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Too much information

Those of us in the television industry who remember the advent of color TV can easily recall some of the early panics, illusions and general silliness.

Color television came when the British had almost persuaded the United States to abandon the vidicon pickup tube in favor of the image orthicon, which came in both 3in and 4.5in sizes. But a color camera fitted with even three 3in tubes was one heavy beast and was not the kind of object that you moved around the set; the set came to it. If you watch some of the surviving golden oldies from that period, such as the Mary Martin version of “Peter Pan,” you'll notice that the actors came to the camera and not the other way around.

The invention of the plumbicon pickup tube by Philips put an end to the tank-sized cameras, but there were other issues. We were sure, for example, that viewers would not enjoy the new color service if differential phase and gain exceeded an arbitrary 10° and 10 percent, respectively. And for a while, we were required to switch in a color filter if we recorded such readings from measurements on the vertical-interval test signal. The only occasion when I had to do this was when a home viewer complained. (That home viewer happened to be my boss, who was watching TV in his BBC-provided house on his BBC-provided color TV.)

But the most fun was in the actual program production. In monochrome productions, you could get away with a lot. Studio floor marks would disappear using duct tape, the luminance value of hideous color choices hid the real facts, lighting was chosen for mood, and makeup was arbitrary.

Lo and behold, with color and the different gamma of the shadowmask tube, directors painted the studio floors to look like carpet or hardwood flooring in order to match the set. Color choices were made carefully with non-reflective paints. Lighting was uniform to the CIE standard Illuminant D65 for correct color balance. Makeup became critical.

There were other new effects as well: the beat frequency of the color subcarrier with some striped ties and other clothing; the dreadful color keying (using blue) around a woman's hair when she had used hairspray; and the impossibility of getting any kind of match between studio shots and material inserted from color film scenes produced outdoors.

Of all those, makeup was the most affected. The basic makeup techniques that were used in the theater for generations and had transferred to television were abandoned. New techniques evolved that not only eliminated the shiny nose or the red eye from those lunch martinis, but also got flesh tones to look real under the unforgiving studio lights. Under normal house lighting, the makeup looked kind of ridiculous, but in the studio, with a camera's eye, it looked right.

With HD, things have gone full circle again. In Europe, with resolutions less than doubling for the services that are rolling out this month, makeup issues aren't going to be visibly different. But here in the United States, more than doubling resolution for a real HDTV production will cause things to be a little different. Up until now, makeup hasn't been an issue because most HD productions have been in the sporting world. But now that more programming is commonly being shot in HD, actresses in particular are panicking about the prospects of exposing every facial blemish to their adoring public. Even the color and texture graduation between makeup at the edges of the face, around the eyes, at the neck and below the ears is going to look savage if not applied correctly. And the talent of the current makeup artists is not yet honed for this work.

There are stories that the offices of plastic surgeons in Southern California are being swamped by actresses who want to remove the tiny blemishes that a splodge of makeup hid before — as if that resulting tiny scar is going to be any less visible.

Yes, way too much information.

Paul McGoldrick is an industry consultant based on the West Coast.

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