Live to Tape: A Case Study in Live Multi-camera Production

The three friends had the go-ahead from the local leased access cable station and were ready to start production on their program. It would be a fairly simple show, a weekly talk show about high school sports that would air Sundays at 5 a.m. To them it was the big time.

An experienced videographer who supplied most of the equipment and almost all of the production knowledge, Joel was the leader. His buddies Brent and Chad were excited about being involved, but neither had produced anything more than home video before this. They would be learning as they went. Joel called a meeting the night before the first taping to get the guys ready for the big day. He had just fastened his new S-VHS camcorder to its tripod and was adjusting the drags as the guys rumbled down the stairs into the basement/studio.

"Let’s start by getting everything set up," Joel said, not even pausing to say hello. "Brent, did you bring your camcorder?"

"You bet," said Brent. "Got it right here." Brent pulled his palm-sized Hi8 out of its bag. "Go ahead and fasten it onto the tripod that Chad brought, and set it up on the side opposite mine," directed Joel. "Chad, can you grab those cables off the wall and bring them over here?"

Chad snatched up the cables. There were two 25-foot S-video cables and two long mike cables he carried in a bundle to the table. Joel stooped beneath the table attaching a power strip to a heavy-duty extension cord. It looked to Chad like there was a lot to be done. Cords and cables seemed to go every direction and it looked like there was way too much gear to fit on the little table that Joel had set up to hold the equipment. He wondered silently whether this jumble of cables and equipment could possibly be organized into a working production system.

Setting the Stage

The set was a simple one, built by the three in Joel’s basement. It included a table, two chairs and a couple of coffee mugs. The host of the show, a former high school football coach, would sit on one side. His guest would sit on the other. The backdrop was homemade, consisting of cloth-covered wood-framed flats painted with a gray texture–not overly fancy, but clean. Chad, a carpenter by trade, even built a small riser to raise the set a little higher (so the cameras wouldn’t be shooting down at the top of the talents’ heads). Once the platform was covered with carpet from a few remnants, it looked quite professional.

Joel explained his wiring plan as he continued to work: "We’ll run S-video cables from both camcorders. That’ll give us better image quality than the standard RCA outputs."

Even though Brent’s camera was Hi8 and Joel’s S-VHS, Joel explained they both put out the same component signal. He showed his crew how to run both cameras into the video mixer, mix the two shots together live, and record the output to an S-VHS VCR.

"We’ll have our talent wear lavalier mikes and we’ll run them through a separate audio mixer, straight into the record deck," Joel continued. "The audio mixer will let us adjust the level of each mike independently so we can maintain a good mix. We’ll wind up with video from both cameras and sound from both mikes mixed together on our master tape, no editing required."

Before long, Joel’s little table looked like a genuine control room. It held two monitors, a video mixer, a record VCR and an audio mixer (see Multi-camera Setup sidebar). Once the last cable was connected, the guys were ready to do some shooting.

Instructing Camera Ops

Joel was the natural choice to be the director of the show. Brent would operate his own camcorder, the Hi8, and because he had more camera experience than Chad, he was assigned to shoot the host. Chad would run the S-VHS camcorder and cover the guest. Joel turned on the lights he had positioned earlier and flooded the set with light. He asked Chad to sit in the host’s chair and proceeded to coach Brent on how to frame the three main shots that he would need to use.

Since the three-man crew wouldn’t have the luxury of using headsets to communicate, Joel decided to give each of his cameramen three basic camera shots to use during the show. He taped thumbnail sketches of each guy’s three shots to the back of their camcorders and labeled them by number. The show would open and close with the host talking directly to Brent’s camcorder. This would be shot #1 for Brent. After his brief introduction, the host would turn slightly to welcome the guest. At this point Joel would cut to Chad’s camera, already set on the first shot of the guest. Joel would keep copies of the two shot lists at the table by the switcher. This way, he could direct his camera guys to change shots by holding up a corresponding number of fingers.

Using the thumbnails as guides, Brent was quickly able to set his shots as Joel held up one, two or three fingers. After a few tries, Brent felt comfortable with all three shots. He went to sit in the guest’s chair so Chad could practice framing his shots. After the guys had a few minutes to practice, Joel taught them a series of hand signals he would use to fine-tune their shots if they were framed a little too tight or a little too wide (see Hand Signals sidebar).

Because they were using lightweight camcorders, Joel asked them to let go of the camcorder after setting a shot and to change shots only when the other camera was on. Even resting a hand on the camcorder might cause it to shake and look unstable, and their inexpensive tripods didn’t always pan very smoothly. Even though the plan was to move only when signaled that the other guy’s camera was on, Joel asked them to make their moves as though they were "live" all the time. Joel wanted to take every precaution to make sure the images would look as solid as possible. The ultimate goal was to change shots only a few times throughout the program. Live camera moves seemed a risky endeavor.

Tracking Time & Directing Talent

Because the show was being produced for cablecast, they would have to be mindful of time. Their time slot was 30 minutes long, but that had to include their 30-second opening theme, 30-second closing credits and two three-minute commercial breaks. This left them 23 minutes for the meat of their show. They decided to produce the program in three segments: segment one would be eight minutes, segment two seven minutes and segment three eight minutes. Each segment would be produced live to tape. The taping would only stop if Joel said "cut" (even if the guest sneezed or the host flubbed up). Otherwise, the interview would continue as though it were being broadcast live. After the three segments were on tape, Joel would edit in the opening segment, credits and black segments (where the station would later insert commercials).

In addition to his camera duties, Brent would have to monitor a stopwatch throughout the shoot and give time cues to the host. Joel showed him the basic "time remaining" cues he would have to deliver to the host. They would come at five minutes, three minutes, one minute, 30 seconds and 15 seconds (see Talent Cues sidebar on page 107). Joel had briefed the host earlier and emphasized the importance of keeping an eye out for his cues. When it was time to shoot he would make sure that the host and Brent were interpreting the signals the same way.

Ready, Set…

The guys arrived the next morning two hours before the scheduled shoot time to check their camcorders and do some last minute practicing before the talent arrived. Joel propped up a white card on the table and had the two guys frame it in their shots. Using the video mixer, Joel selected a vertical wipe and positioned the T-bar half way to do a split screen. It was easy to see that the two cameras did not match. One was noticeably darker than the other. Joel had both of them set white balance and switch to manual iris. Joel asked Chad to open his iris slightly until the two whites matched on the monitor.

Joel opened a fresh S-VHS tape and popped it into the record deck. He also had tapes to roll in the two camcorders. These would serve as safety nets just in case there was a problem during the taping. If someone accidentally kicked a tripod and jarred the shot, for example, Joel would have the option of editing in a shot from the other camera. One last check of the mikes and they were ready to go.

About an hour before the shoot, the host and his guest arrived. Joel got them each a glass of water, and showed them to their seats on the set. He instructed the football-star guest to talk to the coach, not the camera, so the conversation would look as natural as possible. After reviewing talent cues with Brent and the coach, they were ready to roll tape.

Show!

With everyone in position, Joel called for quiet on the set. He punched up a black signal on the video mixer and started recording. After a few seconds, he nodded to Brent who held up five fingers and began the countdown. "Stand by. In five…four…three," then silently, two… one… point. Joel faded in Brent’s closeup of the host who began talking right on cue. The show was on.

After a brief welcome, the host introduced his special guest. As the coach turned to face the player, Joel cut to Chad’s shot (already set on shot #1). While the host continued to talk about his guest, Joel held up two fingers, signaling Brent to move his camera to shot #2. When he sensed that the host was beginning a long question, he cut back to Brent’s shot and held up two fingers, signaling Chad to tighten his shot. Chad sized the player perfectly, but in the preview monitor, Joel could see that he had left too much room above the player’s head. He used the established hand signals to have Chad tilt up, then stop. Joel was content to stay conservative in the first segment. With both cameras set on attractive head-and-shoulder shots; he gave both camera guys the okay signal.

Joel cut back and forth between the two shots smoothly as the conversation went on. Everything seemed to happen much faster than he had anticipated. At one point he misinterpreted the coach’s body language and cut to him when he wasn’t speaking. Joel’s instinct as a videographer told him to leave the shot on for a few seconds before returning to the shot of the player. If he cut back too quickly, it would look like a mistake. Instead, the shot added interest to the interview. The host nodded with interest as the player described a play he had made in the big game.

The first segment was going by quickly. Three minutes had already passed and Brent had given the host the five-minutes-remaining cue. As they neared the end of the segment, the player/guest was telling a story that they thought would never end. Brent gave time remaining cues to the host, who nodded slightly to confirm he had seen them. With just five seconds to go, the host politely interrupted the player, turned to Brent’s camera and said, "We’ll be right back."

"And… we’re out!" Joel exclaimed.

Brent stopped the stopwatch at 8 minutes 29 seconds. Joel told everyone what a great job they had done and, in a very professional and movie-like manner, told them they could all "take five." Joel did some quick math, subtracting the extra 29 seconds from the second segment. Instead of seven minutes, segment two would now be six minutes 31 seconds. Joel had Brent reset his #1 shot for the second segment and warned him that this time they would go to Brent’s #3 shot next.

That’s a Wrap

The rest of the shoot went as smoothly as Joel could have hoped. There were a couple of little mistakes. At one point he cut to Chad’s #3 shot only to find the camcorder’s autofocus was drifting in and out. Joel would see if he could insert a cutaway later to cover the shot. Next time, he would make sure to use manual focus.

Only twice did they have to stop taping and restart segments. Interestingly enough, both were problems with sound. The first problem occurred when someone upstairs flushed a toilet and water rushed through the exposed pipes in the basement/studio. The other happened when the phone rang. A little wiser for these oversights, Joel asked his wife to flush between takes and he flipped the telephone’s ringer to "off."

All things considered, the shoot was extremely successful, the three guys thought as they watched the program. Of course, they took notes so they could do it even better next time.

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