Today is the 30th anniversary of the death of Jim Henson. I was working on Muppetvision 3D at Imagineering when he died. I was so excited that Disney was buying the Muppets and thought that Jim Henson was another Walt Disney and his creativity would take us in many new directions. Of course this was not to happen and Disney would not buy the Muppets until many years later. The original magic was lost. Here are some videos showing the work of a great man.
Jim Henson also used technology to great effect to tell stories, that is technology for storytelling. There are many examples in this episode of the Jim Henson Hour.
Here are Frank and Ollie promoting their book The Illusion of Life: Disney Animationon the Tonight Show. Both Frank and Ollie were Disney Legends and The Illusion of Life is still one of the best books on animation. I was lucky enough to meet them both. They are asked about working for Walt and some of the controversies surrounding him. Great interview!
Disney did a great documentary about them. Available as a DVD or on streaming. I recommend this film to anybody interested in Disney history or animation.
The back stories of I Love Lucy are probably familiar to many, but the extent of Cahn’s influence and importance within the post-production community cannot be overstated. In 1951, the studio system was changing and the industry was in flux. Fewer audiences were going to movie theaters and more were staying home to watch the new medium, television. No one could have imagined then how television would impact the film industry, American culture, or the combination of events that would launch the historic and groundbreaking series, I Love Lucy. Most television shows were broadcast live from New York City, sometimes recorded onto very poor quality Kinescope to broadcast to the rest of the country.
Lucille Ball’s husband and executive producer, Desi Arnaz had other ideas. He negotiated with CBS for Desilu Productions to pay the difference to shoot the show in 35mm film with an IA Hollywood crew, in front of a live audience. Filming episodes gave him flexibility and control; he could stay home in Los Angeles with his wife and newborn daughter Lucie, work with familiar crews and production facilities and add spontaneity to each episode with a live audience. Arnaz also negotiated to own the negative, which would pay off in unexpected ways later with syndication and archiving. Of course he was also unaware that the series would ever be available to view on formats like VHS and DVD many years later.
I was introduced to Cahn at the Lucy-Desi Museum on the evening of the first day’s events. The museum has a permanent installation of the recreated sets of the Ricardo’s New York City apartment (the one with the window where Lucy, dressed as Superman, hid on the ledge outside) and the Beverly Palms Hotel (when Lucy and Harpo Marx mimed each other’s gestures) site of the “LA at Last” episodes. He was clearly thrilled to be “on set” again, and wasted no time indoctrinating me to his oeuvre with a personal guided tour.
Along the entire expanse of the wall opposite these sets, is a life-sized black and white photograph taken during the filming of an episode in 1951, showing the audience with the three-camera set up and everyone involved in the show, including Cahn. Also opposite the sets is a seven-minute video loop where he vibrantly explains how the first season’s episodes came together, working every day of the week for over 35 consecutive weeks, with a live audience. As we walked, Cahn identified everyone from that first season; Marc Daniels, the director, Jess Oppenheimer the producer, and cinematographer Karl Freund, who won the 1938 Best Cinematography Academy Award for The Good Earth. I asked how the series’ crew came together. “Well,” he said, “Lucy and Desi wanted the best in the business, the people they had worked with before in film, so they approached those same people.” I then asked if the show was required to go under a union contract, and he said, “No, but they insisted on working with the best, and those people worked union, so that’s the way it was going to be.”
We continued the tour and came upon the infamous “Three-Headed Monster”–a Moviola which played the film from all three camera angles simultaneously and (hopefully) in sync with an optical track for sound. Dubbed “The Monster” by Dann, because the props room was the only space on the stage large enough to accommodate its size, this machine is enormous. It was daunting for me, a digital-age assistant editor, to imagine the reels of film from three cameras running through it, the editor marking and making changes, all the while determining and meeting the demands for the new workflow, which was really multi-cam editing in its beta stage. We had a long weekend ahead of us, so after the tour, we decided to save some of my questions for a one-on-one breakfast meeting the next day, before the other events began.
The first thing Cahn said to me at breakfast was, “Don’t ask me about the Three-Headed Monster, everyone asks about that.” So that scrapped my first question. Instead, I asked about the optical sound track, and how that worked, since I had never worked with one. His eyes widened and he said, “Oh well, you know we used to read the optical track, we read it with a sort of shorthand. We could actually see the sound that had been recorded by reading the levels on the print itself. So when we switched to Mag the second season we couldn’t read the lines anymore, and it was a lot more work for us! But we adjusted to it and saved a lot of money and time and the quality was much better!” This got me thinking about schedules and time constraints, so I asked him to describe a typical work week.
The schedule was tight, Cahn related, especially compared to the more familiar pace of feature film editing. A new episode had a table read on Monday, rehearsal on Tuesday, camera rehearsal on Wednesday, and a full camera run-through on Thursday. On Friday evening in front of a live audience, the episode was filmed, in scripted scene order; the film was processed, printed, and in the cutting room on Monday morning usually by eight AM. Dann marked with a grease pencil, Bud made the cuts (with scissors) and pasted; cut scenes were then adjusted and fixed. The editor’s cut was ready to screen with the director by the time rehearsals for the next episode were already under way. Very quickly, due to demands on set, and with Cahn’s natural ability at cutting comedy and working fast, the director’s cut dissipated. A pattern of six-day work weeks and 14-hour days was unavoidably established.
In the context of the high-pressure schedule, he recalled, “They thought that the Monster would enable me to do everything, but it was just a tool, like the Avid is today; we couldn’t do everything within the time constraints! It’s expected today that picture editors do temp sound and music work.” The crew quickly increased to include an apprentice and an additional editor for sound effects and music. Dann remembered Desi’s remark to him, “Danny you want a crew bigger than my band? But that that’s exactly what eventually happened as Desilu expanded its productions as well as Cahn’s role in the company.
Inevitably, just as the workload seemed more manageable with his expanded crew working on the first episode, it was decided that the second episode would air first. The reaction to the second episode was so strong, the sponsor and CBS decided to the switch the air dates. The six-day editorial work week immediately shifted to seven days, and within four weeks all the editing and sound work, opticals, negative cutting and answer print was completed and delivered within hours of airtime. In addition to these unforeseen shakeups, Cahn also had to think creatively and act fast, especially when things didn’t run as smoothly as planned.The first serious technical issue the editing team confronted was one still familiar to assistant editors today; fixing out of sync dailies. The three-camera setup used a “blue light” system instead of the traditional clapper; as the camera rolled at the start of a scene, all the film rolls were buzzed and flashed with a light that was exposed onto a frame of film and soundtrack. The three-camera setup was interlocked so that the flash would occur on all three cameras simultaneously. However, the flash from the three different cameras never actually wound up in the same place, as intended, so the task of eye synching most of the footage was added to the crunched schedule. After the first few shows, Cahn decided to go to the studio mill and make a giant sized wooden clapper that would cover all three cameras, and the sync problem was resolved. He then recalled Karl Freund’s wisecrack to Jess Oppenheimer, “We’ve got a bright boy here; with this giant clapper he’s reinvented the wheel!”
I asked Dann about music cues and how that developed. “Director Marc Daniels’ experience was in live theater, and that kind of spontaneity was great for the show, but not to get the music cues I needed for a cut,” he explained. I’d get music with dailies, but they were never the right length and nothing ever matched. So to get around this, I’d cut the episode and take the timings to the set on Friday, just like we did in features; the band was set up, and I’d give them my list of cues to record. They had to learn that not everything could happen all at once in the cutting room; it wasn’t like live TV or theater. The show had to be scored just like a movie and I was always adapting motion picture techniques to everything we did!”
Not all issues were necessarily technical problems to be solved. Sometimes it was inspiration out of necessity. I brought up the subjects of visual effects and opticals, and Dann offered two interesting examples. The first was the “LA at Last” episodes, when the Ricardos and the Mertzes traveled from New York City to Los Angeles in a convertible car. There was no time to send the cast to New York or anywhere else for these episodes. Location shots with a second unit would be faster and keep the story authentic. The location photography was assigned to Cahn, and he worked out the various angles with the DP and the second season director, Bill Asher.
The very first location was the George Washington Bridge, which provided the BG for the first process photography for television. In the completed episode, we see the gang at the start of their trip, crossing the bridge, along with all the regular car traffic following and passing. Cahn shot the traffic from the back of a truck, and that became the film plate that was projected behind the gang in the convertible on set in Los Angeles. Another optical was for the sponsor commercials. “Every week we received new commercials from the Milton Biow Agency in New York City,” Cahn recalled. “These played an integral part and tied into each episode in a unique way week-to-week. The commercials were animation stick figures of Lucy and Desi doing different things, and the animation would peel away to reveal the upcoming scene.” These effects were not firsts for film, but they were for television.
As with the day before, everyone had questions. One of the last questions of the morning was about delivering prints for broadcast, “How did the prints get to their locations on time and what if they didn’t?” Cahn folded his arms and smiled. “The prints flew out on planes, and because there were no jets, it was a long trip to New York, with stops along the way!” he said. We all looked at each other as if this one element was what we could all finally relate to in our real day-to-day lives, how much times have changed and how different the world is. Cahn continued, “There was one close call, and the print arrived in New York only a couple of hours before air time, but we made it!”
A typical ad for Sony’s Betamax video recorder. Credit: Flickr/Nesster, CC BY
Recently, Sony announced that they will stop making Betamax tapes. This made me reflect on how the introduction of the first VCRs were a huge change in the way people watched TV, allowing them to time shift, that is record shows and play them back later. The “format war” between Betamax and VHS caused Betamax to lose market share, even though Betamax was a superior format technically, VHS could record more hours and that made it more popular with consumers. Betamax evolved into Betacam, an analog component format used in news gathering and field production.
Betamax was also the format that started the infamous Sony v. Universal City Studios case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. Fortunately the studios lost, later allowing them to make money off of cassette rentals and sales. Ironically, Universal would later be bought by Matsushita, one of the world’s largest VCR manufacturers at that time.
Akio Morita was a founder, and for many years, the CEO of Sony. He was the Steve Jobs of Japan. During his tenure Sony came up with many consumer electronic advances such as the Trinitron, the Mavica still camera, the SDDS film sound system, DAT, the MiniDisc, the Walkman and along with Philips, the S/PDIF audio interface, the CD and Blu-Ray. (Full disclosure, I used to work at Sony developing HDTV.)
Akio Morita is not interviewed in part 3, but that segment can be seen here.
The introduction of the home-use VCR had caused the biggest stir and created the greatest expectations for Sony since the launch of the Trinitron. Sony sales branches throughout Japan were buzzing about Betamax, and how to launch it in their regions became their number one priority. From the pre-launch stage, study sessions and training seminars explaining how to connect a Betamax to a television were frequent. At that time, however, annual domestic demand for VCRs was still less than 100,000 units. Morita was brimming with confidence when he made his announcement about the upcoming video age. Would home-use VCRs become popular? The industry had its doubts. At any rate, full-scale production of Betamax looked ready to roll. However, in the same year, something happened which took Sony by surprise.
We’re sad to hear that KTLA local news correspondent Stan Chambers passed away today at the age of 91. Chambers was part of the local Los Angeles news scene for over 60 years and was instrumental in the national evolution of local television news coverage. He worked at KTLA almost since its inception. He covered the 1949 Kathy Fiscus tragedy, an above ground Nevada A-bomb test (the first time a test had been covered by television cameras), the 1965 Watts Riots, and broke the 1991 Rodney King story in LA.
Below are some excerpts from his 1998 Archive interview:
On his initial duties at KTLA when he was hired in 1947:
I went to work on the stage crew, building sets and bringing props in, dressing sets, sweeping the floors, pushing the cameras, all of those things. During the day I would do the operations detail. I would take what’s gonna happen on the station that night and determine this will be a slide and this will be a film and this will be a film and this will be live, and assign the different studios and do all the things you had to do in preparation. You’d go over to Paramount and get the equipment you needed for the show. Then by late afternoon, if you were lucky, you would be doing some of the things on the air.
On the impact of the 1949 Kathy Fiscus telecast:
The whole city was literally captivated by that very dramatic rescue attempt. All the churches had prayers for Kathy the next day. The whole city was just thoroughly involved. When the word came out that she was dead, it was just like a tremendous personal blow to each and every person. Here was everyone’s little girl, and we just lost her. The city felt that. To this day, I will meet a half a dozen people who say, “I remember the Kathy Fiscus telecast.” It just made that type of an impact on people. The thing is, Bill Welsh and I had no idea that it was making that kind of an impact. We didn’t know. It was the next day when the phones started to ring, and the reaction started coming in that we realized that we had really been through something that we had no idea we were doing. But the interesting thing is that it changed my personal life, as well as my business life. Because after that, I wasn’t just a guy on television. I was a news reporter.
On covering JFK’s assassination:
On breaking the Rodney King story:
George Holliday, who shot the tape, had brought it to the station. He realized that KTLA did a lot of breaking news stories and he felt that we might be interested in what he had. My news director said, “We’d like you to take a look at this and see what we can do tonight for it.” I went into a viewer and I played it back. I was just dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Everybody came over and clustered around me, and they were just as startled as I was. I said, “Well, we have to get the police side of this. We can’t run it without letting them know.” Everybody agreed. We made arrangements for me to take it down and to show them the tape. We showed the tape. And they were surprised. But of course, with those wonderful stoic faces, they don’t show their true emotion. They said they would see what they could do and they appreciated our showing it. I said, “Well, we’re gonna run it on air tonight. Ten o’clock. Just wanted to let you know what was gonna happen.” Just before air time, I got a call from Chief Bob Vernon, who was acting chief at the time. He said he wanted to let us know that, “the detectives are out there in the rain, talking to witnesses, and we’re gonna get to the bottom of this. Let the chips fall where they may.” That was the set up for the story.
On how he’d like to be remembered:
I think someone who cares. Someone who has been a part of what’s happened here in the last half century. An observer. One who’s been in awe of what has happened. One who looks at what is today and you wonder, “How did this ever happen?” for good or for bad. Someone who likes people. I think that’s the most exciting thing, because people make the world interesting and delightful. You get these wonderful encounters. Someone who’s been very lucky. Had a wonderful life with a beautiful family. Seen eleven children grow and be proud for all of them. I think the fact that just this last month my youngest boy just graduated from medical school at USC and he’s an internist. That gives you some feelings that you did something right and that it’s permeated throughout the whole family. So I’d like to be thought of someone who tries and enjoys while he’s doing it. And looks forward for another tomorrow that will be just as bright and happy.
Casey Kasem is best remembered as a radio personality and animation voice artist. But he also did television, including a KTLA show called Shebang! Produced by Dick Clark of American Bandstand, it was a music show like Shindig!, Hullabaloo, and Ready Steady Go!.