Television
11:28 am
Sat December 24, 2011

The Good Old Yule Log Spreads To HDTV

If history repeats itself, one of the most popular programs on television Christmas Day will be a looped, seven-minute piece of film that's more than 40 years old. In some cities, it's consistently in the top three programs on Christmas morning, and yet it has no plot, no actors and it never seems to end.

It's the WPIX yule log — a New York City tradition that now airs across the country. In the 45 years since its first broadcast, it has become a cult classic even though it's never been released on DVD. It's also helped spawn a quirky genre of film that's finding new popularity on high-definition televisions.

'Everything Stopped' When Yule Log Was On

When yule log first aired in 1966, it was a huge hit with New Yorkers — many of whom didn't have a fireplace. Lawrence "Chip" Arcuri vividly remembers the first time he saw it. It was 1972 and his family had just moved to New Jersey. They found the program on television by accident.

"We have the fireplace on one side of the family room blazing away in full color and vigor and then on the other side of the family room, the TV would be blazing away with the yule log," Arcuri says. "And we probably watched the TV more than the real fireplace."

Arcuri was enchanted by the music and looped video. Since then, he's become one of the yule log's biggest supporters. He started a fan website for it and even helped create a new hour of the program in 2006.

He says the yule log broadcast has always signaled a moment of peaceful reflection for him at the height of the busy holiday season.

"Everything stopped. You knew that when the yule log was on, it was time to relax, put the gifts down, stop wrapping, stop the baking, stop whatever you were into and and just enjoy the solemnity of the moment," he says.

Filming A Fire Is Harder Than It Sounds

The WPIX yule log has consistently been a ratings hit, but it probably won't ever be released on DVD. Arcuri says that's due to the cost of licensing the iconic Christmas music used in its soundtrack.

But even though the original log isn't on DVD, today there are dozens of generic fireplace movies on the market. Most are created by small production companies.

George Ford, the producer of Fireplace for Your Home, says filming a fireplace was a lot harder than it sounds.

"I thought, you know, I would put a fire together like I did in Boy Scouts and create this ultimate fire," Ford says. "Well, when I set up the camera equipment and lighting, the first fire just didn't burn right."

He spent more than a year trying to perfect it and made more than 30 fires. Each time he changed an element — like the lighting, log set-up or type of wood.

"In fact, some of that would be our trade secret," he says. "Not too much sap, just enough sap, a little bit of bark, not too much bark. The bark tends to smoke a little bit. The sap tends to snap and crack."

Ford filmed his movie with HDTVs in mind, and he's released Blu-ray and 3-D versions, too. He says the end result is so realistic, some customers swear they can feel heat radiating from the TV.

'Ambient Video' And Rise Of Fireplace Movies

Ford says that since releasing the video last year, response and sales have been overwhelming. It's all part of the growing popularity of a film genre known as "ambient video" that's finding a boost on HDTVs. Other ambient videos on the market include nature and aquarium scenes.

Jim Bizzocchi, an assistant professor at the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, has studied the genre since 1999.

"Sometimes I bill myself as the leading academic expert on ambient video," he says. "And the reason I can do that is I suspect I'm the only one."

Bizzocchi first starting thinking about ambient video when flat-screen TVs were entering the market.

"There's a well-understood phenomenon that a lot of people have consistently left their televisions on," Bizzocchi says. "And I thought, well, I suspect artists are gonna start making video material, much like living photographs, that people can hang on these flat-panel displays and look at when they're not watching television and they're not watching home theater."

He says he realized the fireplace version of ambient video was becoming more popular last year when he checked in on cable listings for generic yule logs. On Christmas Eve, there were 20 different options. Just four years ago, there were only four.

If you're cynical about people replacing the real thing with a televised version, Bizzocchi has a message for you.

"Bah humbug. The logic of ambient video is this: I go about my life and if there's a lull, if for a few minutes I don't know what exactly I want to do, I look at something beautiful," he says. "And then I go back to my life."

It's actually one of his favorite party tricks. He's made a video of a fire in his own fireplace. And on Christmas, he plans to play it on a television he's hidden in the hearth.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.