When I entered film studies academia, I was not particularly interested in editing or cinematographic style, but rather the history of filmmaking. During my education, I’ve learned to love the unsung heroes of creating seamless or even jarring moments out of the narrative through editing and style. I feel I took many of the cinematic moments for granted and this newfound appreciation encouraged me to understand this filmic marriage of words and the way a story is told. Take a look at one of my favourite scenes in Classical Hollywood history, the opening shot of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958):
Notice I said “shot,” instead of “sequence,” as this scene is completely uninterrupted in terms of editing and the camera tells a fluid story to pique the interest of the audience and build suspense. Before I had seen this film, I never paid attention to the amount of dedication and planning required to achieve the effect of the long take with a tracking shot. Imagine if the car had driven behind the building a fraction of a second slower or the actors were out of place for a moment—the entire shot would be ruined and film stock wasted. Several directors in Classical Hollywood cinema employed the long take in their films. Filmmaking is truly magical from this perspective.
Place this fluid style in a television series and the same effect is achieved. Add a bit of hospital jargon and an emergency… and you’ve got a medical drama. At least, that’s what I learned on Pioneers of Television: Doctors and Nurses on Tuesday evening. The actors in series like ER and St. Elsewhere were placed under immense pressure to perform perfectly every take due to the use of long takes. The uninterrupted shot creates the tension felt when a patient is in a state of trauma and the doctors converse with one another, question diagnoses, and prescribe treatment to the trauma patients. As much as I appreciate the actors and their hard work, I love seeing a cinematic technique receive attention from television directors and producers years after it was created … and that’s the history buff lurking within me.
The episode of Pioneers of Television also focused on the medical accuracy of the series, following the model of St. Elsewhere, and actual doctors’ appreciation for the “realism” attained by screenwriters and actors. You learn the actors pick up on the practice and apply their skills in dire situations. I found this both intriguing and disturbing as they’re not doctors, “they just play one on TV.” Perhaps there’s something about sticking a person with a needle in their arm that never leaves you. Just like riding a bike?
If you forgot to watch Pioneers of Television, never fear… the internet is your friend! The Pioneers of Television section of the PBS website harbours past episodes, including last season, for all to enjoy. Also, for kicks and giggles, take this quiz (click here!) to see if you know your medical (television) history.