Instead, I want to focus on some unsung heroes of multi-camera television production – the camera operators. Have you seen the documentary, 20 FEET FROM STARDOM? If not, WHY? It’s great and even won an Academy Award. The subject was backup singers. You learned how utterly amazing these background invisible performers are. Such is the case with TV camera operators. If their names even appear in the closing credits (and I’m not sure they do) they go by so fast and there are so many names on the same card that you can’t even hit pause fast enough on your remote to freeze their names to where they’re legible.
|Me and the kid taking a curtain call|
The director has to figure out who goes where when, but that’s for another post.
For many years each camera was a three-man operation. Shows were shot on 35 mm film and you needed a trio to schlep around those large camera mounts. As each camera was given a mark a piece of tape was set on the floor. After a half hour show had been blocked the floor looked like the remnants of a ticker-tape parade. But now, with HD cameras that are way lighter and Hollywood always looking to save money, that three-man crew has been reduced to one. No more marks. The camera operator has no time to glance down at the floor. So now he must swing the camera around himself and get all of his shots, guided only by some quick notes he’s jotted down.
Here's the process: The camera operator sees a scene once, then is given his shot list, then does it once, maybe twice with the stand ins, and once maybe twice with the cast (the “reallys” as they are called). Some fine tuning then the show is shot. Not a lot of rehearsal time for a super complicated process.
And yet, by show night, he (or she) is ready to go and damn near flawless.
Here are the kinds of assignments they’re given:
“When Tia crosses left, let her out, drop down and give me Michael over Trey.”
“Set for Sydney’s entrance. Bring her to a master. Land her, give me a beat then get a two-shot right.”
“When Sheryl says ‘did anyone see my shoe’ kick right and give me a single of Tia. And then when Michael says ‘I’ve had enough of this’ swing right back and give me Trey. It’ll be a quick move.”
“When the Coco Puffs start flying go to the door.” (Yes, I gave a Coco Puff cue this week.)
Depending on the shot the operator might have to move to his next precise mark or change lens, or both. And sometimes there may be three or four scenes that take place in the same location (like the kitchen). Different blocking, different cast members, and yet they still have to keep everything straight.
One of the camera operators on INSTANT MOM this week didn’t even take notes. He just kept it in his head. I was confused and I was giving him the notes, which were carefully written out on my script.
And during the actual taping, actors might be off their marks from time to time. A good camera operator will adjust to get the shot he wants and not wind up with the back of a head blocking the person who’s speaking.
When taping night comes, if you ever attend one, it looks like a well-oiled machine. Cameras are gliding around, every shot is falling effortlessly into place. Anytime you need a reaction shot it’s there. The scene is never interrupted by two cameras crashing into each other. You’d think everyone had two weeks to rehearse this. The camera operators had maybe twenty minutes a scene.
A quick shout-out to the actors too. At the last minute we will often ask them to turn a little one way or another (to “cheat out”) or step back a half a step to allow us a better shot. They have to incorporate these tiny technical instructions in with their performances. I don’t know how they do it. I’d be glancing down every two seconds for my mark.
So the next time you watch a multi-camera episode, take note of all the camera angles, and just try to imagine what’s going on down on the floor as these four guys are constantly scrambling – swinging cameras around, setting sizes, adjusting shots. It’s truly amazing to watch. These ladies and gentlemen have my undying respect and gratitude.
I’d suggest making a documentary like 20 FEET FROM STARDOM but all these guys would rather be behind the camera shooting it.