The Twilight Zone Forever

The Distinct Graphic Look of The Twilight Zone

The distinctive photographic “look” of The Twilight Zone operated on two levels: the first, as visual interpretation of its subjects’ inner torment, suspended between reality and unreality; the second, as metaphor for the television image itself.

Joe Messerli, designer of the Twilight Zone logo in 1959: “That jumble of sizes of letters was a vogue thing at the time. A lot of times it was kind of ridiculous. I was trying to be classy and in vogue at the same time. Someone once said of the logo, ‘You'll notice, the whole thing is slightly off.’ To this I say, ‘Thank you.’"; The eyes have it: fourth season opening, 1963; “I Sing The Body Electric,” 1962.

Francis, translucent, in “The After Hours,”
1960; The Hair Net, 1931, by Man Ray, who was interested in “the enigma of things,” a study of surfaces to expose their essentials.

By utilizing graphic close-ups, angular cropping, and chiaroscuro lighting to reduce images to their most basic, iconic forms, and placing actors in sparse, simple set designs (like the props they often turned out to be), these pared-down, stark elements made the television set work as a kind of electronic puppet theater, befitting the essentially stagelike nature of the Twilight Zone productions: a series of two-act plays filmed for television. 

“The Obsolete Man,” 1961; “Where is Everybody?,” 1959; “Judgment Night,” 1959.

“The Four of Us Are Dying,” 1960; “A Passage for Trumpet,” 1960; “The Invaders,” 1960.

This surreal quality of television theater, like that of a shadow box within which images are played, is also most dramatically evident in “Eye of The Beholder,” a classic Serling script capped by perhaps Twilight Zones most unforgettable shock ending.

Magritte, The Lovers, 1928; “Eye of the Beholder,” 1960; “The middle ground between light and shadow...”

The chiaroscuro lighting designs by director of photography George T. Clemens and the stylized, carefully cropped and choreographic direction by Douglas Heyes demonstrate that, as the surrealist artists, painters, and photographers gave plastic form to the visions of the surrealist poets and writers, the visual architects of The Twilight Zone—its directors, set designers, and makeup artists—provided a perfect stage for Serling’s literary netherworld.

And, like their contemporary, Ernie Kovacs, these imagists understood how best to exploit the limitations of the television medium. Unlike the larger-than-life movie screen, where saturated color and lush location photography served to reinforce the illusion of reality, the small screen required simpler imagery and even less background detail (hence the supremacy of the close-up and its correlative, the talking head).

Twilight Zone was really designed for the TV set; a lot of shows were not,” recalled Heyes, who also directed some of the greatest episodes, “The Invaders,” “And When The Sky Was Opened,” and “The Howling Man.“ Twilight Zone was stylized to be exactly what was going to be on the tube. The compositions that we’d choose, even on the exteriors, would be tight, ones that would carry from across the living room. Clemens, of course, had that instinctive sense also, to make them work for black and white television.”

George T. Clemens had come out of retirement in 1959 from a background in cinematography (including the creation of the lighting and makeup transformation of Frederic March in the 1932 version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde) to become Twilight Zone’s director of photography throughout its network run (131 out of 156 episodes from 1959 to 1964).

A classic Hollywood craftsman, Clemens was painstakingly devoted to the series. “Everything has got to be just right,” he told Variety after winning an Emmy in 1961 for his Twilight Zone work. “We shoot 15,000 to 20,000 feet an episode to get 1,800 feet of what we want for the twenty-three minutes on the air.” When early in its production there was pressure on Serling to switch Twilight Zone to the new color photography, Clemens objected vehemently. He remembered telling Serling, “I can’t give you what we feel is the Twilight Zone feeling in color as I could in black and white.”

“Rod’s pattern was not only communicable to the people who made his pictures,” remembered Houghton when interviewed in 1988, “it was communicable to other writers,” chief among them the aforementioned Matheson, Beaumont, and Johnson, along with renowned television writers of the time like E. Jack Neuman (Dr. Kildaire, later Police Story) and up-and-comers like Earl Hamner, Jr. (who went on to create The Waltons). They shared a flair for poetic dialogue that was most dominant in Serling’s writing—actor Dan Duryea commented that he couldn’t remember the last time he had recited poetry without feeling self-conscious about it; Ayn Rand, a writer of stylized dialogue herself, praised Serling at the time, remarking that he wrote “…some of the most beautiful dialogue that has ever issued forth from the mouths of TV characters.”

That dialogue spoke of a humanism, compassion, and respect for man’s potential (to be both good and evil), and can be compared to that of Frank Capra’s (the half-hour fantasy sequence in It’s a Wonderful Life, in which Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey witnesses his life had he not been born, isn’t so much a throwback to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol as it is a proto-Twilight Zone episode). Both men tried to raise the consciousness of their audiences through commercial mediums, and were chided by critics, then and now, for lapsing into sentimental moralizing and soapbox reform.

But if Serling was the Capra of TV, he was also the medium’s Orson Welles, for he exercised a Wellesian control over all creative facets of The Twilight Zone, making him the first dramatic television auteur, a forerunner of all the television creator/writer/producers who followed the trail Serling blazed: Roddenberry, Grant Tinker (Mary Tyler Moore), Stephen Bochco (Hill Street Blues), Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick (thirtysomething), Dick Wolf (Law & Order), Chris Carter (The X-Files), David E. Kelley (Ally McBeal), Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), J.J. Abrams (Lost).

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Talking head
: Everett Sloane in “The Fever,” 1960.

Directed by Douglas Heyes
: James Hutton in “And When the Sky Was Opened, 1959; Robin Hughes in “The Howling Man,” 1960; Agnes Moorehead in “The Invaders,” 1961.

Clemens on the set of the final episode, “The Bewitchin' Pool,” 1964.