Why use single-camera mode when shooting television?
March 10, 2006 6:17 AM   Subscribe

What, from the standpoint of the audience, is the difference/advantage between shooting, say, a sitcom, in single-camera mode (SCM) and multiple-camera mode (MCM)? If all you're doing in SCM is shooting dialogue, for example, out-of-order to construct an effect that is effortlessly achieved by switching from one camera to the next in MCM, it would seem that, if anything, you would gain from the immediacy of the actors' reaction in a scene shot in MCM.
posted by the sobsister to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Cheap(fewer camera operators).
Convenient (you can shoot dialog between two people without both of them on set at the same time)
Logisitically possible (in some sets it is simply not possible to set up multiple cameras due to physical constraints, mirrors, etc)
posted by plinth at 6:29 AM on March 10, 2006

I'm not sure I understand the question.

Are you asking what the benefit is of SCM over MCM or vice versa? And by audience do you mean the TV viewing public or the "live" studio audience?
posted by slimepuppy at 6:31 AM on March 10, 2006

If you mean TV viewing audience, it makes little to no difference. If the people making the series know what they're doing and have decent actors that can recreate moments/delivery/reaction, the audience shouldn't be able to tell the difference.

Multiple cameras are used to cut down on the time it takes to shoot. Shooting a wideshot and a medium simultaneously saves time. In most professional productions, the time (of the cast & crew) is more expensive than the film stock and equipment.
posted by slimepuppy at 6:36 AM on March 10, 2006

Can easily shoot on location.
Can do much more intricate shots.
Is inherently more interesting visually, since it's not a fixed viewpoint like on a standard 3-wall set.

Plus... it's not like they shoot only one take in a standard three-camera sitcom. They try out jokes and change things around. They'll also do takes just to get a specific shot with one of the cameras.
posted by smackfu at 6:37 AM on March 10, 2006

Response by poster: Sorry for my lack of specificity in framing the query.

I meant: 1) the benefits of SCM (which appears to have a near-monopoly on sitcoms currently) over MCM, and 2) the at-home, rather than studio, viewing public.

I've read several items about how it's so much better (from an artistic/aesthetic standpoint: more "film-like"?) and I'm not sure I understand why.
posted by the sobsister at 6:38 AM on March 10, 2006

Well, the reason it's film-like is because it's closer to how they make films. I can tell the difference--can't you? SCM looks more like a movie, and to me, MCM is more like watching a play. Yes, they can switch perspective back and forth, but it's watching one scene on one set unfold in front of your eyes.

If you take the West Wing, for example, one of their signature styles is to film characters having conversations while they're briskly walking through the halls of the White House. That just couldn't happen in MCM, which needs a much more open space to accommodate the different camera angles. Have you ever seen a scene in a traditional sitcom where characters walk through several halls and rooms during a single scene? If you have, you probably noted the difference in the feel, like how weird it is when a sitcom goes on location to Disney World or something. You also can't really get tight close-ups in MCM, etc. What you give up is the energy of a live studio audience, which sometimes fits nicely into a traditional sitcom. It all depends on what you're going for.
posted by lampoil at 7:01 AM on March 10, 2006

One of the main benefits of SCM (over cost) is that you have a far wider choice of shots available to the director. With MCM, the cameras have to be set-up so they don't see... another camera. This limits positioning and movement of the cameras. With SCM, that issue is removed and the director only has to worry about not catching crew and set specifics in his framing.
posted by benzo8 at 7:16 AM on March 10, 2006

The problem I see with your example is that it is a sitcom. In comedy timing is everything. If you are shooting each actor's dialogue individually, you aren't going to get that sense of spontaneity that makes good comedy work.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:51 AM on March 10, 2006

If you are shooting each actor's dialogue individually, you aren't going to get that sense of spontaneity that makes good comedy work.

I was under the impression (just guessing) that for timing-dependent scenes they'd go through all the dialogue and so on but with the camera just close-up on one character (for instance). Unless they specifically go back to pick-up a shot later, they don't just film one actor doing reactions cold, do they?
posted by rafter at 8:31 AM on March 10, 2006

They run through the scenes many times, but each time with all the actors doing their stuff. They shoot from one angle, then from another, then from another, and it's then the editor's job to make sure it all flows (which is made much easier if the actors have done their job of getting it the same each time...)
posted by benzo8 at 8:43 AM on March 10, 2006

Single camera:
Lighting, blocking and camera movement.

The Camera feels like a participant in the scene - You can get between characters and move across the 180 degree line, really involving the camera through the directors/dps subjective manner in which to manipulate the audience.

Actors often will only do part of a scene (with enough coverage).

Multi camera.
Faster, better for "action" or comedy where an actor improvs (the X or 4th camera came about due to the need to keep a camera on the coked out improv machine that is Robin Williams).

Often a scene can be run two/three times in sucession - this is more like a play, where the characters run all of their lines.

Multi camera was pretty much started with I Love Lucy - a slapstick comedy. Additioinally for explosions/heavy one take action, it's impossible to do any other way than multicamera.

I think Clooney on Good Night & Good Luck used a compromise of two camera rig...permitting dialog to overlap (very difficult to cut around) and yet, still have the advantage of 'film' lighting.

We'll likely see this more (especially as HD has a greater adoption rate for film.)

Last, for sitcoms - mutli camera (in front of an audience) really tells the actors what's 'funny' and what's not, from an audience reaction, and yet, still leaves the 'semblance' of a play.
posted by filmgeek at 9:07 AM on March 10, 2006

I do this for a living, and single camera is not cheaper. It's more expensive. That's because you spend much longer time shooting; longer days, more days. You're looking at 12 hour days and 8 day shoots as opposed to 6 hour days and a 1 day shoot. In multi camera, the actors rehearse on a set for about 6 hours a day, on the 5th day, the cameras arrive. You only need them one day.

The lighting requirements for single camera are much more intricate and require hours of set-up. On a multi camera, the lighting is set up at the beginning of production, and for the MAIN sets, requires little adjustment.

Sets. In Multi camera, you are extremely limited to the number of sets you can use. You have three main sets that get put up and remain standing for the entire season, only to be struck at the end. In single camera, the sets are limitless. You shoot anywhere, including EXTERIORS.

As a writer, I have worked in both single and multi camera. Single camera is so much better. Here's why:

In storytelling with multi camera, you have really rigid rules that need to be followed, and you can't EVER have a scene that DOESN'T ADVANCE THE STORY. That makes it very plot driven. In single camera, you can have a scene that REVEALS CHARACTER, and doesn't drive story ON THE FACE OF IT. But, in movies, revealing something about the character does give you information which aids the plot.

Also, in film, you are not limited in the kinds of shots you use. You can have 30 shots in a scene. And the cutting and framing of those shots creates a mood, or a tone. In Single Camera you have closeups, tracking shots, zooms, etc. In Multiple Camera, the cameras move to a set and some of them get "locked down", while one or two other cameras will move to track characters entering and exiting. And, you have limited shots. YOU NEVER USE CLOSE UPS. It's 2-shots, medium shots and wide shots. The cameras are on giant pedestals, and so can only move so far into or around the set. In single camera, the camera can be on a pedestal, or can be taken off and held on the shoulder to move freely. This technique was used in NYPD Blue a lot to give a gritty, documentary feel to the shots.

Lighting: You can do the same with lighting. In single camera, you can alter lighting scene to scene to set a mood, or lend atmosphere. An example I can think of is in West Wing, they used lighting from overhead, simulating the ceiling lights in the hallway, to bathe the characters in a sort of glow. And, as they walked, they passed in and out of the light circles. I always thought this gave weight and dramatic sense to those scenes.

In Multi Camera, lighting is flat. It's even. It cannot be varied in any subtle way. It's all lit from high above in the catwalks, like a big bright lightbulb. All shading and subtlety is lost.

By the way, you might be saying, why not shoot multi cameras LIKE single cameras? They do. It's called "soap operas". It looks pretty fakey.

The big difference is subtlety. There is no subtlety in multi-camera sitcoms. Lots of interesting choices are not available. And, finally, the biggest difference is multi-camera sitcoms are DIALOGUE AND PLOT DRIVEN. Single camera sitcoms add visual elements, so it adds a layer to the dialogue, and they are character driven. Think of the difference between According to Jim and My name is Earl and you'll see what I mean.

Sorry for the caps, but I don't have any of the buttons that let me use italics or bold. See? See the subtlety that gets lost? That's what it's like.
posted by generic230 at 10:28 AM on March 10, 2006 [2 favorites]

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