The last two posts covered the equipment and crew that it takes to run a successful IMAG show. Now we’re gonna wrap it all up by talking about how to take your gear and your crew and run your show well.
Part 3: The Technique
We’re mainly going to be talking about technique from a directing standpoint, but you’ll see some snippets about good camera work thrown in as well. All of the other positions definitely contribute, but if they’re doing their job well then you won’t really notice them; the director’s and the camera operators’ work is the most visible. We’re also going to be specifically covering IMAG for music performances. The talking parts definitely fall under IMAG coverage as well, but they tend not to be as interesting as covering music, so we’ll stick with what’s exciting.
To start with, here’s three basic tips for directors:
- Always be teaching. Cussing a camera operator out isn’t going to make them work much better. Telling them how they can improve what they’re doing will let them know expectations and how they can tweak what they’re doing to meet those expectations.
- Keep your eye on your cameras, but don’t forget about what’s on Program. Train yourself to follow the tally light/box on your screen so you don’t have to look away from your sources but still know what’s on air.
- Have a plan and stay at least two shots ahead so you don’t get stuck. There’s a lot you have to keep in mind when directing, so setting flexible rules, ratios, and patterns are a good way to keep up with everything.
When I’m directing, I try to follow a basic set of flexible rules (I say flexible because there’s always instances when you’ll need to break them). Some of my rules are:
- Avoid going between two cameras with similar or identical compositions. If you cut between them it looks like a jump-cut. If you dissolve between them it looks like one person is morphing into another.
- Opposing or contrasting compositions are ideal between shots, even when you’re cutting instead of dissolving. If your subject is on the right of the screen, have your next camera put them on the left (or vice-versa).
- Don’t use only one type of transition in a song; mix it up. Far too often, directors lean on dissolves as a crutch. Fast songs have their slow moments and slow songs have their faster/more powerful moments. Adjust transitions accordingly.
- When cutting on a slow song, cut with the kick drum. The extra percussion helps it feel natural.
- Wide shots tend to bring energy, close-ups bring intimacy – Use appropriately.
- Keep the movement going. Static shots are boring. I always try to have my cameras constantly pushing, pulling, panning, tilting, or doing some other movement.
- Movement should ideally start before the shot is on air.
- Avoid constant repetition. Being consistent is good. Being repetitive is boring. Don’t follow the same pattern over and over (more on that below). Don’t only cut on the beat. Don’t use only one transition. Contrast creates energy; use this to your advantage to bring focus to specific moments.
- If you want something specific, tell you camera operators what you expect before they are on air. A good camera op can adjust to whatever you ask, but set them up for success ahead of time.
Remember what IMAG is for: letting people far away from the stage see what’s going on. With that in mind, you have to be aware of how often you show the different subjects and who you focus on at what time. My general coverage ratio for directing is: be on vocalists about 55%–60% of the time and instruments about 40%–45% of the time. When you have background vocalists, this might translate to 40% lead vocalist, 20% background vocalists, and 40% instruments. These ratios are a general guide, so you use the different verses, choruses, instrumental turns (the short instrumental part between verses and choruses – usually just a measure or two long), and solos to even out to this ratio over the course of the song.
Following a pattern is a good thing. For a director, it lets you know what you should be looking for next, so that you can stay ahead of the game. One of the worst feelings as a director is being stuck with either nowhere to go because you didn’t set up your shots beyond what you needed in the “now”, or unsure of where to go next because you don’t know/forgot what you were planning. I mentioned above that repetition isn’t really a good thing, so the patterns you plan need to be loose. Pick specific moments when you know certain shots need to be on screen or a certain sequence of shots needs to begin. Between these moments and sequences, have an idea of what you want but give your operators room to breathe.
Of note: When you get to major concerts, tours, and award shows with multiple rehearsals and/or the same show over and over, you can plan things out ahead of time, give each camera operator a shot list and basically run it off a script. This technique works great for one-off shows where you’re allowed little rehearsal (when I worked at my previous job, the songs changed every week and I only got to hear them once or twice before the show. I also directed cameras for several concerts that use our building as venue and requested that we provide IMAG coverage for them; in those cases I didn’t get any rehearsal at all!).
So, here’s how my loose pattern typically comes together:
- Lead vocalist at the beginning of verses and choruses, even if it’s just for a short amount of time.
- Lead or background vocalist at the end of roughly half of the verses/choruses.
- Instruments during the “turns” between singing, usually about 75% of the time.
- On a longer verse, the first two or three lines should focus on vocalists with just one or two instruments thrown in, then the next two or three reverse that with mostly instruments with a few vocalist shots at key moments.
- Drums are great during breakdowns (Actually, drums are great pretty much all the time – they have big movements so they’re always interesting to see).
Another pattern element to consider (besides subject) is composition: * Wide shots at turns occasionally, specifically when there’s a mood shift coming up. * Wide shots at either the beginning or end of a song. * Avoid going from a one-shot to a one-shot or a two-shot to a two-shot, etc. unless the composition is dramatically different. I’ll usually try something like: Medium one-shot, wide two-shot, close-up one-shot, wide one-shot, medium two-shot, close-up one-shot, etc.
A Few Notes for Camera Operators
- Rehearse your shots for the director. Do your movement over and over so that the director knows what you’re planing until the director says he likes the shot so get ready, or until he says he wants something different.
- React quickly. Don’t wait for the director to tell you what to do. Be proactive. Find shots. See what you can do that’s interesting. He’ll let you know if he needs something specific; otherwise it’s up to you.
- Don’t put your director into a bad position, specifically by “ending” a shot before he’s ready. Don’t pan your subject off screen or push past them or defocus – even if it looks awesome – unless your director has called for it or knows it’s going to happen. Otherwise you force him to go to a new shot, which he may not be ready to do yet. The director should be in control; don’t take that away from him. If you want to do something like that, rehearse it beforehand so the director knows what you’re planing and can have the next shot ready.
- On the flip side, setting up good shot “intros” is something that a lot of directors (but not all) appreciate.
- Be creative. Find new angles or compositions. Try new movements if you have the time. The director will tell you what he does and doesn’t like.
- Have the basics down, then get fancy. It doesn’t matter how cool a move is or how awesome that angle is if you can’t hold it steady or it’s too dark. Steadiness, focus, exposure and basic composition come first. If you’ve met those criteria, then you can get creative.
Seeing it in Action
We’re going to look at two examples. The first is going to be a behind the scenes recording of me directing the worship portion of a service last year at my previous job at a large church in North Carolina. You’ll be able to see exactly what I was looking at as far as what my camera operators were doing, and you’ll be able to hear me direct them over the intercom. In the second example, we’ll see the techniques taken to a whole new level by watching a line-cut of Muse at the iTunes Festival last year. You won’t be able to hear the director, but the shots and directing are pitch-perfect for the show, so it’ll be a good exercise in what to strive for. The first song on each video will work well for a quick look, but definitely keep watching to see how the directing style and patterns change with the mood of the songs. Keep in mind what has been mentioned already and see if you can spot how it plays out in these videos.
Just a reminder at what you’ll be looking at, the top two boxes on the multiviewer are Preview (PV) and Program (PGM). Preview is what’s coming up next and will be put on air when the the Cut/Take or Auto-Trans buttons are pressed. Program is what’s currently live or on air. Below Program and Preview on this multiviewer are the sources. This particular setup had 2 stick cameras (Cam 1 & 2), 3 handheld roving cameras (Cam 3, 4, & 5), and 2 Graphics computers (GFX 1 & 2). You can ignore the source labeled “East Cam”. I overrode this source to record the multiviewer for this video.
As you can probably tell, the Muse team is unbelievably good. The shots and directing are almost flawless from a technical standpoint, and pretty much pitch perfect for each song. I’ve been doing IMAG for a long time (8+ years directing and 12+ years running live handheld camera), but that show still blows me away with it’s precision. Still, hopefully seeing behind the scenes and being able to see all the cameras at once and hear a director in action give you some ideas on how it’s all done.