One of the enduring myths in television history is that the late Desi Arnaz created the three-camera system of filming TV shows for "I Love Lucy." But the three-camera system had well-documented roots in television before "Lucy" premiered 40 years ago this fall.
Before the three-camera system, TV shows were re-broadcast by means of kinescopes, poor-quality recordings that were made by pointing a film camera at a TV camera's electronic viewfinder. Once shows were made using cameras that recorded them directly on 35-millimeter film, however, they could be shown again with no loss of visual quality.
This gave birth to the syndication business and summer reruns. It also helped to shift the center of American television production from New York to Los Angeles.
Devised at the dawn of the television era, this system is still used today to produce many studio shows from "Family Matters" to "Murphy Brown." Despite the introduction of ever-more sophisticated cameras and control room equipment through the years, the three-camera system has proven to be a technological evergreen when it comes to filming TV shows.
But is Arnaz the man who deserves credit for introducing this system? Several witnesses say that he isn't.
Two figures associated with "I Love Lucy" deserve credit for improving the three-camera system already in existence when "Lucy" was launched, according to Bart Andrews, author of "The 'I Love Lucy' Book": associate producer Al Simon and cinematographer Karl Freund.
Simon was responsible for the actual mechanics of filming, while Freund devised a way of providing quality lighting that the system had lacked until then, Andrews said. (In the mid-'50s, Simon would score another first: developing a camera with both electronic and film capabilities--that is, one that could transmit an image while simultaneously recording it on 35mm film.)
But Simon's pioneering work on the three-camera system predated his work on "Lucy": In September, 1950, he set up a similar system for Ralph Edwards on "Truth or Consequences," according to Edwards.
As a result, "Truth or Consequences" deserves credit as the first show recorded on 35mm film before a live audience on a regular basis, although it was not the first show filmed using multiple cameras.
Credit for scoring that first goes to Jerry Fairbanks, head of NBC's fledgling film department in 1947-48. The first show filmed with his 16mm Multicam system was "Public Prosecutor," which aired in the 1947-48 season. Fairbanks also filmed episodes of "Silver Theater" (1949-50), a show for Edgar Bergen in the spring of 1951, and others.
Fairbanks introduced the three-camera system to Edwards when he filmed the pilot of "Truth or Consequences" in April, 1950. When Simon joined Ralph Edwards Productions several months later, he made several technical improvements upon the Fairbanks system, substituting 35mm film for 16mm film and adding a more sophisticated intercom system.
Fairbanks, who is in his early 80s and now lives in Santa Barbara, says that NBC asked him in 1947 to develop a system of filming TV shows that would avoid the pitfalls and mistakes that aired on live TV, yet would cost less than traditional filming methods.
"If you used three or four cameras, all running continuously, you were using up a tremendous amount of film," he says. "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."
Simon, who is 79 and lives in Beverly Hills, says his system represented a step forward from the one developed by Fairbanks.
"It was more technically sophisticated, with a two-track audio system," he says. "It enabled technical people to talk to technical people (i.e., directors and camera operators) and stage people to talk to stage people (i.e., grips and gaffers)."
It's still a matter of historical dispute whether Arnaz actually claimed credit for devising the three-camera system.
Daughter Lucie Arnaz says he didn't: "My father never once tooted his horn to me about creating the three-camera technique. You would think that if it meant so much to him to make that up, he'd be one of those people who is always bragging about it. But he never talked about it."
Nonetheless, in his 1976 autobiography, "A Book," Arnaz says he conceived the system in response to network and sponsor demands that the show be broadcast live from New York. Desi and Lucy wanted to remain in Hollywood.
"I figured we would have to stage it as a play and while doing it, photograph it simultaneously with three or four 35mm motion picture cameras and record it all at the same time in front of an audience," he wrote.
With the possible exception of doing the show as a play--or, in television terms, a sitcom--all of that had been done previously.
As the man who developed the Multicam system, Fairbanks says it was a mistake not to secure a patent. In explaining why he failed to do so, he also throws light on why the legend of Arnaz's creating the system may have gone unchallenged for so long.
"We didn't pursue it because I was trying to help the industry," he says. "We were trying to promote the use of film for television. I was more interested in promoting the film industry than in getting an individual reputation for things."
And Edwards, whose "Truth or Consequences" was filmed before a live audience a year before "I Love Lucy," sounds a similar note:
"I'm not a feisty guy. I'm the guy who didn't put the words down (about our using the system earlier). He (Arnaz) was a decent, OK guy. Since 1940, I've always had a show on radio or television. God has been good to me. Why should I stir things up?"