Camera Tricks Makes Jimmy Fallon’s ‘Tonight Show’ Bigger, Better

Oct 16, 2015

Jimmy Fallon
Credit NBCUniversal

You’ll never watch Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” the same way after reading this column.

I always learn a lot about TV when former NBC late-night programming executive Rick Ludwin returns to speak to students at Miami University, his alma mater.

On Thursday night, he revealed NBC's camera tricks on Fallon’s top-rated “Tonight Show” to overcome limitations of cramped Studio 6B in New York’s Rockefeller Center – and a few other observations about Stephen Colbert and the changes in TV’s late-night landscape.

When Fallon replaced Jay Leno in February 2014, the show moved from a spacious Los Angeles studio to the much smaller Rockefeller Center studio built for radio in the 1930s, and converted to TV in the 1950s. The challenge was “to make it look as big as possible,” said Ludwin, a 1970 Miami graduate who supervised NBC shows hosted by Fallon, Leno, David Letterman and Conan O’Brien, plus “Saturday Night Live,” “Seinfeld,” and other prime-time series and specials for nearly 25 years.

STAGE ACT: When Fallon does his opening monologue, viewers never see the proscenium arch over the stage – because there isn’t one. “It’s a television trick. You see the walls on either side (of the proscenium) but there’s no top. The curtains go up all the way to the lighting grid. It makes the set appear to the cameras that it’s much larger than it really is," he says.

ROBOT HELP: Small robotic cameras run back and forth along tracks bolted to the side walls of the studio to provide “wide-angle shots to make the audience appear much larger than it is. That’s another camera trick,” he said.

MARQUEE PERFORMANCE:  On Sept. 12, Fallon added a new look to the show by having Pharrell Williams sing on the Rockefeller Center marquee over Sixth Street. Fans cheered below, and across the street, while cars, buses, taxis and bicycles drove down Sixth Street.

“It gives a different and bigger look to the show,” explained Ludwin, a "Tonight Show consultant.

Ludwin also offered these observations about the new late-night competition, with Stephen Colbert replacing Letterman and James Corden replacing Craig Ferguson on CBS; and Comedy Central hiring Trevor Noah and Larry Wilmore to fill shows vacated by Jon Stewart and Colbert.

Rick Ludwin
Credit John Kiesewetter

  FEMALE FACES: The late-night TV picture will change more in 2016, when former “Daily Show” comedian Samantha Bee debuts her “Full Frontal” news satire show on TBS next year. Former E! host Chelsea Handler is preparing a series for Netflix. And it’s about time, Ludwin says.

“It’s illogical that women have not been more equally represented in late-night,” calling TV “behind the curve.” If former NBC stars Tina Fey or Amy Poehler “decided to it, they’ve be snapped up right away,” he said. “They’re both good writers, have a point of view and are great performers.”

RATINGS RACE: NBC’s Fallon remains No. 1 in late-night ratings for total viewers and the 18-49 demographic “that advertisers pay a premium for.” CBS remains No. 2 with Colbert, but he has bigger ratings – and a younger audience – than Letterman. 

Stephen Colbert
Credit Wikipedia

“So CBS is happy. They’re getting more young adults, and can charge advertisers more. Ratings for ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live, in its 12th season, is down 9 percent this year – probably due to Colbert on CBS, he says.

OLD MAN OF TV: With the departures of Letterman, Leno and Stewart, the longest tenured late-night host is TBS' Conan O’Brien, who first starred on NBC’s “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” in 1993.  

TRUMP TV: Why do we see Donald Trump on TV so often? Because “Donald Trump is one of the few guys who actually move the ratings needle,” Ludwin says. NBC announced this week that Trump will host “Saturday Night Live” on Nov. 7, 11 years after his first time hosting in April 2004. This time, however, NBC may get requests for “equal opportunity (on TV) from other bona fide candidates,” for giving Trump 90 minutes of free TV time.

LETTERMAN RETURNS: David Letterman will return to TV doing a documentary on climate change for the National Geographic Channel’s “Years of Living Dangerously” next year. “I’ve heard he’s grown a big ‘Last Man On Earth’ beard,” Ludwin says. (Here's a New York Post photo of  "Letterman's crazy beard."

LIVE FROM NEW YORK: It’s the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Although he’s known for supervising late-night stars, and overseeing “Seinfeld,” one of his favorite NBC jobs was the annual Thanksgiving parade sponsored by Cincinnati-based Macy’s.

“I love doing the live shows, particularly the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. It’s a three-hour live show in the streets of New York. It could be raining -- and one year it snowed sideways – but the show must go on,” said Ludwin, who hosted “Studio 14” on Miami University’s WPTO-TV (Channel 14 ) as a student.