All the TV's a Stage...

Hollywood goes to great lengths to trick the eye, but something subtle tells us when it’s a stage vs. a real setting. What is it? I can’t put my finger on it…unless it’s very poorly done.

I don’t know if this is what you’re getting at, but:

On TV sitcoms based indoors, the left and right walls aren’t orthogonal (at 90[sup]<small>o</small>[/sup]) to the back wall, but are more like 120[sup]<small>o</small>[/sup] - 135[sup]<small>o</small>[/sup] from it.

Judges 14:9 - So [Samson] scraped the honey into his hands and went on, eating as he went. When he came to his father and mother, he gave some to them and they ate it; but he did not tell them that he had scraped the honey out of the body of the lion.

also, the light is never quite right. shadows in a normal room would be stronger from either natural sunlight or room lights at night. instead the light is pretty uniform throughout the room.

& the sound is funny. you rarely hear the kind of slight echo you would hear if there were no rugs on the floors or the completely muffled non-noise you might not-hear in a room w/ a lot of sound absorbers, like draperies, books, big furniture, whatall.

& set rooms, no matter what the set is for, are usually unusally large. can you imagine the big double room on the ‘friends’ set would have anything but an astronomical rent? but it is supposed to represent rather modest living, from what i’ve gotten the few times i watched it.

&, the obvious one, you nearly always view the scene from the same point of view every time, unless they are using a round set & a handheld camera.

AWB, I didn’t realize that. But…

Let me try to add some insight to my question. I was watching a TV sitcom where the characters were supposed to be on a ship. Everything looks like a ship in the background, but something inside said “You can tell it’s just a stage they built to look like a ship.” The background did not show the sea, if that’s what someone might think. The background showed a door to a cabin, a porthole, and a stairway leading below deck.

How come the mind can tell it’s not a real ship?

I think its the lighting. Soap operas are the worst at this. Because of their tight production schedules, they use an overhead grid of lights, rather than setting up lights for each scene. This tends to put shadows on faces that you don’t normally see indoors.

Also, on a studio scene that is supposed to be set outdoors, either you can sometimes see where the backdrop is, or they go to great lengths to hide the transition.

This really gets on my nerves when they go from an actual exterior to an insert from a studio shot. The friggin lighting never matches (this is also a problem with crappy matting, e.g. the river scene in Hunt for Red October)

No ceilings is a big hint too. If every room looks 9 or 10 feet tall, or there are never any low angles, thats a stong hint that you’re looking at a set.

I think what Jinx is reffering to is the “blue screen”. When a sitcom wants to use a background but does not actually wish to go to where the background is, they simply take an extended film of the background and then film the actors in front of a blue screen, later adding the background film by editing. At first glance it does look real, but if you watch closely, you can see lines around the actors.

“Solos Dios basta” . . . but a little pizza won’t hurt.

When I was younger, I used to be really bad at noticing such things, except soap operas. Soap operas seemed to have a “funny feel” to me that it was staged, yet different than the “feel” I would get from any sit-com.

A blunt example of this is a driving scene when you can just tell the car is stationary, and the background is moving, perhaps a film projected up behind the actors (in older shows) or the blue screen trick today. As a kid, my sisters would say how fake the scene looked, but I was oblivious. Must be the kid’s eye and lack of understanding of camera tricks for which the adult mind doesn’t fall so easily.

Overall, I guess the young mind is easily fooled, but the adult eye detects little hints of it being a stage. I think all the suggested things factor in to making it feel “unreal”. These things are subtle enough, yet the mind picks right up on it, huh?

I’m sorry, Hunsecker, but you are completely wrong. I have to ask you- how many soap opera sets have you worked on? My credits include “the city” (abc), “Guiding Light”, “As The World Turns”, and “Another World” (cbs).

Lighting direction on these programs is an incredibly complex art. Yes, the schedules are murder- which is why the same L.D. ( Lighting Director) does not work the same soap 5 days straight She/He needs time to prep their lighting design for the next day's work.

On all of the sets I’ve worked on, I have NEVER ONCE seen an “Overhead lighting grid”. You make it sound like they do the work with Home Dept fluorescent units. You think individual lights are not set??? Actors get three-point lighting, and since many shots involve movement from both cameras and actors, this is very complex. The sets are lit to match the mood, small units are placed to highlight areas of a wall, or art objects. Large Hard units may be placed outside of a window, to simulate daylight.
Large soft lights in use? Sure, the softlight du jour is called a “Chimera”. You can get them in almost any size, they render a nearly shadowless light. Great for a little soft face light, hung low from the grid, or on a stand on the floor. Used as overhead lighting??? Never.
The ONLY use of overhead soft lighting that ever was effective in a dramatic film or tv show was Gordon Willis’ use of Soft Boxes to light the “Godfather” films. His work is beyond dispute. He used them for very specific reasons in those films, starting with “The Godfather”- and they worked.
In short, you have no idea what you are talking about. Now, while I TOTALLY agree with the O.P. here- that you can always tell when you are on a stage- the comments made by Hunsecker are without merit. Oh, and I’m a Steadicam Operator, not a Lighting Director. I have no personal ax to grind here- I don’t light, I shoot. I also have zero love of soaps, they are just another job to me. I certainly respect the skills and great eye that many fine L.D.'s have, and the look they achieve is sometimes astonishing.


If you want to kiss the sky, you’d better learn how to kneel.


OK, I haven’t seen a Soap Opera since the 80s; so maybe S.O. lighting art has changed a lot. At the time when I did watch them, it was easy to see that the lighting was predominantly overhead. Sure, there were some fill lights, and closeups were always well done, but whenever you’d have a medium/long shot, or one where the actors are moving around the set, the lighting always felt, I dunno, “soap operay”.

By “overhead grid of lights”, I didn’t mean a bank of flourescents from home depot, but the normal set of fixed, individually controlled, overhead lights that you’ll see in studios and theatres (different wattages, aimed at different parts of the set, sometimes different colors). So, I retract the bit about “rather than setting up lights for each scene”, but my point (however poorly phrased) was that I thought lighting, because of the unusual (unnatural) angles actors get lit from, is one of the big clues that you’re looking at a set. And also that the soap operas I’ve seen had some of the most noticably unnatural lighting.

Now, I certainly didn’t mean to denigrate lighting directors (and if any LDs are out there who misunderstood, my apologies). The job they do is amazing. Having seen a few in action, I was totally blown away by the subtlties they could pick up on, and what they could do to the look of a scene by changing the light. But their job is to light for the camera, and not necessarily get the lights to look natural, and this is one thing people notice when watching TV.