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It doesn't matter whether its the 80's, 90's or nowadays - there is the cinematic/movie look, and then there is the "cheap" kind of look. The one from daily soaps, or talk shows etc. The "video" look.

To give an example, consider the Japanese drama "Densha Otoko". I'll take it here as an example since it's reasonably popular and you can easily find parts on youtube for comparison.

It looks incredibly cheap.

On the other hand, take any high-production cinematic movies from the 80s, 90s or nowadays, or television shows like "Game of Thrones". The have this "movie" look, which is hard to describe. It's just looks like a move, and the "Densha Otoko" looks like a home-video from the 90s.

It's probably the same set made from cardboard used for set decos, but one movie the the sets look realistic, for some other TV-show the set look like made out of cardboard.

What's the reason behind this? Is it

  • just the frame rate (NTSC vs cinema)? I used to think like that, but nowadays with 25p and all that...
  • just the lightning on set? I used to think that, but is it that difficult to get it right such that low-production doesn't do it?
  • the quality of the used cameras? But say e.g. for Densha-Otoko the picture quality isn't bad, it's just that it looks overly realistic somehow?
  • Amusing to me that you specifically call it the "video look"... but you don't consider that the medium (video tape) could be the explanation you're looking for. – Catija Jun 10 '16 at 22:14
  • The correct tag is cinematography. Maybe. – cde Jun 11 '16 at 3:03
  • @Catija I doubt that "Densha Otoko" was filmed on video tape. On the other hand, some very high production value shows like "Yae no sakura" are filmed in high-def with digital cameras, but still look cheap. But I am incredibly glad that I could provide some amusement for you :-) – ndbd Jun 11 '16 at 8:44
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Up through the late 90s, quick and cheap productions (like soap operas) were recorded using video recorders that would use CCDs to capture an electrical image that was then recorded onto magnetic tape. The formats would have been PAL or NTSC, which run at (approximately) 25 and 30 frames per second, respectively.

More expensive major TV shows were filmed on actual emulsion film using the same technology used to make feature movies, and then the films were converted to a form that could be broadcast using a special machine called a telecine. Movie film playback frame rate was standardized to 24 frames per second in the first half of the 20th century. The combination of the frame rate and the image quality of film is what makes a big difference in the overall look of movies and higher quality TV shows.

Today many TV shows and movies are made with digital cameras. With digital "filming", the cameras can be set to record at different frame rates and other settings can be changed, either while filming or afterwards when the digital video is processed on a computer. Because the look of actual film is so ingrained (ha-ha) in the culture, when TV shows and movies are made with digital cameras, the frame rates, capture settings, and post processing are usually made to make the production look like it was shot on old-fashioned film (more or less).

Note that many big-budget (and smaller budget) productions of both movies and TV shows are still shot on actual film, and then converted to digital media for editing, post production, effects, and eventually broadcast and/or distribution.

One place where one can really see the difference between feature films and TV show settings and processing versus other settings and processing is sports broadcasting. Modern sports broadcasting is done with high resolution, high frame rate (60 fps or more) digital cameras, but it is not processed or set up to look like film at all. It's almost more made to be hyper-realistic. So even though it's an expensive, high-quality production, it looks very different from other high-quality digital filmmaking because there is no cultural desire for that "film" look for sports.

Many other aspects can more subtly affect the look of a production, especially the color processing/white balance, lighting, and lenses.

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