If you're shooting a special event this season, whether it's a pageant for your church, your kid's school play or a paid gig to make a few bucks selling DVDs, here are some quick tips to help you with your shoot.
When shooting live events, there are two markets for recorded stage presentations: (1) people personally involved with the show: the performers, their friends and family; and (2) the general public: people who aren't related or don't have a personal stake in the people on stage. Who your audience is will probably have a lot to do with what shooting techniques you use and how you package the stage production.
Let's talk first about The Right Gear, then follow with The Proper Preparations then The Best Shooting Techniques.
THE RIGHT GEAR:
Pros are good at what they do because they use the right gear and follow good shooting techniques, but your gear doesn't have to be the BEST, just BEST for the job.
- Camcorder: Any camcorder capable of shooting decent video in some low-light situations is fine, but you might need one with a good zoom unless you can get close to the action.
- Make sure your camcorder allows you to use manual iris control, because theater lights can play havoc with an automatic setting.
- Microphone or Audio Recorder: Microphone placement is important and unless you are sitting on the stage at the special event, you need to have an audio recording device other than your camcorder's mic. If you are even 3 rows back, your camcorder's mic will record the fussy baby behind you, the coughing man to your right and the 2 young girls giggling and talking in front of you.
- If you're using a mic, it's best to go wireless in an event with a crowd.
- If using an audio recorder, the down-side is you have to sync the sound later when editing but an audio recorder is great because you can set it up anywhere without cables.
- Tripod: Unless you're in the front row, you're going to have a little trouble shooting the entire performance hand-held.
- If your tripod can't get high enough, look in advance into being able to set up on a table, if you need to look over heads.
- Hand-held stabilizers are good to have if you must shoot hand-held; just get close!
- Headphones: Again, microphone placement is important but any mic is useless if you record bad audio. Always wear good headphones – you never know when you're recording a buzz from the lights, or need to boost the audio for a small-voiced child.
- Media & Batteries: Make sure you pack enough! Nothing ruins a production more than running out of battery or space on your tape or card. Nothing.
THE PROPER PREPARATIONS:
Ask yourself: WHO is your subject? WHAT do you need for lighting, electrical and mic setup? WHEN will you need to arrive? WHERE can you set up?
- Anticipation: Look into getting a printed program in advance, to help you predict what happens and when.
- If this is a large production, ( or a paid gig!) talk with the event planner ahead of time about what you’ll need to cover; NOT the day of the event – because the planner will too busy.
- Scout the Location: Check out the venue before the day of the event. This gives you the chance too identify electrical outlets and locate shooting positions. Visit at the same time of day the event occurs to be aware of ambient sound and lighting conditions.
- Be Prepared: Prepare an outline to remind you of the shots and techniques you need to pay special attention to.
- Get set up early so people sitting behind you will already be accustomed to your presence, especially if you're standing.
- Prioritize: Plan your shot needs into Essential Shots, Secondary Shots and Bonus Shots.
- The essential shots should drive your shooting schedule, and then you record the secondary and bonus shots when there are lulls in the action. You don’t want to lose an essential shot like Little Timmy's solo, because you were busy shooting the school name on the exterior wall.
- Sound Matters: Audio is just as important, or in some cases MORE important than the video.
- Plan your microphone placement where people won't be talking close to your mic and you can get a clear sound recording of the event.
- A mic, whether it's a small lavaliere or on a boom pool needs to be set pointing at about center stage. A lav won't be as intrusive and you might be able to set it up in front of the stage or in the orchestra pit.
- If you check in advance, you might be able to plug your mic or recorder directly into the event's sound system. Warning! Make SURE you check levels if you do this. If your camera can't take a line-in signal, then you might need a line attenuator. A soundboard's line level signal can be too hot for your camcorder. The attenuator lowers that voltage to the much lower mic level voltage.
THE BEST SHOOTING TECHNIQUES:
Pick a place far enough back that you can see the entire stage, but close enough that faces have detail and expression when you're zoomed in.
- Shooting Two Performances or Using Two Cameras: If you get the chance to record the show twice, do the first one with one continuous master shot and reserve the second one for closeups and cutaways. This is the time you can get closer and try hand-held. Shooting the wide master shot first allows you to make note of when special cutaway action might be needed at the second shoot.
- If you’re using two cameras to shoot footage to be edited later or are using an audio recorder, make some sort of an audio-clap to sync the footage when editing.
- One Shot Chance: You can still get a good performance with an all-in-one shoot if you use good shooting techniques. When using one camera with one chance at the performance, use a Shoot to Show technique. Start wide, covering the entire scene and hold that shot for a few heartbeats. Then you can slowly and smoothly zoom in to a medium shot of the person or area you want to isolate or feature.
- Stop when you have a good enough medium-wide shot so that if they move, you can follow without jerky movements. If they aren't moving, hold the medium shot for a breath or two before you zoom in tighter.
- If you need to pan across the stage, start with the camera not moving, then slowly and smoothly make your movement, stopping when you have the right frame composed.
- The trick to good camera movement is to always start and stop without the camera moving at all, to allow the viewers eyes to settle before movement begins again.
- When/if you anticipate the performance ending, slowly and smoothly zoom out to get coverage of the entire stage. You don't have to go so wide that the performers' faces are tiny round balls, just wide enough to get what's important.
- If at any time you zoom out too far or in too close, hold the shot for a few beats before re-adjusting, so it appears planned rather than a herky-jerky mistake.
- Plan the Shot: Plan to shoot a master shot, cutaways, reaction shots and plenty of coverage of decor, audience and event venue that you can use to cover inefficient cuts and spice up the whole presentation. (TIP: I always get a closeup of flowers or holiday decor that can be used for opening or closing shots as background for graphics.)
- Relax! Finally… really, if you're just adding a piece to your family's year-in-review video or a quick shoot without fuss, relax and enjoy the show. The best way to do that is to have your gear prepped in advance and show up early to get a front-row seat. If you don't have an extra mic or can't use a tripod, don't sweat it, just follow some good hand-held shooting techniques, have your spouse or friend sitting next to the camera mic to block sound from the side and behind, and just enjoy the show. The key is getting there before the other parents grab those choice shooter's seats!
If you're recording the pageant for profit, be professional.
- Make sure you shoot everyone in the play, not just the stars.
- Good audio can make or break the deal, microphone placement is essential; we can't emphasize this enough.
- Plays and recitals are often run by non-profit organizations. Churches, schools and community-sponsored groups rely on the kindness of members and supporters to produce these extra-curricular events. Working with them, you can arrange to record the live show for the eventual sale to parents and other audience members. Money from these efforts benefits future programs and you can take a cut of the profits.
Here's hoping your holiday event videos are happy and not-too-bright (in other words, not over-exposed!)
Jennifer O'Rourke is Videomaker's managing editor.