Shoot that Show

If you’ve watched a movie or music awards telecast, you know that videotaping auditorium shows is a fine art. Seems like 92 cameras capture the action without ever losing sharp focus while jib arm microcams rocket all over the joint. No matter which camera is on-line, the sound is as perfect as the hair-dos. It’s no wonder that by contrast your tape of The Millard Fillmore High School Jazz Band Concert looks so dim and sounds so yucky.

Well now you too can make quality tapes of auditorium programs and we’re about to show you how. The result won’t look quite like the Oscars show, but then your hardware doesn’t quite cost $10 million either.

So come on down to "A Theater Near You," as they say: a school auditorium or converted cafeteria, a municipal theater, maybe a meeting/banquet hall in a hotel. Even at this holiday season, we won’t include houses of worship because many churches and synagogues have understandably strict rules about videotaping. You’ll see, though, that most of our advice applies in those halls as well. We’ll cover camera placement and audio recording strategies, taping multiple performances, and editing the results into classy programs.

Location, Location, Location

In performance taping, location is everything. Location, of course, means where to spot your camera(s). Your strategy will depend on how many camcorders you’re using, so we’ll look at shooting with multiple cameras, taping with two or making do with a single unit.

If you have three or four camcorders and camcorder operators, you can do a multi-camera shoot using an A/V mixer to choose your shots as they happen. Send the mixer output to a master VCR for recording. While complicated, a setup like this can work very well when you observe a few rules:

  • Give the operators headsets so that the director can tell them what to shoot. (Train them not to talk back, though, because their on-camera mikes will pick up their replies).
  • Patch each camcorder through a stand-alone monitor. Don’t attempt to check focus and framing with the tiny, low-resolution images provided by the mixer.
  • Roll tape in every camcorder, as well as in the master VCR that’s recording the switched signal. Those duplicate tapes will provide indispensable B, C, and D roll footage for editing out mistakes in post production.
  • Rehearse along with the show, if possible. (More about this later on.)

If you have, say, three camcorders, where do you place them for best coverage? For quality signals, most composite and S-video cables are limited to 20 feet in length, so try placing camera A dead center to get a wide-angle shot of the whole show, with cameras B and C up to 20 feet off to each side. The angular spread between center and side cameras will minimize jump cuts when switching among them. Set the B and C lenses to waist shots, even if they could zoom tighter. Extreme telephoto shots are hard to keep framed, steady, and focused.

If you’re in a theater that has a balcony, that’s often the only practical place for your cameras and a table for the monitors, switcher, and master VCR. But if you can work on the main level without disturbing the audience, try for those positions instead. A video image shot at or just below the performers’ eye levels looks more natural than an image shot at a higher angle.

If You’re the Lone Ranger

If you can’t field three camcorders and the taping crew consists of just yourself, you can still record at least two angles to edit later. To get a protection shot of the whole show, plant a borrowed camcorder on a tripod dead center, set it to shoot as wide as possible, and let it run unattended.

Spot the working camcorder right beside the fixed camera, so that you can keep an eye on both of them. Zoom the active camera to waist shot and roam around the stage, capturing the most important closeups. With this system, you’ll always have a wide shot to cover missed framing, bad focusing, and that embarrassing moment when the cymbals clashed climactically and you were shooting the tuba player yawning instead. With this system there is no switching on the fly. You will edit your A and B rolls entirely in post production.

If you really have only a single camera and can’t even borrow one from a friend, then you have three choices: a boring wide-angle document of the whole show; a more varied tape complete with mistakes (or holes where the mistakes were edited out), or a show combined from tapes of two separate performances.

Play it Again, Sam

Many programs are presented more than once. Even a single performance production will have a final rehearsal, usually in full dress. The trick is to capture that earlier event with a fixed, wide-angle protection tape to use in later editing. That way, during the actual show you’re free to zoom in close because the wide shot you previously recorded can be edited in place of any mistakes.

With a single camera, shooting a rehearsal or second performance is the only way to gain this essential cutaway coverage. Shooting repeat footage is useful for double and multi-camera setups as well. Not only does it provide a rehearsal for the video person (or people), but it also provides a record of that rehearsal–a record that you can study to analyze your mistakes and plan for the actual show. Say the set has two doors and an actor exclaims, "Why, here comes Chauncy now!" You quickly frame door A just as Chauncy bursts through door B. By noting this goof in the first taping, you can anticipate the problem in the second.

You may also wish to tape a second performance from the opposite point of view to obtain audience reactions: laughter, applause, rapt attention, etc. The great thing about this cutaway material is that it doesn’t have to match the action on stage. If something funny happens in act three, followed by a camera goof, you can later cut to audience laughter previously recorded someplace in act one and no one will be the wiser.

Or if your daughter’s wonderful keyboarding of Humoresque was greeted with unfair indifference, substitute the undeserved ovation lavished on neighbor Billy’s mediocre tap dance instead. With an audience reaction shot, your viewers can’t tell who’s being applauded anyway.

My Fellow Rotarians…

Audience reactions work better with lectures and concerts than with plays, where you don’t want to cut away from the story. So let’s look more closely at these types of performances.

The easiest shows to tape are lectures or panel discussions. First, they are always miked, and you can often take your audio feed from the P.A. system. Second, the number of subjects is limited and they are sitting or standing still.

With a single speaker, an A-roll of the talk and a B-roll of the audience will serve you fine. With a panel discussion, get a wide shot of everyone for protection and then focus on each individual speaker in turn with a second camera. If you have the luxury of a third camera you can pick up the audience, or if there is another part of the event that you don’t need to cover, swing your camera around to shoot audience reaction. Remember that once you’ve begun editing, you can pick and choose your audience shots. Your viewers can’t tell what the audience is reacting to.

Unlike a play, a lecture or discussion is best shot from above eye level. This helps avoid the appearance you really recorded a large lectern with hair, eyebrows and occasional waving arms visible behind it.

Concerts are also relatively easy to shoot. There’s not much action and because your equipment can capture a robust sound signal from one direction, they offer easy audio even when the performers are not miked. It’s still a good idea to rehearse, though, so you know when to focus on the soloists or featured instruments. It’s a snap when the chorus stands up before starting to sing, but you don’t always have that warning. Here too, the wide angle protection tape is indispensable.

Play or dance performances present a real challenge, especially for multiple camera shoots, because you have to decide who covers what. If you use the three camera ABC setup discussed previously, have the side cameras shoot across each other so that the left-hand camera gets shots of action on the right side of the stage and vice-versa. This will tend to get more three-quarter front angles of performers and fewer profile shots.

We’ve suggested waist-level compositions for closer shots, but with dance performances you need to frame full shots instead. Since dancers use their bodies head-to-toe to create their effects, you should record them accordingly. Also, do mount the wide shot camera up high for dance productions, because the choreography is more evident from above.

A Word about Sound

Audio is frequently a problem in auditorium taping, so here are some tips for capturing good sound. If the house is miking the performance, see if you can tap into the sound system.

With a switch feed setup, the easiest way to patch in is to cable a line-level signal from a house amplifier directly to your VCR. For protection, you should also cable the audio from your most centrally located camcorder. That way, if you lose your house connection, you’ll still have audio input. (If your VCR lacks a second input, buy an A/B switch box from your local electronics outlet.)

For concerts and plays, you may be able to mike the stage directly, either from a suspended mike above the stage, or from a special plate mike that sits on the floor.

One step down is a stand-alone mike from the camera position. A directional ("shotgun") mike can be cabled to a VCR or to a camcorder if you are not switching on the fly.

To get consistent volume, remember that nearly all camcorders and VCRs use automatic gain control to set recording levels for you. In general, this works okay, but beware of quiet moments, like the pause between movements of an orchestral piece. The automatic gain control will crank up the recording level to compensate for the silence, which can cause a couple of problems. First, the rustling sheet music and plink plink tuning checkups will be unpleasantly over-amplified. Second, the thundering chords that open the next movement will blow you off your chair because the gain control couldn’t ramp down fast enough to accommodate them.

What can you do? Switch your equipment to manual gain control, if you can, and set the level for the music. If your system’s automatic only, you can feed the sound through an inexpensive mixer and obtain some measure of manual level control. As a last resort, you can use the audio dub function in editing to replace the noisy "silences" with real ones.

A final thought about audio: somebody must always monitor sound through headphones, whether it’s the VCR operator on a big shoot, or just you with your one lonesome camcorder. That’s the only way to discover sound loss, line interference, and other problems before it’s too late. (Another good reason for rehearsing the shoot, by the way.)

Editing Your Show

After the show comes editing, and how much is necessary depends on your setup. At one extreme, you may be building the whole program from several stand-alone tapes. At the other, you may just have to add end credits.

Here’s how to prepare an almost edit-free show:

  • Before taping, create the main titles, lay them down on the master assembly tape, and cue that tape in the VCR.
  • Lay down the show by switching live through a mixer, as described above, complete with fades at the section breaks and the end.
  • At the conclusion of the show, add end credits to the master tape.

Ta-daa! You’re done.
For a cool effect, use the audio dub function in post production to lay ambient sound from the audience under the main titles, as if they were rolling just before the performance. In the same way, you can add applause during the end credits.

With musicals, try recording the overture while shooting the spotlighted auditorium curtain. Time the main titles to length and superimpose them over the audio of the overture. If this is too tough for your editing setup, use simple title cards instead, with the overture playing underneath.

If you are assembling a complete show from a fixed wide-angle protection tape and an active camera tape, as a rule, stay with your closer shots except when you need to replace a goof with an excerpt from the wide shot.

Also, it’s a good idea to begin with a wide establishing shot and cut back to it every once in a while to remind viewers of the context, and then show it again at the end of the performance.

So there’s a grab bag stuffed with tips for shooting shows in auditoriums.

If we had to single out any one big idea to remember, it would have to be this one: with cutaways, you can fix or hide almost any kind of goof; but without them, you’re dead in the water.

So get a wide-angle protection tape of the whole show, get audience reactions, get the decorated tree beside the stage if you have to–just protect yourself with cutaways!

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