Technology helping Actors

During this year's lockdowns, we've been working hard to implement technological solutions to help actors to keep acting and to reduce the technical burden on the actors. Last weekend, we finally had the chance to try out the new kit in the field, and I'm very pleased with the results.

Shooting multi-cam

Normally, when we're shooting a short film, we shoot with one camera. The actors play the scene multiple times while the camera shoots the master shot, the coverage of each actor and any close-ups or inserts. This means that the director can focus on each actor individually, and of course, only one camera is required. On the other hand, you need to have confidence that the actors can play the scene in exactly the same way each time and it takes a long time; you can spend a day on set for five minutes of the final film.

This is fine if the actors have some experience and know the script well. But, it can be very challenging if you want to give them the chance to play with new material or to allow people with little experience of acting to get comfortable on camera and deliver good performances quickly. Inexperenced actors or non-actors can deliver amazing performances if well supported, but they may not be repeatable. To capture performances that are not repeatable, a multi-cam setup is required.

Rubidium Wu, from AbelCine, goes through the pros and cons of multicam versus singlecam in this video…

We wanted to run a screen acting course that would be accessible to actors with all levels of experience. We wanted

  • to minimize camera setup time and technical considerations so the actors can spend the maximum amount of time playing with new material;
  • the actors to be free to improvise in the moment, without worrying about repeatability;
  • to be able to get through as much material as possible during a two-hour session.

These considerations mean that we needed to use a multi-cam setup. We set the cameras up at the start of the session and pairs of actors rotate in front of them to play their scenes. If there is time, and we want to grab some establishing shots for the edit, we can, but it's not necessary. If the actors discover something between them in the moment, then we have it on camera and they don't need to do it again. We never need to repeat scenes just to get another actor's coverage; we only repeat if it serves the actors.

As we're not producing a finished film, we don't need to be finessing each shot, and so we're happy with the compromises of multi-cam shooting that Rubidium discusses in his video.

Timecode

Another challenge of running a course like this is getting the footage to the students. It can be a real confidence boost for the actors to be able to see the final footage and see what they've achieved, but getting the footage to them efficiently is quite a technical challenge. The footage from the two cameras and the audio, which is recorded separately, has to be synchronized and then edited together. If the process isn't well planned, that can be very time consuming and paying someone to do it can make the course prohibitively expensive. Many screen-acting courses don't share the footage with the students for this reason.

For us, the key to making this affordable, was automating as much of the work of synchronizing and editing the footage as possible. And, the key to that was timecode. If all cameras and audio recorders are recording timecode during the shoot and are synchronized, then the computer can automatically synchronize all of the footage. The editor then starts with file contained both camera angles and the audio and all they need to do is press '1' or '2' as the footage plays to choose which camera angle to show at the current time.

The challenge is that, while expensive cine cameras and camcorders have inputs for a timecode signal from the audio recorder, DSLR cameras generally do not. Purchasing two expensive cine cameras for a course would again push up the cost, so the question was how to synchronize DSRL cameras.

The solution we found was to record the timecode signal from the audio recorder onto one channel of the camera's audio track and record the reference audio to the other channel. We then wrote scripts on the computer to decode the timecode signal and remux the video files with the reference audio and the timecode as meta-data, instead of an audio track. The picture at the top of this page shows the timecode audio waveform as recorded by the camera.

You can see in this picture that we have a splitter plugged into the microphone input of the camera, which allow both the timecode and the microphone to be connected.

Action!

We had the first session of the course last weekend, and this worked very well. The actors were able to have fun and play in front of the cameras and they were able to produce some really nice scenes with very little prep. Even better, we were able to send them the finished footage two days later.

Take a look here for a small selection of the scenes that we recorded.

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