Performance Videography: Shooting Plays, Dance Recitals and Live Performances

By Stuart Sweetow of Audio Visual Consultants © 2003

Originally published in Camcorder & Computer Video Magazine Camcorder & Computer Home Video Magazine Logo

The local cable TV channel was scheduled to videotape a school chorus, but cancelled the night before. So the school frantically tried to find a videographer and called WEV columnist Ed Wardyga. That was nine years ago and, ever since, they have been a regular client.

Wardyga has been videotaping music, dance and theater performances for colleges, high schools and elementary schools through his Rhode Island-based company called Keepsake Video and KVI Media. When we called Wardyga he had just videotaped “The Vagina Monologues” at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. The school previously had used their in-house AV department but was dissatisfied with the quality of the department’s work. When Wardyga mentioned that he makes DVDs, he got the job. To add value to his service, he brought a VHS deck to make a quick copy for the cast party (that he pre-labels “raw copy” or “proof copy”). The final order was for 25 DVDs and 5 VHS tapes.

Gary Kleiner has presented several seminars at the WEVA EXPO including one on videotaping plays, recitals and performances. Through his own Fort Collins, Colorado company, Mobile Pro Video, Kleiner shoots musicals, ice shows and competitions, ballets, school performances, graduations and other staged events. He often outfits his JVC DV500 camcorder with a 4-inch JVC studio viewfinder and Canon remote lens controls.

Kleiner shoots many of these events with anywhere from one to six cameras depending on the complexity of the performance and the budget he has to work with. He operates one camera, and often runs a second covering a wide shot, all the while directing the other camera operators via wireless headsets. He can check up to four cameras simultaneously on a single monitor using a quad splitter—a unit designed for security applications. Studio editing completes the process, as Kleiner prefers the control of post-production as opposed to live-switching. He uses Sonic Foundry’s Vegas software and finds it perfect for handling multi-camera projects.

In addition to weddings, Racine, Wisconsin’s Jeff Pulera of Digital Vision Productions shoots plays and musicals for public and private schools in his area, as well as recitals for local dance schools. One of his schools has been calling him back seven years in a row.

He and another camera operator shoot with Sony VX-2000 cams placed side by side. One typically keeps all subjects in frame for the wide shot, while the other follows close-up action. Each operator can view the other’s monitor in order to complement the subjects and framing.

Pulera says that stage plays are harder to shoot than dance performances, so he always attends rehearsals to plan shots. For plays, he sometimes frames both cameras for close-ups, shooting TV-style but with editing in mind. “During the actual performance, the camera operators interact in order to effect on-the-fly changes.” In some cases, Pulera uses a third, un-staffed stationary camera to make sure he always has a wide shot that he can cut to if both staffed cameras miss a particular action on stage.

He often works side-by-side shooting performance events with friend and fellow WEVA member Jack Piantino, owner of Creative Edge Video, who Pulera considers a mentor. While both maintain their own video businesses, when they are available, each will run second camera for the other at these events. They have found that being “friendly competitors” includes many benefits, from sharing ideas, referrals and equipment, to honing their skills on the job together.

Live Switching

During single-camera productions, Ed Wardyga views his shot with a 9-inch color monitor mounted on a DJ tripod (See this tip in Wardyga’s column in WEV Vol.7, No.2). He positions the monitor just below eye level so he can see the stage and the monitor at the same time.

While Wardyga knows how to shoot the monologues and most of the plays with a single camera, he records most of the dance recitals with two cams. He says the parents want to see their children’s faces, while the teachers want to see the entire cast’s choreography. So he brings his Panasonic MX 50 (with the Bob Rall modification) to create a horizontal split screen. According to Wardyga, one school hired him specifically because he could offer the two-camera split. He places the close-ups at the top of the screen and the wide shot at the bottom. When he transitions to the split, he sets the MX 50 to create a push rather than a wipe. It gives the effect of sliding up the next image; a standard wipe would cover part of the image.

Wardyga also brings along his Videonics TM 3000 character generator (as part of his custom-built switching console) to add subtitles to each dance number during the live recording.

Gary Kleiner also sets up a horizontal split-screen with his Panasonic AE-5 with close-ups on top, while the bottom stays on a wide shot. While Gary Kleiner does most of his camera “switching” for other types of performances during post-production, he says that this approach is great because it eliminates hours of editing. The parents like it because they can see their children every moment that they are on stage, either in a close-up or in the wide shot.

Audio—Tying into PA and Using Your Own Mikes

Each year when he records the local ballet company’s rendition of The Nutcracker, Kleiner goes all-out with his miking techniques. He sets up five of his mikes in the orchestra: far left, middle-left, far right, middle right, plus one mike for the keyboard and the harp, which sit outside the orchestra pit. But that’s not all. A small chorus in a separate location also gets its own mike, and he uses a another mike in the audience to capture the room ambience and audience reactions. He uses his portable audio mixer for a live mix of the four main orchestra channels and he records the other sources separately to mini-disc and to tape. That way he can have more control of the final mix back at the studio.

When it comes to audio, Ed Wardyga has more than one trick up his sleeve. He can get a feed from the sound board and send it to his camcorder via a wireless transmitter. If that is not possible, he will place his mike near the loudspeaker. If the loudspeaker is far away, he will set up a tall stand and a shotgun mike to get close. If that’s not enough, Wardyga’s favorite method for miking a stage for a play is to get to the theater early and hang his mikes over the lighting grid above the stage.

Asked how he gets the mikes over the stage lighting grid, Wardyga explained that he bought an extending painter’s pole from a hardware store and attached a “V” shaped hook he made from coat hanger wire, to the top. He slips his XLR cable into the V, reaches it over the lighting grid and pulls the cable down. Then he attaches two short shotgun mikes and pulls them back up, just out of site. Wardyga reports that with two mikes aimed to the stage, he gets very good audio. He even has his own PA system he can rent to the facility. Of course he can tap into his PA quite easily.

Wardyga always has an audio backup, so he doesn’t have to rely on a single mike or house sound system to provide audio for his video productions.

Piedmont, California’s Michael Heller produces videos of school performances and community theater through his firm, CTM Productionz. Most of Heller’s productions take place in high school auditoriums, and he quickly grew frustrated with the poor mixes he was getting from the sound boards. So Heller now takes pre-fade feeds from school’s mixer. He purchased a $4000 Roland audio hard drive recorder (Model # 2480), and for a recent performance, recorded 16 discrete tracks that he later mixed into his timeline. The portable recorder includes a mixer, an 80 GB hard drive and a CD recorder. Heller hires a sound engineer to mix on the Roland. Right after a recent performance, Heller played a rough audio mix for his client. “The client said it sounded better on the recording than it did live during the performance,” reports Heller.

To maintain control over the mix, Heller took eight feeds from the body mikes worn by the principal performers. He ran direct cables to his Roland from the individual pre-mix mike outputs of the auditorium sound board. Heller also purchased a 24-channel audio snake to run cables from the stage where he has two PZM boundary mikes on the floor, two shotgun mikes at the stage corners and four mikes for the band (two stereo pairs). He sends the mix from his Roland via an XLR cable to Camera One, positioned close to the Roland. Camera Two, a distance away, gets a wireless feed of Heller’s stage mikes, from different tracks on the Roland. Camera Three uses its onboard mike.

While the Roland was a pricey purchase, Heller justifies the cost, because prior to its purchase he was spending 2/3 of his post-production time on audio. “You save money on the back end,” he says.

Live-switching of performances is tricky, and all the videographers we spoke with “switch” cameras in post-production. Jeff Pulera puts all the camera footage on his NLE timeline and edits in the switches. He inserts title screens during scene changes and edits out the down time, such as when the backstage crews re-set the stage.

Pulera is so busy with post-production that he has three editing systems, often running simultaneously. He has a DPS Velocity, a Canopus DV Storm and a Matrox RT.X100. How does he do this with only him and his part-time editor? Pulera told us that rotation is the key. While one system is capturing footage, they use another for actual editing and the third might be burning DVDs or creating a tape master. That way there is seldom any down time.

His videos start with a three-minute roll-in video montage of footage set to the music the orchestra plays prior to the performance. He goes backstage before the shows to get shots of kids waving at the camera, and he adds CG of the director and producer’s names plus a flying logo of the performance. He says that parents love these roll-ins. “The one time I skipped this, the studio owner insisted it not happen again”, quipped Pulera.

When he shoots dance recitals, Pulera follows the advice he says he learned from a previous WEV article on shooting cheerleader performances. He shoots in a way so that he can create either a horizontal split screen or PIP in post. The top image shows close-ups of the kids head-to-toe, while the bottom is a wide shot of the choreography. He adds a soft, colored edge to match the costume color theme.

Pulera says that for some dances with younger children, as many as 20 of the kids can line up, with little movement. Without the split screen, he would be forced to pan face to face or just show a wide shot where no faces would be recognizable. While teen and adult numbers may use more standard edit techniques, he says the two-cam split is great for the little ones; no parent has ever complained that their child wasn’t covered on the video.

To handle duplication, Pulera has ten VHS Hi-Fi dupe decks fed by a Studio1 distribution amplifier. This season he expects an increase over last year’s average of 20% DVDs. For video covers, Pulera scans the event program cover for artwork. He then does a quick resize, adds some text and prints inserts for his Disney-type, white VHS or DVD albums. It can take him as little as 10-15 minutes to set this up using his pre-made template.

He runs off photocopies in bulk at a copy shop for pennies each, using paper stock—the paper color matches the programs. Though quick and inexpensive, parents are impressed by the “custom” packaging. Veriad labels are his choice for tape labels onto which he will print the logo, date, time and location of the performance.

Wardyga asks the school to email him a copy of the program from where he grabs the show’s graphic. He uses this for both the opening screen (that he pre-records onto his camera master) and for a graphic for the tape and DVD labels. For dance recitals, he sometimes puts Rab Byte dance animation at the head of the tape.

With most of his performance videos, the only post-production is adding tail credits. Wardyga found a timesaving way to scroll credits—without having to type them. He gets the credits as a Word file (emailed or on disc) and imports the file into Canopus Storm Edit. Then he highlights the text, copies it, pastes it into the titling palette and selects the Moving Up title animation. Asked how he learned this technique, Wardyga replied, “I just tried it.”

Production Tips

Wardyga protects his company from liability by stating on his contract that the client is responsible for obtaining all rights. The arrangement he has with the schools is that they are contracting with him to produce a work for hire. The schools control the sales and who buys the tapes and discs. The schools contract with a company from whom they buy the rights to use music or a play. If that contract does not prohibit them from recording the show, there probably is no problem. In essence, they are recording the program for student critique, arguably within the fair use doctrine of copyright law.

Over the years Kleiner has learned how important a good camera position is. Most theatres are not designed with videography in mind and rarely afford good vantage points from which to shoot. He recommends that if you are shooting in an auditorium with steeply tiered stadium seating, you should avoid shooting from the back. In this situation the steep angle down to the stage makes for an awkward and unflattering view of the production. Kleiner often makes arrangements with the theatre to block off whatever seating is necessary to assure good camera positioning, with minimal annoyance to members of the audience. This has to be planned well in advance, even before tickets to the event become available.

To avoid distraction to audience members behind his shooting area, Kleiner tilts his camera viewfinder down. When an external monitor is used, the viewfinder becomes unnecessary.

If the show has several performances and you have a choice of which one to record, Kleiner suggests you avoid shooting the final performance. Unlike weddings, when shooting performances that will be repeated, if there is a problem, you can always return the next evening and shoot again.

If he is not familiar with the facility, Kleiner will attend a rehearsal. It gets him acquainted with the lighting and audio setup. It also gives him an opportunity to meet with the techies there. “Always make friends with the sound person,” suggests Kleiner. Also, to be completely prepared, he recommends that you meet briefly with the director to find out if there are any scenes that involve performers off the stage, such as a scene where a character might speak from the audience. “You want to avoid surprises.”

The great thing about this kind of work says Kleiner, is that you can pick up more and more annual or semi-annual productions, and after a few years your calendar will be filled with steady clients. Often, contracts for the following year’s event are signed right after the delivery of the current production.

16mm Film for Staging Musical

One of Michael Heller’s clients, a children’s theater company, wanted to project some pre-shot video images behind the actors during the performance. The show would run over four weekends, and Heller realized that if the company rented a video projector it would be very costly. He offered to transfer the edited video footage into 16mm film, and the company’s director purchased a used 16mm projector for $35.

Heller shot two interiors and one exterior scene with his Canon XL-1 camcorder, shooting in Frame Mode. One scene showed an overgrown lawn with a futile attempt to mow the grass. Heller found a grassy property owned by Del Monte foods and asked for permission to shoot there. One of the interior shots included a frustrated wife burning dinner and opening an oven with smoke billowing out (from a fog machine). In post-production, Heller gave the scenes a 1950’s musical film-look using an Iris Fade effect and darkened edges. Then he put the three one-minute clips together and sent the video to a lab in Burbank California. The lab transferred the three-minute video to 16mm film for about $1500. “I found prices for video-to-16mm conversion all over the place,” said Heller. “Several labs had higher fees, but the lab I found had good experience with 16mm transfers and a reasonable price.”

During the performance when a scene would start that required a projected image, a technician seated next to the projector in the front row started it on cue. “The ticking sound of the projector in the auditorium added a realistic feel to the performance,” said Heller.

The movie film effect helped transport the audience to simpler, care-free days, perhaps in a similar way as did the movie industry during the Great Depression. Despite rabid unemployment and breadlines, audiences flocked to the movies to escape their woes. There seems to be no shortage of school performances and community theater. These are venues that parents and neighbors flock to, and, performance videography may be an area of growth.

If he had to choose between performance videography and weddings, WEVA seminar speaker Gary Kleiner, who has plenty of experience videotaping both, said, “you lose less sleep shooting performances than you do shooting weddings.”

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