Live Switcher image

With a live switcher, your post-production time is greatly reduced. Let’s say your program was a half-an-hour long with three cameras, and each camera used multiple tapes or, more likely these days, multiple sd cards. You would have to upload the footage to the computer. Then you would have to sync every time there was a cut or a new tape. After that, you will have to edit every switch.

All of this time adds up, but a live switcher will save you the majority of the work, if you know how to use one. All of this is just to re-create the live look anyway: Why not do it live? With live switching, once you shoot you’re done. You can export your live service immediately for DVD, or better yet, stream live over the internet.

Basic Control

PROGRAM BUS AND PREVIEW BUS

The main video source that goes out to the audience and the recorder is the program bus. What you see on this screen is what the audience is seeing. The preview bus allows you to choose which shot will show up on the program bus next. On the preview bus, you can cue up your shot, load the graphics and titles and frame the shot exactly how you want before you send out live.

TAKE BUTTON

The take button toggles between preview and program. It’s a direct cut to the next shot.

T-BAR

The t-bar is the lever that transitions from preview to program. While the take button is a direct cut, the t-bar uses transitions such as fade and wipe. The speed of the transition is relative to the speed in which you move the t-bar.

A hand is poised to make the switch using the t-bar of a switcher
A hand is poised to make the switch using the t-bar of a switcher

AUTO BUTTON

An alternative to using the t-bar is the auto button. This comes in handy because there is a consistent transition every time, whereas the t-bar may vary because you are using it manually.

FADE TO BLACK

Of course, we can’t forget about one of the most popular transitions, fade to black. Whatever is on the program monitor will fade to black. Right before starting a program, it’s a great idea to fade to black, countdown, press record and then press the black button again to fade up the image. Then, at the end of the program, fade out.

Now that we know the basic controls, let’s talk about operation. When we watch the final program, everything looks smooth, but if you look inside the control room or the truck, you see the engine underneath the hood.

Preparation

The first thing you need to do is set-up. The better the set-up, the more efficient your shooting will be. Here is the process that was used for both the Comcast CN100 and the Bolingbrook Community Television Channel shoots I crewed for. It was pretty much the same whether we were shooting sports or a talk show.
If you can, get in there days before the shoot to prepare. This is where you make sure every program you’re going to use is correct. This is also the time to prepare the board and if your board allows it, save your desired settings as a preset. Make sure to save it as a unique number that will not ruin an existing preset. Also, during this preparation, load the templates for your graphics.

The more hands to run the cables, the better. At this point, the crew that needs to be prepping the tapes and the graphics continue that work, but it’s great for every other hand to help pull the cables. My producer would be right out there with the rest of the crew, pulling cables through some of the toughest parts. When my father produces his shoots, it’s the same thing. It means a lot to see the head guy out there doing the dirty work. It boosts the morale. Make sure you lead by example and don’t talk down to your crew. The more hands, the quicker the setup goes and the more time you have to relax before the shoot.

Set the cameras at the pre-determined spots. Try to keep it consistant every shoot. The more consistent, the easier it gets. Make sure the correct cables go to the right camera. You want to get the camera going as quick as possible. That way, if you have anything that needs to be fixed, you have ample amount of time to fix it. Check the focus, exposure and white balance. If you are outside, have rain gear handy. Now’s the time to set up all of your audio devices as well. Test the strength of the wireless signal and check for interference.

With live switching, once you shoot you’re done. You can export your live service immediately for DVD, or better yet, stream live over the internet.

You’ll also need to make sure all of your graphics are working and finalized. Make sure the names and titles of all speakers are correct. Practice putting the graphic up through the downstream key (DSK) with the technical director. The DSK is used for graphics, but may also be used with video, e.g., green screen and a weather person. You’ll also need to load your intro in the playback machine. If you connect your computer or mobile device as a video source to the board, you can load videos and play them from there!

Crew

Before we go live, let’s quickly go over the positions. The producer is in charge of the overall production and organization of the shoot, from start to finish. The director chooses the vision and artistic decisions of the shoot. The technical director operates the switch board. Someone is usually responsible for all graphics, titles and lower-thirds and there is typically a tape operator handling all video playback including intros, b-roll and replays. There are also usually several camera operator and grips depending on the size of your shoot. The engineer maintains all of the equipment.

On bigger shoots, the director oversees all of the action in the control room. He relates to the technical director what shots he wants. Everyone in the control room typically communicates with each other through headsets. If there is an announcer, the control rooms voices are muted to the announcer and are only active when something needs to be said. If you have a smaller crew, it’s still good to run the protocol, but it’s not uncommon on smaller shoots for the role of director and tech director to be filled by the same person.

Diagram of crew hierarchy

Go Live

Now, we’re ready! A typical shoot may go something like this:

Director: Roll Tape
Tech Director (TD) puts Tape on preview.
Tape Operator (TO): Rolling. 30 seconds…10 seconds… 5… 4… 3… 2…
Director: Ready Tape and Go to Tape
TD switches the program monitor to Tape by fading from black.
Director: Ready Camera one?

The director asks if the camera is ready in order to give camera one and everyone else a heads up that he likes that shot and that he is about to go to him. Camera one doesn’t verbally respond. Sometimes, camera one is not ready and is moving, in which case the director may call out another camera. If you’re directing, try to give a little pause to let the cameraman get set.

Director: Take one
TD presses the take button to switch to camera one. At this point, the TD is going straight to the shot and does not need to put something on preview monitor unless they are setting up a specific shot or showing others something on the monitor.

The shoot is rolling smoothly so far. Now, we need a lower third. In preparation, graphics knows this and already has it prepped up.

Director: Graphic ready?
Graphics: Graphic ready.
TD puts the graphic on Preview by enabling the DSK

Director: Graphic out
TD disables graphic.
Director: Ready two, Take two
TD takes two.

Let’s say the director wants to switch it up and use fades.

Director: Let’s fade. Ready three, Fade to three.
At this point, the TD has a choice. After making sure the transition type on the board is set to fade, the TD can either press auto or use the t-bar to complete the transition.

Director: Alright let’s go to break.
Going to break means we are about to stop recording live, usually to show a commercial. The tape operator cues up the commercial. Graphics cues up the next lower third. Camera four gets a bumper, a well framed shot perfect for a lower third, to end on before going to commercial.
TO: Break ready.
Graphics: Graphic ready.
Director: Alright music up. Graphic up.
Audio raises the music. TD enables the DSK.
Director: Going to break in 3… 2… 1
TD fades to black and cuts to Tape that is now playing the commercial break.

When to Switch

Switching varies depending on the program. The first rule of thumb is to think like the audience. What does the audience want to see? If we’re shooting a talk show, we might start with the establishing shot of the set, also know as the safe shot that is usually set up on camera one. What if we don’t want the audience to know who we are interviewing yet? In this case, we might start with camera two framing a CU of our host as they introduce the guest. When they say the guests name, we could switch to Camera three with a CU of the guest smiling. Camera three may also give us a little push in as we choose her camera. Sure we want to stay with whomever is talking for the most part, but we also want to see reactions. Keep asking yourself who or what should be the focus. Don’t just switch whenever the other person talks or switch without a plan.

For sports or other action filled events, usually camera one is at midfield or center court providing the view we stay on during the play. You want to stay away from switching during the play because the audience needs to see what’s going on. Each time there is a cut, especially during action in sports, the audience has to establish the geography and direction. Cuts can be too disorienting when the audience is attempting to follow the action. Right after the play, we go to our hero shot, which is usually camera three or camera four. These camera’s usually have a drastically different angle than camera one and so are great for cutaway shots. They stay with the player who made the awesome play. If you’re doing replays, they, along with camera two, are also great angles. Camera two is usually similar to camera one, but framed in a tighter shot.

If you’re recording a tv show, you cut when the script calls for it, or again, when it feels right based on what the audience should see. You have the advantages of seeing every angle, so make it a point to choose the best one at the appropriate time.

Enjoy It

Well, there you go. You’ve completed your live shoot. With more practice and consistency, it gets easier and easier. One of the joys of going live is working together as a team. There’s a lot of bonding that goes on when working for a common goal and knowing you have to be focused because you are recording live. There’s no rush like shooting live, so above everything, remember to have fun.

JR Strickland is an award-winning director, filmmaker and musician. He specializes in strong narrative storytelling. 

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Susan is the Art Director at Videomaker and YouTuber Magazines.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great article JR. with the changes in cameras over the past decade, it is much harder to find a compatible switcher that helps smaller production teams utilize HD. Back before 2009, we were still standard def, and used a Videonics analog switcher; but after upgrading to HDV cameras, there wasn't an affordable solution. Most cameras no longer have firewire. Would be good to have some current options! I'd love to have a switcher again for performances! 

  2. I like how the engineer is at the bottom of the tree, but has no connections to anyone. Yep, about right! In reality the video engineer may take cues from the director, but sets up cameras ahead of time and (when everyone else does their job) anticipates iris settings, so the director need not ask the engineer to make the changes. 99% of the time the camera settings are adjusted to stay within operating limits (when TV was analog, the FCC set certain standards, with digital it’s a matter of not running out of bits at either extreme) more than executing a dramatic effect. Effects like ‘fade to black’ are done in the switcher, not with the lens. Some effects like lens flare are done in coordination with the engineer.

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