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  • Writer's pictureGeorge Seminara

The Honeymooners classic 39 television episodes and how they changed cinema production forever!

The Honeymooners classic 39 television episodes and how they changed cinema production forever. Or, George takes a trip down another rabbit hole to explain one of the most common pieces of equipment on a film set.

By George Seminara

In 1928, C. Francis Jenkins opened the very first television station in the U.S., W3XK, which went live on July 2 from the Jenkins Labs in Washington and then sometime in 1929 from the Jenkins Studios in beautiful downtown Wheaton, Maryland. In 1925 Jenkins found a way of adding an electronic image to a radio signal when he successfully broadcasted a photograph through the air.

Where did this idea come from?

In 1880 a French guy, Maurice LeBlanc, published an article in La Lumière électrique entitled, "Etude sur la transmission électrique des impressions lumineuses." Or for the folks who can't read French (I read at a 2nd Grade level), "Study on the electrical transmission of light impressions." LeBlanc was just spit-balling, and his vision became the root source of the creation of television. LeBlanc thought that if you could create a way to scan an image, one could take advantage of the retina's temporary retainment of a visual image. He theorized that if you could scan an image broken into alternating lines, the brain would assemble it. It's pretty revolutionary because the photoelectric cell was mostly a theory involving gold and selenium, causing energy transmission from sunlight.

They didn't have a proper photoelectric cell until eight years later, and it barely worked. So LeBlanc was theorizing about its possibilities. The photo sensor was decades away. Personally, I blame Absinthe. That's what those French guys drank, right? It gave us Impressionism and TV. Jenkins got his television station and technology bought out and shuttered by RCA in 1932, a year after they began investing in Philo Farnsworth's television system.

Meanwhile, in Rupert Pupkin's hometown of Clifton, New Jersey, in 1938, Allan B. DuMont Labs began developing television cameras, transmitters, and receivers. They soon started to manufacture and sell television sets from their factory in nearby Passaic. Surprisingly their televisions were considered of superior quality to their rival RCA and were selling like the proverbial hotcake. After some quick investment, they began the DuMont Television Network in 1942, one of the earliest TV networks. They owned three stations, one in Passaic, one in New York City, and the third in Washington, DC.

DuMont was a film and television engineering concern. They weren't in the radio business and had no programming history like NBC and CBS. For their network, they just started out making whatever. People would pitch an idea, and they would make it. Like the silent films of 30 years earlier, they threw the pasta on the wall to see what stuck and made that. As a result, they produced the most diverse and influential programs in the medium's history. The Ernie Kovacs Show, The Hazel Scott Show, the first program starring an African American. The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, starring film actress Anna May Wong; the first sitcom, Mary Kay and Johnny; the first soap opera, Faraway Hill. The first TV movie, Talk Faster, Mister, and put Bishop Sheen on the tube.

Jackie Gleason hosted one of their shows, The Cavalcade of Stars, and he birthed The Honeymooners in their studio in Wanamaker's Department Store in the East Village. CBS offered Gleason a chance to bring The Honeymooners to a "Real" network. He took the deal but insisted that the network film in the DuMont Adelphi theater on Broadway and shoot with DuMont equipment. CBS agreed. To DuMont, Gleason wanted to shoot the show on film, not rebroadcast it from Kinescopes, as was the standard. (Kinescopes were filmed copies of the program. Made by focusing a film camera on a television set. And filming the live broadcast. They look awful.) Gleason wanted them to figure out how to film it on 35mm and Broadcast it simultaneously.

Being at the forefront of broadcast technology, DuMont came up with the Electronicam-35! Roughly the size of a Mini Cooper, the camera would shoot the entire half-hour show on a camera that utilized 3000' custom-loaded 35mm magazines and the live broadcast, long before television stations could record their programs on videotape. A prism inside the camera would split the image as it entered the Electronicam camera, exposing the film and transmitting the video over the airwaves. Technically, video records at 30 frames per second while film is 24 frames per second. Because they hadn't figured out how to record video yet, it was only a matter of clock time, not frames.

That last line is true. Scientists and Engineers had failed to invent a way to record the television signal. In September 1947, Eastman Kodak introduced the Eastman Television Recording Camera, in cooperation with DuMont Laboratories and NBC, for recording images from a television screen under the trademark "Kinephoto." (Original!) By 1951, NBC and CBS shipped out more than 1,000 16 mm kinescope prints weekly to their affiliates across the United States. By the mid-1950s, that number had increased to 2,500 per week, and the television industry's film consumption surpassed that of all Hollywood studios combined. Ampex developed a 2" quad videotape, and recorders were ready to go online in 1956.

Here's another factoid. Television networks would make a kinescope of every show from the broadcast and then use the Kinescope to guide the film edit. This practice didn't end until the 1970s. (!?!)

In their last days as a network, DuMont bet the farm and its future on their engineering and science. The Electronicam and its associated technology hopefully would see them through. They had expanded into film processing and became one of the most extensive labs on the east coast. It is essential to get filmed television shows cut, finished, and delivered to the west coast within seven days. The editing staff used the broadcast as their guide to cut the film. It saved post-production time unless Gleason wanted to fix something from the original broadcast.

Jerry Lewis saw the Electronicam in New York when visiting The Honeymooners set and never forgot that. After he and Dean Martin split in 1956, Lewis made a few solo movies for director Hal Wallis and started to become involved in the production. By '60, Lewis was alone and began writing, directing, and starring in his movies with Paramount as a partner. All the while, the Electronicam process was on his mind. On The Bellboy, he repurposed a closed-circuit video monitoring station to record on 2" video tapes.

On Lewis' set, a single video camera was placed next to the film camera to record the action. Lewis aimed to play back his performance and gauge whether it was funny enough. By '66, he had "Jerry's Noisy Toy" which included video and audio tape capacity featuring RCA vidicon cameras interlinked via a synced audio recording. He could play back two cameras. One was mounted on the camera, which reflected what got filmed on 35mm, and the other taped a broader tableau from a static tripod. Both cameras could be reviewed on televisions back behind the audio booth. Jerry had created a portable television studio consisting of two 2" video tape recorders, sound mixers, audio tape recorders, and television monitors. The major drawback is that it had to be built and taken apart at each location.

Meanwhile, a cowboy from East Texas with a high school education was working through all the engineering obstacles. Jimmie Songer and his friend, Don Zuccaro, were radio freaks and loved building receivers and playing around with that technology. That love got him a job at RCA, assisting the team in developing color television. Remember that television was radio with an image. Color television was a Radio signal married to a black-and-white video image with a secondary color image added to it. If you are old enough to remember rabbit ears on top of the TV, then you remember how unstable the picture was.

When Jimmie got to Hollywood, he started repairing color printers for Technicolor. Eventually, he moved on to Samuel Goldwyn Studios and Gordon Sawyer. Sawyer wanted him to help with an ongoing project for Stan Freberg involving simultaneous video and film recording. Freberg was using side-by-side cameras, just like Jerry Lewis, to create video records of film commercials. The side-by-side set-up worked for shots where the camera didn't move. In that regard, the results were good enough for performance checks. The idea had merit. If only it could be perfected concerning actual production use. By the 1960s, the closest thing to modern video assist was a video camera gaffer taped to the side of the film camera. The next step was mounting the video camera to the film camera above the lens. That spot is usually reserved for a small lamp mounted to the camera for that little spark of light in the eyes and to prevent "Racooning." (So that the actor's eyes don't get swallowed up by shadow and make them look like...)

Both solutions could not compensate for lens changes and correctly film camera movement. Eventually, Jimmie Songer went back to the Electronicam prism. At the beginning of the movie business, the film camera had no viewfinder. For the Director of Photography, it was a guessing game. Some unnamed genius at Bell and Howell invented the range finder, a small metal square on the side of the camera. Then a lot of ideas were floating around. Sometime after World War Two, Arriflex created a viewfinder that was an image split via prism with a mirror to flip it the right way. By the 1960s, everyone had their own version. Songer altered the prism in the eyepiece to supply the image to a small camera. It's initial problem was that it created a mirror image on the television screen. Songer's experience with television led him to reverse the polarity of the video signal, thus flipping the image back to normal for playback on a television.

Now the camera can move and change lenses, and it can be simultaneously viewed on a TV. (Genius!) Video assist was born!

Not so fast, folks. Just what are you assisting here? The director's ability to see the shot, maybe? It got the director off the set and stuck him behind the monitor. It was freeing the camera to move without knocking the director over. It assisted the boom operator in seeing if the boom mic was in the shot. It gave more people the opportunity to monitor the film intimately. This attention caused productions to drag, and it was considered a luxury, except when Jerry Lewis used it but not for long.

How we got to film production in 2023 is the story of two similar but divergent industries that were born almost simultaneously. Radio and film were born around the same time. Marconi sent his first dots and dashes in London around the same moment C. Francis Jenning projected his moving picture in his cousin's Jewelry store. The two forms would develop independently. Radio birthed television, and that form was inspired by movies in content but was significantly different in practice. Broadcast technology was beyond the simple mechanics of film production.

Over time the two technologies would begin to merge. In 1982, When Francis Ford Coppola directed One From The Heart, he created a mobile television studio in a vintage airstream trailer. He could record and cut the scene quickly during the day's shoot with the video assist connected via very long wires. The problem was he spent a lot of time cutting and not enough time directing. (I love this film, even with its problems.) George Lucas took some of his Star Wars money and developed an editing system that could utilize inexpensive 3/4" video tapes made from the film dailies or recoded from the viewfinder. The system was called Edit Droid and was interesting because the computer controller could operate many tape machines simultaneously. The system failed, but its computer program got renamed Avid, and it became the most essential film editing tool since the hot splicer.

Today, there isn't any difference between television and film. Terrestrial broadcasting is on its deathbed. Most people have taken the plunge into digital. By most people, I mean 99.9%. Sure there are those VHS Luddites out there, and the rebirth of long-playing records is back, and they do sound better. Filmed entertainment is overly digital. Even film purists edit and project digitally.

But what does this have to do with Jackie Gleason and Jerry Lewis? They were the start of the technology that spawned a new career in the film business. Today when you shoot, you need a special crew just to run the video village. The guys, or gals, who set up the monitors and recorders for the director, producers, and script supervisor. (They all get their own monitor.) If you have the budget, the sound guy gets one, as does the cast and crew to watch what the camera is recording. If you are shooting with multiple cameras, then you need another guy (or gal) to operate the device that allows you to switch between cameras on one monitor. Ay! So many new faces and names to learn!

We are far from shooting and cutting a 1/2 hour of comedy in seven days. But video playback is here to stay. Most films rely on it for performance, and Marvel, Star Wars, and big action films require it for effects as well. Technology, like rust, never sleeps. Today we are merging computer game tech to shoot rear-screen projections on giant TV screens based on digital art that behaves like the real world. Back in the day, you just needed a camera and a dream. Today, it's a lot more complex.

(Now, our boy, C. Francis Jenkins, realized that the cameras and sound devices would need to talk to each other. Jenkins and his team came up with the SMPTE Time code. Before time-code, there was crystal sync. A hidden pulse allowed the camera and the audio recorder to maintain the same recording speed. With SMPTE, you could use time-of-day as a reference. Those minutes and seconds would mark the connection between devices and is universal. Any camera using time-code can sync to your cut, and its audio. SMPTE, or the long way, Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers and was founded by C.Francis Jenkins.)

The Honeymooners are considered classic television not for their technology, but for their content. Thankfully, it's still about telling stories.

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