So how did one of the most admired cinematographers of all time revolutionize both cinema and television with two vastly different styles?
In this video from Vox.com, Phil Edwards dives into the curious case of Austro-Hungarian cinematographer Karl Freund. Born in 1890, Freund cut his teeth at the legendary German movie studio, UFA, working on projects that almost a century later still stand as the gold standard for visionary inventiveness such as the iconic film “Metropolis” (1927).
He took his dramatic low key lighting style with him to Hollywood in 1929 working uncredited on “All Quiet on The Western Front” before claiming DP credit for dozens of great films from Hollywood’s Golden Age, including “Dracula,” “Key Largo,” and the Academy Award-winning film “The Good Earth.” He was known for his beautiful images, the contrast between light and shadow, and the ability to create indelible images for heightened drama.
None of those descriptions would likely be the first you would hear when discussing what we now know as the traditional sitcom. Shot by multiple cameras at once. Flat lighting to make sure all five friends, from Monica to Joey, will be properly lit no matter where they move within the permanent set. The name of the game in sitcom production is speed and efficiency. The camera needs to get out of the way, not impose itself on the proceedings and risk interrupting the flow of the actors. But, while Freund passed away in 1969, it was his pioneering efforts over sixty years ago that created the look that we still associate with the multi-camera comedy today.
In 1953, Freund took over the reigns as cinematographer for a little show called “I Love Lucy.” The show was ahead of its time in many ways and set not only the standard for laughter, but also a behind the scenes production standard for how television comedy could be filmed. So how did he do it?
Step one was to embrace television’s inherent limitations. There’s a reason “I Love Lucy” doesn’t look like “Metropolis.” Just like there’s a reason “Friends” didn’t look like “Braveheart.” Workflow in television production is incredibly different than that of movies. In the Golden Age of television where everything from “Game of Thrones” to “Atlanta” strives to create cinematic images and iconic looks, it may be hard to remember that most non-prestige TV, is still more concerned with quick turnaround and getting as much material shot as fast as possible. This is where “I Love Lucy” was so revolutionary.
Unlike his feature work which gave voice to each individual frame, for television Freund showed how to bring a more factory approach to storytelling. Rather than using pools of light or specifically placed shadows, the sitcom approach instead bathed the set in a more even light. For “I Love Lucy.” Freund accomplished this with overhead lights attached to a grid as well as small footlights to fill in faces and add something of a beauty light for the subjects. While this may not have added drama, it did give the actors the ability to move freely around the set and be captured by any of the three cameras, all running simultaneously, and to get multiple angles without multiple takes. Whereas, in film, you might take a week to shoot an individual scene, in television sitcoms you are more likely to take an hour. Whereas film projects can take years to get off the ground from concept to release, TV sitcoms are often written, produced, and released in only a week or two. So, while it would be nice to spend hours lighting each actor's closeup, the demands of the genre didn’t allow Freund this level of perfection. So rather than fight the system, he revolutionized it.
Of course, today there are a number of single-camera sitcoms and additional media outlets which have the budget and on-demand release schedules that allow artists to put more of a stamp on even a half hour show. But in 1953, Karl Freund took the reigns and created a look that would set the course for American sitcoms that would last for years to come.