Camera Operating Tips & Thoughts
Last week was a perennial event called “Bridgefest” hosted by a regional radio station the church I attend operates. They typically have Christian artists and presenters in a historic 125 year old auditorium seating 6,250, located in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. This year Pastor Pancho Juarez spoke, Matt Schuler and Big Daddy Weave shared the stage with … well … me.
You see, I volunteered to run camera and that turned into me operating handheld, so at times I was on-stage with the bands.
While operating a camera is fresh in my mind I thought I would share some reflections on camera operating in general and operating handheld in particular. Admittedly, these perspectives are from that of a video director, not solely a camera operator.
If you have camera-operating advice you would like to share feel free to do so in the comments section below!
We had a total of four cameras (Sony HDC-1500 SMPTE fiber tethered CCU/RCP HD camera chains) with a portable video carrypack.
One camera, (the tight follow “money shot”) was situated halfway back in the house, orchestra level with a Fujinon HA42x9.7 (9.7mm – 407mm) stabilized lens. The next camera was “a slash” angle from house-left. This camera like the previously mentioned was in studio configuration (meaning it had a big rear viewfinder, rear zoom and rear focus lens controls), but this one had a Fujinon HA18x7.6 (non-stabilized) lens as opposed to the 42x earlier. The third camera worked a few locations including house-right slash and also had the ability to work the pit and on-stage stage-left as a handheld with a Fujinon HA18x7.6 non-stabilized lens. Since it needed to work both on a tripod (when in the slash location) and handheld (pit and on-stage) it did not have a studio viewfinder, making it easier and quicker to dismount from a tripod and move around. Lastly, my camera had a Fujinon ZA12x4.5 wide angle lens working the downstage center lip, pit and as well as on-stage, stage-right.
For more on the subject of camera hierarchy, location and position theory, see the controlbooth.tv article, “Camera Locations.”
STUDIO CONFIG CAMERAS
As mentioned, the two studio configuration cameras had large viewfinders and rear lens controls. These cameras offered a lens height of about 6.5 feet above the surface that the camera operators were standing. If we had mounted the studio viewfinders on top of the cameras (where they would normally go) that would have meant the viewfinders would be > 7 ft high causing the camera operators fatigue (potentially requiring chiropractic care due to stiff necks) over hours of program content. Instead of mounting the viewfinders to the top of the cameras we had a DIY bar of aluminum which with a wedge mount attached on one end and on the other end were holes to bolt the bar to the camera’s quick release plate. This allowed the bottom of the studio viewfinder to be at the bottom of the camera, side-mounted at eye level for the operator.
Another tip sometimes used by studio (fixed position) camera operators is to run a strip of white tape around the focus remote handle as well as the pan-bar mounting clamp.
The camera operator will draw a line across the two pieces of tape creating a focus “witness mark” identifying focal distances to talent. For example, a blue Sharpie line may indicate focus for someone standing at the podium. A red sharpie line may be focus for a vocalist stage right. A green Sharpie line may be focus for a guitarist, etc. If the camera operator becomes confused which way to turn the focus handle during a refocus, or if he/she is attempting to focus during a stage black-out, the “witness marks” serve as a visual reminder where sharp focus occurred during rehearsals. And besides, “witness marks” sounds very Christianese, so points for that too.
The witness mark technique works best on “manual” or “digital servo” lens remote controllers where focus settings are repeatable. Focus remotes that simply use a rocker, or where the lens utilizes analog motors, or where the lens focuses internally and lens barrel rotates infinitely may not work as well (or at all) using this technique.
HANDHELD CONFIG CAMERAS
Since we wanted the most stable shots possible over hours of content and since we knew the two handheld cameras were going to reposition multiple times during the event, we had two tripods (with two quick release plates, two remote zoom controls) per handheld camera. That way when a handheld camera operator repositioned from the slash location to the pit, or lip to on-stage, the operator did not have to rely on his shoulder alone at the second location, or having to drag his tripod along with him. If available, having multiple tripods per handheld camera is often good solution for smooth stable shots.
To create even more stability and smooth on-air camera motion the second handheld position near the drummer on-stage stage-right also had a device called a Cineped Roto-Slider. This unit allowed the camera operator to travel the camera 3.5 ft horizontally. What makes the Roto-slider unique is at one moment the slider could be used to truck upstage/downstage perpendicular to the drummer and then the next moment we could (rotate 90 degrees and) dolly in between the toms and the cymbals. Because the slider rotates infinitely, the camera operator could create a compound move starting on the drummer and then rotating 90 degrees (on air) trucking now on a reverse angle behind Big Daddy Weave’s bass player! Getting camera motion does not always require a Jimmy Jib or Steadicam. As long as shots have both foreground and background elements, a slider be very effective.
If one day you get the opportunity to work on a live televised entertainment special as a camera operator you will likely have a Utility person run your cable and build your camera for you. Yes, these camera operators often get to “white glove” it while grunts do the dirty work. But for most everyone else, whether on a corporate gig, smaller market TV production or church work, you will likely need to run your own cable & build your own camera.
Regardless of the type of camera you are operating on multi-camera shoots, and whether the camera is connected via SMPTE fiber, triax, or multi-core; the “male” pronged end of the camera cable is usually run to the control room (or carrypack, or truck, etc.) and the female end goes to the camera.
Before running a cable, flag (create a gaffer’s tape tab) a foot or two back from each cable end identifying the camera number the cable is going to be used for. If for some reason a particular camera has two home-runs to the control room both to be used by a camera during the show, label them (for example) “1A” & “1B.” If running two cables to a specific camera location and one of the two cables is a spare (meaning there is no plan on using the second cable unless there is an emergency), label them “1” & “1-Spare,” etc.
While we are on the subject, when available and possible, run spare cables. If you do not have enough cables to run a spare to each camera, run a spare to an area servicing more than one camera as a spare. In this case the labeling may look something like “HL spare” (House Left spare) and “HR spare.”
If the camera is stationary (as in studio configuration cameras) you may want to run the cable starting at the camera position (leaving ample slack near the camera to move it 10-20 feet if needed) with the excess cable coiled at the control room end. That will keep things neat and pretty in the house while still allowing for some adjustment if the camera needs to shift a few feet. On the other hand if the camera moves a lot – as in handheld camera – start your cabling from the control room leaving most of the slack backstage. Then coil (over-under) so ample cable reserve is positioned near the camera’s starting point, or midway between two locations the camera may be working.
Now that cables are run it’s time to build cameras. Start first with camera positions that interfere the least with other departments (in this case the band, audio and lighting who were all setting up near the stage) building cameras nearest to the stage last. After camera’s are built check comms with the control room, counter-balance all cameras, set drag, clean the front of all lenses and set back-focus. There is a controlbooth.tv article on the correct way to clean a lens here. After the lenses are cleaned, check back-focus. There is also a controlbooth.tv article on back-focusing here.
At this point your video-engineer should be white balancing the cameras. If you are working without CCUs & a video-shader then the camera operator (or utility) should white balance each camera individually from each camera head, ideally using the same chip chart (and chip chart lighting, or stage lighting) consistently for each camera. There will be more on white balance in a forthcoming article.
Once things are technically faxed out and lighting has begun to check their looks comparing what the audience will see with the naked eye versus what cameras & video monitors/screens will reproduce, it’s time for a camera meeting. This is one of the most important steps of the pre-event process.
Ideally, your video director who runs the meeting) should make sure they address a few things:
• Thank everyone, emphasize that this is a team effort, define what the big picture goals are (as in: is this for record only, or we feeding Imag screens, or is it being transmitted live anywhere, etc.)
• Specify who will be operating which cameras, who will be paging cable and the role for each camera (who is tight-follow, who is loose-follow, which cameras are cut-aways, etc.)
• Communicate if tally lights and return video to the camera operators are available. If not, what is the plan so camera operators know who is live, for how long and what each other camera is shooting
• Discuss how transitions will be handled (people entering/exiting the stage, or in/out of video clip playbacks, etc.)
• Discuss complimentary blocking and traffic (if camera #3 is shooting this … camera #4 should try and shoot that; if camera #1 is on a MCU, camera #2 should be on a WS, etc.)
• Discuss if secondary cameras are to “work zones” (camera #3 – all talent stage left, camera #4 – all talent stage right), or are they to shoot very specific things at specific times, regardless of the talent’s location on stage.
• Discuss how to handle moving cameras accidentally appearing in another camera’s shot. What things should be “protected” (framed out of shots)
• Discuss whether the audience/congregation will be shot or not, when it’s appropriate and with what framing
• Briefly talk through the entire event run-down, top to bottom
• Let everyone know when they need to be on headset for any scheduled rehearsals as well as for show
IN REHEARSALS / IN SHOW
As a camera operator, it’s important to find the delicate balance between doing exactly what one is told and contributing your own creative input advancing the overall goals of the production. In general, the larger the production (the greater the number of cameras, schedule, rehearsals, budget) the greater the opportunity exists to contribute creatively. That said even on smaller, tighter schedule, lower budget projects the whole reason you are there is to contribute, aligned with the producer’s or director’s goals and their vision.
The best Directors encourage creative input from all crew members, however as a camera operator, timing; knowing when or when not to offer suggestions, is equally important.
If you would like to try something very different than what has been requested I would suggest running it by the Director at the end of the camera meeting. Your change might impact what other cameras do. Otherwise the best time to offer suggestions is during a rehearsal.
On multi-camera shoots the ability of the Director to continually see your camera via the monitor wall can work to your advantage which you can capitalize on. If your camera is not on-air and the Director asks you a yes/no question, tilting the camera up/down quickly, or panning left/right quickly can communicate an answer much faster than keying your microphone, especially if the band is playing or the PA is blaring. Similarly, if you think of a creative shot during rehearsals or show, try out the shot while the Director has other cameras on-air. More often than not, practicing the shot off-air will catch the Director’s eye via the monitor wall and you will hear “…love it, standby camera …” soon after over headset.
• Video production is a team sport. Contribute as a teammate
• Figure out what shots you are uniquely able to produce and then leverage that capability. What others are better suited to shoot should be left to others
• Keep one eye in the viewfinder, the other eye in the room. Look for composition opportunities which will present themselves if you are looking
• Tripods are your friends. Like friends, if moving, consider having more than one
• Mount viewfinders and other accessories where they are most comfortable. Just because a standard mount is above the camera does not mean you must attach accessories to it
• When possible, mark focal distances on TV-style rear focus controls (or cine-style focus-ring discs)
• When handheld, move not only in the horizontal plane, but consider one’s vertical axis as well. If able to be achieved with stability consider holding a camera above your head (achieving a high angle) or down by your knees or ankles (low angle) achieving interesting perspectives
• Collaborate. Look for shots which compliment others’ shots. If another camera is tight, shoot looser. If another is loose, shoot tighter. If the Director has a slash angle on-line with negative space, consider framing your subject into the negative space of the current on-line shot
• Stay out of other camera’s framing. “Protect” your framing by eliminating other crew members from view
• Motion is good, especially during music. Pacing should be commensurate to tempo and feel.
• Hold and discuss all plans in camera meetings. Post-mortem reviews are also helpful
• Whenever changing one’s distance to subject, double check focus off air (zoom in, focus, re-frame)
• Advance the creative goals of the Producer & Director by contributing your own input. Sell shots in rehearsals and by demonstrating shots to the monitor wall when off-air
Title photo attribution: Edwin Go
Tom D’Angelo has worked in television production and AVL corporate theater for nearly four decades. He is Emmy Award nominated (Best Director category, Mid-Atlantic) and has been part of various teams nominated or winning national Emmys. As the Media Director at a megachurch in the 1980’s he developed a love for the Church and church performing and technical artists.