How to Conduct a Live Multi-Camera Shoot

Gather ’round the family and friends for a multi-camera shoot and a fun time for all.

Some will tell you that, due to the proliferation of inexpensive video editing computers, the age of the low-cost video switcher is dead.

Not so! Every time you turn on a football game or watch the evening news, you’re viewing a multi-camera shoot with a switcher at its heart–a tried-and-true video technique that’s nowhere near the end of its usefulness, not even for low-budget videographers with access to fancy editing computers. Not only is this technique far from dead; it’s still a great way to save some editing time, as well as one of the only ways to deliver high-quality live broadcasts.

So what are you waiting for? Get your hands on some equipment, gather some friends, bring along a copy of this article and try your hand at a multi-camera video shoot. It’s a good thing for any video hobbyist or professional to know how to do, and if you’re willing to work with used gear, you can get good results for less money than you may think.

What You’ll Need

Two (or more) cameras. It’s important that the cameras be matched at least in overall quality and format. Why? Because if you conduct a multi-camera shoot with a fancy 3-chip DV camera and a single-chip Hi8, your viewers will be able to see a noticeable difference in the picture quality when you switch from one camera to another.

  • A switcher/SEG. This is the heart of the multi-camera shoot, the device that switches the video signal from one camera to another. SEGs (Special Effects Generator) also perform other duties like transition effects, chromakey/lumakey, and triggering other devices like titlers, but their main function is to switch between two or more video signals. Popular low-cost models include the Focus Enhancements MX-4 and the Edirol V-4, but a search on eBay might turn up some inexpensive older models by Panasonic and other manufacturers.
  • A video monitor. At least one; two, if possible–the primary one to view the switcher’s Monitor output, and another to view the signal as it appears when it goes to tape, for quality control.
  • A VCR or Direct to Edit or other recording device. This will be where the final signal gets recorded, the output of the switcher/SEG. Optimally, it should be a high-quality device, but this isn’t necessary. A spare camcorder will do nicely; a VCR works well, too.
  • Crew. At least one camera operator per camera, plus a technical director to operate the switcher. If enough crew is available, you might consider an overall director to lord it over the entire process. You may also want to round up some lighting crew, an audio technician, grips…there’s always plenty to be done on a multi-camera shoot. But the basic bare-bones crew is one cameraperson per camera, plus a technical director to operate the switcher.
  • Wireless microphone headsets. These will make it easier for the director to communicate with the camera operators quietly while the shoot is in progress.

How It’s Done

To illustrate how to conduct a live multi-camera shoot, let’s use a typical live musical performance as an example. We’ll assume that you have enough crew for both a technical director and an overall director, but you can have the technical director fulfill the duties of the overall director as well.

In a typical video shoot of a live performance, you have two main shots you’ll be switching between: a wide shot of the whole performance or stage area, and a tighter shot of just one or two performers. You don’t have to always alternate the shots between wide and tight; in fact, it’s better if you end up with a more irregular switching between shot types, so long as you’re careful to avoid jump cuts.

The roles of the crew are as follows:

  • The overall director instructs the camera operators to set up the shots he needs, and tells the technical director when to switch between cameras.
  • The technical director operates the switcher and the record device, taking his orders from the overall director. If there isn’t enough crew for an audio technician, the technical director is also in charge of monitoring the audio.
  • The camera operators set up the shots that the overall director gives them.

Your camera operators should have clear designations, such as Camera A and Camera B. A few minutes before the performance begins, white balance both cameras, check all audio signals and prepare to begin rolling tape on the VCR at least a good 30 seconds early.

Typically, musical performances begin on a wide shot of the stage or performance area, but this is up to the discretion of the overall director. As the performance begins, the overall director will watch the Monitor output of the switcher, which has small picture-in-picture feeds from all of the cameras running through it, and begin delivering commands to the camera operators and the technical director. These commands usually sound like: “Camera B, give me a closeup of the lead singer. Camera A, keep that wide shot.” Then, when it’s time to switch cameras, the overall director will tell the technical director (or TD) to “Take Camera B.” And if the technical director is on his toes, he will immediately switch the video signal from Camera A to Camera B. At this point, the overall director will assign a new shot to Camera A, such as: “Camera A, give me a two-shot of the bass player and the drummer.” (Tip: remind camera A not to move until cleared completely. If you’re in the middle of a dissolve, his movement will show.)

Once Camera A has the shot, the overall director will tell the technical director to “Take Camera A.” And so on, all the way through to the end of the performance.

Getting Fancy

As you get better at conducting multi-camera shoots, you might incorporate some advanced features, such as fade to/from black and transition effects.

  • Fade in/fade out. Most switchers have a way to set up black or another color on one of the channels. As you start your shoot, begin with black as your main output instead of one of the cameras, then use a dissolve effect to fade in to your first shot. At the end of the performance, do the same thing, only in reverse, fading out the last shot to a black screen.
  • Transition effects. Many switchers have dozens of built-in transitions, such as wipes, slides, page turns, and other effects. Often, these are controlled by typing a number into the switcher before switching to another camera. If the director knows the number of an effect, he can tell the TD to “prepare 112,” for example, at which point the technical director types the number into the switcher. Then, when the order to “Take Camera A,” transition effect number 112 takes place.

TV Fundamentals

The average home user may never need to conduct a multi-camera shoot. But any professional videographer worth his salt–or anyone planning to become one–should be familiar with these skills, especially if one desires to work in TV. Even if you don’t have such plans, live video production can help save time editing. And more time, whether you’re a professional or beginning videographer, is something we can all use.

Joe McCleskey is a multimedia producer and freelance writer.

Sidebar:Setting Up Audio in a Multi-Camera Shoot

Many video switchers have built-in audio mixers. Which is a good thing, because when you’re recording the signal from two or more cameras into a separate VCR, you’ll need some way to organize your sound.

The best way to do this is to use entirely separate mikes that are independent of the camcorders themselves. Just plug the microphones into the mixer, and send the output directly to the VCR you’re using to record the live video. In a live performance like the one described here, you might try using a stereo pair of mikes to record the whole thing. If the performance audio is going through a PA, consider taking the audio feed directly off the PA’s mixer, if possible.

In any case, a separate crew person who’s in charge of audio can be a very valuable asset to any live multicamera shoot.

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

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