Did I Love Lucy Invent the Three-Camera Approach for TV Shows?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about TV and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the TV urban legends featured so far.

TV URBAN LEGEND: I Love Lucy invented the “three camera” approach for TV shows.

I Love Lucy was a highly influential television series.

i-love-lucy-season-1-pilot

The show particularly impressed with its avant garde filming techniques, which helped revolutionize television (particularly the world of syndication). That said, because they are SO famous for their filming techniques, they often get over-credited in certain areas. One such area is the idea of using three cameras to film the show.

You see, in the early days of television, shows were filmed with just one camera, just like a movie.

Then, for many years, television shows (well, sitcoms, at least) were filmed with three cameras. The idea was simple, with three cameras going at once (or switched back and forth between three cameras), you could get close-ups and wide shots and different angles all at once so that you could just quickly edit them together later rather than having a single camera have to set up to get each of those different shots. As you might imagine, it saves a good deal of time. Nowadays, if you’re filming something live, like a sporting event, multiple cameras are pretty much a necessity.

But by the time that I Love Lucy started using three cameras in 1951, though, the set-up had been used already by a few shows, including another sitcom on the same network as I Love Lucy, Amos and Andy!

Desi Arnaz and cinematographer Karl Freund might have really perfected the practice (and they came up with the idea of doing it with 35 mm film rather than 16 mm film and they were the first to use the system with a live studio audience) but the idea was invented in 1947 for NBC by Jerry Fairbanks, a short subject film director (he had won an Academy Award for the area before Paramount made him choose between film and TV – he went with TV) who came up with the idea with the help of director/producer Frank Telford.

Fairbanks said of the process, “If you used three or four cameras, all running continuously, you were using up a tremendous amount of film. We developed a Multicam system where the soundtrack ran continuously. Cameras could be switched on and off at will, and the film from each camera could still be keyed to the soundtrack. That brought the cost way down.”

Fairbanks never patented the process, which is likely why few people know about him, and instead credit the much more famous Desi Arnaz.

So here’s to you, Jerry Fairbanks!

The legend is…

STATUS: False

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One Response to “Did I Love Lucy Invent the Three-Camera Approach for TV Shows?”

  1. Karl Freund was a remarkable man. He directed two of the best horror films ever, The Mummy and Mad Love, and was cinematographer on many more. The best known non-horror titles he photographed were Key Largo and The Good Earth.

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