Cameras Directing Systems

Camera Locations

Approximate 11 minute read

“Location, location, location!” the old real estate adage goes.

The three most essential factors in determining the desirability of a property is indeed its location. This tricolon does not solely apply to real estate though.  It equally applies to camera positions in a live church-service production environment.

One of the most basic questions a video director must answer is, “where do I put my cameras?” Are there best practices regarding camera placement? Would the answer change if shooting for Imag, broadcast or closed circuit?

What follows is my opinion regarding camera placement. It is by no means the only way to determine the best camera locations, but it is based on observing many hundreds of productions navigate the process of determining the best camera positions and taking note of common trends among various A-list directors.

CONTENT & VIEWERS

Camera locations and therefore the shots that will result should always be driven by content and by the viewing capability of the audience.

Content describes the action which is occurring somewhere in the venue and how that action may best be captured, whereas viewers is a determination of where our audience is physically located (at home, out and about, at a satellite venue, in the same venue as the presenter) and what type and size device(s) the audience will be viewing our content on.

When considering content it is often helpful to break an event down into its various run-down parts. For example, a hypothetical church service may be formatted:

  • Walk-in (congregants find their seats, music is playing, slide/graphics appears on projection screens)
  • Worship Team Entrance (#? of people, entering from?, to destination?)
  • Worship Team Song #1 (where on stage?, who is the lead vocalist?, back-up vocals?, any featured instrumentation?)
  • Worship Team Song #2 (same questions)
  • Worship Team Song #3 (same questions)
  • Worship Team Song #4 (same questions)
  • Prayer (where on stage?, by whom?)
  • Announcements (where on stage?, by whom?, making reference to any person in the audience?)
  • Offering
  • Sermon
  • Call to action / alter call
  • Worship Team Song #5 (same questions)
  • Walk-out (congregants leave their seats, music is playing, slide/graphics appears on projection screens)

A broadcast iteration (live stream, video on demand, traditional broadcast) may or may not add in a program open, an edit for time or for content, a program close, and/or bumpers leading into or out of various segments.

Once we have created a list of all the content which may occur, we can then drill down to who will be standing where, who on-stage will take priority on camera in a given scene, when during a service is shooting the audience appropriate, etc.

Also to be considered is the background visible behind a given talent’s camera field of view, as well as what – if any – objects may appear in the foreground (e.g.: audience heads, raised hands, items on stage, etc.) of a shot.

CAMERA HIERARCHY

In broad terms, camera positions are classified based on their value to the production commensurate with the amount of screen-time a camera may get. Some people use the phrase “main cameras versus cut-aways,” others use “high priority versus low priority,” or “primary vs secondary.” Regardless of which terminology is used, main, primary or high priority camera locations and the shots which they offer tend to be non-negotiable. Secondary, lower priority or cut-away camera locations and their shots tend to be more flexible or negotiable.

PRIMARY CAMERAS

TIGHT FOLLOW: The highest prioritized camera position & shot is the “tight follow.” House of Worship video production, whether Imag or broadcast, traditional or contemporary styling; as well as televised live entertainment special programing, news, sit-coms, etc., all prioritize the tight-follow shot as the most fundamental and important tool in the director’s arsenal.

For church services, the tight-follow is typically a Medium or Medium Close Up  field of view (however having the ability to go even tighter is important for a number of reasons).

Typically the tight-follow shot would be framed with the talent horizontally centered.

Andy Stanley, Medium Close Up, “Tight Follow”

The tight-follow camera position is always located perpendicular and centered on the shoulder-line of the main presenter (typically the teaching pastor at a lectern, or at the set’s “home base”).

Tight Follow

If the main presenter’s lectern is somewhat off-stage and angled in toward the center, the tight-follow camera location would rotate to comply with the “perpendicular and centered on the talent’s shoulders” rule.

Tight Follow

Vertically, the tight-follow shot should have a relative lens height equivalent to the presenter’s eyes on-stage.  Therefore, if for example you have a 36″ high stage and a pastor that is 6′ tall, but your house has a 5 degree decline from FOH to the stage, your ideal lens/tripod height may be quite low.

On the other hand if your house is not raked but instead is level, your camera platforms (or tripod, or both) may need to be quite high, again insuring that the primary tight follow camera’s lens is at eye level with your presenter.

If various parts of the presentation are at standing height while others are at seated height (for example talk shows which may have monologues and musical performances where talent is standing and interviews where the talent is seated) cameras will be placed on pedestals (so the lens heights can be adjusted easily scene to scene), or the interview area of the set will be raised up on its own supplemental platform to increase the height of the people seated, or both.

The vertical position of the camera relative to talent height, especially on a primary camera shots such as the tight-follow, communicates (potentially unintended) significance to viewers.

Tight-follow shots where the camera is positioned substantially below the talent’s eye line may communicate that the person on camera is dominant, or domineering; whereas tight-follow shots that are created substantially above the talent’s eyeline may communicate the presenter lacks credibility, authority or power.

The further the camera is away from the talent the further the camera may be above or below eyeline without adverse consequences.  For example, at 80′ to talent being 12-18″ high or low may not cause a noticeable photographic issue, whereas at 25′ distance to talent the same 12-18″ difference in height may be quite noticeable.

Regardless, attempting to always keep the tight-follow shot at eyeline level is suggested.

LOOSE FOLLOW: The second (primary) camera is referred to as a “loose-follow.”  Where the tight-follow is typically used with a field of view of a Medium or Medium Close Up, the loose-follow is typically framed as a field of view two or more shots wider than the current tight-follow framing.  So, if the tight-follow is a CU, the loose-follow might be a MED, MWS, or WS.  If the tight-follow is a MCU, the loose-follow might be a MWS, WS or EWS.

Andy Stanley, Medium Wide Shot, “Loose Follow.”

As your camera operators become familiar with these rules the loose-follow camera operator will automatically adjust his/her framing to accommodate the tight-follow operator’s shot.  As the tight-follow operator pushes in, the loose-follow operator has more choices for complementary framing.   As the tight-follow op pulls out a bit, the loose-follow makes sure his/her field of view is wider to insure it is always complementing the tight-follow’s shot selection.

When the prioritized talent moves around on-stage, both the loose-follow and tight-follow cameras track the talent wherever he/she goes, offering two simultaneous fields of view of the same person.  If the talent catches the tight-follow cameraman napping and begins moving out of the tight-follow frame, the video director can immediately cut to the wider loose-follow shot minimizing distraction to the audience.  If done well, it may just look like the cut was intended!

Typically the loose-follow camera would be located in the house as close as (is reasonably) possible to the tight-follow camera’s position.

Loose Follow, Tight Follow Horizontal FoVs

If for example, during worship there are two people on-stage with equal priority for front-on tight shots, both the tight-follow and loose-follow cameras can be temporarily employed as dual tight-follow shot operators until such time as they can return to their normal tight/loose functions.

If the main focus of the scene is transferred from one person on-stage to another person on-stage for an extended amount of time, both the loose and tight-follow cameras’s shots will migrate from featured person to the next featured person.

SECONDARY CAMERAS

Once the tight and loose follow primary camera positions are determined, secondary camera locations may then be considered. At this point in the process, video directors may have differing opinions regarding which types of shots they prioritize subject to the individual project’s content and budget.

If for example the style of a church service is contemporary and the worship band requires handheld cameras to complement tight & loose follow shots, handheld cameras whether on-stage, on the downstage lip, or in the audience may be warranted.

If on the other hand the style of the church service is traditional and handheld cameras are considered “too distracting” for the congregation, 45 degree angle off “slash” camera locations may be preferred.

If camera motion is desired, a handheld, steadicam, towercam, jib, jitacam, dolly, slider, railcam or wirecam/Spidercam may be preferred.

If the shoot is for broadcast (streaming, video on demand, etc.) audience shots may be prioritized.

SLASH CAMERAS:  Slash camera angles are particularly helpful when there are two or more talent, approximately 90 degrees apart from each other and having a back and forth conversation (e.g.: a conference host/guest interview or talk show, or a music duet).

For interviews, it is often appropriate to have each slash camera criss-cross, perpendicular and centered on their talent’s shoulder line.  If the placement of the chairs or talent are angled-in greatly, these slash cameras may wind up getting the opposing talent in their own wider field of view over the shoulder shot.

Slash Cameras, Interview
Slash Cameras, Interview
Slash Cameras, Interview, Over the shoulder

When shooting music however slash cameras tend not to be perpendicular and centered to the talent’s shoulder line, but instead are used to create angled-off shots leading the talent with “negative or look space.”  This is particularly helpful avoiding morphing, thereby allowing a director to place the visual point of interest of a preceding shot into the look space of a subsequent shot.

Slash Cameras, Worship
Slash Cameras, Worship

HANDHELD:  Handheld camera locations are typically driven by the willingness of the congregation and leadership to accept the potential distraction of a camera operator (or a camera operator and his/her cable puller) moving around during various segments of the church service.

A compromise some churches agree to is allowing (a) handheld camera(s) to move around during the worship set but to remain in a predetermined fixed location during the sermon.

Places I would consider using a handheld camera are as follows:

Handheld Camera

Cabled to Stage Right
#1 Drummer pointing upstage, Drummer w/KEYs in BKGRD
#2 Drummer pointing downstage  (BGVs in BKGRD, WL & house in background)
#3 WL pull to reveal GTR & BASS, WL & house in BKGRD
#4 Piano hands, Pianist profile, Piano & WL/House
#5 Piano & WL/House
#6 Pianist, GTR, BASS, WL profile
#7 WL w/BGVs in background, Audience
#8 WL low angle

Cabled to Stage Left
#9 Drummer pointing downstage, WL in BKGRD
#10 KEYS pointing downstage  (BGVs in BKGRD)
#11 KEYS pointing center stage, BGV and WL in BKGRD
#12 BGVs with WL in BKGRD
#13 BGVs, Audience
#14 GBVs low angle

STEADICAM:  A Steadicam will often have similar shot set-ups as a handheld camera however adding in dolly/truck transitional movements between one set-up to another and/or arc style motion circling around the talent on stage.

Steadicam

As with handhelds, steadicam locations are driven by the willingness of the congregation and leadership to accept the potential distraction of a camera operator moving around.

With any moving camera, effort should be made to insure the camera and operator of one camera does not appear in the shot of another camera.  Thus, cameras that are in motion (handhelds, steadicams, dolly, jibs, etc.) must not only be searching for their own artistic shots, but must also be cognizant of what framing each other camera is shooting moment by moment as the song or service progresses.  Fixed position cameras must be equally aware and attempt to “protect” areas of the set a mobile camera is operating in (as to avoid shooting the other camera’s equipment and operator).

PTZ:  For some churches PTZ (pan/tilt/zoom robotic) cameras may be used in roles replacing primary tight/loose follow or secondary slash camera positions.

If the church has manned primary tight/loose follow cameras, PTZs might also be used in various secondary rolls.  Typical secondary uses may include “high/wide” shots establishing the entire house, or as a talent/audience reversal, or as a keyboardist or drummer specialty camera.

(Secondary) PTZ camera locations

#1 High/Wide Pastor/WL/Audience reversal
#2 Low/standard angle Drummer & WL/Pastor reversal
#3 Standard angle Piano
#4 High/Wide from back of the house

TOWERCAM:  Towercam’s are used when on-air movements in the vertical plane, particularly very high to very low, or vice versa, are required.  As such, towercams are sometimes positioned hiding behind a keyboardist or a drummer’s kit rising on cue to reveal the rest of the stage, or descending to feature the musician in the foreground.

Towercam

JIBS:  Jibs are one of the more versatile tools a director may have.  They can provide static shots, motion, high angle, low angle, they can sweep over the audiences’ heads or be used on-stage to reveal scenic elements or featured people.

Jib locations

#1 shows a jib where the fulcrum and operator are upstage/offstage, but the arm extends out onto the stage useful for entrances/exists, specials of the piano or musicians near the piano, high/low profile shots of the worship leaders and the pastor.

#2 positions the jib near the downstage lip either far stage left or right.  This position allows some sweeping shots over the audiences heads, reversals to shoot audience faces, low/high angle of the singers stage left, and low/high angle static shots (as to avoid distraction) when the pastor is preaching.

#3 has the jib primarily being used to fly over the audience and to replace a high/wide static camera in the room.  Note that the jib’s fulcrum is positioned so the jib’s camera never crosses in front of the tight-follow shot.

#4 is similar to #3 but with less range of motion as a trade off for fewer seat-kills.  The #4 location requires that the jib operator is cognizant of not swinging his camera into the loose-follow camera’s field of view.

DOLLY:  Both dolly and rail cameras are wonderful for achieving controlled camera movement.  Dolly’s are typically a lower cost but more intrusive (larger footprint, greater distractions) solution.  Railcams are typically smaller, less distracting however more expensive.

Dolly’s can take the form of higher end (therefore more expensive) Chapman Peewee, Fischer or Panther dollies; or can be as simplistic as a camera on a normal tripod placed on a doorway dolly (with or without track).  For those very budget conscience, DIY dolly type moves can be accomplished with angle-iron or black-pipe as track and the camera’s own tripod equipped with rolling-spreaders used as dolly wheels. Even PVC pipe and wooden 2″ x 4″ ties can be used for  makeshift low cost track.

Dolly positions

#1 Typical dolly positions include an upstage reversal.  This position provides dynamic movement for shots of the pianist, drummer, keyboardist, as well as reversals of the worship leader with the audience in the background.

#2 is a moving slash camera application.

#3 allows motion just clearing the tops of the audiences’ heads (providing the stage and tight/loose follow camera platforms are tall enough that the dolly can slip under the tight/loose follow camera lenses without “infecting” those fields of view.

RAILCAM:  A railcam would have similar locations as a dolly but may also work on the downstage lip providing tracking shots without the distraction of a camera operator or a utility paging cable, directly in front of the audience.

Railcam positions

As mentioned earlier, an added benefit is railcams tend to have narrower tracks (than dollys) reducing the footprint and seat kills in the venue.

WIRE/SPIDERCAM:  Wire or Spidercam systems typically come in two variants, 2-point or 4-point.

2-point systems allow vertical and horizontal motion where the horizontal motion is limited to the plane determined by the location of the two mounting points.

2 point wire/spidercam

If the camera does not need to ascend/descend, shots similar to 2-point wire/spidercam system can be accomplished by railcams (hung and flown inverted under lighting truss).

4-point wire/spidercam systems allow both vertical and horizontal motion with lateral positioning of the camera anywhere within the four mounting points.  As such, a 4-point camera system can position the camera in almost any position and height in the room.

4 point wire/spidercam

Each of the four points houses motors which can slacken or take-in the four suspension wire cables independently.  Adjustment of these four motors allows the camera to climb, descend, move stage left/right, upstage and downstage.

Where wire/spidercams were cost prohibitive in the past, new low cost (but light payload) systems are now becoming available, particularly in 2-point non-descending/ascending variants.

SWINGING FOR THE FENCES

As stated, the quantity of cameras and their locations often are (and should) be subject to the needs created by content and budget.  No two churches may have the same esthetic style, content, production value expectations or budget.

With that said, here is what might be considered “an ideal” director’s wish list for a hypothetical contemporary church service:

Seven camera conceptual plot

If due to space or budget limitations one camera needed to be eliminated, the first I would cut out is the railcam as some of its functions can be replaced by the handheld cameraman.  If a second camera needed to be eliminated it would be the dolly.  The third to be eliminated is the PTZ high/wide (especially if only doing Imag).

SUMMARY

The starting point for any video production, especially in any high production value endeavor is a determination of where the action is occurring and from what locations can that action best be captured. Over the years, video directors have developed norms which create a common visual language, its vocabulary accepted and anticipated by audiences.

For entertainment televised programing, Imag in concert environments and churches, the tight-follow / loose-follow combination of primary camera shots has become a non-negotiable staple. These shots are always centered on the main talent’s shoulder line and at the talent’s eye level.

Secondary camera shots are negotiable and the selection is dependent on budget and content.

Imag only (non-broadcast) productions tend to shoot from the proscenium line to the upstage wall and at times neglecting audience shots altogether, whereas broadcast applications tend to shoot wherever action is occurring in the room, including the action created by our audience (a vital cast member in the story we are attempting to communicate).

When it comes to camera positions, remember; “location, location, location!”

Tom D'Angelo
Tom D'Angelo has worked in television production and AVL corporate theater for the last thirty-eight years. He has been nominated for a Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award (Best Director category) and has been part of various teams that have been nominated and won national Emmy's. As the Media Director at a megachurch in the 1980’s he developed a love for the Church and church performing and technical artists.