Recording a stage performance

Here at Cardinal Broadcast we often get asked to record children’s shows and there are few problems that we haven’t encountered! The first thing to say is that it is much harder than it might appear at first sight. The audience have expectations based on their experiences of watching broadcast TV. In addition those involved are often unable or unwilling to make any compromises to the needs of those recording the performance. It doesn’t look good does it?

So how can you achieve the best results? To start, let’s just look at a few of the technical issues. You may be surprised that I would mention audio first. If you can’t hear the performers you will soon get complaints. Built-in camera microphones are not really suitable. As an absolute minimum a directional microphone as near as possible to the stage is required. Another good practical compromise is a stereo microphone hung above the performers. It won’t be perfect and some of the children with quiet voices will be difficult to hear.

After that, it does get a bit more complicated with a need for a sound mixer, and somebody to operate it. The advantage is that you have much more flexibility and can make allowances for the softly spoken. Radio microphones are pretty much ideal, but they do need careful placement. Set your camera to wide angle – can you get all of the stage in? That is where you want to place the camera. Some favour square-on to the stage from a mid-point. My preference is for a little off-centre placement as it can lead to more interesting framing. You will need a tripod. You will discover practical constraints dictate where to place the camera and you just do the best you can. Anyone sitting behind you will not be happy so some forward planning is required to ensure that doesn’t happen!

Frame the shots carefully. Depending on the show, it might well be impossible at times to have all the relevant speakers in the shot and is a compromise that has to be made. Close-ups are good, but think what your next shot will be. Often a mid-shot with several players is the best. Smooth pans and slow zooms are essential.

Don’t forget the purpose of the recording – to bring immediate pleasure to friends and family and a record for the future. So make sure you give weight to the more minor roles. It is not a dramatic production for TV. If you miss some children (easily done) you will cause a lot more distress than you might imagine.

If your camera has manual settings this is moment to use them! Fix the white balance to tungsten (indoor) and adjust the aperture manually because on automatic there is a real risk of the background being completely black. Lighting suitable for recording is very different to lighting for theatrical effect. It’s a problem. 

Copies on DVD are the norm, and I expect you know about that. Some minor editing and a simple caption add to the professional image.

Ok – so you want something a bit more ambitious. You can use two or more cameras and that will change how you frame the shots. My preference is for cameras left and right with a central camera at the back, kept on a wide-shot. Depending on the performance style, a central camera for medium to close shots from the same position as the wide-angle camera allows for easy editing. This does get complicated to do and you have set yourself quite a task for editing. It is a complete non-starter to think you can mix amateur shows as they are performed and get every single cut correct at the time. Although the technology exists I wouldn’t advise it, and it won’t save time.

How much to charge? I wish I knew! Although people will pay twenty pounds for quality stills there is a lot of resistance to paying a similar amount or more for the DVD of the whole show. Strange isn’t it? I think it is because a small DVD doesn’t seem quite as valuable as a well presented still photograph.

A simple recording with two cameras and some editing will easily become £1200.00 plus. So you will need to have a market for at least 50 to 60 copies. You will have to offer some sort of fixed price deal to the school or club. They will not want to underwrite a shortfall.

Cardinal Broadcast has a lot of experience in recording shows; sometimes it is more about seeing what can be done with the funds available. We can offer camera and microphone hire, DVD authoring and technical support. What is not a good situation though is to be asked to edit something that is poorly shot with badly recorded sound.

I should also mention copyright – in practice recordings for private enjoyment aren’t going to be a problem. Commercial exploitation is a different situation and if it is a play with restricted rights, then that is another article. Even with children’s shows it might be worthwhile establishing on what basis you are making the recording – are you a “hired hand” and the school or club feel they own the recording, or are you a producer selling copies?

Communication about realistic expectations is the key to this!

This was written some while ago of course. You might think that solid state recording or camera phones would make life easier. Recording onto memory cards is a plus that is true but camera phones are not an improvement as you may have already discovered. The project management issues remain the same regardless of the technology you use.

Have a look at this clip from an old recording, made with two cameras and directional microphones. This is a reasonable technical standard without being too intrusive for the children. Ponder the importance on those involved of seeing this show made nearly 30 years go.

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