Introduction: How to Videotape the School Play or Concert

Picture of How to Videotape the School Play or Concert

I've been getting some compliments on the videos I've made of recent school plays, and I thought I'd post some of what I've learned "the hard way."

A lot of this is just common sense, with some basic principals of photography thrown in, and of course my personal opinions about the way things should be done.

Here you get to follow me as I videotape our middle-school play twice. Each time has its own mistakes for you to learn from.

(Most of the clips are from "Musical: The Bard is Back", as performed by the Hillview Middle School in May 2006. It was a really fun play, and I thought it came off really well.)

This may get edited a bit in after initial publication, but I realized that it's that time of year and wanted to get this out where it might help people. (Grr. And youtube is being unusually slow just now!)

Step 1: Rule Number 1: Use a Tripod !

Picture of Rule Number 1: Use a Tripod !

If you're going to videotape anything that is more-or-less static (like a stage from the audience), you MUST have a tripod. It need not be a fancy tripod with fluid-stabilized video panning capability, because for the most part the camera shouldn't move very much (more on this later.)

Lack of a tripod will make your video wobble and give you cramps in your arm before 20 minutes has gone by.

Step 2: Rule Number 2: Remember the Goal

Picture of Rule Number 2: Remember the Goal

It's easy to be distracted into focusing on YOUR child, or YOUR friends that are in a production. But the goal of a good videotape should be to preserve the event as a whole (or at least, that's what this instructable is about.) Besides, your child/friends won't have had a chance to see the show from the audience perspective, and they'll like being about to see it.

Step 3: Rule Number 3: Be Polite

Just cause you've got a video camera doesn't mean you get to be rude. If you're sitting in front of people, your camera shouldn't be any higher than your head. If you can't get a front seat, you might get a better view by sticking (short) siblings in the row immediately in front of your camera, instead of sitting there yourself and ending up behind tall people (It'll depend on seating arrangements, relative height of stage and seats, and so on.)

I'm inclined to believe that it's OK to set up behind everyone else, or to the side of everyone else, or otherwise occupy areas that aren't normal seating areas, but be careful to stay out of the way of possible off-stage action, BE QUIET during the performance, don't go places that will cause the school's insurance company to have heart attacks, obey requests from Authorities if they think you're in a bad place. (better yet, ASK first if your position is at all questionable.)

Step 4: Rule 4: Don't Overdo It.

I'm sure your video camera has a 20x optical zoom, plus digital zoom, plus special effects. Perhaps your tripod has a fancy "video pan head." That doesn't mean it's a good idea to USE all those features. See rule 3, remember you want to record the OVERALL event, and you don't have multiple cameras that might allow you to switch between closeup and full views. Fast zooming or constant panning will make your audience sea-sick...

Step 5: Rule 5: Be Prepared

You had BETTER have enough tape and batteries! You MIGHT be able to find a place to plug in an AC power supply, but probably not. Missing the surprise ending of the the mystery is also not good. Better to switch a tape and battery that is nearly half full at intermission than to need to do so in the middle of the action...

Step 6: Camera Settings: Exposure

Picture of Camera Settings: Exposure


Today's cameras all have automatic exposure. This works by adjusting the camera's exposure to match the amount of light the camera sees, and it works pretty well in many cases. HOWEVER, the dark background and bright frontal stage lighting typical of amateur (or professional, for that matter) performances is NOT a situation that works well with most automatic exposure systems. The dark background (and sometimes the dark surroundings of the camera) fool the camera into overexposing the parts of the picture that you really want to see, like peoples' faces.

So before arriving, review your camera manual to figure out how the manual exposure settings work. Some cameras may have special automatic exposure settings specifically designed for "spotlight" type situations, and those are probably better than nothing. It can be hard to predict how dim or bright stage lighting is going to be, but you can get a ROUGH guess by setting the exposure when the room lighting is on, and then you should only have to adjust somewhat for stage lighting. Once you have an exposure that's approximately correct, you can just LEAVE IT THAT WAY. Dimming lighting will look dimmer, brighter lighting will look brighter, and unless things go too far in either direction, that's really the way you want the recording to look.

Step 7: Camera Settigs: Focus

Picture of Camera Settigs: Focus

Todays cameras also have automatic focus. Great stuff, but autofocus also tends to be confused by stage lighting. Your camera will sit there trying to figure out what to focus on before the lights come up, and it will get it WRONG, so that when the lights DO come up you have a fuzzy image till it makes a better guess.

Review the other section of your camera instructions to figure out how the manual focusing works. For a start, zoom in and focus on the curtain or part of the scenery using room lighting before action starts. Video cameras SHOULD maintain focus when changing zoom settings. If you're relatively far back from the stage and the stage is relatively shallow, you can probably just leave it at that setting. Otherwise, know which direction of which knob moves closer or further away, and get a feel for how fast the focal distance changes.

Step 8: Strategy 1: Set It and Leave It.

Picture of Strategy 1: Set It and Leave It.
Given the previous suggestions and comments, one strategy that works surprisingly well is to just set up the camera so that its view encompasses the entire stage, turn it on, and then DON'T TOUCH IT till the curtain goes down. This has other advantages as well: you can sit back and actually watch the show instead of trying to fiddle with the camera. Or, you can take still shots with a still camera. Don't whisper to your neighbors, though, cause the camera's microphone is a lot closer to you than it is to the stage.

The videoclips are of a scene where there is "surprise" action at the edges of the normal stage. In the first clip, I had zoomed in some on the two ladies, and resorted to distracting panning and zooming to get the action back into the frame. In the second clip, the camera was essentially unattended, and I think captures the scene better. (people who are paying attention will notice that the first clip is from the second night of taping, and has correct exposure and focus, while the better framed clip has the bad exposure and focus. Sigh.)





Step 9: Rule 6: Know the Show

Picture of Rule 6: Know the Show

While the "set and leave" strategy works pretty well most of the time, you CAN miss important bits of the show that happen off on the edges of the stage. If you want to get fancier, it will go a lot better if you know how the show proceeds. Which characters are important in which scenes, who goes where (and how fast.) Which scenes do feature only a small number of actors. Who suddenly (and importantly) appears on the other side of the stage. If the show has multiple performance, you can go to more than one. If you don't now the action, you're probably better off not trying to follow the action (See "Strategy 1")

Step 10: Post Production: Credits

Picture of Post Production: Credits

The most important thing added during video editing is probably the credits. I have a pretty simple rule that I find useful: if the people putting on the show mentioned someone in the printed program, then that person also ought to appear in the credits in the video. If you can, get photos or short clips of the stage crew, the lighting and sound people, and so on. They're working hard too, and they hardly ever get to be on youtube!

Comments

sjoobbani (author)2010-03-04

 What's with all the 0 sec videos?
otherwise, very fine.

westfw (author)sjoobbani2010-03-04

I think that's some sort of artifact of the "embedding" process.  When I click the play arrow, there is actual stuff there, and the times get updated to accurate numbers...

mickey_shimitz (author)2009-01-29

Thank You! I have to film a school play 2moro and this completely helped me

puffyfluff (author)2008-10-14

Great tips. If only I could get my parents to read this...

gandalalake2002 (author)2008-09-11

nice instructable....keep posting...thanks...

PKM (author)2008-02-19

Thankyou. Thankyou, thankyou, thankyou, thankyou... :D I've seen so many terrible videos of school plays with overexposure, bad pan/zoom/focus, watching the wrong person at the wrong time, and all these terrible things. Some of those were even recorded by members of the drama department who really ought to know better! Something a little more subtle I'd add- if you're going to do this seriously (ie producing the "official" video rather than just turning up to tape your kid's play) consider getting a decent directional microphone. I've seen videos where all you can hear is the audience whispering and the cast's shoes thumping on the wooden stage- a halfway decent external microphone would alleviate both these problems and they don't cost the earth.

westfw (author)PKM2008-02-19

Good point about the microphone. My current camcorder doesn't even have a jack for an external mic, and when the ambiance is quiet, it picks up the sounds of its own motors :-( My latest effort was less successful. Despite efforts, it looks mostly slightly out of focus, and the "be polite" edict resulted in someone's head in many of the shots (generally not blocking any important action, but ... more distracting than I thought it would be.) Sigh. Re your comment about "people from the drama dept should know better." I dunno. This is one of the ways that film and stage differ; it's easy to imagine being really good at one at sucking at the other.

PKM (author)westfw2008-02-20

Good point- I didn't mean that the drama department should necessarily all be amazing cinematographers, just that they should have the sense to keep the action in shot a la rule 6 given that they already know the play.

AT (author)2007-12-09

Great instructable. You have touched in several great points. They are all simple thing with many cameras to take care of and will result in a much better video. I video tapped some plays at my old high school and I found that the front row of the balcony worked great. Now, if you can tap into the PA for the audio and have two other friends/parents tape from two other positions, just think of the editing fun you could have!

mikecraghead (author)AT2007-12-10

Great work, westfw! Sound advice. As AT suggests, multi-cam is lots more work but the end product can be amazing with several angles. After begging, borrowing or stealing two cameras (& 2 tripods): Plant yourself in the "middle" (back row, balcony, etc.) (plug them both in!!). Then set up one static cam with the whole stage in the frame, and follow the action with the other camera. In post production, you can switch between the shots "artistically" or as the action suggests, but you can also eliminate every "bad" shot, camera wobble, or awkward pan, by simply cutting to the wide shot! Another plus: you can change the tape in one camera while the other keeps running. Sony Vegas is my favorite editor (I tried out about a dozen different software titles, most were either too "dumbed-down" or too convoluted); intuitive and feature-rich. You can edit down a one-camera show almost in real-time (editing out "dead air" and such). For multiple-camera shows, you've got infinite tracks, video or audio, so you can do it all! Use the same CD they use in the show for background music, get a recording from the sound board, etc. You can sync multiple tracks by lining up the audio (visually, using the waveforms), and off you go. I work at a school and try to DVD-ify as much as possible; the kids, parents, friends & relatives truly appreciate a "watchable" event! Mike

Spl1nt3rC3ll (author)2007-12-09

Your right about the battery/memory thing. I have the worst luck. I have a sports camera that I place on my gun and helmet during paintball. Allways, always on the best match of the day, where the most intence and awsome things happen, the camera runs out of battery or memory. :( I've got to learn to stop recording the first few warm-up rounds.

AT (author)Spl1nt3rC3ll2007-12-09

If battery life is your issue, check out how I added 5 hours to my battery life! Click here.

Spl1nt3rC3ll (author)AT2007-12-09

Hmmmm. I'll have to try that if I can find my camera. Me thinks I left it in Canada. Shoot, I hope not.

Kiteman (author)2007-12-09

All excellent ideas. Unfortunately, many UK schools have banned video cameras, and often stills cameras, from school plays "for reasons of child protection".

Hah, I was going to quip that you risk being labeled a pedophile or terrorist. Western civilization is becoming effete.

westfw (author)Tool Using Animal2007-12-09

Hmm. Good thing I left out the photos from our friend's high-school production of "Grease"

firemanfu (author)Kiteman2007-12-09

in maryland they make us and our guardians sign waivers that say we can be photographed

westfw (author)2007-12-09

[Missing video clips added to step 8 (framing)]

Weissensteinburg (author)2007-12-09

Great job!

GorillazMiko (author)2007-12-09

super instructable! good instructions, details, awesome!

Sergeant Crayon (author)2007-12-09

Excellent Instructable! +

joejoerowley (author)2007-12-09

Cool instructable.

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