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Have You Ever Noticed How out of Focus a Lot of Old TV Shows Are?


Have you watched any old television shows lately? Have you noticed anything strange about them? In watching an older show recently, I was surprised by just how many shots are blatantly out of focus.

What’s the Deal With All the Blur? (Said in Jerry’s Voice)

It started innocently enough. I like to binge TV shows while I do busy work. I decided to give Seinfeld a fourth try. I have tried to watch the series several times, and I could never get into it. I think I just needed to have lived a certain amount of life to appreciate it. This time, it finally clicked, and I managed to watch all nine seasons in a few weeks (let’s not discuss that part). As much as I enjoyed the show, the photographer in me could not help but notice something that seemed strange for such a large-scale and well-known production: a good proportion of shots in the show were out of focus. And I am not talking about a shot that is focused on a character’s nose instead of their eyes. I mean shots in which Jerry is standing in his kitchen, and the focus of the shot is on the cereal boxes four feet behind him (in fact, that is the shot where I first noticed this), when it was clearly meant to be focused on him. I asked other Fstoppers writers if they had noticed this, and they said they had seen it in both Seinfeld and other shows from the 1970s through the 1990s.

SD Versus HD

Before the advent of high-definition televisions, standard definition (480i) was the way of the world. If you are about 30 years or older, you likely remember watching television on an old CRT set. For a variety of reasons, the final image that made it to your set and your eyes was rarely getting the best of that resolution. In other words, compared to the ultra-crisp world of 1080p and 4K that we are used to today, the television of old was decidedly low-tech. We certainly did not mind back then; after all, it was all we knew. Frankly, if I could watch a VHS tape without the tracking going wonky, I was happy. 

Ok, we get it. Alex knows what a VCR was and is probably a little overly nostalgic. What’s my point? Well, the television of yesteryear did a good job of hiding technical flaws. There simply was not enough detail to show any but the most blatant of errors the majority of the time. If a shot was out of focus, you likely did not notice it. I never noticed this issue growing up, and people I talked to who had watched Seinfeld during its original run never noticed either, especially when they were watching it over the air.

You can see a few mild examples of what I’m talking about in the compilation above, though unfortunately, it is difficult to find the most blatant examples, as the phenomenon is most noticeable with the remastered high definition version of the show only shown on Hulu. If you’re interested and have a Hulu subscription, the phenomenon is most noticeable in season two in medium and close-up shots.

Of course, the advent of streaming over hard-wired connections combined with things like 4K TVs have led to massive increases in picture quality. Seinfeld was shot on 35mm film (as opposed to videotape, like some other shows of its era), and when Hulu acquired the rights to the show, it was remastered in 1080p widescreen (and when Netflix takes over the rights in 2021, it will be remastered again in 4K). That means that when I binged the show earlier this year, I noticed things that I would have never seen had I watched the show during its original run. And what really stood out to me was how many shots were badly out of focus. It certainly didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the show, but as someone with more of an interest in that sort of thing than the average person, it was a peculiar observation. 

Why?

I don’t know why this was the case. Here are a few of my theories, however. 

Film Was Expensive

Film is not cheap, and each wasted take was more money, as it wasn’t like digital, where one can do a take over and over with no additional financial penalty. And sure, a primetime show like Seinfeld had a big budget, but it was still a finite budget. It is possible other things took priority. For example, Michael Richards’ Kramer character and especially his physical comedy were notoriously taxing on the actor. It is certainly possible that if a take checked all the boxes the director wanted it to that barring a complete technical malfunction or failure, that was the take that was used. 

Tools Weren’t as Good

The show was filmed on cameras like the Panavision Silent Reflex and Panavision Panaflex Gold. The former was introduced in 1967, while the latter came out in 1976. They were surely advanced cameras in their day, but production crews in the early 90s did not have the kind of tools we have available now. That being said, movie and television production was about a century old at this point, and crews had a huge range of tools and well-established techniques available to make sure a shot was in focus. Given the precision that goes into large-scale productions, it seems unlikely that this was the case.

They Just Didn’t Care

In 1990, I doubt anyone anticipated that two decades later, people would largely be watching television shows and films in 1080p and that three decades later, 4K would be common, with 8K on the horizon. And if they did anticipate it, maybe they just didn’t care, because surely, no production was shooting with the picture quality in syndication 30 years down the line being the priority. It is quite possible that the production crew knew the general picture quality the average viewer would see and the margin of error this gave them. 

Some Combination of the Above

My best guess is that it was some combination of the above. It is likely that NBC knew the limitations of picture quality for consumer televisions of the time and prioritized a good take with the actors over nailing focus every time, and it is only now, 30 years later, that we can notice those missed shots. 

How About You?

Have you noticed this issue in any older television shows? Does it bother you? 





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