Shooting Concerts as a Lone Shooter

(Published originally on the Run and Gun Videography Blog)

World Leaders and Power Seekers still 6

To best understand how to shoot a concert as a lone shooter, let’s consider how a concert would normally be shot.

Typical Multi-Camera Concert Shoot

A live concert is generally shot is with 6-18 cameras and a live cut director. (those numbers are arbitrary, but representative of most of the concerts and live performances I have shot).

Typically one frontal camera is dedicated to close shots of the main performer. Next to it is another frontal camera whose job is to cover anything from long shots of the stage plus audience all the way into medium shots of the performer. With this set-up you’re never without a close shot of the main performer even though other cameras will be shooting close-ups from different angles from time to time.

Then off to the left and right will be another couple of cameras also dedicated to side or 3/4 angles onthe main performer, but can also be assigned to other performers and solos based on the shooting plan.

There will be one or two, even three long shot cameras covering the whole stage and will be variously framed on the stage or stage plus audience and may be zooming in or out at the beginning and end of numbers.

Either additionally, or as part of the long shot camera set-up, there will be a couple cameras (or more) on cranes.

Near the stage there may be a camera set up on a dolly for lateral dolly shots.

And finally there will be 2 or 3 (or more) hand-held cameras on stage or at stage front assigned to dynamic angles, instrument close-ups etc.

That’s a pretty standard set-up and can even be tricked out with steadicam operators, wire cameras (cameras flying on wires), etc.

Ideally there is a full rehearsal with the band at which point the director determines the various camera cues. For example, when there are solos, he’ll know when they are and that he must have a camera on it and ready to go.

If no rehearsal, there will still be a cue sheet used for the same purpose.

All the cameramen will be in communication with the director (mainly for listening) via a comm system. During the show the cameramen, with their various assignments, will generally know what to do throughout the show based on their assignments (so you don’t wind up with 18 cameras all shooting close-ups of the singer), but will be assisted by the director calling out cues in advance of the live cut. For example; “Ready Camera 2 on a close shot push”, then, “Take”.  The “ready’ means you’re about to go live pushing into a close shot.  “Take” means you’re live. This doesn’t mean he’ll cue every single cut. He’ll be looking at all the cameras on his monitors. If he sees a nice shot on camera 6, he may say “ready 6….take”. When he says ‘ready’ that means he’s going to you, so that’s not the time to zoom into a cute girl or pick your nose.

And so it goes.

From the multitude of cameras of varying image sizes and angles makes editing easy, even on a live edit. Any mistakes are easily fixed in post.

Ok, so that’s NOT the scene we’re talking about for a lone shooter.

The Lone Shooter ‘Multi-Cam Shoot’

Why do lone shooters even try to shoot a concert?

Most likely it’s for a friend. And most likely it’s for little money if any at all.  And such is the case with the video samples you will see below.

When it’s a managed band with a budget, even if you are to do the shoot, you’ll be hiring extra crew and equipment–minimum two operators and 3 or 4 cameras for a small budget production and on upwards to the big budget ‘sky is the limit’ productions.

But some shooters will want to do it for a friend, do it for fun, or break into the music video business by offering some ‘starving artists’ an opportunity for better promotion with a music video for little or no money.

So how do you do it?

First of all, let’s be clear: Shooting alone is not the best way to go about it.

Shooting with only one camera is definitely the worst way to go about it.

Having at least three cameras, one of which is ambulatory (your hand-held), can make it appear to be a multi-camera shoot and will be fairly easy to edit.

More than three is even better.

Better still is having a second operator for one of the cameras…

And so on.

Ok, let’s start with a lone shooter and three cameras.

Camera Setup

Where do you set them up?

First of all, your main camera will be your hand-held and that’s the one that’s going to be getting all the close shots of the main performer. You must realise that if there is any fan-base at all, they’ll be wanting to see close shots and close-ups of their idol. They really don’t care much about cool shots of guitar strings and all that kind of fluff. Give them what they want, not what you think might be ‘artistic’.

Your locked off cameras must be necessarily on the wide side because you can not control the various changes that happen on stage while you’re running around with the hand-held, so you minimally have to cover all the performers on stage with your frontal locked off cameras.

One of the locked off cameras should be a tight shot of the main performing area of the stage.  If the stage is full, then it’s the whole stage and all the performers. If the performers occupy a portion of the stage, then it’s a loose shot of the whole grouping of performers, rather than the whole stage.

The other is on a medium shot of the main performing area from a different angle.

Balconies are a good place for these two cameras (one on either side).

I think the side angles are more interesting than a dead-on center shot, but if you have another camera, you can put it next to the sound booth or whatever center position you can occupy.

If you have a fourth camera, put it backstage shooting past the performers at the audience. It will give you nice relief shots with some nice flare off the spotlights.

Setting Exposure

You must set your static cameras to manual exposure using the highest light level of the key spot light on the main performer. (Just ask the lighting guy to give you that level and set it on someone standing in the performers position). If you don’t do that, your cameras will try to give you an exposure to the overall long or medium shot of the stage (which, on an interior stage is usually mostly black) and that will result in the main performers face being blown-out most of the time.

If you use a GoPro, just let it do it’s automatic thing. It’s pretty good about auto-exposure.

On your hand-held camera my advice–if your camera is intelligent in its auto modes like the Sony cameras I use–keep it on full intelligent auto. You’ll be all over the stage at different angles, but your shots are mainly going to be closer shots. Your camera (especially if it has facial recognition) will be able to give you good auto exposures most of the time–or at least close enough to fix in post. You just won’t have time to be fiddling with settings as you’ve got too much work to do keeping that camera’s shot useful as much as you can.

The Hand-Held Camera

The hand-held camera is the one that does all the hard work.

Because you’re ambulatory, you can get all kinds of different angles: frontal, side frontal, from the wings of the stage, and even from backstage.

Add all these angles to your static cameras and you’ll wind up with something a bit closer to a multi-camera shoot and W A Y better than a single camera zooming in and out all night long.

Be Quick But Be Patient

The trick to the hand-held camera is to hold a shot up to and slightly past what you know will be an edit point. For example, let them finish a line of lyrics or chorus and add a beat or two before changing frame. If you don’t, you’ll find out the hard way that the cut to another camera may seem awkward if you suddenly decide to reframe your hand-held camera at the wrong moment—and you’ll have no choice but to cut to another camera, because your hand-held is useless as you’re moving position and re-framing.

Once you’ve reached an edit point, you move and re-frame as fast as you can. Ideally start with a different image size. While you’re moving and re-framing, you’re covered by any one of your other cameras. But the interesting shots will be the hand-held ones, so you move as fast as lightning. All your static cameras will be shooting the same thing all night, so they’ll start to appear rather repetitive. Use them as relief, or as openers and end shots and the rest of the time run your butt off getting as many different shots as you can from different angles with your hand-held.

I mentioned above having a second operator on one of your cameras. Even if you assign him to a fixed position on a tripod, at least now he can be zooming in or out, changing static image sizes, covering a solo, etc., so now of your 3 or 4 cameras, only 1 or two are completely static. You use them lightly and give the main work to your hand-held and your other manned camera. Now it can really start looking like a professional concert shoot—even with only two cameramen.

“But I only have one camera…”

Well–borrow one or two. By hook or by crook, get at least two or three additional cameras. Fortunately most video cameras these days are HD quality. Even iPhones and iPads and the Android equivalents shoot HD.

In the samples below I had 4 completely different cameras. A Canon DSLR, a Canon XHA1, a GoPro and a Sony HXR NX30.  To say they didn’t match up would be an understatement.

I now have another Sony camera (X70), so next time I’ll be better off.

The particular show in the samples below was 1 hour and 40 minutes long. I knew it would happen eventually, and sure enough, toward the end of the show the GoPro and DSLR batteries died (even though I changed them during intermission) leaving me with only two live cameras. (That gives me the opportunity to show you what can be done with two cameras in a pinch).

Take Advantage of Breaks and Intermissions

Between songs the performers sometimes (not always) chat with the audience. There’s your chance to grab some water or make your way to an interesting new angle from the wings of the stage or wherever.

Obviously it’s best to have your static cameras on AC power, but you may need to change cards (or tape) and that you can do during an intermission or break. You can even re-frame your static cameras during a long break or intermission.

If no intermission, you’ll have no choice but to do it during one of those chats with the audience between songs. You may risk not being ready by the time they start up again, but it’s better to have that camera up and running as soon as possible than to have it dead. You’ll simply have to rely on one of your other fixed cameras while you’re tending to all that.

Of course I’m really talking about the L O N E shooter to the nth degree here. If you can get an assistant to deal with those things, all the better.

You take your sound off the house mix board. That could be run by cable to one of your static cameras, but if the cameras are too far away from the mixboard, you can simply use a digital recorder to take the audio and sync it up later. I use the Zoom H2 which I’ve had for years and which never lets me down.

Matching Disparate Cameras

Since I had 4 completely different cameras that handled color and light differently, in order to smooth it out a bit I added a ‘look’ after manually balancing the color and exposure as best I could. In this case the looks were from a Pixel Film Studios plug-in. Now I have Color Finale which, like Divinci Resolve, allows me to create any look I want.  Since this was a concert with weird concert lighting anyway, the addition of a ‘look’ just added to the whole concert thing. But mainly it served to smooth out the differences between all the cameras to some degree.

The singer sat beside me and I scrolled through the various looks I have from Pixel Film Studios. By clicking on each filter it would give me an instant live preview in the preview window. We picked one she liked and put it on the whole song. (I used a couple different looks for various of the songs). Since the stage lighting was so crappy, one good thing the looks did was crush the blacks which also served to hide the different grain levels of the different cameras.

The GoPro isn’t good at low light levels, so on the darker scenes the grain was as big as golf balls. For those few Go Pro shots that I had to employ in the edit, I used Neat Video, a pretty good piece of software for removing grain. When the grain is extreme, the result is rather severe, but, in this case it was worse with the grain. For light grain, Neat Video is brilliant at removing it rather seamlessly.

All this is unnecessary, of course, if you have closely matching cameras. That’s not to say you couldn’t add a look anyway.

Concert Video Samples

In this case, I saw no rehearsals. I was seeing it for the first time live and had no choice but to think on my feet and do the best I could under the circumstances. If nothing else, it’s a good exercise even if it doesn’t all come out the way you hoped it would. The next good exercise in that case, is figuring out how to fix it all in post. And that can be fun and rewarding too—but only if you have multiple cameras to work with—or, as I had near the end of the show, only two.

Also, in this case, I was alone. I had no assistant. So the samples below are meant to give an idea of what a lone shooter can accomplish. I don’t offer it as anywhere near ideal–or indeed what I would want if it was my band, but still, for the money, it was a pretty good promo for this particular band. And it was fun and a good exercise for me. Next one will be better, for after all, it’s from things like this that we learn.

Let’s start with one when all 4 cameras were working. (after that are samples with 2 and 3 cameras)

As the show went on, and since I didn’t have an assistant, I would start losing cameras to either dead batteries or cards filling up. I dealt with that as best I could between songs, and of course, during intermission. Nevertheless, toward the end of the show I lost one camera permanently and later lost the GoPro as well when it’s short-lived battery died.

I know all this is rather stupid–even amateur, but at least it gives me the opportunity to show what you can do with 3 cameras and 2 cameras.

The following video is comprised of 3 different excerpts from the end of the concert starting with a 3 camera shoot and ending with two different samples of 2 camera shoots.

Post Lip Sync

And finally there’s the matter of syncing a performance to a studio recording.

This is fairly doable if the performer has performed the song many times after having done a studio recording. It’s surprising how close they can be in sync to a studio version while performing a live gig.

The samples you saw above were all multi-track recordings which were subsequently mixed by the band and forwarded on to me. That’s why the sound is so good.

This was their final performance after a year on the road.

I also filmed the first performance, a year earlier, which was not multi-tracked and was so bad a live mix that the singer asked if I could sync their live performance to the studio recording.

Turned out to be not as hard as I thought it would be.

When lining up the studio recording with the live performance we found that there were only three parts of the song that drifted out of sync a few frames. So we synced up the live performance to the three sections that were in sync, and in the three sections where the sync had drifted off a few frames we used a reverse angle to cover the cheat.

That was only a 3 camera shoot: Here’s the result:

3 responses

  1. I have Magic Lantern installed on my Canon. That allows you to record continuously, by automatically restarting after it reaches its limit. You loose about a second on the restart, but you just have to deal with that afterward in syncing. That said, I’ve never had an overheating problem. Frankly I’d much rather not ever have to use a DSLR like that, but I only have two 3 video cameras (and only had two when I did that concert), so sometimes it has to be pressed into service. It really didn’t look that good anyway. Not sure why as I had a 1.8 50mm lens on it which should have been fine at that low light level. I suspect there’s something wrong with that camera. Google ‘magic lantern’ and see if it can be installed on yours. Many people use it. It’s free and a very robust and useful piece of software put out by some benevolent genius.

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  2. excellent stuff. there are two more things (elements) to consider: the talent and experience of the operator (and you make it look sooo easy..). The sample is beautiful, but “classic”. Still beautiful, and still “classic”. the other “thing” (element) is the cropping ability in post, that looks like another camera added to the show. But the most important thing is the front movement (left-right-left-right like an idiot, usually done on rails).That adds a contemporary and dynamic “cool” look (like the teens call it now) to the entire show. No rails? no problem: I use a tripod, a camera on wide and a cheap dolly with AT LEAST 3″ wheels. (kidding, any size will do). for the dolly the most important expensive tool is gaffer’s tape, so you tape the mount of the wheels to go to one direction only (it will go everywhere in the middle of the audience if you don’t tape the rolling things).
    So the lone shooter must stay in front with the dolly, but the other camera on the side will benefit by the fact that nobody will be tempted to zoom. no zoom=good. zoom=not good. The last part is about the lighting, somebody else will do it, and most likely beautifully, so we can pass it as part of our skills .

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  3. Great insight. Question on using DSLRs. How do you overcome their recording limitation? I believe they start to overheat around 15 minutes, and possibly even stop recording once they do? Do you have to stop and start them manually, thereby causing a disruption of the DSLR footage?

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