It takes stage performers months to prepare for a big show, and the cycle repeats itself year after year. But most performers agree that all the preparation in the world can’t prepare you for when the curtain is raised and the lights shine brightly onstage.The same rules apply to the stage event video producer who spends months analyzing the potential, beginning the sales process, establishing a market position, and negotiating pricing structure—all efforts leading to a few hours of performance time behind the camera.Filming a stage event requires lots of preparation leading up to the point when the house lights dim and the program commences. In this part of the series on mastering the stage event video production business, we are going to explore just a few of the key decisions that have to be made before the show begins.
As we discussed in Part 3, deciding how many cameras to use is a matter of strategy and marketing position alignment. Regardless of whether you use one, two, or more cameras, each camera operator needs to understand her role and how her footage will be used in the finished production. Single-camera operators are responsible for ensuring their footage is usable 100% of the time, meaning generally that it needs to be a wide shot with occasional variation if the situation warrants. Their adjustments must be subtle; corrections will get noticed. One of the keys to success in this style of videotaping is that the videotaping doesn’t get noticed.
A two-camera shoot is similar in that one camera operator is responsible for a wide shot, but this operator will not vary her shot except to adjust framing when the group onstage changes from a larger to smaller formation. Essentially, this camera operator films a wide shot the entire time, ensuring that everyone onstage is in the shot at all times and leaving a comfort zone around the formation to allow for movement and adjustments.The second camera operator is responsible for insert shots rather than continuity. Her footage will be used for less than 50% of the edited video, so much of her footage will be preparing to pan the entire formation on stage and then waiting until enough time has passed for the return pan. As for positioning, the primary camera is typically center back, while the second camera is typically off-center to allow for greater shot variety and easy transitioning between cameras when their framing is similar.
Choosing a recording format and capture media is much different than it was just a few years ago. Recording 4:3 SD video in DV SP has long been the standard for stage event video, but it is being quickly replaced by 16:9 widescreen in both SD and HD in HDV mode. In addition to a variety of recording formats, you also have a choice of recording to tape and/or other media such as a DTE recorder, a laptop hard drive via software like Adobe OnLocation, or, most recently, compact flash cards or SxS cards on the Sony Z7U and EX1 camera models.
Each format has pros and cons, but nontape solutions are overcoming the MiniDV format’s biggest weakness: its limited recording length. This affects most stage productions with two halves that typically exceed the 1-hour MiniDV tape limit, requiring a staggered tape change during the show and subsequent resynchronization in the editing process. A tape change during a performance also requires that audio is sent to both cameras so that it is not lost while the camera that has the audio is changing tapes.
Recording to memory-based solutions also reduces one of the most time-consuming processes in the editing process: capturing footage. Capturing tape requires an hour per tape and an hourly tape change. Compare this to the efficiency of transferring files from memory that is many times faster than real time and has the added bonus of greater capacity that lessens the number of media from which you’ll need to transfer footage.
Another key issue is audio. Stage performances often require you to monitor and record multiple audio channels simultaneously. On the most basic setups, you are required to obtain a feed from the soundboard for audio that is fed to the house speakers. This typically includes a mix of music from soundtracks and audio from microphones for introductions, vocals, and dialogue. A secondary audio feed is a must. It might be a stage or tap microphone or a mic at the front of the stage that captures stage audio that may or may not be fed through the sound system, in addition to applause from the audience.
Many theaters now include stage microphones in the audio mix they provide you with, but be sure to request that the stage microphone feed be isolated from the rest of the audio so that you can properly mix their relative levels in post. This will require two outputs from the soundboard: one for the music and microphone mix and a second for the stage microphone. A shotgun microphone mounted on your camera can also be used for audience applause, but it is not ideal for nonamplified stage audio due to the distance and increased signal-to-noise ratio.
The final step is to be prepared for high-contrast stage lighting, where lit areas are many thousands of times brighter than the darker areas onstage. Exposing for highlights is key to ensuring your footage will be properly exposed.
Shawn Lam (video at shawnlam.ca) runs Shawn Lam Video, a Vancouver video production studio. He specializes in stage event and corporate video production and has presented seminars at WEVA Expo 2005–7 and the 4EVER Group’s Video 07. He won an Emerald Artistic Achievement Award in Stage Production at Video 08.