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TV Magic -- How Do They Do That?

Revealing the man behind the curtain By Charlie White

Have you often wondered as you watched TV, ?How did they do that? If so, youve come to the right place, because in this article youll find out how some of the camera tricks and technological techniques are done in a modern television or motion picture studio. Thats right, Im going to reveal how those TV magic tricks are accomplished. Why me? Well, I have been working in television for 30 years and have done all of those tricks myself, so Im not afraid to let you in on all our little secrets. So come on in, itll be fun!

Here's a portable version of a teleprompter, where a small flat-panel screen contains the text that's reflected onto a transparent mirror in front of the lens.
The first question many people have about the secrets of television is, how do those anchorpeople get so smart? Doesnt it look like theyve memorized their entire scripts? How could they do that in just a matter of minutes? Well, they have considerable help. If the anchorperson is sitting in a studio, he or she is most likely using a teleprompter, a device that places the text theyre reading directly in front of the camera lens thats shooting the video. As you may have guessed, its all done with computers. The producer of the program, and sometimes the anchorperson himself, will type the script on a computer, and then transfer the data containing the text into special software that will allow it to scroll down the screen. The speed of that scrolling is controlled by a teleprompter operator (a job I did on a nightly newscast for years), a task thats a cross between reading a bedtime story to your kid and dancing with someone who has a series of nervous tics. The scrolling text is placed in front of the camera lens using a two-way mirror, which the camera can see through, but which allows the text to also show. Underneath the lens is a small video monitor, which contains that scrolling text and is reflected in the transparent mirror in front of the lens. So there it is, the anchorperson reading text but acting like shes making it all up. Its magic.

Theres another way that anchorpersons, reporters and actors fool you into thinking theyve memorized their lines, and thats using a technique called ?ear-prompt. This technique, which some Internet bloggers accused President Bush of using during the presidential debates, involves an inconspicuous earpiece and a tiny tape recorder (or in Bushs case, allegedly a radio receiver) tucked away in an unseen pocket. Before the production begins, the reporter or actor reads the script into the tape recorder, and during the performance plays back that tape and says each word as he hears it. It takes a short while to learn how to do this and get used to it, but once its mastered it can save hours of memorization time and actually speeds up film and video production where a teleprompter isnt available or practical. This technique is a favorite of film actor Jack Nicholson, whos reportedly used ear prompt while playing most of his recent roles.  

Here's a screen shot of software where chromakey is created. Notice the picture on the left the woman is in front of a green screen. Then on the right, the green color is replaced by what appears to be an elaborate set.
What about that weatherman? Is he standing in front of a real map? Well, no. Nor is Spiderman actually flying around New York on a thread. Its all done with a technique thats gotten amazingly sophisticated over its more than half-century of development. Chromakey, also called blue-screen or green-screen, is a technique where an actor or weatherman stands in front of (or is dangled in front of) a well-lit green or blue wall and sometimes a floor, too. Then the chromakey circuitry (or software) reads the screen, substituting a different background such as a map or moving picture in each place in the frame where there is that particular blue or green color. 

SkyCam, reporting for duty for a Monday Night Football game on ABC.
Our last magic trick to reveal is SkyCam, the camera whose shot appears to be from something mounted on a miniature helicopter, flying all over a football stadium, bringing magnificent shots into your living room. You might have seen this insect-like gizmo floating around on the side of your screen from time to time during a football game. That spacecraft-like device is actually controlled by wires and pulleys attached to the highest four corners of a football stadium, often in the same towers that support the massive stadium lighting systems. Where these wires are attached are computer-controlled pulleys that either reel in or let out their lines, enabling precise three-dimensional control of the electronically stabilized assembly carrying the camera and microphone. At a central point in the stadium, theres a main computer that coordinates the actions of the four pulley computers, and then theres another Windows-based computer that allows the two operators to control all the computers and the camera attached to them. This contraption camera requires two operators, one who is designated the ?pilot and who is in charge of flying the camera around the stadium without hitting anybody or anything, while the other operator is the one who is actually the cameraman, panning, tilting, focusing and zooming the camera. The result is some of the most dramatic footage of football games ever seen.

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