Multi-camera Television Cinematographers on the Magic of their Craft

Over the last year, the industry has seen a jump in multi-camera production with more than 15 pilots ordered in 2018. The format, which gained early popularity with shows such as I Love Lucy, has remained a constant on the TV landscape but has reemerged with a more cinematic style in recent years. Tasked with creating a richer look to appeal to today’s viewers, but still facing the traditional challenges of shooting multiple camera angles and in front of a live audience, today’s shooters are adept at using advancements in technology and technique to serve their vision.

“It’s exciting to see so many multi-camera shoots getting greenlit,” observes David Dodson, senior VP of Marketing, Panavision. “Our customers are using every tool at their disposal to address the challenges of this unique format. We’re constantly evolving here at Panavision, and many of the new tools and technologies we’re offering enable producers and cinematographers to find stylish solutions that take multi-camera shows to another level.”

Donald A. Morgan, ASC

Together with the director we choreograph the flow of the cameras and blocking for all of the different shots that must be captured all at once. It’s a beautiful dance.

“It’s like shooting a play in real time,” says Donald A. Morgan, ASC, who has won eight Emmy Awards, most recently in 2017 for shooting Netflix’s The Ranch. “It is important in a multi-camera environment that you don’t lose that cinematic element. I watch a lot of single-camera shows for inspiration. The audience should not feel how it was shot. So, translating the images that you can achieve in a single-camera environment to four cameras is the goal. Geometry has a lot to do with this idea. The key light is the other actor’s backlight, and other tricky moves. Together with the director we choreograph the flow of the cameras and blocking for all of the different shots that must be captured all at once. It’s a beautiful dance.” 

Steven Silver, ASC, who has three Emmys on his shelf, notes that it can be a challenge to make the sets look as much like real, practical environments as they are described in the script. “You want to bring a sense of reality to the show and trick the eye whenever possible since most of these sets are built with only three sides.”

Steven Silver, ASC

As a second-generation producer, Grant Johnson grew up on multi-camera stages. He has produced such shows as Superior Donuts, Mike & Molly, and The Great Indoors, and acknowledges a longtime affinity for the format. “Today’s sophisticated viewer doesn’t want the traditional sitcom look – they want something more dramatic, with high production values. Sitcoms are up against dramas and single-camera comedies in the primetime hours, and those series are taking advantage of every tool and technology available. We need to be as progressive as everyone else, so we don’t look like a stale format. As a producer, part of my job is to continue to push to bring the format to life, even though live audience shows are shot like a stage play almost exclusively on a sound stage. By taking advantage of newer technologies and making use of things like visual effects, a sitcom can contend visually with bigger budget series.”

Grant Johnson, Producer

George Mooradian, ASC, a seven-time Emmy nominee, says it’s all about finding the right balance. “I must light the complete set and then tweak as needed,” notes Mooradian, whose current projects include the new show Rel for Fox and Sydney, Max & Max for Disney. “Sometimes, we have to compromise. With the A and X cameras shooting opposite each other on a three-walled set, you logistically cannot get a perfect lighting scheme in place. We adjust based on what the producer or director of an episode is wanting, and on what is in the script…. Once I light the main sets, then the swing sets are where the fun begins!”

George Mooradian, ASC

We adjust based on what the producer or director of an episode is wanting, and on what is in the script…. Once I light the main sets, then the swing sets are where the fun begins!

“The overall scope of having the stage lit and ready for shooting, often in front of an audience, especially if you have an abundance of swing sets, can be a pretty big challenge,” agrees Chris La Fountaine, ASC, who adds finding a spot for multiple cameras can also be a test. “Shooting scenes in small places with several people can get pretty exciting. Four cameras and all our lighting instruments are fighting over the same real estate. We had a dumpster storyline on 2 Broke Girls, and I think at one time we had six or seven people in the dumpster, standing up with the lid down. Not a particularly good time. We used practical lights and hid our lighting instruments in any crevice or behind anything possible.”

Chris La Fountaine, ASC

Shooting scenes in small places with several people can get pretty exciting. Four cameras and all our lighting instruments are fighting over the same real estate.

Emmy-nominee Wayne Kennan, ASC (Happy Together, One Day at a Time, Rules of Engagement) notes that the once customary “flat look” of multi-camera shows is in the past. “That old, signature look occurred because of a combination of one-inch video tape, NTSC broadcast standards, and the poor contrast of old CRT televisions. Just about the time CRT's with decent black levels were starting to sell, along came flat screen televisions.” 

Kennan points out that faster, more sensitive digital cameras have allowed for lowering the light levels, or footcandles, needed to capture an image over the past five years. “I still utilize large Fresnel lens-based lamps because I like the spread, but when I started out 30 years ago, we were keying at 70 footcandles, and now I'm keying at 23 footcandles. The digital cameras are also way more forgiving with color temperature and different light sources. I rely much more on the dimmer board operator for setting exposure.”

Wayne Kennan, ASC

When looking at advancements that have benefitted cinematographers shooting multi-camera comedy, Emmy-nominee Gregg Heschong references a recent episode he shot of Fuller House in Japan. “The original series (Full House) was on video tape, but now we work in 4K with digital cameras. I’d say we’ve finally approached the quality resolution, capability, and latitude that we once had with film. With the same characters, same reconstructed sets, it feels similar; however, I can play with areas of the set and define them differently. Night can be darker; exterior day scenes can be realistically sunlit and evocative. As a cinematographer, we are visual interpreters and, as with film, the newer digital cameras are allowing us to present more visually interesting scenes.”

Gregg Heschong, Cinematographer

I’d say we’ve finally approached the quality resolution, capability, and latitude that we once had with film.

Part of the “new look” of multi-camera shows evolves from the collaboration between cinematographer and production designer, notes Antar Abderrahman (Marlon, Austin & Ally). “The relationship between the DP and production designer has become extremely important with new technology. Things you could do before don’t work anymore. For example, paint colors and wallpaper patterns can be a disaster in the background because cameras are so sharp. Everyone wants a white interior, but that can be difficult to balance with skin tones, and I also need to make sure the cast doesn’t ‘melt’ into any beige hues. Furthermore, patterns can cause a troublesome moiré. Cinematography is a collaborative art and that holds true no matter the genre. Working closely with the production designer can be my ace in the hole, especially when things change on the fly after blocking.”

Antar Abderrahman, Cinematographer

Emmy-winner Gary Baum, ASC has the unique perspective of shooting Will & Grace, which returned with new technology after an 11-year hiatus. “We started shooting Will & Grace in 2005 with Panaflexes where exposure was rated at 400 ASA on film. I had to light with a key of about 25 footcandles to achieve a 3.2 stop,” notes Baum. “Now with the HD cameras capturing in digital format, I can expose at an effective range of about 1200 ASA. I’m using the same Primo lenses, but now I can key at about 14 footcandles achieving a stop of four. Key-to-fill ratio is equivalent, as is contrast to brightness, however we’re not using fewer lighting units, but we are using with less intensity.”

Gary Baum, ASC

The presence of a live audience at a multi-camera production is also a distinctive difference from single-camera comedies.

“On our shows we always make sure that the audience has a live-stage experience,” says Silver, who shoots The Big Bang Theory and Mom. “The cameras being as sensitive as they are require far less light, but we're forced to work at a level that the audience can easily see the comic moments as they happen. If they miss the joke, then most likely the writers and producers will rewrite the scene. It's my job to make sure that the live audience is serviced as well as delivering a great looking show.”

Patti Lee agrees (Mr. Robinson, See Dad Run). “The most important element of a multi-camera sitcom is the audience,” she adds. “So many times, a pilot or show will seem a little dull or flat during rehearsals, but when the audience shows up and there’s that immediate reaction, the difference is remarkable. It’s a live stage show, and first impressions are important. If someone flubs their line, they back up, so the set up for the joke is right. 

“We create a lot of excitement with lighting for the cast intros to build the energy for both actors and audience,” Lee notes. “And although the camera crew rehearses with the actors before the show, they really have to think on their feet because things change in front of the audience – actors improvise, lines are rewritten between takes, and blocking changes. To me, the cameras, booms and actors are all moving together like a ballet. On a rare occasion they collide. It can be really exciting.”

Patti Lee, Cinematographer

So many times, a pilot or show will seem a little dull or flat during rehearsals, but when the audience shows up and there’s that immediate reaction, the difference is remarkable. It’s a live stage show, and first impressions are important.

Mooradian adds, “In the end, it’s about ‘getting the funny out.’ There may be lighting challenges, but the goal always is to capture the mood, atmosphere, and feelings of the scene in the camera. If I had one wish, it would be for writers of multi-camera comedies to write scenes that require more darkness and interactive light, because half the world is light and half the world is dark. That’s where we can get more cinematic.”

Panavision is proud to support many multi-camera productions including Will & Grace, One Day at a Time, Marlon, Rel, The Big Bang Theory, Mom as well as Fuller House, Happy Together and The Ranch which premieres later this year.