June 7, 2018

How a German Expressionist DP Lowkey Gave Sitcoms a Bright Future

Without cinematographer Karl Freund, we might've never loved Lucy or been introduced to the phallic phenomenon known as shrinkage.

Sitcoms have delighted television audiences ever since the first-ever program of its kind aired on network television in 1947. These "situation comedies", from I Love Lucy to The Big Bang Theory, feature recurring characters who seem to get themselves into a bind in every episode, inciting plenty of yucks as they attempt to get themselves out of it.

But that's not the only thing that sitcoms have in common. In fact, one largely unseen aspect of the genre was so integral to their production that without it, we might have never had sitcoms at all. In this video essay from Vox, learn how DP Karl Freund, who rose to fame for his work on German Expressionist films like Metropolis and The Last Laugh, revolutionized the genre after coming onboard to lens I Love Lucy.

Now, you might be wondering how a cinematographer whose filmography looks more like a cinephile's top 10 list managed to play such an enormous role in the advent of the sitcom. Well, Freund was no stranger to innovation, being credited as the inventor of the "unchained camera", which freed the camera from its tripod and allowed filmmakers to capture pans, tilts, and crane shots. However, it wasn't until Dezi Arnaz asked Freund to be the cinematographer for I Love Lucy that he unleashed his greatest gift to network television. 

Despite being an experienced, Oscar-winning DP, Freund realized that filming a TV show in front of a live studio audience had a unique set of challenges, ones that piqued his interest enough for him to agree to work on the show. The "flat lighting" system he invented, as well as the three-camera shooting system (which he perfected but didn't invent), reduced contrast and softened shadows, allowing actors to walk and perform anywhere on the stage without the crew needing any other camera or lighting setups.

This, of course, meant faster, more efficient production, better performances, and, last but not least, the most important piece of the sitcom puzzle: the genuine laughter from the audience.      

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