Getting so few questions on my blog makes me think I must have the smartest readership in Bloggerania. Of course, it’s possible I’m flattering myself in thinking this. You could just be not that interested. I, however, lean towards the earlier explanation, though it is not without its surprises. I am reminded of a Major Dad episode I wrote, where the Major imagined he was engaged in a “chess by mail” duel with some brilliant Russian physicist, when it turned out his opponent was actually an eleven year-old boy.
Anyway, when I do get a question, I feel so grateful, I am driven to respond at length. My concern when responding to a specific reader’s question, however, is that many of you already might know the answer to what the reader is asking about, leading to a reaction of boredom on your part to my response.
On the other hand, something I have already written has prompted this question, reflecting, on the questioner’s part, and maybe some others, a reaction of confusion. Now, in an effort to assuage the confusion of some readers, I am risking triggering the boredom of others. It’s a nail-biting profession, this blog writing. We’re walking such a delicate line.
So here’s the reader’s question. And I paraphrase, having forgotten their exact words:
“In the context of situation comedies, what’s the difference between the “single-camera” and the “multi-camera” technique?”
First, goodbye to the people who already know. We’ll see you tomorrow. For those remaining, I will not go to go into any great technical detail on the subject, because I’ll end up boring the rest of you, as well as myself.
I’m going to just jump right in and start with examples of both filming techniques. After I do, you might realize you knew the difference all along. You just didn’t know you knew.
CBS, Monday nights. Four consecutive comedies, from eight to ten (seven to nine Central Time, seven-thirty to nine-thirty in Newfoundland.) All four are filmed “multi-camera.”
NBC, Thursday nights. Four consecutive comedies from eight to ten (seven to nine, Central Time, seven-thirty to nine-thirty in Newfoundland.) All of them are filmed “single-camera.”
Think about those shows. Notice how they look different. Notice how they sound different. Notice their differently written comedy styles.
These shows are not the same.
“Single-camera” comedies use movies as their template. “Multi-camera” comedies offer the televised equivalent of a play. Today, in contrast to in my day, there are more comedies shot with the “single-camera” than the “multi-camera” technique. For two reasons.
One, writers today are, generally, more influenced by movies than they are by plays, and their writing-style preference is consistent with that influence. And two, also in contrast to my day, when shows were filmed with actual film, digital technology has made the “single-camera” process more economical.
Yeah, but what’s the difference?
Simply put – and I hope I can live up to that – “single camera” comedies are filmed with – Duh – a single camera. This one camera is used to film each scene from various angles, and with various compositions – long shot, combination shots of groupings of actors, close-ups of individual actors, cutaways to a cat. With “single-camera”, the same scene is required to be shot over and over to maximize, what they call, the “coverage.” Later, selected “takes” are edited together to produce the finished product. I’m hoping that was reasonably clear. A writer can hope.
With “multi-camera” (the process, originally using three cameras, advanced to four cameras, to provide greater “coverage”), scenes are shot with three (or four) strategically placed cameras all running at the same time, allowing you, at least theoretically, to shoot each scene only once. (Sometimes, a certain shot can’t be included, and has to be covered separately in a “pick-up” shot.)
What’s the advantage of the “multi-camera” technique? It’s faster. Who cares? You’d care, if you were paying for the show, and more importantly, if you were sitting in a studio audience and you had to endure watching the “single-camera” filming of the same scene twelve times. You’d go bloody balmy. (Ooh, I went all English there for a moment. Sorry.) Understandably, “single-camera” comedies didn’t have a live audience.
The “multi-camera” technique was developed to make the inclusion of a live audience possible. Shooting a show “single-camera” can take two to three days. What audience can sit that long? By contrast, a “multi-camera” episode can be finished in two to four hours. Paraphrasing Jon Lovitz in A League of Their Own, “That would be less, then, wouldn’t it?”
The presence of a studio audience means you get natural laughter, which sounds considerably better than the previously used “canned” laughter. More importantly, the immediate response of a live audience energizes the actors, many of whom have theater or comedy club backgrounds, and thrive on actual people responding to their work.
It is said that the “multi-camera” process was invented by Desi Arnaz, who used it first on I Love Lucy. Some of this decision had to do with making the episodes available for future syndication (I don’t really understand that part), but the audience also brought Lucy excitingly to life. Would you really want Lucy stomping grapes or stuffing chocolates in her blouse without the live audience, shrieking with laughter? It was the invention of “multi-camera” that made those shrieks possible.
The price, with the “multi-camera” technique, however, was a loss of nuance and subtlety. Both in the production and the writing.
The shooting of a “multi-camera” show requires the three (or four) cameras to be deployed in pretty much a straight line, to preclude the possibility of one camera catching another camera in its shot. You can see how that would limit the cinematographic possibilities in a way that the “single-camera” technique does not.
The lighting on “single-camera” comedies is more specific, because each individual “take” is treated to its own lighting pattern. “Multi-camera” shows are lit like night baseball. There are no shadings whatsoever.
(On Best of the West, I had a Lighting Director who had worked for Alfred Hitchcock. (And now he was working for me.) In the script we were shooting, I had written, INTERIOR CABIN – DUSK. They guy came over to me and said, “Earl. You’ve got ‘DAY’ and you’ve got ‘NIGHT.’ That’s it.” That’s “multi-camera” lighting.)
From a writing standpoint, if there’s an audience present, you feel successful when you make them laugh. And the harder you make them laugh, the more successful you feel. Optimal “big laughter” requires a “Big Formula Funny” style of writing. Set-up – punch line. Bam! Bam! Bam!
“Single camera” comedy writing? More subtle. Naturalistic dialogue. Sometimes, no dialogue at all, just, often hilarious, exchanges of looks. Wordless “reaction” shots. An insinuating camera, catching characters “off-guard.”
Final point. The soundstage, where the shows are filmed, are if limited size, and can only accommodate so much. Since “single-camera” sets can be smaller – you don’t have to allow room for three (or four) cameras to move around – you have room to build more sets on the soundstage, providing the possibility of a greater number of shorter scenes. Writers of “multi-camera” sitcoms, limited by three, or at most, four larger sets, are required to write longer scenes, because there are less locations for them to move to. The number of sets available to you fundamentally affects how you tell your story.
Plus, “single-camera” comedies, unencumbered by soundstage-bound pedestal cameras, can easily go outside. “Multi-camera” comedies can’t.
I think that’s more than enough for you to chew on. Now, here’s a test. ABC, Wednesday nights. Four consecutive half-hour comedies. A mixture of filming techniques. See if you can tell which one is which.
If you can, I’ve done my job.
If you can’t, well, consider whether it’s really all that important.
Thanks for the question, reader.
Keep ‘em comin’.