Serling’s Brief Journey to the Videotape Zone

“This episode looks funny. Was it broadcast live?”

Hardly a Twilight Zone marathon goes by without at least one or two people tagging my Twitter page with a question like that. And when they do, it’s because they’re watching one of six episodes from Season 2: “The Lateness of the Hour”, “The Night of the Meek”, “The Whole Truth”, “Twenty Two”, “Static” or “Long Distance Call”.

lateness-of-the-hour5

The reason they “look funny”? They were videotaped, not filmed.

Why? Let’s turn to the oracle we all use at some point when we’re doing “research” — Wikipedia. Its entry for “The Whole Truth” notes:

Five weeks into season two, the show’s budget was showing a deficit. The total number of new episodes was projected at twenty-nine, more than half of which, sixteen, had, by November 1960, already been filmed. CBS suggested that in order to trim the production’s $65,000 per episode budget, six episodes should be produced in the cheaper videotape format, eventually transferred to 16-millimeter film.

The studios of the network’s Television City, normally used for the production of live drama, Whole Truthwould serve as the venue. There would be fewer camera movements and no exteriors, making the episodes seem more akin to soap operas (and Playhouse 90), with the videotaped image effectively narrowing and flattening perspective.

Even with those artistic sacrifices, the eventual savings amounted to only $30,000, far less than the cost of a single episode. The experiment was thus deemed a failure and never attempted again.

Even viewers who are fans of the videotaped look will admit that film is better suited to the Zone-a-verse than videotape. A drama or comedy may get along just fine without film. But creating the illusions required by a fantasy series such as The Twilight Zone without the rich look and greater freedom of film is virtually impossible.

long-distance-call2

Some episodes wouldn’t be hurt all that much. But imagine “The Howling Man” without that iconic transformation scene. Or “Long Live Walter Jameson” without the aging scene. Or “The Hitch-Hiker” with no exterior shots.

Think of the amazing sets we’d never see: the bombed-out library in “Time Enough at Last“. The cozy neighborhoods of “Walking Distance” and “A Stop at Willoughby.” The desert plains where Corry met Alicia in “The Lonely”, where Capt. Embry found his downed aircraft in “King Nine Will Not Return“, and where Chris Horn sought medicine for his dying son in “A Hundred Yards Over the Rim”.

Twenty Two1

But it’s very much to Serling’s credit (and producer Buck Houghton) that the Twilight Zone episodes we did get on videotape were effectively done. They wisely chose more closed-room stories for the experiment. And they made certain each episode looked as good as possible — making a point of hiring directors who were experienced in the format.

Would I rather “The Night of the Meek” had been filmed? Definitely. But I like the shots of Liz Powell cautiously descending to the morgue in “Twenty Two”. Indeed, it’s almost a foretaste of the low-budget horror films that would proliferate years later — cheap, sure, but effective. “Long Distance Call” takes on an eerie, cinéma vérité look in the videotape format.

Static1

“Static” also seems appropriate for the videotape format. After all, it’s about a man who’s retreating into the past. Having his story filmed in a “retro” style seems fitting, in a way.

For my money, the wheeling-dealing car huckster of “The Whole Truth” and the scientist’s family of “The Lateness of the Hour” are neither helped nor hurt by the videotape treatment. “The Night of the Meek” is the only one that really suffers. Serling’s touching yuletide tale deserved a first-class treatment.

Night of the Meek

The Twilight Zone desperately needs the flexibility and the perfection that comes with film,” Serling said at the time. Considering how polished the other 150 episodes look — and how relatively paltry the savings — I think we can all be grateful that the videotape experiment was a short-lived one.

***

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Hope to see you in some corner of the fifth dimension soon!

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About Paul

Fanning about the work of Rod Serling all over social media. If you enjoy pics, quotes, facts and blog posts about The Twilight Zone, Night Gallery and Serling's other projects, you've come to the right place.

Posted on 10/29/2015, in Twilight Zone and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I’m with you 100%. Videotape was a poor choice, but it’s interesting to view the few. Especially “The Lateness of the Hour”, which always seemed a little soap opera-ish in the writing.

    • Indeed. Right down to that little stab of organ music when the camera pans up to poor Jana’s blank stare. :-o Glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. I knew about the episodes Paul, and I think I knew (or you said previously in a comment reply) why the decision was made, but I didn’t know how much work they did to make these as good as possible. I also didn’t know how little it saved. Thanks for the details. I agree, The Night of the Meek should have been given the best treatment possible. I don’t like Long Distance Call, so it’s OK. Given the parameters (no outside shots), I’m just glad they didn’t use this on A Game of Pool. Great post.

    • Thanks, Dan. Glad you enjoyed it. This is one I’ve been meaning to do for a long time because it’s such a perennial question. Now, when I’m asked, I can simply send the link!

      But I also wanted to explain how it happened to anyone who’s ever wondered about their appearance and never asked. Today, of course, we look at TZ as this classic series, and the videotape episodes stand out like the proverbial sore thumb, but we have to remember how the show then was — to “the suits”, anyway — just another commodity. The idea that it would look strange to people watching the show 50+ years later didn’t even occur to them. Make it, air it, move on, you know?

      It also goes to show how even a series as special as The Twilight Zone wasn’t immune to budgetary pressures. We look at it now, and think, “Guys, it’s the friggin’ Twilight Zone — spend whatever it takes to make it look amazing!” But then it was just a TV show, so to speak.

      And yes, it would have been a shame if “A Game of Pool” was videotaped. An essentially one-set episode like that would seem a likely candidate. However, it came in Season 3, when TZ was a bit more established. Lucky for us!

      • I couldn’t remember if A Game of Pool came before or after. If only they had realized then how long this series would endure, maybe there would have been more. Oh well, we got some lovelies.

  3. And now I know…the REST…of the story…! Thanks, Paul, always wondered!

  4. robert balboni

    Hello, Paul. I did enjoy these episodes as videotaped because of the quality of the stories. It did not bother me that much that it was not filmed and had kind of a live broadcast look to it. I guess I am more forgiving than other viewers, but being the Twilight Zone it’s all good! –Rob

    • Agreed, Rob! TZ in any form is still superior entertainment. And you’re not alone — I hear from fans every now and then who don’t mind the videotape look. Like you said, it’s all good! Thanks for stopping by.

  5. That “funny” look to these episodes always bothered me, because I couldn’t put my finger on what seemed so wrong about them. The shadows seem sharper and more harsh, the image looks cheap and sort of grainy, like it was a home movie or something. I thought maybe they were filmed this way on purpose, to create an unnerving quality about the episode. It was disturbing not to understand what was going on with these eps, and no one else I was watching them with seemed to notice it! Thank you so much for clearing this up! Amazing that such a small amount of money could make such a difference in quality.

    • Happy to help! Interesting that you thought it was done for effect. Even though it wasn’t, it does inadvertently help a couple of them, as I discussed above. And yes, it clearly wasn’t worth compromising the look of the series to save such a relatively small amount. Thanks for commenting!

  6. And on a related note: Why were some T-Zones an hour long?

    from IMDb:

    “The Twilight Zone was about to be canceled after the third season, because Rod Serling took up teaching. However, at the half of the next season (1962-1963) another CBS show was canceled and TZ was put in its place as a replacement. Because this show was an hour long, new TZ episodes had to be produced in this format. The resulting hour-long episodes are generally considered weaker … due mostly to episodes becoming overly padded in their hour-long running time….”

    Since this slot didn’t work, for the next and final season, the show returned to its 30-minute format.

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