Last week, I answered a question about film school that contained within it a big error–
Is there much overlap in the skills and techniques used in multiple camera television productions and those used in single camera television productions? I am wondering if the skills taught in these classes, as well as experience working on multiple camera productions such as reality shows, would be transferable to working on single camera scripted dramas, or whether they are just too different?
Despite what the name implies, “multicam” doesn’t mean “more than one camera.” And “single cam” doesn’t mean “only one camera.”
Almost all television series (and most movies) shoot with more than one camera. It’s just more efficient. If you’ve gotta shoot 8 pages a day, you’re going to need as much coverage as you can get. This is doubly true of non-fiction, whether you’re talking about Oscar nominated documentaries or low-rent reality shows.
But none of those are “multi-camera shows.”
Fifty years ago, most movies and television dramas were shot with a single camera. These were distinct from sitcoms, which were shot with multiple cameras. That’s the etymology of the term, but it’s not the only distinguishing feature of these types of shows.
The main thing is, multicamera shows were (and are) filmed (almost) entirely on a single sound stage, in front of a live studio audience. It’s more like a play than a film set. The director has to block the actors and cameras in such a way that scenes can play out in their entirety, entertaining both the audience present in the room, and the TV audience watching from home.
The production cycle is incredibly different, as well. On a single camera show (drama or comedy), the crew is filming pretty much continuously, day in, day out, all season long. On a multicam, four days are spent rehearsing, blocking, re-writing, and re-rehearsing every scene. It’s only on the fifth day1 that cameras actually roll.2
Some old-timers might refer to multi-camera shows as “three camera series;” that’s because, you’ll be surprised to learn, these shows used to be filmed with three cameras. Nowadays, it’s usually four. The cameras are labeled, naturally, A, B, C, and X.3
In short, just because you see a two-camera setup, doesn’t mean you’re on a multi-camera show.