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

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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38 Comments

Tony Clark's picture

It’s like watching standard broadcast on a HD television. It’s not that it’s out of focus, the display simply emphasizes the lack of information.

Alex Cooke's picture

It’s not that. I’m talking about specific shots where the background is noticeably sharper than the subject.

Richard Weeks's picture

Same here. A lot and i mean a lot of shots are completely missed focus and not lack of detail. I have been noticing it more lately as I too have been watching older shows. It’s even worse when they punch into an image for a close-up rather than shooting another take for that angle.

Matt Williams's picture

I think it was really a matter of what was "acceptably" in focus - with movies projected on a giant screen, such misses were very obvious. TV back then on the little 20" 480 tube TVs (or even worse, going back further) probably had a much wider tolerance for what was acceptably out of focus.

That + the nature of how shows are made vs. movies is probably why you notice it more with shows than with films (though I notice it a lot in older movies too... just not nearly as much).

Javier Gutierrez's picture

Totally agree.. All zone or hyper focal is what it seems like to me.

Matt Williams's picture

Often the tools to make sure things were in focus were just... a tape measure. Nowadays we get focus peaking and immediate playback to see if we missed focus and they didn't get that. Any number of reasons it happened, it's not exclusive to TV either, though that's where I see it the most - probably because of the fast paced nature of TV production and inability to go back and do reshoots.

Abe Halpert's picture

Exactly. They measured the distance and set the lens. They had no waying of knowing they had messed up if it looked ok to them in the viewfinder

Occasionally you see TV out of focus today, but usually just because the focus puller didnt rack focus fast enough or it's a shallow depth-of-field steadicam shot and they couldn't keep the subject sharp the whole time

Adam Rubinstein's picture

Precisely. Not only were the shots made on film with distance determined by tape measures, but the real time video feeds were low resolution images on low resolution monitors. The y were suitable for framing and lighting (luminance) though a typical $99 computer monitor has many times the resolution and DR of those old systems.

Ian Oliver's picture

For TV I'm not sure how often even a tape was used.
"Phil, about 12 feet?"
"Maybe 11"
"Done. Slate!"

Hogan's Hero's and similar shows used cotton, balled up white sheets, salt and sometimes just paint for snow. A wood curtain rod with a strip of duck tape could pass for a steel post on TV's of the day.

There was no need to invest more than necessary in time or materials for anything beyond what the final result needed to be.

Jaron Horst's picture

I've noticed this as well and it has been driving me nuts! Usually, it's the close-up shots that I notice back-focusing on. It's not just older shows though either - HD shows from the 2010's have this issue as well.

Dan Grayum's picture

Serenity now

Alex Cooke's picture

SERENITY NOW!!!

Crina Prida's picture

It's outrageous, egregious, PREPOSTEROUS!

Justin Sharp's picture

You should closely watch some 1950s and 1960s tv. The resolution of tvs then were so low they could hide a lot. Not long ago, my mom was watching an episode of The Andy Griffith Show and I noticed that they obviously didn’t make much effort to hide an either an audio or lighting cable.

Alex Cooke's picture

No kidding! I’ll check that out!

Tony Northrup's picture

My wife and I are constantly calling out missed focus on TV shows and movies, even modern ones, mostly just to make us feel better about ourselves. Funny you ask, but no, we're not fun at parties.

Check out pro portraits in people's homes, SO MANY of them are oof.

Mihnea Stoian's picture

'Friends' is notorious for this in my opinion - the shots that are towards the kitchen are 80% out of focus, while most of the others are fine. It makes it very annoying to sit through a whole episode in 4K, especially when they keep switching between 2 characters talking to each other.

jim hughes's picture

I like it that way.

Sean Penney's picture

I know that "Star Trek" from the 1960's and "Cheers" from the 1980's were filmed (with film cameras) while most other shows were videotaped. I suspect that even pro quality videotape systems upscaled for 1080p or 4K wouldn't impress. Does anyone know what the approximate resolution was on the *master* tapes for those sitcoms? Surely, it must have been better than 480i.

Re-runs of S.T. and Cheers hold up quite well on today's TV's. I wonder what else was *filmed* back in the day...

Graham Glover's picture

Twilight Zone was done in film; it was the only medium of the time. Yes it was apparently subject to crazy tight budgets, but the photography was very good and the imagery looks very good today on 4K. CBS did an excellent job digitizing it. The quality is actually marginally distracting in that you see it and realize it's 60-ish years old and that it looks really good on a modern tv.

Lee Christiansen's picture

Back in the days we had 1" open reel video tape and U-Matic (High Band and Low Band).

If memory serves:
240 Lines: U-Matic. Low Band
300 Lines: U-Matic, High Band
300 Lines: 1" Open Reel
330 Lines: U-Matic, High Band SP

Portable colour monitors were often just 6" screen sizes where I worked. Often the workflow would be composite rather than component (component is where the colours and luminosity are kept separate for image clarity and better multi-generation copying), and let's not forget that editing was essentially just copying from one tape to another.

If stuff was filmed, then it still needed to be telecine'd, and we'd hit that low video resolution again.

And remembering my early days working in video production, those "portable" U-Matic recorders for location work were the twice the size of an average VHS deck, and weighed a ton. Amazingly, originally designed to be carried by the cameraman as a 1-man op solution with the camera being a "Tube" type and itself weighing some 13+ Kg, with a big heavy battery belt as well.

The newbies in telly today have never had it so easy... ha.

Alex Herbert's picture

Telecine... *shudders*

Martin Van Londen's picture

Honestly, I think because the nature of a sitcom is similar to a play, and multi-cam, the director might just take the best performances instead of the best-composed/in-focus shots.

Jenny Rich's picture

I haven't thought much about it but the general blur had always been noticed by me, it is seen especially well when the series last for a long time and you can compare the first seasons to the newest ones.

Roberto Aita's picture

It's not just on old TV shows, I remember many recent Blockbuster movies having B-camera or even A-camera shots on main characters completely out of focus, like in "Batman -The Dark Knight Rises" for instance.

Tom HM's picture

I wonder if it's partially as a result of sitcoms often being filmed in front of live audiences. You only have the crowd for a few hours and using the first take probably avoids overuse of canned laughter. Lots of different sets, filmed at a fast pace, probably leaves little time for a perfecting focus pulls.

Allen Ng's picture

so everyone here is stuck at home with their new 8k TV complaining about 480p stuff...🤣
Always some funny topics here at fstoppers

Jack Siegel's picture

There is a much more important lesson here: Content carries the day. Many photographers spend inordinate amounts of time worrying about soft corners, high resolution, digital noise, perfect color (whatever that is), and all sorts of other technical issues. In some cases, these issues are important (like an image used for an ad). And there certainly is nothing wrong with craft and attention to detail. But at the end of the day, very few people looking at a photograph complain about or even notice any of those issues. The image is either impactful or not. It either makes an impression or it doesn't. Seinfeld is still widely watched in syndication 22 years after the final episode aired in primetime. Why? It was well written, well acted, and funny. Good content always carries the day.

jim hughes's picture

You want funny? Pull up classic Phil Silvers and watch Bilko succesfully fast talk Colonel Hall for the 1,000th time. 1955. No politics, no "message", no complex social issues dealt with in sensitive ways. Just laughs. Nobody cares if it's not 4K.

Alex Harris's picture

Same as I pointed out as well, Jack. Although you explained it a lot more.

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