What Is Multicam?

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.

Footnotes    (↩ returns to text)

  1. With some pre-shooting on day four, if there’s anything that’s technically tricky to film in front of an audience.
  2. Another anachronistic term; nothing is actually rolling in modern cameras.
  3. “D” and “B” sound too similar over the walkie.
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2 Responses

  1. Just for the record, I’ve never worked on a “three camera show” — I don’t know exactly when the fourth camera was added, but my first multi-cam show in 1998 used four cameras. Even then, it was the real old-timers who referred to multi-cams as “three camera shows.”

    There was a time when cameras didn’t roll until the fifth day, in front of the audience, but that often led to very long shooting nights. We’d shoot the entire show, then send the audience home…and then go back to shoot everything the director didn’t get the first time. There we’d be at 1:00 in the morning, with all the actors exhausted and looking like bloodhounds, trying to get closeups and other assorted coverage.

    That was just as stupid as it sounds, and I think is one reason we now shoot so much on the fourth day — to the point that it’s now called a “block-and-shoot day” rather than simply blocking day. And (as you pointed out) that’s when any particularly complicated shots involving special effects are shot as well. On my last show (a traditional multi-cam), we’d usually film half the show on the block-and-shoot day, thus allowing us to shoot and show (alternating between live action and playback on the audience TV monitors) the entire episode to the live crowd — and a show that started at 5:00 p.m. would typically wrap by 9:00.

    Anyway you look at it, that’s a lot better than wrapping at 2 in the goddamned morning…

    1. Really? I’ve totally heard people say “three-camera.” I guess some phrases never go away.

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