Don’t Try This At Home

How to Shoot a Live Concert with One Cameraman

First off, I’m not bragging about this piece as it’s flawed. That said, for the one-man-band and small production companies, there are some things worth sharing.

The video above was a live concert. It was, in fact, an album release event and this was the first time these songs were performed live in front of an audience.

And as I shot it, it was the first time for me too.

The trick was to shoot a live concert with only one manned camera and have it appear as a multi-camera shoot. This can be achieved pretty effectively with two cameramen and two or three unmanned cameras, but budget didn’t allow, so I had to pull it off the best I could with me, myself and I (one manned camera hand-held, two un-manned).

The Cameras

I used three disparate cameras: The Canon XHA1 (tape driven), the GoPro III Black Edition and the Sony HXR NX30. The Sony saved my bacon, despite the fact that I made a fundamental error with it. But more on that later on the “Things Not To Do” list. I could have (and should have) added a fourth–my Canon 600D, but that was assigned to still photographs.

In order to edit, it is necessary to cut between angles which are significantly different either in image size or angle or both. Preferably both. So the first task was to find camera locations where the locked off cameras would be safe and out-of-the-way. So the Canon was relegated to a balcony rail. Framing it was a “best guess” and I only had one shot. Turned out ok. Due to the extreme low frontal lighting level and due to the fact that the Canon is not particularly good at low light levels (unlike the Sony), at the editing stage I pretty much had to leave the image size alone. Zooming it in digitally would have betrayed a lot of grain.

The GoPro was placed at the back of the stage for two main reasons: 1) it is a completely different angle and so easy to cut to (and also dramatic due to the stage lights appearing in frame) and, 2) that rear angle can often be used to cover faults that would be revealed by frontal cameras (which can be anything including the performer having to swat a fly, scratch a nose–or, as happened in this case, sync manipulation). And when shooting a live event that hasn’t be rehearsed, it’s good to have a built-in fall back. As it turned out, it became a vital camera because we didn’t wind up using the live mix. Instead I synced the studio recording to the live event and that required some sliding of picture track here and there which then created gaps in the live camera edit that couldn’t be used. So the rear shots covered those momentary lapses of sync.

The Sony was the hand-held camera and here the task was to not only get the close-up camera coverage, but to run around like mad and obtain as many different angles as possible (to give some variation to the edit). You can imagine that 3 static cameras would give a very repetitive and boring edit. So the hand-held had to do the work of two or 3 other nonexistent cameras.

Sound was taken off the house mix board to a Zoom H2 recorder. Unfortunately it was not a good live mix and it was not a multi-track recording (so couldn’t be mixed in post) which is why it was decided to try to sync the studio recording to the live show.

I mentioned that the Sony saved my bacon. If you haven’t watched it, see the review I did on the Sony HXR NX30. It was the image stabilization and intelligent auto that did most of the work. As far as the “What Not To Do List” is concerned, I should have set it on “spotlight mode” since that camera was mainly shooting close shots of the singer in a spotlight against a dark or black background. That would have given me better exposure control in editing (if even needed). Not having done so gave me over-exposure to the degree that highlights were completely lost and unrecoverable. I could only mitigate it to some degree in editing. Nothing you can do when there’s no picture information there to adjust.

The Game Plan

With the two un-manned cameras and Zoom H2 set, through hard experience I knew that I’d have to start them all well before the show started. Shows rarely start on time, so don’t count on that. The trick is to start soon enough before the actual show start to give you a chance to get ready with the hand-held camera without your heart pounding from running all over the auditorium, but not so soon that batteries or tape will run out before the first act is over. (thank god for card-based cameras)

Also, through hard experience, I knew the value of closer reverse shots on the main performer (remember, the Go Pro is super wide). So I had to plan my route onto stage in order to get there and back as quick as possible. I knew that a reverse shot of the singer (playing guitar, for example) could be used to cover an edit ANY song where she was playing guitar. And sure enough, I needed it for this one–as little did I know at the time that I would be syncing the live performance to a studio recording! I only wish I had done at least one more different reverse with that hand-held.

Finally (also learned the hard way), when shooting hand-held close shots of the performer, you have to resist the temptation to dive out to another angle until an appropriate edit point. If she’s singing a note, let her finish it! Then dive. Re-framing as fast as possible and from as different an angle as possible, is the trick, but not so often that you wind up with only short usable bits. Its the main singer people want to see. Nothing wrong with holding on a close shot for a little while. It will usually be evident when a good point comes to be able to change to a new angle, knowing that while you’re doing that you’ll be cutting to the main frontal wide camera or the reverse.

Syncing Live Performance to Studio Recording

This is how I did it in FCPX:

1) laid down the main frontal camera on the time line
2) added the studio recording track
3) manually found a sync point. Played until it went out of sync and then cut the picture track. Then nudged the picture track left or right until the next portion was in sync. And so on. In this particular case there were about 4 points of sync correction, each of which gave me a 2-6 frame gap in the picture track.
4) Added the next camera track and found a starting sync point.
5) Then went to the exact edit points in the main picture track and made the same cut and shift in the next camera track–essentially creating an identical gap.
6) repeat 4 and 5 for the last camera.
7) If any of the above left a gap at the beginning (by reason of shifting any track to the right) I added slugging to the beginning so that all tracks have the exact same starting sync point.
8) Now I made each of the 4 tracks into a New Compound Clip, naming each one.
9) Then selected each of the new Compound Clips in the browser and created a multi-cam clip.
10) Edited the multi-cam clip in the usual way producing a rough cut of the show.
11) This, of course, left me with about 4 or 5 black flashes where the gaps were which I was forced to cover using my generic reverse angle of the singer or by cheating the GoPro reverse shot. (if the drummer showed enough to betray the sync, I cropped the GoPro shot to exclude the drummer).
12) Added a beginning and end title sequence.
13) Colour balanced.

That’s it.

This next song was a bit more complicated in that there were 8 different points of sync correction. Once it was all fixed up as in points 10-13 above we reviewed the whole thing and determined there were just too many reverse shots for “no apparent reason”. Of course we knew the reason and it was a mechanical one, not an artistic one. Fortunately there was some studio footage taken during the album recording, so we sucked that in and strung it out from a natural break in the song for about a minute.That took care of most of the sync correction edits seamlessly.

Now, the reason for the title “Don’t Try This At Home”, is that to really make it come across as professional (besides not making stupid errors like I did), is simply to have at least one more cameraman doing hand-held work. Better still, add a third static camera at a different angle (and so on). Now you can really start making it look like a large multi-cam shoot. I’m talking low budget high value here.

(I’ve done 14 camera live shoots too, but that’s a whole different ball game and price range!)

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2 responses

  1. Good stuff! I once pulled off a 4 hour concert three camera shoot. I had the 2 camera ops but I was the roving camera and did the close ups etc. The artist wanted a DVD complete with motion menus. I delivered using Premiere Pro. I bought the Sony HXR-NX30, great cam, I love it and want to use it to shoot a feature film. I also have the Sony HDR-S15 action cam, very nice!

    Like

    • That HDR-S15 looks very interesting. Wonder how it stacks up to the GoPro. As for the NX30, a lot of people ask me about the consumer version of that (PJ790). You know, one of those would make a great 2nd and/or 3rd camera, manned or unmanned, for these types of shoots. Smaller, cheaper, same quality and no need for sound which you can take off the other camera or off the mix board onto a digital sound recorder.

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