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    Two-Camera Narrative Shooting: A Survival Guide
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    In the ideal world of most DP’s, shooting narrative with a single camera ensures that every shot can be optimized for a single viewpoint. The alignment of the lens, the actors and the background is precise and the lighting is tailored to the frame. However, it is quite common for a director or producer to suggest working with two or more cameras for efficiency’s sake. Ironically, if the team is not used to working in this fashion it can actually become LESS efficient, or worse yet, the compromises therein can multiply to the point where the final product is hurt by the results. Thus it behooves every DP to be able to tackle the challenge of lining up and lighting for more than one camera when required, and just as importantly, to understand when this request should be challenged and be able to eloquently state your case.

    While it is a common-sense notion that effects, stunts and limited-take gags are best served by using multiple cameras (I recently shot an exploding car on two Alexas at 120 fps, two 7D’s and three GoPro’s at 60 fps), it’s relatively rare to shoot dialogue scenes with more than two cameras. What follows then is is a rudimentary breakdown of a typical approach to working in a two-camera environment in regards to both camera placement and lighting, based on techniques I learned and expanded on from the past two decades spent working on episodic television and studio features. It should be noted that these are guidelines, not rules; certain projects may require a completely different game plan, in which all of the below is simply tossed out the window. This is why we love filmmaking...


    CAMERA

    As always, the process begins with breaking down a scene into coverage with the director. At this time the basic blocking and camera placement for each shot will be roughed into place. This includes determining the “line” (aka 180-degree rule), and how much of the space will be seen on camera, which starts to form parameters for how one will approach the lighting. Often this is dictated by the location but can also be creatively based, if for example a classroom has windows along one side but is otherwise symmetrical, depending on the desired look one may opt to master the scene either facing the windows or with the windows behind camera. Unless the director has a specific opinion on this, it’s up to the DP to make that call, and there may be some practical factors to consider such as balancing the interior levels against the exterior, color temperature matching and so on.This is also the time to factor in whether the director has a preference to cross-shoot coverage, i.e. two people facing each other with one camera over each shoulder. Ideally, this process will happen between the location scout and the shoot so that decisions can be hashed out without time pressure. If one has a tough time visualizing all of the possible angles from a simple shot list, an app like Shot Designer can aid in generating diagrams.

    Once the shotlist is built you can proceed to shuffle it into a shooting order. In the instance of working with two cameras you can now start pairing setups together. A standard methodology is to start with the wide master. Assuming we are following that plan, our next challenge is to decide what to do with the other camera. It's best to avoid the temptation to immediately start mowing down closeups with B camera for a number of reasons. You may want to sweeten the lighting once the master is done, plus your colleague the sound mixer will be very appreciative if you don't shoot a wide master against a closeup (when referring to two-camera coverage, “against” means at the same time), because they may not be able to get the boom close enough to the actors and thus the presence of the closeup track will be compromised. So, look for an alternate wide shot to shoot against the master, clean up reaction shots where dialogue is not an issue, or simply sit that camera out for the first setup.

    I like to maintain the classic mentality of A camera as the primary, wide perspective and B camera on a longer focal length (if for instance you are using still lenses, perhaps you put the 24-70 on A and the 70-200 on B). This doesn’t make A more important than B, it just maintains consistency and logic to your shoot. I’ve been in many scenarios where this wisdom is eschewed in favor of the egalitarian system of “red and blue” camera but that can on occasion lead to a chasing-the-tail scenario, such as the following:

    You've designed and set up a beautiful master on A camera with a dolly or slider move and everything in the frame is dialed in just so. Meanwhile, your B camera op is a few feet away setting up a longer lens version of the scene. The director looks at both of the shots, then says “the eyeline is too wide on B, I need a tighter eyeline on the closeup” or “I don’t want to see into that doorway, move B over” So the B camera dutifully moves per instruction, you start rolling and halfway through the take A camera slides into B’s frame. “WTF!?? Cut”! yells the director. “Why is there a camera in the shot?!” So now you move the A camera out of the way of B and do another take, but whaddya know, everything you originally set up for A camera is compromised: a previously hidden light is revealed, the eyelines are wide, the AC's focus marks are no good, you’ve crossed the line and so on. Now you start fixing things for the new position for A, and then B camera notices stuff moving into their shot...and on it goes. Before you know it, you've wasted more time than if you had shot with a single camera.

    The solution is that to observe a hierarchy. The time honored setup is that the A camera is the master camera and should be placed first, and B camera must work around it. Don’t start making radical changes to the A shot to accommodate B, or it becomes a house of cards as above. Key to this working is that both operators must be aware of the objectives of both cameras, so that they can ensure that any tweaks will not negatively affect the other. Onboard monitors make this easy, you can glance at the other camera’s shot and learn their framing. Communication is very important. Talk to each other, be a team.

    When this doesn't happen, you may experience something like the following: the B camera operator decides that a prop (say, a lamp on a desk), is in a bad place for his composition and he just goes ahead and moves it in between takes without telling anyone. Meanwhile the A camera operator is blissfully unaware (posting his umpteenth selfie sitting behind the camera), so in the middle of the next take he discovers a lamp now blocking the actor’s face. The B op SHOULD have asked the A op “I’d like to move that lamp to the left, will that be cool?” Then the A op can evaluate and hopefully come up with a solution that will work for both, i.e. “how about if we just push it upstage” (AKA away from camera) which results in it staying roughly in the same place in the frame for A camera but due to the difference in perspective, it will appear to the left in the B camera’s shot as desired. And everyone wins. Conversely, even with this hierarchy in place the A operator should be aware of the B shot and give it the same respect when making changes. An operator should always be thinking: how will this affect BOTH cameras, not just the one I’m operating?

    (continued below)
    Last edited by CharlesPapert; 01-21-2015 at 10:06 AM.
    Charles Papert
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    After the master shot is buttoned up, coverage begins in earnest. Let’s say the shot list includes an over-the-shoulder (OTS) shot as well as a clean single, as it often does. Start by lining up the A camera on the OTS, keeping the B camera out of the way until you've ensured that all are happy with the first camera's position. Now bring B camera in as close as possible to A on the inside, in order to get the tightest eyeline possible. Chances are B camera will find themselves with a lot of the foreground actor’s head blocking the frame, no matter how close you get that camera to A. In fact, much of the time this setup is physically impossible to achieve, because the ideal spot for both cameras turns out to be virtually the same position in space. The easy alternative is to move the B camera to the other side of A, but then you end up with a wide eyeline. This may be perfectly acceptable to the director, but in other instances they may insist that they want the eyeline close to the lens. The quickest solution is to suggest that you start rolling with A camera on the OTS, then once the director feels he has it you can simply punch in on the lens to get the CU. You don’t have to move the camera, in fact you don’t even have to cut if you have a zoom onboard. Meanwhile, the B camera could be getting a completely different setup, like an off-axis angle on the same actor, or detail shots of their hands or whatever else. One more thing to note about two cameras side-by-side: make sure that there is enough room between them for the cameras to pan without banging matteboxes, and that neither camera is photographing a piece of the other's french flag and whatnot. Sounds obvious but it happens more often than one might think.

    I did indicate above that getting an OTS and a closeup with tight eyeline is impossible much of the time. There are circumstances under which it can most likely be achieved, where the actors are a significant distance from each other (at least 5’) and the two cameras are backed up on somewhat longer lenses, or with actors at normal distances from each other and the cameras backed up a good 15’ or more at considerably long focal lengths. Best to experiment with this when not on set and everyone's waiting. While on the subject of eyelines, this is another one that can get complicated with two cameras, especially if they aren’t next to each other. If you have various characters scattered around the room and the cameras are separated, it can take a while to figure out where to place everybody for optimal eyelines so that screen direction is preserved as best possible. On a big set the persons responsible for this job are the script supervisor and the camera operators. Within scenes featuring complicated blocking, there are times when it is inevitable that eyelines will cross the lens and it usually requires a discussion with the script super and director to ensure that all of the necessary pieces are properly covered at some point. I have rarely worked with a director who is paying attention to this , but they will certainly appreciate it later in the edit when their footage cuts like butter.

    Speaking of editorial butter, it’s relatively rare to cut between the wide of a shot directly to a tighter version without cutting to something else first, but to safeguard the edit, the classic rule of thumb for setting focal lengths is that the B camera should be at least double the size of A; for example, if A camera is on a 25mm, B camera should be on a 50mm or more. Less than this and you risk a jump cut if the two shots are butted together in the edit. Generally if one is shooting a conversation between two people it's ideal to have matching sizes on both sides. If my B camera team is getting the closeup on one actor, down the road I like to assign them to get the complimentary shot on the other actor even if there is only one camera running. This will ensure that the style of composition remains consistent since no two operators have exactly the same instincts for framing and timing. It does require the operator to remember what their sizes were so they can recreate them later. I request my AC’s to take note of the focal length, distance and sometimes height of a setup that will later require a matching size on the reverse, so it becomes less of a guessing game that would otherwise require playback (and the resulting work slowdown) to confirm the match.

    A note here about classic wide-and-tight shooting. One of the compromises vs single camera shooting is that there may be a very legitimate desire to move the camera closer to the actor for their closeup rather than shooting longer lens from a distance, which may not be possible in a two camera world as it will place one camera into the other’s shot. There is arguably an enhanced intimacy by shooting closer/wider; it places the actor more into the space rather than fluffing out the background and so forth. Ultimately it comes down to calculating if you have enough hours in the day to complete your desired shotlist. Is it better to optimize the look of one shot at the expense of losing another one entirely at the end of the day? As the now-dated saying goes: Gone with the Wind in the morning, Dukes of Hazzard in the afternoon...

    If your shotlist contains inserts, say the actor’s hands or a sign etc., there is occasionally a fuss-free way to sneak those into other setups. Perhaps there is a part of the scene where the actor steps up into a closeup on A camera’s wide shot for a page of dialogue and then returns to his mark. For that whole section, the B shot may be too tight to be usable but instead of just rolling on nothing, it just might be long enough for the B op to "steal" the scheduled insert of a sign on the desk and reset in time for the actor to return. Boom, another setup to cross off the shotlist. Caveat: it’s very important to clear this with the director and DP first to make sure that the angle and lighting is acceptable, and the script supervisor should also be made aware so they can notate this for the editor. Along these lines, reframing the focal length mid-shot may take care of a particular moment that otherwise would require a separate take. Or there may be a reaction shot of another character, or a really funky and unexpected angle on the action that can also be stolen. The critical rule of thumb on this: if this takes up more time to coordinate than to just shoot the piece as a separate pickup, it isn’t worth it.

    If a character stands up during a shot, this action can be easily covered in the wide A camera shot but there are various options available for how to shoot this as a tight action on the B camera. One would be to let the actor out of the shot (they stand up and the frame stays put), another is to follow them up, a third is to have the frame pre-set so that they stand up into it. Each of these delivers different editorial options down the road. It’s best to discuss with the director how they may want to handle this and suggest/show the options. Often the optimal way is to do a few takes with one type of framing choice and then switch to another one for subsequent takes, so the editor has multiple options available when cutting the scene. The mentality of thinking like an editor is incidentally one of the strongest assets an operator can have. Anyone who thinks that the job of camera operator is all about panning and tilting may be surprised to learn that that represents at most 20% of their duties. The rest is all strategic.

    On a slight tangent, as a DP my priority is shooting at a stop that delivers attainable focus. While it is all well and good to embrace the "creamy bokeh" of a T1.4 background, if the AC cannot maintain focus on the actors when they move (as humans tend to), the results may be less than ideal. I call it the “damned if you, damned if you don’t” scenario: either you are forcing the editor’s scissors to cut around a great performance because of focus issues, or the director insists on keeping the take intact with a resulting big honking soft shot in the movie. Neither is a win for our side. I’d rather back off on the ND and give the focus puller a chance to get it right. Working with a variety of AC’s at different skill levels, I quickly learn who is capable of what and will make adjustments accordingly. What helps is to work the two cameras at different stops, when you have enough exposure to do so. In a situation where we are lit to a T4, I can knock the A camera down to a T2 via an ND.6, but I’ll keep the B camera (who is at 75mm+) at T4. The B shot will still look plenty shallow, in fact it may even more closely match the A camera, and the AC has a fighting chance of nailing it in fewer takes. One of the tough things about operating A camera as the DP is that you can’t check B camera’s critical focus. I have successfully fought and won the argument for not having to operate when we shoot two cameras by bringing up the very real scenario of footage lost to focus issues because no-one was looking out for that at video village (I use an FSI 24" as my reference monitor).

    Back to the placement of two cameras on set. So far we’ve discussed two side-by-side cameras shooting wide and tight. Another popular choice is to have the B camera act more independently, picking out shots from a different vantage point (I call it hunt-and-peck). If the coverage of the scene is not quite as traditional and doesn't require close eyelines and matching sizes, this can be a great scenario. It may be more complicated from a lighting perspective, but if the B operator has a good eye and matching aesthetic to the DP you can get a lot done this way. I will generally set parameters for the B operator such as “keep on the right side of A camera, don’t come around further than this” etc. to ensure that we remain in the sweet spot lighting-wise and on the correct side of the line. Again, this requires a thinking person behind the camera and they should be aware of what the A camera is getting so that the shots will add up to the best sequence possible. Often this “bonus” style coverage can result in the most interesting and unexpected results.

    Finally, there is the scenario of cross-shooting, which is generally dueling OTS shots. This is often used for comedy where actors will be improvising, and also where there is a complicated set of “business” going on (lots of gesturing or handling of props) to help the editor with continuity. Here the cameras will usually be simultaneously shooting identically sized coverage, so it is easiest to get A camera set up first, note the angle to the actors, focal length and distance and then mirror it on B camera. Where this can get a little tricky is picking good backgrounds for both shots, so it’s helpful to first line up the actors with a finder and rotate them around, scoping out both backgrounds until you are satisfied. Mark the spots and the actors and move the cameras into place.

    (continued below)
    Last edited by CharlesPapert; 01-21-2015 at 10:14 AM.
    Charles Papert
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    LIGHTING

    My approach to lighting a scene is fairly standard–after we break it down into a shot list or at least a preliminary discussion of rough camera placement, I can develop a plan that will allow us to shoot the maximum amount of setups with minimal re-light time. There may come a point in the scene where I will need to tweak a closeup or punch a detail or cheat a unit around, and it’s critical to consider all of this when building the shooting order and how the shots are grouped together, so that one camera doesn’t start seeing the lighting that is set for the other, or you have to unnecessarily tear down and rebuild rigs. If the cameras remain side-by-side this isn’t too much of a concern, although it can get dodgy when there is an optimal placement for a light for one camera that causes a kick or glare for the other one. Certainly if there is an intention to cross-shoot it will dictate the lighting plan from the beginning. Work through it in your mind (or on paper), as you don’t want to sell a two-camera setup that you ultimately can’t light. Conversely, if the main reason to use two cameras is to speed things along but you feel that it will actually slow it down because it will require more time-consuming rigging etc., it’s absolutely worth bringing that up. Most of the time a director or producer wants to go for the most efficient route.

    For exteriors, overcast or shadowed light is obviously quite easy to manage and you can shoot in any direction, but hard sun can be a challenge to cross-shoot. If we are into the good morning or late afternoon light, I’ll place the actress into the backlit beauty light with some fill and shoot the gent as-is with the sun in his face, or hopefully be able to work a butterfly to diffuse them both a bit. If I need both actors to look somewhat similar, I might position them with the sun at 90 degrees so they are sidelit and again diffused, if possible. Of course, sometimes the background is dictated by the geography and you just have to go with the angle of the sun--but in these instances, doing the homework and fighting for a particular time of day to shoot the coverage is well worth it. In many instances, no-one but the DP will be thinking about sun position and the day’s work may be scheduled around other factors, so it’s important to get your voice in there and register your request.

    For interiors I approach lighting for a cross-shot scenario in a couple of ways, sometimes entirely separate lighting for either direction, but one of my favorites is a single large source again at 90 degrees to one side of the actors. This delivers good modeling and is quite fast.

    As luck would have it, the Comedy Central series I shoot has a lot of clips posted online which makes it quite convenient to use for references! Here’s an example of an interior scene in which I used that setup (incidentally this clip may seem NSFW at first but you’ll get it by the end). We shot out this sketch with only two camera setups plus a punch in. We started with the A camera getting a wide 50-50 master, seen here as the final shot, while B cam was positioned adjacent getting the tight opening move which turned into profile singles (ultimately not used in the edit). We then moved on to cross coverage starting with simultaneous OTS shots then punching in on the respective lenses to dueling closeups. I designed the lighting scheme based on the OTS coverage, since I knew that would represent most of the sketch. If that had been the only setup of the scene, I could have just put a Kino on a stand perpendicular to the actors and been done with it, but because of the wide 50-50 master it would have ended up smack-dab in the middle of that frame. With low ceilings and no good way to rig a wall-stretcher (for safety we’d need vertical speedrail as a brace and it would have been visible in the cross coverage), we resorted to an elaborate goal-posted menace arm from behind the 50-50 camera position that cantilevered a 4x4 Kino out beyond the actors (my key grip still has nightmares about that one). It served as a nice backlight for the 50-50, presumably motivated by an unseen ceiling fixture, and we were able to move directly into the cross-coverage with virtually no relighting (we also had a tungsten covered wagon on the ground acting as fill and various units around the background for accents, all set during the initial lighting period). While it took some time to get the rig built and the set lit for three directions, once we started shooting we could keep the energy going and keep the actors fresh, and I'm quite satisfied with the look of each shot and the piece as a whole.

    Along similar lines, this sketch presented an interesting lighting challenge. The director really wanted to see the environment outside the windows rather than blowing them out. The time of day we were scheduled to shoot resulted in a front-lit environment out the windows including a worst-case scenario white building across the street (because of scheduling factors, my pleas to shoot later in the day when the street would be backlit could not be accommodated). I considered gelling the windows, but the material cost for the whole side of the building plus gelling time was a deterrent. I opted to go with big guns for the day to build up the interior stop, so we added two 18K’s to our package. I opted not to use these as a hard sunlight source, instead pushing them into a 12x12 ultrabounce which built up just enough level to help balance against the blazing outside but still be soft enough to be believable as indirect/ambient exterior light. Liberal use of ND’s on the lenses allowed us to shoot at something like a T4.

    We started with the wide dolly moves that open and close the scene with the ultrabounce positioned off frame right, and then moved into cross coverage with the ultrabounce now dead center, perpendicular to the actors. We did three different sizes of simultaneous eye-level coverage and also one from the waitress’s perspective, all within the same lighting setup. There were some complications–the hard rim light on Jordan (the actor wearing glasses) came from an M18 just outside the door to the restaurant, and it was dodgy keeping the shadow off Keegan. All in all though, it was an efficient shoot and certainly if we had shot single camera, it would have taken MUCH longer, and some great reactions may have been lost. A few soft edges here, some achieved simply by adjusting blinds on offscreen windows, plus carefully regulated fill helped shape and model the two actors further.

    Thus concludes this lengthy diatribe on shooting narrative with two cameras. The bottom line is that it can be efficient and it can look good, but it takes practice working through the variables and avoiding the traps that can make it take LONGER than shooting with a single camera, or notably compromising the overall look. More cameras may be seductive to a director and producer as they will assume that it will always be quicker, but it is up to the DP to calculate the factors and let them know respectfully what the compromises may be, and to suggest how to best implement them to knock out coverage while maintaining as good a look as possible.



    To sum up the main points:

    • Design the shotlist and group logically into pairs of shots
    • Decide whether side-by-side, cross-shooting or something between the two is achievable and/or the best choice for the scene
    • Design the shooting order around the lighting plan when possible--think through the variables, avoid having to go backwards
    • Observe the hierarchy of A camera before B camera, communicate with each other
    • Make each camera team responsible for matching sizes for the turnaround
    • To avoid jump cuts, double the focal length from the wide to the tight camera
    • Think in terms of pieces of coverage, shoot for the edit
    • A 90-degree off axis soft key light is fast and requires minimal gear

    Short list of pros and cons:

    PROS
    • cut your setups in as much as half
    • easier continuity if cross-shooting, great for the editor
    • gain “bonus” coverage, often more valuable than what is shotlisted
    • highly useful for one or limited take stunts and effects

    CONS
    • it’s sometimes faster to shoot single camera
    • tougher and sometimes slower to light
    • can represent a compromise with focal lengths for certain shots
    • eyelines can get complicated
    • if the DP is operating one camera, it’s hard to know if the other camera is getting it right
    Last edited by CharlesPapert; 03-31-2014 at 06:52 AM.
    Charles Papert
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    Senior Member stefancolson's Avatar
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    Thanks for taking the time to put this up and for your willingness to share your experience and knowledge.


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    Senior Member indiawilds's Avatar
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    This is worth a ton of Gold!

    Moderator's may consider making this a sticky.


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    Senior Member starcentral's Avatar
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    Charles, I haven't read this yet but look forward to reading it. Did this all stem from my multiple camera thread or had you been writing this book for a while!?

    Good stuff man.
    Dennis Hingsberg


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    Senior Member hscully's Avatar
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    This is really great! Hugely helpful! Thanks for sharing all this with us.


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    Senior Member Adam J McKay's Avatar
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    Thanks for the post. Great read.


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    Charles, thank you very much for making this contribution to the site

    Accept No Imitations.
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    Wow, I have learn so much from camera and the way you light. Thank you so much. I hope you'll write more of these.


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