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”.
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, would 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.
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”.
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.
“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.
“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!
Posted on 10/29/2015, in Twilight Zone and tagged Long Distance Call, Night of the Meek, Rod Serling, Static, The Lateness of the Hour, The Whole Truth, Twenty-Two, Twilight Zone. Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.