The Good Old Yule Log Spreads To HDTV

Dec 24, 2011
Originally published on December 24, 2011 7:30 pm

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 associate 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.

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Now, if history repeats itself, one of the most popular things on TV tomorrow will be a looped, seven-minute piece of film that's over 40 years old. It's consistently in the top three programs on Christmas morning in some cities, and yet it has no plot, no actors and it's played for hours at time. It's the WPIX yule log. It's a New York City tradition that now airs across the country. And although it's kitschy to some, it holds a special place in the hearts of many.

And as NPR's Serri Graslie reports, the original log has helped spawn a quirky genre of film that's finding new popularity on high definition televisions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's Christmas Eve, a wonderful time for family and friends. A time...

SERRI GRASLIE, BYLINE: The original televised yule log made its debut 45 years ago this Christmas.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The WPIX Yule Log.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRASLIE: The program was an immediate hit with New Yorkers, many of whom didn't have a fireplace. Lawrence Arcuri vividly remembers the first time he saw the yule log. It was 1972 and his family had just moved to New Jersey.

LAWRENCE ARCURI: So, 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. And we probably watched the TV more than we did the real fireplace.

GRASLIE: Arcuri was enchanted. 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. Arcuri says the yule log has always signaled a moment of peaceful reflection for him.

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

GRASLIE: The WPIX yule log has become a cult hit, but it's never been released on DVD. And Arcuri says it probably won't because of the cost of licensing the iconic Christmas music used in its soundtrack. But even though the genuine yule log isn't on DVD, today there are dozens of generic fireplace movies on the market. And as it turns out, filming a fireplace well can be harder than it sounds.

GEORGE FORD: I thought, you know, I would put a fire together like I did in boy scouts and create this ultimate fire.

GRASLIE: That's George Ford, the owner of Fireplace for Your Home, a production company in Longview, Washington.

FORD: Well, when I set up the camera equipment and the lighting, the first fire just didn't kind of burn right.

GRASLIE: He spent over a year trying to perfect it and made more than 30 fires. Each time, he changed an element, like the lighting, log setup and, yes, the type of wood.

FORD: In fact, some of that would be our trade secret - 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE CRACKLING)

GRASLIE: Ford filmed his movie with high definition televisions in mind and he's released Blu-Ray and 3-D versions. He says the end result is so realistic, some customers swear they can feel heat radiating from the TV. And he says sales have been overwhelming. It's all part of the growing popularity of a film genre known as ambient video.

JIM BIZZOCCHI: Sometimes I bill myself as the leading academic expert on ambient video.

GRASLIE: Jim Bizzocchi is a professor in the School of Interactive Arts and Technology at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.

BIZZOCCHI: And the reason I can do that is I suspect I'm the only one.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GRASLIE: Bizzocchi first started thinking about ambient video over 10 years ago when flat screen TVs were entering the market.

BIZZOCCHI: There's a well-understood phenomenon that a lot of people have consistently left their televisions on. And I thought, well, I suspect artists are going to 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.

GRASLIE: Bizzocchi says he realized the fireplace version of ambient video was becoming more popular last year when he checked in on cable listings for yule logs. On Christmas Eve, there were 20 different options. Just four years ago, there were only four. But if you're cynical about people replacing the real thing with a televised version, Bizzocchi has a message for you.

BIZZOCCHI: 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. And then, you know, then I go back to my life.

GRASLIE: It's actually one of Bizzocchi's favorite party tricks. He's used his own fireplace to make his own video. And on Christmas, he plans to play it on a TV hidden in the hearth.

For NPR News, I'm Serri Graslie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.