Milli Award-winning cinematographer Russell Bacon ACS explores using multiple cameras and cross-shooting techniques on television drama.
By Russell Bacon ACS.
In the production of television drama it is a prerequisite for a cinematographer to produce high-quality images and sequences on time, and on budget.
In the 1970s and early 1980s, only four minutes of screen time was, on average, a reasonably busy day on a high-end miniseries, and was often achieved with a single film camera. Today, television drama schedules have become tighter, with the expectation of achieving twelve to fifteen minutes of screen time per day.
Of course, multi-camera studio/location video productions achieved more screen time, but these were often – but not always – lit in a flat, shadowless fashion from above, giving the cameras more freedom. Today, two cameras are standard on television drama and more often than not, one of these can be a Steadicam.
It is, therefore, imperative that cinematographers develop a technique and style to facilitate this fast pace while still producing stunning, cinema-quality images.
A great many meetings are generally conducted, on all projects, during pre-production. It is vital for a cinematographer that a style meeting be arranged early so that crew members are on the same page. In terms of two camera cross-shooting, it is advisable to broach the subject as soon as possible. Sounding out a director on his or her thoughts regarding a shooting style, as always, should be the first priority. Then involve the other heads of department as follows; the director, then production designer, then crew.
Many directors like to cross-shoot, as it gives their cast a flow of performance and the freedom with sound to overlap dialogue. Often a cinematographer will be asked up front if it is possible to cross-shoot a particular scene for performance reasons, so it is necessary to be thinking along those lines right through the process. This requires an understanding with the director, that some limits may be put on the movement of the cast, but with smart planning this should not be too restrictive. Discuss with the director in advance, the best possible area and axis within the set to play the scene, so they can incorporate this into blocking.
During the block, it is better to let the cast move naturally and watch closely, thinking in terms of camera position and light source. Be sure to maintain the agreed upon style of the production. Don’t get so involved in the process of cross-shooting that the overall look of the picture is changed. This can be a trap. It should not be obvious to anyone that cross shooting is being used, the look must be seamless.
“There are some scenes, in performance terms, where you’ve got two actors who are working on a really critical scene, and I think that’s where it becomes really important to be able to cross-shoot,” says Tony Tilse, who’s directing for television credits include Wolf Creek and Underbelly. “To get that wonderful binding performance and emotional continuity… emotional continuity, that’s one of the great benefits of cross shooting.”
Some directors will not want to restrict their actors at all, so cross-shooting may not be possible, but be on the lookout and always offer up the other camera if the possibility arises. Reassure your director that this will not compromise the cast’s performance or the look of the show. And then make sure it doesn’t!
“If you can optimise every setup and get more coverage – more ‘bang for your buck’- that helps create performance with the actors,” adds Julie Money, who’s credits as Director include work on Amazing Grace, Home and Away, Wonderland, and Police Rescue. “The more coverage you can give to the editor the better it is for everyone.”
A great working relationship with the production designer, too, and his or her art department is crucial. A good designer makes a cinematographer look good, and vice versa, so a close understanding of where each other are coming from is important.
If you are fortunate enough to be having sets built, it is good to be involved as early as possible with various placements. Windows, doors, camera ports and floating walls should be thought about and discussed at this point. Identify parts of the set that will be used often and make sure windows and source lights are all placed to best advantage. Back and cross light is your friend, so furniture and practical lights should be placed thoughtfully. Once you and the designer see how each other work and what your both trying to achieve, this process should flow smoothly.
Working outside of the studio can be more difficult, as there are many factors to consider before selecting a location interior. The designer and location manager will do the early scouting and its important they know what you are aiming for. They are your eyes at this stage. As well as the look of the project, the location manager has to deal with a great many other factors; parking, council approval, unfriendly neighbours etc. So let them know your wish list early. Consider sun position, time of day to shoot, space to swing two cameras and window positions. Remember, it is difficult to reject a location if it fits all other criteria, so sometimes you just have to use your experience and make it work.
“I reckon it’s one of the most important things. If you don’t have communication with the cinematographer when your designing the set in the initial stages, you’re in trouble,” says Samuel Rickard Production Designer on shows suchas Packed to the Rafters, Wonderland and Mary: The Making of a Princess. “Working out where to have camera ports, glass, places for light to come through, windows, even vents. For me, it’s the most important thing, along with the director, to have good communication with the cinematographer because if you don’t your sets are going to look… ordinary.”
Get the gaffer and key grip involved. Let them know from the outset your intention to cross-shoot wherever possible. These crew members go from project to project and consequently know their own jobs better than you. You may have an idea of how a rig or setup could be achieved, but listen to your key people because they will make it happen for you. You can learn so much from a good gaffer if they know what you are trying to accomplish, and will usually come up with a great plan when they are kept in the loop.
Forget about the sound department at your peril. Discuss with the recordist your intentions so they can be prepared as well as possible; second boom, extra radio microphones etc. It is frustrating for everybody, if at the block-thru stage, your plans are scuppered because sound cannot be covered. Light with the boom in mind and be prepared to help alleviate shadows with cutters. Once again, communication is key.
The figure below depicts a studio set with the blocking of a simple two- handed scene. There are two opposing cameras on tracks/wheels. Both cameras are long lensed as much as possible, without mismatching lens sizes overly. The longer the lens however, the easier it is to frame out the other camera. Both cameras have matching over the shoulder (o/s) shots in two different sizes to begin, and as the scene progresses the cast move to the second position with the cameras following action and tracking to make matching o/s to complete.
Careful choreography between the camera operators and dolly grips is required to keep each other out of shot and the eye lines tight. Two passes (mid and tight) plus a wide shot and any cutaways should complete the scene.
In terms of lighting, 5k or 2k tungsten Fresnel lamps are put through each window. These lamps may be softened depending on the exterior conditions you may have to match. Windows are dressed with sheer curtains or venetian blinds. Sheer or lace curtains soften the light beautifully and the blinds helpcontrol the intensity. This gives a natural feel to the area with fill light added as required. On this set we have a batten rigged across the top, from which softened LED lights are hung to achieve a gentle fill, without losing style or contrast. Other smaller units shape the background where necessary.
Know when to stop. Each light creates its own shadow problems so do not overdo it. You don’t want to end up in a sea of cutters. Keep it simple. Careful monitoring is vital to ensure both shots look good, and one is not compromising the other. Monitoring can be tricky if you are operating one of the cameras, so make sure you can switch your monitor between shots easily. Assign a button on the camera within easy reach if possible.
Tips when cross-shooting:
• Sometimes with a little softening or cutting, one person’s backlight can be another’s fill, if carefully angled and blocking permits.
• On location, ‘goal posts’ or ‘polecats’ are a good device for rigging (ask the grips).
• Be careful not to overcomplicate.
It has to be more time efficient than swinging the whole rig around.
• Get a gaffer interested in the challenge.
• Watch the block through, see where the cast want to move and start planning. Perhaps suggest, that with a little tweak we could cross shoot.
• Keep the cameras free on a dolly, jib or Steadicam.
• Never compromise the close ups. If you cannot light the close ups properly don’t cross shoot them.
Cross shooting gives emotional continuity for the actors, seamless cutting for the editors and is great for action sequences and noisy difficult environments. Have fun!
Russell Bacon ACS is one of Australia’s leading cinematographers having worked on classic dramas such as The Magistrate, Brides of Christ, Joh’s Jury, Police Rescue, Packed to the Rafters and Sea Patrol. In 2002, Bacon was awarded the ACS Gold Tripod for the classic My Brother Jack as well as earning the ‘Milli Award’ for Australian Cinematographer of the Year’ that same year.