Monday, February 22, 2010

The Dark Halo

I may be the only one to ever comment on an extinct video artifact; that of the Dark Halo, a unique lens flare common to early television. There were a number of limitations to such new and expensive means of communication and for decades the promising technology was unable to fulfill its full potential as a medium. It was, in spite of its advanced nature, a fairly simple means of communication and it would take years of development and the anticipation of market penetration to work out all the bugs.

Early television worked but it didn't work all that great. Static, ghosts and other problems caused by transmission, reception and the limits of the equipment made television viewing something of a general disappointment. Television wasn't the slick eye-party of modern times. The questionable quality was endured because that was all there was. It was the transmission of the information, not the experience, that made broadcast television worthwhile in the early days.

One of those artifacts of broadcast television of days long gone that surely caused concern among broadcasters was the Dark Halo. I'm sure there is a technical term for it but I don't know what it is. The Dark Halo was a lens flare caused by the inability of the camera or equipment to fully process the image against an overwhelming light source. It was caused by a bright point of light reflecting into the camera. Typically a bright, intense reflection from a ring, piece of metal, glass or sequins on a dress or suit would cause a bright flare on the image. Instead of a bright, white glow and haze the equipment would instead create a momentary darkened halo around a bright center. In modern film craft the bright lens flare is a camera technique used on purpose for effect (Star Trek, CSI, etc.) but in the past it was an annoyance that highlighted the limits of technology.

Via boingboing. Click the photo to experience the caveman days of television for yourself.

In the image/link above a Dark Halo can be seen on the sparkly jacket worn by Buck Owens just above his hand on the guitar neck. For performers like Buck who wore 'nudie suits' and the slinky sequined dresses favored by female stars like Barbara Streisand during their television performances the Dark Halo was a constant and familiar presence for the viewer. It was also nearly restricted to the black and white era. By the time color began to appear in television the image processing difficulties were being overcome for the most part, though on many shows one
can still observe the occasional Dark Halo flare overwhelm the equipment. This is evident from the reflections seen coming from from the jewels on Cinderella's crown in the 1965 broadcast of Rodgers and Hammersteins' Cinderella.

The Dark Halo is also something I look for when a modern show recreates television scenes of the past as I am nerdy that way. These are normally depicted during scene on a camera or monitor as a black and white image that is in the foreground of a set (as in the film That Thing You Do). In those rare instances I have yet to see any show faithfully recreate the darkened lens flare or other video artifacts with the exception of poorly rendered lettering or titles superimposed on the image.


  1. When I was in the 2nd grade I drew a picture of John Glenn's rocket launch and drew a heavy black circle around the rocket engine to emulate the Dark Halo effect I saw on TV. There is a tech term for it, but I've long forgotten it.

  2. Holy cow! I'm not the only one. So this is what it's like when doves cry.

    A nice example of reality vs perception.

  3. I was born long after the advent of color video, but I have seen this effect in an old episode of Ernie Kovacs, in that he had a sight gag involving a couple of light bulbs; and when one of them lit up, it practically made the screen go black.

    I have also seen it in episodes of Doctor Who from the 60s. I want to say it happened at some point in the last Hartnell serial.

  4. I wonder if it was used on purpose in a show like Who as a cheap special effect.

  5. It looks like the term for the dark halo is.. "Dark Halo":

  6. That' good to know. Looks like the effect was actually on purpose to an extent in order to make a blurred image appear crisper, something that would be desirable because of the low resolution televisions of the past. But it was easily overwhelmed.

  7. I used to work in video, but well after the black and white era.

    I worked with a mix of tube, analog and digital technology at that crux in the late 90's where things were changing incredibly fast. The effect you're discussing isn't familiar to me (as its b&w), but it does sound like the limitations of early video in the tube cameras I used. Once tubes disappeared, the "latitude" of video was improved (but not perfect). A lot of effort goes into finding that mid range of lighting, which is why they tend to flatten news sets, etc... with lots and lots of light.

    Anyway, you can see some odd "artifacting" on tube cameras.

  8. I remember the dark halo and wondered what it was, but TV technology was so bad that even as a kid in 1954 I remember thinking that live TV was total cheese. Lighting, sets, all pretty bad...

    I also remember something that has disappeared with tube TVs and the scan lines across the screen: moire patterns caused by men's suits or ties with pin stripes. They'd squiggle, and if I was watching my local Ted Baxter newscaster and his brand new Father's Day tie was squiggling I was always more interested in that than the news.

  9. Thanks for the info, Ryan. (Hey miss the League!)

    Pappy, I remember that too. Hey, do you remember TVs that had to warm up and when shut down always left that little dot of light in the center of the screen? Man, extinct artifacts of technology.


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