The Multi-Camera Shoot

Most of the time when you think of video production, you think of shooting with one camera, film style, and taking your raw footage back to your editing suite for post-production editing. The very thought of trying to control multiple cameras can cause some people to break out in hives. However, it is not as hard or complicated as it sounds. It is also quite useful. By setting up multiple cameras to record events such as weddings, graduations, presentations, sporting events and such, the videographer can create a completed project right there on the spot, ready to duplicate or broadcast. No more post-production delays, since you are actually editing as you shoot.

Throughout this article, we’ll look at the technical requirements of a multi-camera shoot, as well as the aesthetic and production aspects that you need to take into account. We’ll also explore the roles of the various crew members and the communication between director, cast and crew.

More Than One Camera?

Every day we watch multi-camera productions without even thinking about it. The evening news, talk shows, sitcoms, sporting events and rock concerts are all shot with multiple cameras that are connected to a video mixer and mixed onto a single tape and sent to your television via cable or the airwaves. At a sporting event, like a Major League Baseball game, a director may have dozens of camera shots from which to choose. The production team considers every possible angle so they can capture every moment. With multiple cameras, there’s less of a chance to miss any action. You can also walk away after the production knowing that your production is in the can and a good product is ready for its audience.

Consider the possibilities: you can shoot a wedding video with three cameras, mix it on the spot with prerecorded graphics added at the appropriate times. Won’t your clients be thrilled by the possibility of receiving the recording of their blessed event that night? What a great wedding present! Or perhaps you specialize in other live event recordings. Whether it’s a sporting event, a graduation, a school play, a concert or a parade, with two or more cameras you can create a finished product that will amaze your viewers. These "live-to-tape" productions will add a sense of really being at the event and add to the strength of the memories they create.

Nuts and Bolts

So, do you need to rob a bank or hit the lottery to be able to afford a multi-camera setup? No. The list of equipment you need is extensive but not necessarily expensive. Here’s all you need:

  •  two or more camcorders that are close in image quality

  •  a tripod for each camcorder

  •  a digital video mixer (or an external TBC for each camera)

  •  a couple video monitors

  •  an audio mixer

  •  a record deck

  •  microphones

  •  a set of headphones for monitoring audio

  •  power cables

  •  extension cords

  •  a multiple outlet power strip

  •  all the cables for the audio and video

  •  2-way communication system with headsets for communicating with your crew (optional)

  •  Stand-alone character generator (optional)

    A communication system doesn’t have to be elaborate or expensive. Check your local electronics store for wireless, hands-free headsets designed for communicating while riding bikes. You can do just fine by planning ahead of time pre-planning the shots each camera operator will need and developing a few basic hand signals to communicate with the camera operators. See the sidebar on page 122 for an example of how the floor director communicates with the talent in an interview situation.

    You might add some additional accessories to make life easier for your camera operators. Inexpensive LCD monitors to mount on each camera, for instance, so that the operators don’t have to look into small viewfinders all day. If your camcorders already have flip-out LCD screens, you’re ahead of the game.

    You’ll need a sturdy table or production cart where you can mount the switcher, video monitors, communication system, power sources and the record deck. It’s a good idea to roll tape in each of your camcorders as well as in the deck recording the output of your switcher. This raw footage can come in handy if you need to edit out a camera shake or bad shot later.

    The Setup

    The setup for a multi-camera shoot is fairly simple (see Figure 1). Run a video cable from the video out of each of your camcorders to the inputs of the digital switcher. Many consumer-level digital mixers include a preview output that allows you to preview the shots of up to four sources on a single monitor. Simply run a cable from the switchers Preview Out to an NTSC monitor. If you are using an older analog mixer, you may need a TBC (time base corrector) to syncronize the signals from your cameras so they can be mixed without a glitch. The good news is that most consumer switchers digitally sync the video sources without the need for an external TBC.

    From the switcher, run a video out to the input of the record deck. Connect the video output of the recorder to another monitor so that you can see the final program. Always make sure you are monitoring what is going onto your tape by monitoring the output of the record deck, not the switcher.

    For your audio, connect any microphones you’ll be using to an audio mixer, mix the signal down to a two channel signal and send it out to the inputs of the video record deck. Monitor the audio by plugging a set of headphones into the video record deck to make sure what is being recorded on your tape. Again, always monitor the output of the record deck, not the mixer. If you want to add music to your production, you can add a CD player to the setup and plug its output into a line input on the audio mixer.

    Multi-camera setups tend to require a great deal of cabling. Always make sure that cables are securely taped down or covered with runners where there is a possibility of people walking on them or tripping over them. In the multicamera setup, you will have cables running in many different directions. The neater they are and the more secure, the better. Get in the habit of tidying up your setups, it will make them look more professional and easier to take down.

    Although your audio and video cables may be insulated, the electricity pulsing through the power cables can cause hums and other interference in your audio signal. Never run audio and power cables parallel to one another or bind them together. Whenever possible, cross them at a 90-degree angle.

    The Crew

    What’s a multi-camera shoot without a crew? A massive headache. Although it’s possible to produce a multi-camera program by yourself, it’s not advisable. To pull it off you’d have to lock down your cameras on preset shots and set up your switcher close enough to one camera so that you could reach it if you needed to alter the shot. Ideally, you need a crew of four or five people to efficiently produce a multicamera production. At the very least, you need an operator for all but one of your camcorders and someone to run the switcher and monitor audio levels.

    Before the shoot, familiarize your crew with the basic idea of the production and let them know what shots you’re looking for. If you’re relying on hand signals instead of headsets, make sure they are familiar with each signal. Also, make sure that their idea of a closeup is the same as yours. It is a good idea to meet well before the shoot to rehearse with your team and fine tune your signals before the event begins.

    Whoever runs the video switcher is called a technical director (TD). The TD switches the program signal from one camera to the next and brings the titles and graphics in and out.

    The floor director is the one who works with the talent in a studio situation. He uses hand signals to silently communicate to the talent during the shoot and is usually the only members of the studio crew permitted to talk. The floor director is the liaison between the crew and talent.

    The audio engineer controls all of the audio sources. This involves everything from making sure that the microphones are positioned correctly to checking levels and starting CD music. It is the audio engineer’s responsibility to make sure that all audio levels are good and the final recording sounds clean.

    The character generator (CG) operator makes sure that all names are typed in correctly, all graphics are clean and aesthetically pleasing and all cues for rolls and crawls are ready to execute. The CG operator prepares the pages and works with the technical director to insert characters and graphics when needed.

    The VTR operator starts and stops the record deck, noting precisely when he stops and starts using the timer or timecode number. If you have an extra deck for replays, the VTR operator also becomes the replay operator.

    Of course, we haven’t yet mentioned the most important crewmember of all, the director. The director, has to have the master plan in his head. As director, you have to be able to talk to your crew in such a way as to ensure that what ends up on the tape is exactly what you have in mind. The only way to do this is to practice. Set up three cameras and switch through all three watching the preview monitors and the program monitor. While you do this, have your crew shift shots and reset them under your direction. Remember, there are directors out there that have to watch ten or more monitors at the same time, looking for that perfect shot and working with their massive crews to get the best possible production. The more often you work with your crew and the multicamera setup, the easier it will get.

    On With the Show

    Planning is the ultimate key to successfully producing a multicamera project. Plan camera and microphone placement precisely. Work with your crew on camera shots, camera movement, crew signals and setup and takedown procedures. Allow plenty of time for setup and takedown and if possible, consult with the talent to determine how the program will proceed. For weddings, talk shows, dance recitals and theatrical plays, you must attend a rehearsal to determine the best camera angles and the shots needed and arrive early enough to get setup well before anyone arrives at the event. For live sporting events, parades and other one-shot, no-rehearsal programs, you will just have to use your best judgement.

    A typical multi-camera production might be a wedding. You might set one camera behind the minister so that you can see the processional and the faces of the bride and groom as they exchange their vows. Another camera might be set up at the back of the auditorium so that you can get the entire bridal party, service and recessional. Another might be set near the front of the auditorium on the side opposite the bride for close-ups of her face and alternative shots of the processional. Set up the switcher in the vestibule, so that you can quietly talk to your crew via headsets. By viewing the previews of each camera, you can be sure not to miss the bride’s entrance, the exchange of vows, the bride’s smiles or tears as she says her vows. When the ceremony is finished, so is your video. No editing is necessary unless you decide to add reception footage later.

    It’s a Wrap

    Completing a successful multi-camera shoot is one of the most rewarding feelings in video production. Plan well, work with your crew before the shoot and use imagination when making your shot choices while directing, and you can be successful as a multicamera producer. Get the gear and a crew together, and try out the multicam shoot on something simple before working your way up to more difficult events.

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