Sunday, April 06, 2008

Single-Camera or Multi-Camera?

Watching the commentaries on classic Doctor Who DVDs I find myself learning an awful lot about the technical details of the show. Sometimes I come across the answer to some odd question that I've always wondered about, but never known how to find the answer for.

This week's revelation is about single-camera filming versus multi-camera filming.

I've often wondered why directors don't ALWAYS film with multiple cameras. By filming the same scene simultaneously from several different angles, wouldn't that reduce the amount of time needed to film the different scene elements? Wouldn't it reduce continuity errors?

Multi-camera shooting certainly IS faster, and it DOES make doing continuity a little easier -- requiring continuity checks only for re-takes of entire scenes, as opposed to whenever a scene is shot from a different angle. Another benefit of multi-camera shooting is that foley work becomes less necessary; everybody's voices and movements naturally sync together, instead of needing to be spliced up in an editing room later.

But these Doctor Who commentaries have given me insight into the NEGATIVE aspects of a multi-camera shoot...and there are a lot of them.

First off, there's the obvious drawback of needing to hire and coordinate several different cameramen. The actors also need to know their lines better, as there are fewer opportunities to check the script. Multi-camera shoots are by necessity more "theatrical" -- everyone in the right spot, everybody blocked out, all hitting their cues exactly -- which means that scenes MUST be rehearsed beforehand. This is a time commitment that might negate the time saved by shooting with multiple cameras.

More important, however, are concerns of lighting and sound. When you're only filming with one camera the director of photography can set up the lighting of each shot individually, paying close attention to those aspects of cinematography which make films look so much better than television programs. The boom operators can likewise record each shot in an optimal way, without needing to worry about actors wandering around the entire set and getting out of range.

But when you shoot with multiple cameras, the lighting is compromised: it must be adequate from every potential camera angle. And boom operators need to cover everybody no matter where they end up, instead of focusing on a small segment of dialog which must be recorded.

Finally, it's difficult to do really nice, elaborate close-ups of characters when multiple cameras are involved, for the obvious reason that the camera doing the close-up would become visible to all the OTHER cameras. This is one reason why fight scenes in the old Doctor Who tended to be filmed with single cameras, allowing tighter shots and therefore making it all look more tense and action-packed.

Nowadays it seems that multiple-camera techniques are rarely used except when a big, one-time-only practical effect is being shot, or when filming in front of a live studio audience. Otherwise, for reasons of lighting, sound, and general flexibility, single cameras are most desirable.


The Vicar of VHS said...

I was toying with the idea of doing a handicam short horror flick for a while--actually more than "toying," as I wrote the script and storyboarded the whole thing!--and for a couple of "conversation" scenes I had envisioned setting up two cameras for coverage. Of course I was planning on lighting with a pair of garage lights and some of those silver-dome bulb-holders and foamcore sheets for reflectors, but I had it sussed.

Of course then I realized I don't have the spare time to do it right, nor an extra handicam or the money for one, so the dream was put on hold. :)

I've been watching more Dr. Who on netflix, though--right now I'm about 4 episodes into "Seeds of Death," which is my favorite I've watched so far. Great dramatic stuff, and some fine performances by all the bit characters, and of course by the Doctor. Can't wait to finish it up.

Adam Thornton said...

Follow that dream, Vicar, even if you don't have the time to make it perfect! Unless you don't have the time to make it even "watchable," in which case...yeah, save the money you'd otherwise spend on garage lights. :)

"Seeds of Death" suffers a bit from what most long stories suffered: lots of padding (and I'm not just talking about the weird diapers that everybody's wearing). But even so, it's great!

BTW, the Troughton-era stories were known for their overuse of foam machines..."Seeds of Death" is a case in point.

I love the Troughton-Jamie-Zoe dynamic. They worked together perfectly. Get a load of Zoe cracking up when Troughton comes skidding onto set covered in foam.

The Vicar of VHS said...

>>Get a load of Zoe cracking up when Troughton comes skidding onto set covered in foam.

Haven't got to that part yet, but I'll be watching for it!

Also, I just watched a 1969 British Thriller/proto-slasher called Night, After Night, After Night and was surprised to see a the cowardly technician from "Seeds of Death" playing a pervy law clerk! That's synchronicity!

Adam Thornton said...

Those British programs are SO inbred! I suspect they're just as inbred as Canadian TV, just we notice it more when the actors are previously unknown to us.

In the wonderful "About Time" series of books, every Doctor Who episode writeup includes an extensive "Hey, Isn't That...?" section, giving you not just an outline of each guest actor's past and future work, but also explaining what it was like for British viewers to see those actors in particular roles. Fascinating!

Was "Night, After Night, After Night" any good?

The Vicar of VHS said...

NaNaN had its moments, but overall the plodding pace kind of drug it down for me. I can appreciate it as a precursor to things like The Flesh and Blood Show and other great British horrors of the 70s, but on its own it didn't do much for me. Your mileage may vary.

Anonymous said...

I never even considered the differences between single and multi-camera TV shows until I talked to Paul Feig. I don't watch much TV these days, but now I think I need to start noticing this stuff.

Adam Thornton said...

If it means actually watching TV, Less Lee, it probably isn't worth it. :)