An episode of Friends season 2 helped explain why soap operas look different than primetime TV shows.
Soap operas are best known for their melodramatic themes and ongoing story lines, but the television form also harbors a unique visual style. Their cheap production requires restrictions on stage design and lighting, which makes them look different from other forms of television. And while some viewers may not notice the differences, a season 2 episode of Friends parodying the genre made them very clear.
Unlike other television shows, which have higher budgets and fewer time constraints, soap operas are highly serialized, requiring a large amount of footage with minimal re-recordings. This kind of cost-effective production requires them to be shot in smaller sets, which are often evenly lit to accompany a multi-camera setup. These methods save a lot of production time by avoiding the need to reset the lighting for each scene, while multiple still cameras can capture a scene from multiple angles at the same time. While this saves time by reducing the number of shots, it also causes a noticeable amount of backlight in the foreground of a frame, making people and objects in shots more pronounced.
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This lighting effect can be seen in season 2. Friends episode “In which Dr. Ramoray dies”, which parodies the soap opera Days of our lives. During one scene, Joey’s character, Dr. Ramoray, finds himself on a brightly lit hospital stage. The lighting is clearly distributed throughout the set, as the characters in the frame are bathed in light from all sides, while the shadows in the background have multiple light sources. In the next scene, the rest of the gang are on the couch and the lighting is carefully distributed throughout the set, giving everyone a more natural look.
While set design plays a very important role in the aesthetics of a soap opera, the interpolation of motion remains its most notable feature. Unlike TV shows and primetime movies, soap operas used to be shot on more cost-effective videotape, which provided lower resolution but higher frame rates. This kind of frame rate gave soap operas the unique, hyper-realistic presentation the genre has become known for, but it also made cheap set designs incredibly apparent.
While the last soap opera to be filmed on tape was The daring and the pretty In 2011, they continue to be filmed at high frame rates despite using digital technology. Due to the decline in soap opera ratings over the past two decades, the show’s producers have come to trust their most devoted fans, many of whom have been watching these shows for decades. Such a drastic change in style could put off many longtime viewers, and these shows are unlikely to capture younger viewers due to stiff competition from online content and profitable daytime reality TV. And even if fans were to adjust to such a drastic change, filming at a lower frame rate would do little to change the soap opera effect on many modern televisions, as their screens display images at a higher frame rate due to robust resolutions.
Despite creating a unique visual style outside of budget constraints, soap operas have made the most of their limits, using these traits to their advantage. Cost-effective lighting effects and motion tweening have led these shows to rely heavily on close-ups and frequent cuts, which goes well with their character and dialogue-based style. Even as the years go by, this style has proven to be timeless, as soap operas retain their iconic visuals, even in the digital age.
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