If you’re a parent or a teacher or a church or club member, chances are you’ve wanted to tape some sort of
auditorium program–a play, a musical, a lecture, perhaps a concert. It may have been as elaborate as a full-
length Handel’s Messiah, or as simple as the Food Groups pageant in which your eight-year-old
played a complex carbohydrate.
And if you’ve actually recorded an event like this, you know that the results are often
disappointing, with grubby color, muddy sound, and an overall feeling of distance from the subject.
We can’t help you produce tapes as good as Live from the Met on PBS (unless
you’re sitting on a million bucks worth of hardware) but we can supply all kinds of tips for better
auditorium videos. (For a fuller treatment of the subject, see Ken Benedict’s “Shooting Plays and Recitals”
in the May, 1995 issue of Videomaker.)
But before we start, we need to acknowledge one problem with performance taping that you can’t
completely solve without studio-grade equipment: color quality.
Programs taped in auditoriums, churches and meeting halls often deliver poor color because they’re
shot under theatrical lighting. Theater lighting intensifies dramatic effects through low light levels and
extreme contrast between bright and dark areas. On video, however, low light produces grainy, poorly-
saturated images. High contrast, on the other hand, makes faces bloom and smear and greatly hampers
camcorder autofocus systems.
To make things worse, theatrical lights almost always gels of different colors attached to increase
dimensionality and enhance mood. In fact, the classic “warm/cool” approach to stage lighting involves
pinkish lights from one side and amber ones from the other. Confronted with this color spread, the
camcorder’s white balance system may become dazed and confused. The resulting color often runs all over
What can you do to correct these conditions? Not much. You can fix contrast and color problems
only by relighting the show specifically for video. The idea here is to raise light levels, lower contrast ratios
and confine most colored lighting to sets or backdrops. Production people are rarely willing to do this–not
only because it’s a lot of work, but because they may not understand video lighting techniques.
Sometimes, for the taped performance only, you can get them to raise at least the lowest light
levels to the point where you can record a decent image. Be aware that even this modest accommodation
may require a separate tech rehearsal for video.
But if you can’t do too much about color problems, you can go a long way toward solving the
other big hassles of auditorium shooting: uninvolving subjects, unstable focus and uneven audio
Actually, all these glitches are results of the root problem: the distance from you to the action.
You can’t get close to the stage without blocking the view of the audience, so you find yourself stuck at the
side, the back, or up in the balcony, if there is one.
If you want to ensure that you cover all the action, you have to stick with wide shots, which lack
interesting detail and keep the viewers at an uninvolving distance from the performance.
Or, if you’re brave enough to punch in for closer angles (and risk missing action elsewhere on
stage), you have to use extreme telephoto lens settings to get even loose closeups. This makes for a shallow
depth of field that requires almost constant refocusing.
Trouble is, at long distances most autofocus systems work slowly and inaccurately; even manual
focus will result in shots that are soft at least part of the time.
Distance also degrades audio quality. Miking from 30 feet or more results in a hollow sound and
an excess of audience noises. Dialogue, especially when spoken by amateur actors, can be mushy and
Moreover, consumer and prosumer camcorders adjust audio record levels automatically. Because
the circuitry strives to record a strong signal, it will crank up the gain during quiet passages until the
background noise becomes a roar. If Hamlet pauses too long in mid-soliloquy, the effect can sound
something like this:
@#$%$#& %*(+& ^%$#
…#O$r not to be.”
You can fix most audio problems by closer miking, and we’ll cover that topic shortly. But first, let’s deal with the video side.
Solving Video Problems
The key to improving performance videos lies with cutaways: alternate shots that, at best, add variety
and punch to your program. At the least, cutaways let you cover your–er–mistakes.
Here’s how cutaway shots work. While editing the show, you use the video insert function on your
record VCR or camcorder to replace footage spoiled by soft focus or shaky panning, while leaving the
audio intact. In a way, you bury your mistakes under cutaway footage.
What can you use for cutaways? The simplest method is to tape a wide shot of the whole
performance area. Such a shot won’t require critical synchronization when you insert it into your master
tape. For concerts and similar shows, audience reaction shots also make great cutaways, and you can insert
them anywhere, without the bother of matching action. Even if you have a full-blown multi-camera
production setup, you still want to get cutaways as goof insurance.
As you can see from these examples, how you obtain those magic cutaways depends on your
production scheme, of which you have several to choose from.
If there is simply no way to lay hands on a second camcorder and tripod, you can get cutaways
even with a single camera, by taping a second performance. In this case, plan to shoot a simple wide shot
during the earlier show and closer shots during the later one. That way, you can study the action during
both the performance itself and a later tape playback of it. When you return to shoot the closer shots, you’ll
have a better idea of where to point your camcorder and when.
Incidentally, even if there’s only one performance, you can still use this system, by getting your
cutaway shot during the dress rehearsal. In a very wide shot, performance mistakes and the lack of an
audience will not be noticed.
But the chances are that you can borrow a camcorder or rent one, in most areas, for a reasonable
fee. With two outfits you can get cutaways and closeups at the same time.
To set up for taping, match the better camcorder with the smoother tripod and make this
combination your main camera. Then, set up the other unit to record the wide cutaway shot of the entire
program. Since it will run unattended, it’s convenient (though not essential) if you can operate the cutaway
camera with a remote control.
As you tape the show, get the closest shots you can. Frame and focus on the conductor, say, then
shift to the solo singer, to sections of the orchestra, to the soloist again, and so-forth. Try for smooth moves
and continuous focus; but if you goof (and you will) don’t worry: you know you can pave over your
mistakes later with footage from the wide shot.
If you can assemble three or more cameras and a switcher, (plus the personnel to work them) you
can create an edited tape in real time. We’ll cover procedures for doing this later.
Setting up Your Equipment
Whether you’re working with one camera or four, setting them up for performance taping is critically
Remember that these camcorders and their operators will have to stay in the same place, working
in the dark, perhaps with audience members around them, for up to two hours or longer. Here are some tips
for obtaining the best from both humans and hardware.
- Tripod. A good sturdy tripod is important and a smooth-moving head is a must. With the lens set at
telephoto lengths, every jiggle and jerk is painfully obvious on-screen. Most tripods have an extendible
center column. Because they reduce tripod stability, use these only for a fixed camera that’s recording the
wide angle cutaways.
- Monitor. An external monitor is essential. If you have to glue your eye to a camcorder viewfinder, half
an hour’s shooting will give you a serious crick. A whole show’ll make you feel like Quasimodo after a
night’s repose on the roof tiles of Notre Dame.
A five- or nine-inch monitor placed below the tripod head will let the camera person comfortably
work the tripod handle with one hand and the focus and zoom controls with the other.
Incidentally, if you plan to do considerable work like this, look for a camcorder with zoom on the
remote control, for even greater flexibility.
Of course, if you have to shoot in the midst of the audience, a conventional monitor would be too
bright and distracting. In this situation, an external LCD monitor works well, though its limited resolution
and short battery life can pose problems.
- Power. Uninterrupted power is essential for taping longer programs, and that means extension cords.
When shooting from the audience, try to set up near a wall outlet. If that’s not practical, use duct tape to
secure every foot of your cable so that the audience members won’t trip on it.
One exception: if you have plenty of batteries and you’re taping in short segments (such as
individual musical pieces in a concert), you can swap batteries during the applause. You’ll find that audio
edits during sustained applause are usually inaudible on playback.
- Cables. In a multi-camera shoot, each camcorder sends a video cable to the mixer/switcher (but not an audio cable, as we’ll see shortly). For optimal video quality, use a Y/C cable if the camcorder has a jack for
it, and keep cable length as short as possible. Even with Y/C cables, runs of 20 feet or more will degrade
And here’s a nifty trick for getting easy, first-generation cutaways from a multiple camera setup:
while you’re laying down the switched signal on a VCR, keep a backup tape rolling in every camera. That
way, if you have three cameras, for example, you’ll obtain not one cutaway tape to choose from, but
- Communications. If you’re working solo, communicate with your camcorder by wearing headphones
to monitor audio quality. Camera operators in switched, multi-camera setups should wear intercoms so that
the director can tell them what to shoot next. Left to their own judgment, camera people–especially good
ones–have a tendency to frame the action very similarly. So unless the director instructs them differently via intercom, they’ll often compose shots too much alike to cut between.
Communicating with multiple operators gets us into procedures for fully-switched, multi-camera
productions. Such a production may sound involved, requiring expensive equipment. But it’s really not,
and it really doesn’t.
A Major Production
At the school where I teach video production, we tape plays and concerts by feeding four video
signals through a Videonics MX1 switcher to an S-VHS VCR. Since we don’t fit in the lighting booth, we
take over half the balcony (during a less-popular Thursday night performance) for our cameras and control
Our taping procedures would fill an article by themselves, but the basic hardware lash-up should
be plain from figure 1, and here are some notes that you may find useful.
- Cameras. We assign camera chores as follows: camera 1 maintains a wide shot (still panning because
the performance area is too wide for a single composition). Cameras 2 and 3 capture full shots and medium
shots, as cued by the director. Camera 4 (which has the longest zoom lens) hunts closeups, also specified
by the director.
- Communications. The director, the camera people, and the tech director (who switches the video) all
wear wireless headsets, but the camera people listen without replying. That’s because each camcorder is
also rolling tape, and the on-camera mike would capture their conversation. The audio engineer wears
regular headphones instead, to monitor the sound. Wireless intercoms aren’t as expensive you may think,
and are readily available at many consumer electronics outlets (such as Radio Shack).
- Audio. When the performers are miked, we may take an audio feed from the theater’s own sound
system. Otherwise, we run two identically-placed mikes to an audio mixer and then to the recording VCR.
(The second mike is for protection, in case one mike fails. Believe me, it happens!)
- Video switching. Note that each camera’s video appears on a monitor at the control table. That’s
because the images displayed on the MX1’s own monitor are so small that the tech director can’t tell
whether or not they’re in focus.
- Directing. The director sits where the monitors are visible, but far enough from the cameras so that his
or her intercom commands are inaudible to the camera mikes. In addition to calling for new angles, the
director has to tell each camera operator when his or her image is being recorded. That’s so the operator
won’t refocus or set up a new shot while on-line. (In studio-grade equipment, indicator lights tell operators
automatically when their camera is active.)
- Rehearsal. When possible, we like to attend three performances. During the dress rehearsal, we lay
down a wide shot, for later study. Then we tape a performance, as described above, and view the master
tape. If it contains any goofs we can’t cover with footage from another camera (including the dress
rehearsal shot), we’ll go back again to get the cutaways we need.
Good Auditorium Sound
We’ve mentioned some audio recording techniques–here are additional tips for obtaining quality
sound from auditorium performances.
- External mikes. First, even if you have only a single camera, use an external microphone to record
sound. Place the mike as close as possible to the stage.
- Mike types. If you record often in the same auditorium, as we do, consider investing in a microphone
optimized for your situation. For example, if you can record with a wireless mike close to the stage, choose
a pickup pattern wide enough to cover the area. Another choice is a pressure-zone style mike: a flat plate
that sits on and obtains its sound from the stage itself. In our case we use a pair of shotgun mikes, as noted,
mounted on a 12-foot aluminum boom thrust out and over the cameras (to keep them out of our shots).
- Production mixing. If you have the personnel for it, monitor and ride the audio signal level going in to
the recorder (even if it’s just the one camcorder). We’ve found that even with automatic gain control on the
record unit, we can still even out sound levels considerably.
And finally, in all this nuts-and-bolts discussion, we haven’t yet noted an important factor in
performance event shooting. Whether you’re all by yourself or working with six other people as we do,
taping concerts and shows is exciting and tremendous fun, because you feel like part of the production
Of course, in a sense, you are.