Stage to Screen: Curtain Call
Posted Jan 3, 2007

I am sad to report that this will be the last installment of Stage to Screen. I've had a fulfilling two years writing this column, but I feel that I've exhausted column-length topics on stage event video. But since I do have one more column to write here, enough with the farewells; I'll leave you with some useful information about stage event coverage.

Even though you may have preconceived notions of how a particular event should be covered, always consult with the producers and find out what they are looking for. They might want everyone in frame all the time, or they may prefer close-ups. What may not make sense to you means everything to the client.

Image quality and audio are paramount. Don't use single-chip cameras and always run in manual mode; don't rely on automatic settings to get the shots you need. Learn how to record with a manual iris—most theatrical event lighting will exceed the capabilities of auto-iris systems. You don't want an hour-long stage production of faceless subjects. Get permission to attend the dress or tech rehearsal where they will be running the actual lighting, and experiment with your camera settings before you commit to tape.

Or better yet, forget tape and use a hard drive-based direct-to-disk recorder (DDR). There are a few manufacturers that offer these products in various capacities. Many also allow you to record in your NLE's native format and edit directly from the hard disk, eliminating capture. DDRs start at under $1,000 and quickly pay for themselves in time savings.

One of the biggest problems that I have with recording audio is contending with audience applause. Other than constantly riding the level control on a mixer, I have a couple of workarounds to help avoid clipping and poor audio. The easier approach is to set the level of one audio channel for the program material and the other for the applause, and select the appropriate audio channel in post. The other method is to use an inline compressor or limiter for your pickup microphone—a bit more equipment to set up/lug around, but less work after the capture.

Monitoring your camera is critical for all stage productions, and an external display can aid in both your production quality and save your eyesight at the end of the night. In the past, CRT monitors were the norm, but a 9" monitor is probably larger than your camera and three times as heavy. LCD is the way to go, but check the resolution before you buy—it can make the difference between just using the monitor for framing your shots and using it to set your iris, focus, and color settings. If you are shooting in HD, you can still use an SD monitor, but if you are shooting 16:9, invest in a widescreen LCD monitor to avoid letterboxing (which effectively reduces resolution).

When shooting dance productions, always lead the dancer; this gives you a bit of cushion if you are not sure of the movements. This is similar to shooting sports, in that some dance moves are as unpredictable as hockey and lacrosse. Never frame a dancer so tightly that you don't have any buffer around her. This is especially important with a single-camera shoot. If the dancer does a jump or a sudden direction reversal, she will end up out of frame. Don't focus on the face and lose the movement of the dance. Keep those feet in frame, especially with tap numbers.

When shooting theater, remember to keep both eyes on the action. Single-camera coverage of a play is doable, but does require you to stay focused. You have to watch the stage for entries to know when to widen your recorded view. Placing a monitor directly under your sight-line will help to minimize eye movement.

When shooting any stage performance, if your placement is in the rear of the venue where performers might see you, always minimize your presence. Lighting, bright clothing, and movement are all distracting to the performers. Like the tech staff, wear black. Be especially careful when using monitors that generate light in an otherwise-dark setting.

Never leave gear or transportation cases "hanging around." Stow your unused gear out of sight. Nothing screams "amateur" more than a tangle of wires, empty cases stacked up, and hand trucks placed next to where you are shooting.

Always monitor your audio. Use full-cup headphones, especially when recording music or theater dialogue. Not only will they give you better sound, they also do a great job of reducing or eliminating ambient noise. Audio can make or break your video.

Do not overproduce. You will never make any money if you put more into your product than you charge. I'm not saying you should scrimp, but putting more work into a production will not make you more money. Things like DVD chapters with moving menus will add time in post that you will never get paid for. You will never make a living if you produce a fully authored DVD with a full-color case insert for $20 for an elementary school play. By knowing your clients, you can tailor your product to reflect their needs. Elementary school parents want a record of their child, something that they can show grandparents and other relatives. Providing a good picture and audio track will make your sales and get you that return gig.

Ed Wardyga, owner of Keepsake Video and KVI Media, will continue to contribute the bimonthly Gadget Bag columns and other features and reviews to EventDV.