In an interview promoting his new movie “Being the Ricardos,” about the beloved sitcom “I Love Lucy,” writer-director Aaron Sorkin referred to Lucy’s “Friday audience taping.” I suppose even a media maven like Sorkin should be forgiven for bollixing terminology about motion pictures. We all do it.
“Lucy” was never taped. In fact, videotape was not in use in 1952 when the story takes place. Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were actually pioneers in developing a three-camera set-up using 35mm film, not tape.
This time of year, most of us shoot a lot of digital cellphone video, and we might call it “taping” or “filming” but it’s not. To appreciate the distinction, you had to grow up back when people really did shoot film.
The Kodak camera my parents owned in the 1950s used 8mm film and had to be cranked before each use, sort of like a child’s wind-up toy. A small reel of film was good for about 3 minutes. Once exposed, the precious footage was given to the local drug store for processing, which usually took about a week because they had to send it out to a lab.
When the film came back, on another tiny reel, Dad carefully set-up his projector to display the glorious, bouncy, scratchy, silent moving pictures on the living room wall. Since there was never adequate indoor light during photography, color images were almost too dark to identify. Lighting was better outdoors — except that sun flares often obliterated the picture.
Still, the family watched in rapt attention, with the kids yelping about how goofy we looked. As for my parents and grandparents, whenever the camera was pointed their way they waved. They didn’t smile much back then, but they really knew how to wave.
True horror came when the film jammed. The projector’s bulb required so much wattage that it became red hot, causing the film to catch fire. We’d watch an eerie image on the wall of a still frame burning from the center outward until it melted away.
Home-moviemaking became simpler when videotape reached the consumer market in the 1970s. Technically, we were no longer “filming,” we were “taping.” I owned a bulky Panasonic camcorder that used full-sized VHS tapes and was so heavy I had to balance it on my shoulder.
Most of us quickly discarded our movie projectors, leaving many 8mm reels of unwatchable family memories. I sent my film to a company that transferred the content to VHS so it would “last forever,” which turned out to be roughly 15 years.
VHS tapes wore out, especially during furious fast-forwarding and rewinding, with hours of material on a single tape. I had Christmas celebrations, followed by baseball games, followed by an old episode of “Saturday Night Live,” followed by another Christmas gathering.
When digital formats came along, I sent my VHS tapes to be digitized so they would, you know, “last forever.” That’s when I started reading about something called “digital rot.” It refers to the fact that when our phones stop functioning, or online storage sites disappear, video memories are lost.
Nowadays I’m using a fancy iPhone to shoot “high dynamic range” video (HDR). I’ll be thrilled if the images last as long as episodes of “I Love Lucy.”