Directing Live Video

This year and last I’ve been doing a fair amount of live video, particularly for church youth services. The technology is particularly accessible now days, with cheaper HD video switchers such as the ATEM and HD cameras being readily available. It’s fairly easy to get ahold of enough gear to do a three camera shoot, overlay it with graphics, project it onto a screen, and even stream it online.

However, while the gear is easily accessible the skill takes time to develop. While I don’t pretend to be an expert, here are some the lessons I’ve leant while practicing this craft.

Know your Gear Well

If you are directing a team of people and have your own technical director to look after all of the buttons, this might not apply to you. But for the rest of us, it is vital you understand how the equipment works, it’s limitations, and any “gotchas” that may apply to it. Going into a show without knowing how a system connects together is adding another element of surprise you don’t need.

Make sure you read through the manual, read through online forums, practice hitting all of the buttons, and learn your way through the manual ahead of time. Video gear is arguably more fussy than a lot of audio and lighting gear (in terms of accepted formats, etc) and is not for the weak of heart. Make sure you know what formats your switcher accepts, just in case you need to patch something else in during the show (a laptop, for example). Make sure you know how the keying is setup. Make sure you understand the layout of the cameras.

Be prepared for anything, basically.

Always be on comms

Every camera operator should have a headset so you can instruct them all evening. You should never simply let your ops go and do their own thing, because they can’t see the big picture like you can. You can see the picture from every camera, know what is coming up, and (hopefully) know how you need to shoot it. Camera Ops need to be told where to go and when, as well as when they are actually on screen.

It is suggested you work out your vocabulary ahead of time, make sure everyone knows what it is, and practice it. Words such as “Ready, Take, Tighten up and Hold” should be second nature to you and your crew. ChurchIMAG.org has a good list of suggested terminology for live video.

Generally a “party line” system such as those from Jands or Clear Com will be suitable. There are plenty of hire companies around who can get you a few belt packs, headsets and a master unit for a hundred bucks or so for a day. It’s worth the investment. You can also sometimes get away with cheaper 2 way radio style units you buy from the local electronics store, but the main letdown with these is the headset – remember it can get loud inside a venue and you can’t risk a communications breakdown.

Avoid having a “fallback position” or safety shots

It is very tempting to have a camera “locked off” on a wide shot of the stage. This is what is referred to a “fallback position” or “safety shot”. A lot of people I know do this, and even recommend it to others. However, this is something I am very conscious about and actually try to avoid. Why? Because you will find yourself constantly going back to this shot instead of working your camera operators and getting better shots out of them. When you keep cutting back to that same wide shot, the audience notices it and gets bored.

When you watch a TV show or live concert, does the director always cut back to a wide shot? No. Neither should you. Not having the option forces you to avoid this.

The other thing is this: try and get closer shots, and cut between cameras more often. If you have a couple of reasonable operators and you as the director are on the ball, you can create the illusion of a much bigger space than you actually have, plus you will keep it exciting for those who are watching.

Know your Purpose and Audience

Who is your audience? Is your video feed enhancing the experience of the audience at the live venue, or is it for people who can’t be in that same room (such as overflow rooms, web streams, TV broadcasts, multi-campus services, etc)? Your audience will greatly affect what types of shots you pick, how long they stay up and when you use them.

If you are feeding a big screen for those at the venue, then you would almost exclusively be showing close up shots. Wide angle shots, crowd shots, and the like won’t assist those at the back of the hall see what is actually happening on stage.

If your video feed is going outside of the venue, this is when you need to start introducing those wider shots so people can get a sense of the atmosphere in the venue without being there.

What happens if your video feed is going both places? This is when you need to get super deliberate about what you show and when. Try and use your establishing shots at the beginning of a segment and then go into the close ups for the rest of it. If there is a pause in the action on stage (perhaps for a musical interlude or a laugh to the speaker’s very funny joke) then you can use those opportunities to go back to a wider shot to re-establish it.

Get Along with the Lighting Guy

Poor lighting can ruin an otherwise decent video setup. Cameras are very fussy about light levels, and don’t see light the same way we see it. To make it harder, concert lighting is almost always too dim and inconsistent to look reasonable on video.

Make sure you chat with your lighting guy before the event, and see if he can add extra wash light to the stage to make sure everything can be seen. If you are planning wider shots or crowd shots then consider lighting on the audience too (some LEDs at the back of the hall can look really good on camera – and in real life too).

Also pay close attention to the colour temperature of the fixtures. Try and keep them the same, particularly for the wash.

Also, make sure you white balance all of your cameras once the lighting rig is in place and running at the levels they will be run it during the event. This will ensure your cameras are properly matched to the lighting conditions. If you are working outdoors, you may need to do it several times throughout the day and night as the sun moves.

Get the Broadcast Technology Newsletter

Sign up for the email newsletter about media and technology. Sent irregularly. No spam.

I'm Anthony Eden, and I'm a IT Professional, Broadcast Technician, Software Developer, and Solutions Engineer. I've been working in broadcast media since 2008, and developing software and websites for just as long. Right now, I provide freelance services through Media Realm - in particular, to the media and not-for-profit industries.

Follow Anthony on Twitter: @anthony_eden