Multicam Editing

I remember years ago going to watch The Tonight Show recorded live. I was surprised that the show was done "live to tape" which is to say that the cameras rolled at the start of the show and everything was shot in real time with commercials rolled into the show. At the end of the production, there was a tape of the finished show ready to broadcast. Fast forward to our nonlinear editing era and today, all of us who own and operate modern edit systems can do the same kind of "live to tape" editing today. In fact the practice is so popular that many systems are starting to appear with dedicated multicam capabilities under the hood. And these are practical skills, not just "for fun" concepts.

In many forms of video — particularly event work such as weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, live corporate shows, etc. the ability to direct and cut multiple cameras is a valuable skill set. So let’s break down the basic multi-cam possibilities our edit systems provide for us and look at some of the new systems that are available that make this kind of video — once the exclusive province of networks and broadcasters — much easier to practice on a home system.

The Job

The basic building blocks of multicam editing are a stack of tapes shot of the same event unfolding at the same time and place and an edit system capable of running multiple streams of video simultaneously. The DV revolution has given us desktop computers and even laptops with the video processing horsepower able to deal with multiple streams of DV in real time. The software field is a bit more complex.


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Edit software generally takes either a single stream, or a multi-track timeline approach. In the "single steam" systems, you have a single master clip, (typically a single camera shot of the whole event) and you edit video inserts of the shots from other cameras, making sure the inserted shots are in sync with the master shot. This used to take a lot of painstaking manual work, inserting and synchronizing each clip with the master, and even software that supports multitrack timelines required a lot of fussing. You'd have to place four camera shots on four tracks of a timeline, then you'd have the issue of being able to "see" all of your shots rather than just the "front track" on your screen. The traditional way was to resize your video tracks down to quarter-screen or smaller and arrange them so that you could see all the footage simultaneously.

This typically required a lot of rendering. But it allowed you watch this "virtual monitor display" and decide which shot you wanted to use in your final tape. Today, innovative software has taken a lot of that old fashioned drudgery out of editing multicam projects.

A case in point is the new MultiCam add-on for the Casablanca line of products from MacroSystem. The Cassie runs a "single track" editor, so cutting multiple cameras (a common shooting style for event work such
as weddings, etc) was a real chore. But the engineers at MacroSystem have made it not only much easier, but darn near fun!

Under the Edit/Special menu "QuadCam" is shown under the Effects list. The software launches a special split screen view with controls to start the video playback of all four screens. If you use a clapboard or camera flash (an old wedding pro's trick) to provide a sync point — all four cameras will roll in sync if you trim the start of the clips to that matchframe. Then choosing your camera shot is as simple as clicking on the view you want — as the four virtual cameras play. If you got it right, you can just click a button and Smart Edit, the Casablanca editing program, auto-assembles a track with your switched show. Sweet!

If you make a mistake, no problem. You can pause, re-do, or start over. And if that's not cool enough, the software engineers who built this put in a feature that lets you use the camera data that every DV camcorder writes as a part of the signal to do even cooler sync tricks. Provided that the master shot tracks continuously — by using what they call SmartSync DV, you can even have starts-stops/timecode breaks in any of your three remaining cameras' footage and still have the unit sync your multicam shots. If you're a dedicated Casablanca user who needs multi-cam capability you'll be delighted with the new system capabilities.

And for the rest of us, this is a great example of how manufacturers are building new capabilities into the current crop of editing software systems. No matter what hardware or software combination you use, there's still going to be a matter of syncing your initial shot. To help here are some tips on how to make your shot-syncing tasks easier.

Use your "Sticks"

The traditional tool for synchronizing cameras in a live shoot is the clapboard. (Often referred to on pro sets by the shorthand slang "sticks"). This arrangement of two pieces of hinged wood with a write-on slate with data on scene, date shot, reel, etc — is how old-style film cameras would sync-up separate video and audio tracks. The visual of the sticks hitting was synchronized with the sound of the "clap" when the sticks hit.

While these are still around, the modern shooter realizes that the "sticks" don't actually need be a real clapboard. In a pinch you can literally deputize a hapless crewmember or passerby into acting as a human clapboard. Simply put them where all the cameras can get a simultaneous shot and have them do something active — like a single jumping jack. They don't even have to "clap" their hands. It's just as easy to sync multiple camera shots to the point where their arms are "flat" (at 90 degrees to their sides).

That's the big lesson of shot syncing. It doesn't matter what you use to determine the sync point between two shots, just that you have something that lets you put the shots in sync. Here are some others.

Watch the Extremities

Our first example of the jumping jack movement points out that things that are moving (like the arms or hands of someone gesturing) are a great place to look for sync points. And it doesn't have to be hands. A leg kick from the chorus line, a speaker's shrug, the knee position of a passing cyclist — all of these are potential sync reference points. Worth noting: often the point of full extension in a move isn't as easy to target as a place in the middle of a move. When I need to sync shots, I often find myself looking for a sync point like: "the point where his rising hand clears his shoulder line." Given cameras at essentially the same height that point will likely be pretty precise even if there are six cameras shooting from six angles.

Watch the Eyes

Everyone blinks. And if you have two shots of the same person speaking, rather than trying to catch a subtle hand gesture, check out their eyes. I've synced hundreds of multi-camera talking head shots by finding the place where the speaker blinked.

Watch the Shadows

As in the example where we were looking for the rising arm crossing the shoulder in the jumping jack, the concept is to compare one moving element to a stationary one. I've synced lots of shots not bothering to look at how the performer is moving against the backdrop of the state, but rather how the performers SHADOW is positioned relative to a piece of scenery or a prop.

Watch the Audio

And in those troubling times when you're faced with a performer whose movements are subtle or the shot doesn't have the resolution to pick a sync point from blinks or smaller movements, you've always got your sound track to fall back on.

If your edit software allows you to enable timeline audio waveform display (and most do), do a rough sync then ignore your video display and concentrate on the AUDIO peaks and valleys on your timeline. Particularly the first time someone speaks. Usually, there's a clear peak generated from consonants or hard hit vowels that makes syncing a snap by just matching the audio spikes.

Of course, this pre-supposes that you fed audio (or at least turned on the on-camera mics) for both cameras. These are just a few tricks among many. But no matter how you do it, getting things in sync is the start of all multi-cam editing.

So welcome to the new "golden age" of multi-cam video editing. Unlike the historical move from single camera shooting to multiple camera work — you don't need a gazillion dollar production facility or a team of engineers to make this stuff work. Your edit system, a few camcorders and some of this cool new software can help you make multi-camera videos that would turn old-time movie makers green with envy.

Bill Davis writes, shoots, edits, and does voiceover work for a variety of corporate and industrial clients.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.