Television Production Handbook 
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©1980-2009 Roger Inman & Greg Smith. All rights reserved.

Theatrical Recording

Some of the most challenging recording situations often occur in theatrical settings. If you find yourself recording a play, a dance, or a concert on stage you are probably more a guest than an active participant in the event. Most of the potential problems you will have are the result of loss of control this guest status carries with it. You will not be able to direct any of the participants. Your available camera locations will be restricted. You will have no control over the lighting. Audio recording will be challenging. You will not be able to tell the participants when to start or when to break for a tape change. You will not have a “take two.” And your right to record the performance at all may be tenuous. Still, you can produce a good result.

Before you agree to record any performance you need to understand one fact. Almost everything that happens on a public stage, from a kindergarten Christmas program to a college dance concert, will have major elements that are copyrighted. Further, every person you see or hear controls your right to use his image, voice, or musical performance.  If you are dealing with a play, the author or copyright holder will be very reluctant to give you any rights at all just in case a commercial producer might decide to make a motion picture or television program based on the work. In the case of dance or music concerts the choreography and the music will all be copyrighted, so you will need permission to use all of it. In addition, each person who makes a contribution to the performance has rights to his image and work product. You will need a talent release from each of them. As you can see, you will probably not have the right to make and distribute recordings of the performance to the general public. Instead, distribution of your recording will be restricted to people directly involved in the performance and then only for educational purposes. Make sure anyone hiring you to record a performance is aware of the “educational use” provisions of the copyright law and then ask the people in charge of the performance to determine how many copies are to be made and ask them to do the distribution themselves. It is probably within the bounds of fair use to make a single recording of an event including copyrighted material if the recording is made by or on behalf of those in charge of the performance and the video will be used for educational purposes involving participants in the recording.  It is not clear whether any copies can be made under "fair use."  You don't want to be involved in selling tapes, CD's, or DVD's to anyone since it is a common but risky practice to extend the educational exception to parents, grandparents and who knows who else. Let the producing organization deal with it.

Some organizations will not allow any recordings of public performances. Period. But most will allow recordings of the “open dress” rehearsal - the last rehearsal before the public is admitted. While the ambiance will be better with an audience present, camera placement will be restricted, usually to the back of the theater or the balcony. If you can choose your camera position, place one camera just far enough away from the stage to see both side curtains with the camera zoomed all the way out. Avoid balconies that offer an extreme high angle view of the stage.

Theatrical lighting directors are interested in achieving dramatic effects. Your basic 30:1 contrast range is of no interest to them. Since they don't have to worry about the limitations of film or video, they can light directly for the human eye, which has a practical contrast range of around 1000:1. Your camera doesn't stand a chance. Even if they have enough lights to bring the entire stage up to a hundred foot candles they may like a darker look. In many theaters and auditoriums the stage is too shallow front to back to light people properly. Lighting angles often are just too steep. Levels can change drastically from one scene to the next or within a scene, as light is used to establish or change the mood.

Set designers can also work against you with dark, poorly lit backgrounds. Often there are extremely bright and dark backdrops in the same scene. Your camera's automatic aperture and automatic gain controls are going to do some strange things as you pan across the set.

Auto focus systems don't work well in low light. They don't work at all in the dark. Most theatrical productions go to black between scenes. As the lights come up your autofocus is going to go out until it has enough light to work properly. Even then an averaging system will focus on the background, letting the people in the foreground go out of focus. More sophisticated auto focus systems can lock onto foreground objects and people if they are near the center of the screen. Zoomed out, your camera should have plenty of depth of field to keep everything in apparent focus. If you zoom in for tighter shots you might want to have your camera set to manual focus and pre-focussed half way between the front and back of the stage.

Back to your battle with the lighting director: You probably shouldn't be using the auto aperture and auto gain at all. Your primary interest is the people on the stage. They will generally be lit brighter than the background and the AGC and auto aperture will not be able to adjust, since the average brightness of the scene will be much lower than the average brightness of the people. If at all possible you should limit the action of the automatic gain control and control the aperture manually. It is important to keep the brightest parts of your picture (usually the people on stange) from going above 100 IRE units, or clipping. Especially in the digital world there is nothing above one hundred per cent. If a face is washed out and white when you record it there is nothing you can do to make it better. Turn the gain control off or limit it to 6 dB or so. Then go to manual iris so you can avoid clipping the faces and other bright parts of the picture.

Ideally you would use a waveform monitor to make sure the camera is properly adjusted for each lighting situation. There are two alternatives to the actual waveform monitor. If you have an IEEE 1394 (“firewire”) output you can use software on your computer to record directly to your hard drive and to show you the waveform. The second alternative is a function found on many cameras generally called “zebra bars.” When turned on they show diagonal bars on parts of the scene that have specific brightness levels. Some can be set for 85% video (ideal for faces) or 100% video to avoid “clipping” of the brightest parts of the picture. Some cameras can show you a “histogram,” which is a display showing the range of brightness levels in the picture, but is not nearly as detailed or precise as the display on a waveform monitor. Use what you have to get the best picture you can. Of course, during the performance you are probably more interested in keeping the action framed well than adjusting aperture or gain on the fly.

Just when you thought you had dealt with all of the lighting and scenery issues a bright bluish disk begins to travel across the set and wash out the most important people on stage. This is the spotlight. While almost all theatrical lights are quartz-halogen with a color temperature of 3200 degrees kelvin, spotlights are carbon arc lamps with a color temperature closer to 5000 degrees. There is little you can do other than to stop down your lens to compensate.

There are three or four ways to deal with sound recording during a live performance. The most sophisticated and expensive is to use transmitter mics on the performers, with diversity receivers tied into a mixing console, which is in turn plugged into your camera. Next is a wired system with mics strategically placed to pick up sound from the stage. You can use dozens of microphones with a mixing console or you can use two mics in front of and above the stage. Two because you probably have two mic inputs and two audio channels if you are recording in the DV (MiniDV tape), Hi-8, or S-VHS formats or directly to hard drive. Usually the mics are placed ten feet apart, more or less, to simulate the distance between speakers in a typical home stereo environment. Of course, the speakers on television sets are not ten feet apart. The speakers in headphones are only inches apart. But we still put the microphones ten feet or so apart. You could use a stereo microphone if you have one. Stereo microphones use two directional microphones aimed to either side of the center line to simulate the stereo effect.

You can trust the acoustics of the hall. Theater design is a special branch of architecture and good theaters can have amazing acoustics. Ideally you should be able to hang a microphone in the center of the audience seating and pick up even the softest sound on stage. Again, by hanging two microphones you can achieve a stereo effect.

Use other people's sound. Most theaters have sound reinforcing systems. Often the music used will be prerecorded, combined with live mics (transmitter mics for performers or fixed wired mics suspended in front of the stage) in a mixing console, then sent to speakers in the hall. It may be desirable to get an audio feed from the mixing console because the feed will not be effected by reverberation and audience noise. The output is mixed, though, to sound good over the theater's speakers, and is not really intended for recording. If you want to use the feed, first make sure the mixing console can output a standard feed. Standard is balanced line level, using an XLR connector. Because your feed is the last thing in the world the audio operator is worried about you may find the level erratic or too low or too high. Because the mixer output you want to use and the lines that carry it are not often used or maintained you might find a hum or interference on the line. No one is going to troubleshoot it for you. No one has time. Even if you plan to use the feed from the mixer, which is generally a monaural signal, it is good practice and common sense to record from your own live mic as well, whether it is camera-mounted or at a remote location in the house. The combination of the two will give you a choice and even if you go with the house feed you will need to mix in your own audience reaction and applause.

In recording live events you need to consider the length of the event and the maximum record time on your tape or disk.  In addition, you need to know if there are any arbitrary limits to your disk recordings.  With videotape you know that you will have to change tapes every two hours for VHS 120 tapes recording in SP, or every hour for HDV or MiniDV tapes recorded in SP.  It is not a good idea to use slower tape speeds.  Find out how long each portion of the performance should last and whether intermissions or pauses will be available to you.  Plan accordingly.  Recording directly to a hard drive sounds attractive,  with four of five hours of recording time available.  However, some recorders create a new file approximately every four gigabytes (roughly sixteen minutes) to make sure each file will fit on a DVD.  There may be ugly discontinuities between files, spoiling your recording.  Dual recording to tape and hard drive is probably the best policy.

Electrical power is another consideration.  You should have batteries with sufficient capacity to record an entire performance several times over.  To be safe, though, you should consider using your power supply if there is an outlet available to you.

There are a lot of reasons not to record school concerts and plays, but it can be done legally and well if you keep your wits about you and plan properly.  Good luck.