why is it so easy to tell real life from actors on TV?

Within about a second of switching on a program you can tell if it is acted, or a documentary/news item. Occassionally you get a deliberately faked documentary which is trickier, but even there one can tell. There is something about the mannerisms of speaking, background noise, staging. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Any ideas? (possibly IMHO)

  1. Acting is a skill. You learn to control your voice and body to portray a character. This is missing for most nonactors (I once was highly impressed to see William Daniels portray a nonactor reading from a script. His reading seemed very awkward and thus real).

  2. Fiction TV and films control lighting; real life/documentaries cannot. Same for the sound. Real-life sound seems tinny because it’s not redubbed and the mics aren’t set up properly.

  3. Makeup. Actors wear it; most men (and quite a few women) do not. Thus their faces seem shiny, and you can see more variation in skin tone.

What Chuck said plus:

  • Acted scenarios are planned in advance and more easily edited than unplanned real life - you can easily distinguish between hearing your neighbors talk, party, whatever from them just having a TV on by, to a large degree, the cadence of the speech. Preplanned and canned moves right along;

  • Chuck’s point #2 is relevant to why soap operas appear markedly different from high production budget sitcoms and, another step up, feature films due to, at least in part, their lack of time to edit, their abilities (all that lighting and makeup stuff) and the technology used. You’ll find both better lighting and better cameras on a Hollywood soundstage than you will on a street in downtown Kabul.

Because the guy with the hairy back, who couldn’t get his cell phone to work in an elevator just showed up now paying more for his hotel rooms.

“Gee Jason You’re a reader.” Yeah that lady has been on a bunch of infomercials too


While “quality” of image can play a role, if one holds production values constant you can still pretty much tell. Compare a “mockumentary” like “Best in show” with a real documentary about a dog show. In the latter, people are talking in sentence fragments, mumbling, two people talk at once, there’s a lot of background noise, etc.

Some of Robert Altman’s work stands out because he did things like let two people talk at once. (Go rent “MASH”, the movie.) It significantly enhances the realism of the movie but it is rarely used.

Plus there’s nothing like doing 60 takes vs. 1.

While I believe everything so far stated in this thread is true, it doesn’t really answer the OP. There is more to Ringo’s point about the difference between soap operas and prime time television.

Although I am not an expert in this subject, I seem to recall that the real difference between soap operas and “normal television,” and the actual answer to the OP, is because of the medium used to capture the program. One uses film, the other uses videotape, and the resulting difference is obvious to the untrained eye.

Perhaps this is a simplified answer, and perhaps newer video technology is making up some of the difference in the “feel” of the two different mediums, but I think this is really what the OP is referring to.

I know RealityChuck already mentioned makeup, but I think it bears repeating. Actors and others, such as news anchors, who go before the camera professionally wear a thick layer of makeup because they know they’ll look awful otherwise. Real people appearing in news items such as “man on the street” interviews would never be wearing so much makeup, and may be wearing none at all.

Actors also tend to be better looking than your average joe. So, one clue that you’re watching a real news piece and not a phony one is that the people won’t look too hot.

I think that uh… I mean, er,… what I meant to, um, say, was that, uh, there’s something in, like, your, uh, speech patterns…

Professional actors practice the interruptions, pauses, and stutters out of their speech, or the scene will be retaken until they get it right. (Unless they are scripted in for a specific reason.) Real people don’t (generally) talk that smoothly in everyday conversation.

(It drives me nuts when I see a professional politician or entertainer on TV giving a speech with lots of "um"s. No reason they should be any better than the rest of us, but it grates on my nerves. Too many Toastmaster meetings, I suppose.)

No, this isn’t really true. Some tv shows are one camera shows without a studio audience, some are three camera shows which are acted out on stages in front of audiences. Both, however, use video cameras. The difference can be seen in terms of camera angles, closeups, and special effects (Andy Richter Controls the Universe, e.g.).

But as previous posters have said, the real difference comes from the amount of money available to be spent on making their worlds as perfect as possible. Soap operas are one camera shows with large casts, short filming sessions, and low budgets. That’s why they look inferior to polished network programming. But just check out some of the shows on cable…

BTW, to really see the difference between film and video in a single show, check out old Monty Python programs. British rules forced all outdoor shots to be done on film, while indoor work was on video. The change from indoors to out is immediately noticeable and looks nothing like the change from going from a soap opera to a prime-time sitcom.

I watched an episode of Third Watch last night… I’d never seen it before.

Right in the middle, the camera from a close-up of two cops walking down a hall to a longer shot of them walking down the hall. The long shot was shakier, had less color-depth and depth of field… it was obviously shot more hastily, from a different camera.

It boils down to medium more than anything else… what kind of camera shot the scene and what did they record it onto.

One of the biggest subconsious indicators is the frame speed, which is 30 frames per second for video and 24 fps for film. Sitcoms, network news, etc. are filmed in video but at 24 frames per second. This gives a much more movie-like presentation (therefore more professional). Home videos are filmed at 30 fps and more fluidly depict motion, but look more raw (because we’ve mentally associated that look with home videos). If you want a great example of the contrast, check out the Larry Sander’s Show on HBO. All the ‘actual show’ segments are filmed at 30 fps and look raw and unrehearsed, and all the ‘behind-the-scenes’ segments are shot at 24 fps, and look more like an HBO production.

Soap Operas are filmed at 30 fps which is why they have an uncanny real-life kind of feel, and the motion looks more real and therefore more lifelike.

One thing that really pisses me off is pan-and-scan, the movie industry’s answer to TV’s aspect ratio. Instead of showing the whole frame in letterbox format, they show you only a portion of it, and when the action moves to the other side of the frame they pan in post-production. Unfortunately for many movies they do this panning and scanning at 30 fps when the movie was filmed at 24. This bugs the hell out of me because the pan-and-scan motion looks so different than the actual cammers panning. Want a good example check out Multiplicity, I almost couldn’t watch it. It looked like somebody bootlegged it with a video camers and kept moving the camera to follow the action already filmed.

While I agree with th e above posts, the dead giveway is the voice. On the BBC radio there are a lot of plays. Again within seconds of tuning in I can tell that they are actors rather than real people. I think it is because most real people talk quite monotone, whereas actors try and make everything sound interesting and bright

Yes, it’s all about ‘acting voices’ and real voices.

Look at the News today - and see how a real person talks when talking about an incident that they witnessed. Then watch something like CSI or Law and Order and watch an actor pretending to be a witness to an incident.

It’s an incredible difference, and it’s partly because actors can’t help but ‘act’ because that’s how they’re trained, and also because rehearsal after rehearsal drums out all the naturalness that may have been likely to creep in.

All the best actors are very very naturalistic. But that’s incredibly hard to do convincingly. That’s why there’s only about 12 of them in the entire history of Hollywood.

which twelve just out of curiousity

In a scripted scene, some of the dialogue is there for the benefit of the audience; in real life, people just ‘do’ things, on the screen they sometimes have to explain themselves because we don’t have the context.

The emphasis in real life is action, the emphasis in scripted plays/films etc is being understood.

Well there aren’t really just twelve. I was exaggerating for effect :slight_smile:

As far as naturalistic actors go, I’d class people like Jeff Goldblum, Haley Joel Osment, Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson, and Toni Collette as some of the best and most realistic. But that’s just my own opinion.

Real people don’t look as good as actors.