The ABC of TV 

10 March 2020


From ITV75, published in December 1974 by the Independent Broadcasting Authority

You are keen on television – that’s why you’re reading ITV75. You know exactly who plays whom in Upstairs, Downstairs and can spot Ivor Mills a mile off. You can recognise the distinctive style of Granada, the touch of ATV or Anglia; the characteristics of Thames. Fine – but how well up are you on the language of TV?

Can you recognise a cut from a mix? Did you spot that 50/50 two shot? Can you tell chromakeying from a cyclorama? And if you were asked to ‘whip pan’ or ‘strike a set’ would you rush to consult the IBA Code of Violence? Or think that a dolly has something to do with those mythical casting couches? Or confuse RGB with the KGB? Look in the kitchen for a roller caption or a pan? Or think an A-B mixer has something to do with the Navy?

Like most science-based industries, television has developed its own jargon and shorthand and abbreviations that make the studios as impenetrable as a Tibetan monastery.

A vocabulary that is in total unique to TV, but salted with words borrowed from all the arts and sciences, on which it is founded: the stage, the cinema, electronics, optics, even computers…. But just as TV drama has evolved, so that today it is neither a photographed stage play nor a poor relation of a cinema feature film but an art form in its own right, so has TV production developed its own language. A language attuned to team co-operation and split-second decisions and the close liaison that must exist between the studio floor and the control suite, with its producer, PA (production assistant), lighting control man (aided often by a complex computer that ‘memorises’ all the different lighting ‘plots’ set up in advance), the vision mixer (who effects the change over of the pictures coming from the different cameras or from the other ‘sources’ including caption and slide scanners, videotape recorders (VTR), the telecine machines (that take TV pictures from film), the sound mixer (who may have 20, 30 or 40 different microphones, audio tape recorders and disc players under his control, or who could give artificial echo to a reedy pop singer or – shame on shame – mix in a pre-recorded ‘track’ to a miming star).

The cameraman frames his picture in the electronic viewfinder. [Granada]

And by ‘talk-back’ – a private intercommunication system never intentionally transmitted on-air – the control suite can give instructions to the cameramen who frame their pictures with the aid of ‘electronic viewfinders’, miniature TV screens on their cameras. The heavy studio cameras are mounted on a strange assortment of ingenious and complex ‘pedestals’, ‘cranes’ and ‘dollys’. A dolly is a wheeled truck which can be readily moved to other parts of the studio, or pushed towards or away from the actors to ‘track’. A camera crane is a very large dolly with a counter-balanced jib that allows the camera to look down on, or up at, the subject or swing to right or left.

The cameramen may be helped also by a ‘shot box’ which allows them rapidly to change the camera to any one of a number of preselected settings. For example, the director may want two actors in a ‘50/50 two shot’, in which both would appear with equal emphasis in the picture. He could then ‘pan’ the camera to the left or right (a term abbreviated from ‘panoramic’) and if he did this so quickly that the intervening detail is blurred, then this would be a ‘whip pan’. Or the director could decide to ‘cut’ to another camera (an instant transfer without any fading down); or, if he wanted to indicate a passage of time, he could ‘dissolve’ or ‘mix’ the scene gradually to another shot or ‘fade to black’.

The studio floor manager passes on messages received over his headphones (cans) from the director in the control room. A miniature transmitter-receiver concealed in his pocket links him to the talk-back system. [Granada]

By means of a ‘special effects generator’ many different ways of transferring the picture from one source to another are possible, with horizontal and diagonal ‘wipes’ and over-lay or in-lay of different pictures.

But perhaps the most spectacular (if at times over-used) of the tricks of the trade is ‘chroma keying’ – sometimes called colour separation overlay or CSO. In this the actor or actors perform against a blank background of one particular colour (often blue) and clever electronics can then automatically switch to another source whenever the camera is looking at the blue background. For instance, the second ‘source’ can be a slide scanner with a scene of Paris, Berlin or Honolulu. And hey presto, the viewer sees the actor performing in foreign parts, without time or money spent on ‘location’ shooting. At one time chroma-keying could be fairly easily detected by the slightly ragged electronic switching and a tendency for blue-eyed actors or actresses to have their eyes start switching in a BCU (big close up). Nowadays, advanced techniques of chroma-keying make it more difficult to detect and some notable productions have been based entirely on the system.

A less complex but often very effective way of forming backgrounds is the ‘cyclorama’, a shallow u-shaped construction in plywood or canvas, with a height of perhaps 15ft [4.5 metres] and some 20 [6m] to 60ft [18m] or more long. By careful lighting, suitable backgrounds and moving patterns can be formed, or if the ‘eye’ and floor are of similar tones one can achieve an illusion of infinite space.

And a eye may form part of a permanent set, whereas normally once shooting has finished the order is given ‘strike the set’ – in other words dismantle it.

Studio control room at ITN showing (left to right) the telecine engineer, vision mixer, programme director and production assistant. [ITN]

VTR machines enable pictures and sound to be recorded on tape and replayed on a monitor screen or for transmission. [Granada]

A colour camera has three or four ‘pick-up tubes’. The picture, by clever optics, is presented to the tubes in its red, green and blue components (for television these are the three primary colours from which all other colours are formed). The pick-up tubes convert the pictures into electrical signals forming ‘RGB’ (red, green, blue) signals. These are then ‘encoded’ along with the timing or synchronisation signals to form the composite colour signal. In the UK the coding system is ‘PAL’ (phase alternation line), a system which has also been called ‘pray and learn’ since it came late on the television scene in relation to the earlier NTSC colour system, which was promptly dubbed ‘never twice the same colour’. In fact, both PAL and NTSC and the French system SECAM are all capable of giving good results.

But there’s space here only for the first lesson in TV language – hardly room to squeeze in such terms as a three-level Coxbox (which converts black and white artwork into gloriously coloured captions), electronic character generators (where no artwork at all is needed to produce the written captions), the roller caption (in which a long roll of lettering is evenly taken past a caption camera), a rostrum camera (which can often give an illusion of movement from still photographs by selecting parts of the picture, zooming in and out and panning), or even OOV (out of vision), as one of a whole series of script abbreviations.

Russ J Graham writes: The days before microprocessors and microchips were common – or were affordable, anyway. What technology there was available was based on transistors – essentially miniaturized valves, capable of being individually turned on and off, but not ‘programmed’ as we would know it and certainly not integrated together to allow one person to operate everything from their computer.

Instead, studios required people. Dozens and dozens of people. Even to put out the evening news required a minimum of 4 people in the control room, plus the camera operators on the studio floor, the floor manager, the sound engineers, the lighting rigger and operator and an assortment of other jobs that no longer exist.

All this made television extremely expensive before a single picture was even transmitted. It made companies like Thames and ATV huge employers. It meant that the minnows – Border, Channel, Westward – had no chance at all of making dramas to air on the network: they couldn’t afford all the people (there were few freelancers; most people were employed directly full-time) it required. That’s also why the smaller companies’ output that did get to network – documentaries mostly – were usually on film and on location, since the film industry did have freelancers who could be hired to work on one programme, and the paraphernalia of studio productions could be done away with by going outside.

The coming of the affordable microchip in the 1980s swept a lot of this away. There’s no need for lighting riggers when all the lights can be moved on tracks at the press of a button. For the news studios, there’s no longer a need even for camera operators, with the BBC News Channel having its multi-camera set-up controlled (or otherwise) by the duty director at a press of a touchscreen.

Video courtesy of TV Newsroom

The inserts, VTR or telecine, are gone, with clips selected from a server. Even editing a major drama, like Doctor Who, can be done by one person in a hotel room with their MacBook Pro and uploaded – no need even for the runners that used to stand ready to move film, messages and occasional drunk guests from studio to studio.

The future is a very different world.

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