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 !
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
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
Step 6: 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
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.
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
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
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!