What is it that gives early 60s TV its distinctive look?
January 9, 2008 9:16 PM   Subscribe

Why does early 60s black and white television look so good?

HBO tonight had a show about the kennedy assassination and showed the footage of lee oswald being shot. Content aside, the Youtube version doesn't do justice to the quality of the tv version. It and other similar early 60s black and white seem to me to be very crisp, clear, and vivid. Is this to do with the technology of the recording or perhaps the archival method?
posted by Andrew Brinton to Technology (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
This footage is almost certainly film that was transferred to videotape. So I imagine what you're seeing as the "early '60s TV look" is some combination of film stock, camera technology, and video transfer technology.
posted by jjg at 9:29 PM on January 9, 2008

Much of it was shot on 16mm film stock, rather than video. The Kennedy assassination was shot on Super-8 film stock.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:33 PM on January 9, 2008

What they said. Film > videotape, and that good-lookin' early 60's television is film.
posted by mumkin at 9:42 PM on January 9, 2008

While I can't comment on the Oswald footage, I've seen some TV footage from that era that has a very "video" look, and I was also very amazed at the clarity and crispness of it. It did not have the look of film–it was lacking the 24fps "film look" and didn't have any grain, dust, or scratches. I too have wondered how the video recording was preserved so well.
posted by zsazsa at 10:02 PM on January 9, 2008

It was really hard to edit video back then. (Maybe impossible?) So anything that couldn't be edited "live" by switching between cameras, or that wasn't single-camera and live, had to be done on film.
posted by smackfu at 10:09 PM on January 9, 2008

I wonder if it's because it's non-NTSC-color.

NTSC color was a hack. What they did was to put a subcarrier on the luma which encoded chroma color and saturation. The high frequency subcarrier phase is the color and its amplitude is the saturation. But because of that, in all video tapes and video broadcasts of NTSC color, the luma (brightness) has to be run through a low-pass filter. Otherwise the chroma subcarrier comes through and causes a checkerboard pattern. (Sometimes you see that in poor DVD transfers from videotape.)

Because they use a low pass filter, that makes the luma less crisp.

A B/W videotape, from before the development of the NTSC color standard, wouldn't be like that. They'd be able to use the full bandwidth for luma, because luma was all they were encoding. So high frequency components necessary for crisp edges would come through.

It's all just speculation, but I do wonder if that's a factor.

(Left as an exercise for the student is the question of how this would be a factor in a modern color broadcast, which has that subcarrier after all... My guess is that multiple iterated applications of the low pass filter would progressively render the luma less and less crisp, in color video-taped material, whereas it would be applied fewer times in the case of the program you watched.)
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:24 PM on January 9, 2008 [3 favorites]

...I was also very amazed at the clarity and crispness of it. It did not have the look of film–it was lacking the 24fps "film look" and didn't have any grain, dust, or scratches. I too have wondered how the video recording was preserved so well.

Like zsazsa, I can't be sure of the specifics of what you are referring to beyond the Kennedy footage, but I've seen transfers of 2" quadruplex tape that is just gorgeous, it has this kind of luminous sheen to it (early Julia Child episodes). 2" was an industry standard from the very late 1950s into the 1970s, Ampex introduced it.

[it's worth noting, those shows that were shot on videotape are actually really poorly preserved - many times stations and production companies would tape over an original show following broadcast (to make things extra cheap)! and so only the kinescopes are left (16mm copies of the broadcast, filmed off of a monitor, super poor quality). If you are as geeky as me about this stuff, see here.]
posted by ethel at 11:48 PM on January 9, 2008

Could be the image orthicon tubes used in cameras then?
While the iconoscope and the intermediate orthicon used capacitance between a multitude of small but discrete light sensitive collectors and an isolated signal plate for reading video information, the IO employed direct charge readings off of a continuous electronically charged collector. The resultant signal was immune to most extraneous signal "crosstalk" from other parts of the target, and could yield extremely detailed images. For instance, IO cameras were used for capturing Apollo/Saturn rockets nearing orbit long after the networks had phased them out, as only they could provide sufficient detail.
posted by methylsalicylate at 1:04 AM on January 10, 2008

SCDB is partially on the right track, I believe.

Even today, with all of our super duper video technology currently available, nearly all video is compressed in the color channels. The luminance channel (i.e. B&W), however, is transferred at full bandwidth, because the human eye is much more sensitive to luminance than it is with color. When you combine the subsampled (IOW, low-resolution) color information with the high-resolution luminance information, it's possible that the inherent "mushiness" of the color channels causes a perceptible overall drop in sharpness in the video.

This is one of the reasons why most professional video cameras have black and white viewfinders, because you can pull a sharp focus much more reliably in B&W than you can in color.

There's a good visual demonstration of this here, as well as this very good article at Wikipedia.
posted by melorama at 1:52 AM on January 10, 2008 [2 favorites]

A B/W videotape, from before the development of the NTSC color standard, wouldn't be like that.
Except that the NTSC color standard was established in 1953.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:48 AM on January 10, 2008

The footage on this page show the crispness better.
posted by unknowncommand at 5:27 AM on January 10, 2008

unknowncommand, thanks! That is a great resource. The footage definitely has the video look I've seen before (the odd solarization-like artifacts were interesting, too). The fact that it was broadcast by a local TV station, live, would indicate that it is recorded video, not film.
posted by zsazsa at 7:30 AM on January 10, 2008

Ok, looking at the Wikipedia article methylsalicylate linked to, the section on the Image Orthicon Tube had an explanation of the "dark halo" effect. This is the same solarization artifact I noticed above, and you can see a good example of it at the very beginning of the Oswald Shot in Dallas Police Basement clip when a man stands and moves around in between the camera and an overhead light. The explanation had this interesting tidbit:

This effect was actually "cultivated" by tube manufacturers to a certain extent, as a small, carefully-controlled amount of the dark halo has the effect of "crispening" the viewed image. (That is, giving the illusion of being more sharply-focussed that it actually is).

This is probably why video footage from this era looks so crisp - it's basically had a Photoshop-style sharpening filter put over it!
posted by zsazsa at 7:51 AM on January 10, 2008

Unsharp mask, in fact.
posted by smackfu at 2:59 PM on January 10, 2008

Also, you're probably used to seeing old programs from that era in badly-preserved film and kinescope form, as mentioned above. That makes the footage of the shooting of Oswald stand out because many versions of it were recorded on tape. Oswald's arrest and transfer (no one knew he would be shot at that moment, of course) was deemed of significant newsworthiness to the world that mobile TV trucks were moved into place, and the transfer was covered using full-sized studio TV cameras. The feeds were microwaved back to the local studios, where they may or may not have been broadcast live, depending on the network. But they were recorded onto 2" tape, and due to the obvious significance, preserved.
posted by evilcolonel at 3:43 PM on January 10, 2008

The footage on this page show the crispness better.

That's the stuff. The footage of Kennedy leaving the plane and greeting the crowd, and the closeup shot of Oswald is the look I'm talking about.

The other shot of the woman I'm guessing is film based on what looks to be dust and scratches.
posted by Andrew Brinton at 12:53 AM on January 11, 2008

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