fox’s “House,” executive producer and director Greg Yaitanes said they’ve gone out of their way to find new and interesting ways of capturing scenes and telling stories with new camera tech. Anyone who saw the season finale of “House” this year — where many scenes were shot within the rubble of a collapsed building — saw the results of filming with a Canon 5D Mark II camera. (Yaitanes said he liked the “intimate feel” he was able to achieve with the camera in the rubble; it could go places other cameras couldn’t.) Small and relatively inexpensive (around $2,500), the 5D has both independent filmmakers and TV creators excited about its flexibility and quality.
But Yaitanes is excited about all kinds of new ways to use cameras to tell a story. A YouTube video came to his attention not long ago, where an amateur photographer captured a skate park, but it was so beautifully filmed he was entranced — and puzzled. No one knew at first that the video was made with the 5D and a consumer-grade SteadiCam called an iCam. So Yaitanes and his team brought the filmmaker on the set to get some tips.
“The footage he shot was phenomenal, and it was a good as what were filming,” said Yaitanes. “I find with smaller cameras we can put actors into more authentic situations — it’s been a very freeing experience for our crew.”
Next up, Yaitanes is working on experimenting with GoPro Video, a high-definition camera “no bigger than a matchbox,” he said.
All of which is a far cry from the big, clunky cameras that didn’t work on Kimmel’s show. They’re almost certainly on their last legs in the industry as new, faster, lighter (and cheaper) cameras come into play. And as Yaitanes and Zisk prove, much of the experimentation with these new pieces of equipment — many of which are available for a small investment by consumers — is coming from inside the industry.
“Crews like to be challenged, that’s one reason people are attracted to this business,” said Zisk. “Because of the way people in this industry think, they never want to sit and wait for the next new thing to come out. They want to be developing and on the cutting edge.”
By using such accessible equipment as the GoPro and the 5D and even the MacBook, such industry pros are providing the thumbs-up for future creators who might have been fearful of experimenting on such a public stage.
“The exciting by-product of this is when you have a huge show like ‘House’ use these things, it gives permission to everyone else to use it,” said Yaitanes. “You can’t say now, ‘That’s not accessible for broadcast.’ ”
Whether all this leads to better television or just more interesting viewing remains to be seen. And it’s quite possible that for some years to come the effect of using consumer equipment to create series may remain so subtle that it will go unnoticed except for industry wonks and director wannabes.
But as the gap between what the pros can afford to use and inspired amateurs narrows, the promised future for digital film and TV-making seems ever closer: Namely that you can — and will — be able to try this at home.