Take The Stage | The Camera Never Lies

By Ian Kendall - Tuesday, May 28, 2019

OK, let’s talk about video cameras, both on and off stage.

There are two main reasons why you might have a camera on stage; either you are recording the show, or the show is being projected onto screens for the audience to see. Both have major things to consider, but let’s talk about using the camera and projector setup first.

Let’s imagine a scene; you are about to perform a close up set on stage. You have a table, a helper and a camera. These days it’s easy to use a GoPro or similar; HD cameras are laughingly cheap, and it’s even possible to use a phone once you set up the required software. The first thing to consider is the placement of the camera; it needs to be as unobtrusive as possible, but also give a good view of what is going on. I’ve seen both a tripod and camera, and a small rod at the corner of the table on which the cam is mounted. The tripod option has the advantage of being portable; your camera operator can bring it on as needed, and frame the shot, but they will be a large distraction on the stage. The small camera set up is far less obvious, but you lose the ability to frame the picture. Also, it’s a one man operation, which may be a factor. On many ships, when this becomes a factor, there is a ceiling mounted camera which might even be controllable. More about that in a bit.

When you start working with a camera, it’s important to know the limits of your frame. When you are rehearsing, set everything up as it is going to be on the stage. Looking at your monitor, mark out on your table where the edges of the picture are. Use masking tape to box off a safe work area, and then practice over and over again to make sure that you don’t stray out of this box. If you drift out of frame, the audience will have nothing to look at, and that leads us to the second problem…

…and that’s where to put your screens (if you have a choice, that is). For most large stages that have something built in, it will likely be at the back of the stage, or either side. If it’s not built in you have more options for yourself; you can place a free standing screen almost anywhere. All of these situations suffer from the same problem; your audience is faced with watching you, to get your expressions and interactions with your helper, or watching the screen to see what’s going on. This often leads to a tennis like head action, where the attention is split between what’s on stage, and essentially watching a TV show. To that end, we can get a better idea of where best to place the screen; if the audience is mostly in front of you, their field of view will be to you on the stage, and then to the back of the stage. In this case, the screens on either side of the stage will give the largest tennis action. The best place to put the screen is just over your shoulder, and above you (so you are not blocking the screen from the other side of the audience). That way the audience can see you, and the screen, in the same frame, and that’s a good thing.??Personally, I would suggest not doing close up on stage, which would alleviate many of these problems, but they had to be mentioned…

The second reason you might be using camera is either to record the show, or that the show is being projected in its entirety (and not just the unnecessary close up segment…) I was recently on a ship where the lounge was very long, and flat. There were eight TV screens along each wall, and from halfway back, the guests just sat around the TVs as if they were in a living room. There wasn’t much I could do about that, but one thing did become very apparent; if you are having your show recorded, make sure that the camera operator knows what is going to happen. At the bare minimum, talk through the show with them, explaining what happens in each routine, and discuss whether you want a tight or a wide shot. Few of the operators will be magicians, and they are likely be zooming in and out at random moments, looking for the best shot. Make sure they know ahead of time what the best shot is going to be. If you are getting the show recorded, say for a show reel or similar, ask the camera operators to come to the show before, so they know what to expect. Then, when you are planning the shots, they will understand better your reasons for not wanting a tight shot at a particular time. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve paid for a video to be taken, and it’s turned out to be mostly useless. Ok, it’s four.

Final point about cameras; where possible, video as many of your shows as you can. Check with the venue beforehand, but if you explain that it’s just for your reference, you should be fine; I’ve never been refused. It doesn’t have to be a carefully placed frame, but it’s extremely useful to have a record of the show. We’ll talk about why next time.

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