Basic Guide to Videoing Groups
This document is intended for users who wish to record groups. This includes events like workshops and seminars where more than one person is speaking; for events where only one person is speaking the user should refer to the Basic Guide to Videoing Lectures.
It is assumed that the reader of this document has read the Introduction to Digital Video, the Basic Guide to Shooting Video and Audio/Video Production: Recording Lectures, Seminars and Events.
For many group events the location is fixed long before the recording of the event is set up. Needless to say, the venue should be inspected beforehand if possible. If it is possible to influence the location of the event, you should consider the lighting and, most critically, the acoustics of the space where the meeting will be held. Getting good sound is difficult enough in a venue which has a good acoustic: in a venue which is too bright or has too much echo it may be impossible.
Remember also to arrive well ahead of time for the event. It is much better to have time to kill having set up your equipment than to rush the set-up and do an inferior job. Group events in particular can require a lot of setting up and testing time.
Setting up - Lighting
Since we are interested in recording a number of people rather than just one, we must ensure that all of the people will be adequately lit. This should not normally be a problem, because in the case of a group meeting there is normally enough light for all of the participants to be able to see each other and to write. Be sure to check beforehand that the lighting will be the same during the meeting as it is when you check out the venue.
As mentioned in Audio/Video Production: Recording Lectures, Seminars and Events, if the venue has windows the lighting conditions may change during the course of the shoot, which could prove problematic if the footage you shoot is to be edited. This is particularly the case on a sunny day when shadows are cast in the venue. Windows, too, can result in people appearing as silhouettes. If you must shoot in a venue with windows be sure that you set up so that you can shoot with your back to them
Regardless of the lighting conditions, remember to do a white balance before shooting - and again if the lighting conditions change.
If a data projector is being used you need to decide whether or not you are going to shoot the visuals while you are shooting the group or can shoot them outside of the event or otherwise incorporate them into your footage. If you shoot them during the event, you need to be aware that the image produced by a data projector will almost certainly be much brighter than the lighting on anyone in the venue. As a result you should ensure that you do not include both a person and a visual in the same shot. In addition, you should remember that a camcorder with autoexposure will take a second or two to adjust itself when changing between a person and a visual.
Setting up - Sound
Just as we need adequate lighting for all of the people in our group, so we also need them all to be audible. This is the greatest challenge in shooting a group and the most critical, because without decent sound the entire video will have very little use. We will look at standard ways of dealing with specific situations; for a more detailed understanding of recording good sound the reader is directed to the document Microphone Technique.
The problems of setting up sound will change depending on the nature of the group event you are shooting. Basically, however, there are two different requirements you will need to meet:
- Making one person audible above a crowd
- Making a number of people in a group equally audible, with or without others in the group talking in the background
As for the equipment you use, there are three possible situations:
- A fixed, on-camera mic
- A mic separate from the camera, either a hand-held mic or a boom mic carried by a sound person
- Multiple mics, with or without a sound mixer
The case of a fixed, on-camera mic is the easiest to deal with: avoid it if you can. It is practically impossible to get acceptable sound when recording a group. The only possible way to use this set-up is to have the camera move from person to person, getting in very close to whoever is speaking at the time. Even then the sound will be poor and, if there is a lot of background chat, has every possibility of being inaudible. In short, unless you have a very small group of very well-behaved people in a small space, don't do this - and even if you do have such a group it's best not to do it. If you have no alternative, of course, a bad recording is better than none, but be warned: it will be a bad recording.
The likelihood of getting good sound is massively increased by the simple act of separating the microphone from the camera. This frees you from the need to find a (usually inadequate) compromise to meet the very different requirements of picture and sound.
A lapel mic is by itself useless in this situation as it can only pick up the voice of the person it is attached to. Both hand-held and boom mics can give excellent results in a group situation if used properly.
Clearly, the hand-held mic is only useful in a group where one person is speaking at a time, such as a question-and-answer session. Provided the group understands that no-one must speak unless they are holding the mic and provided everyone in the group knows how to hold and speak into a mic , it will give excellent results.
Most camcorders that take external mics have at least two mic inputs. In a situation where there is a main speaker as well as a group, this permits you to provide a separate mic for the speaker - in this case a lapel mic would be ideal. The speaker could then be recorded through the lapel mic on one channel while the group members are recorded on the other channel through the hand-held.
An alternative to the hand-held mic is a boom mic, that is, a mic mounted on a boom pole which is carried by a sound person. Although this approach requires an additional person to make the recording, it provides certain advantages if the group is not too large. The members of the group don't need to know how to hold a microphone. There is no bother associated with passing the mic around and no chance of damaging the mic. People can focus on what they want to say without having to think about the mic. Finally, there will be less delay between speakers, as the sound person can move from one person to another much faster than the mic can be passed. With a very large group this approach is unfeasible, as the sound person must be able to reach everyone in the group, but with the right numbers this approach gives excellent results. Again, it can be paired with a separate mic for a main speaker on most camcorders that take external mics.
Thus far we have dealt with the first requirement listed above, making one person audible above the crowd. The second requirement, making a number of people equally audible, is much more challenging. With limitless resources the ideal solution would be to give everyone in the meeting lapel mics with wireless transmitters and set up a mixing desk with however many channels were needed to reduce these feeds to one or two which could then be passed onto the camera. (This is more or less the method used on big budget films for scenes with many people in them; see, for example, the dining room scene in the film Gosford Park).
We do not have limitless resources, either of time or money, and so will have to settle for an alternative method, one using boundary mics.
Boundary mics are microphones which are designed to be placed on a flat surface such as a stage floor or a table top. They are often used to provide sound reinforcement, such as when actors need a little assistance to be heard in an acoustically bad theatre. Their strength is that they can pick up a number of people equally well over a defined area.
Boundary mics can be best employed in situations where there are a number of people seated at a table or tables. By mounting one for, say, groups of 4 people and feeding all of these mics to a mixer it is possible to get reasonable sound for all of the people in the group. Providing only one person at a time is speaking, you should be able to get away with setting levels for the mics on the mixer at the beginning of the event and then leaving it alone: obviously, better results will be obtained if a dedicated sound person is monitoring the mixer and adjusting the levels of the various mics throughout the event.
A sound person will be necessary where more than one person is speaking at once, for example, when the group is split into subgroups to discuss something. In this case the sound person will have to drop the level on the unwanted sounds. Even in this case sound will not be ideal but it will at least be audible and usable.
As ever, you should always remember to start your shots sooner and end them later. The medium you record on is inevitably the least expensive part of the shoot, and while you can remove unwanted footage you have shot, you can never create footage you haven't shot.
Remember that the closer you shoot a speaker, the more interesting they will appear in the footage. This doesn't mean that you should always shoot in extreme closeup. Rather, remember that the tendency of the untrained cameraperson is to shoot the subject too small in frame and try to compensate.
Having said this, you should remember to change the frame size regularly to keep things interesting visually. Try not to have too much difference between your speakers, as any large variations will have the effect of making the speaker in the larger closeup appear more important.
When two or more people sitting adjacent to each other are having a conversation it is a good idea to include them all in the frame (a shot with two people is called a 2-shot, with three people a 3-shot, etc.). This not only means that you don't have to pan between speakers, it also gives more purpose to the words a speaker says when we see the person being spoken to.
Shots of people listening or taking notes are easy to get during the event and can be useful for cutaways. As ever, it is useful to shoot cutaways and record atmos even if you don't believe you have any need for them. You may change you mind about how to use the footage or it may be re-used at a later date in a different manner. Regardless, it's very easy to get cutaways and atmos when you're at the shoot and tremendously difficult to get them afterwards.
The same applies to a group shoot as it does to any other: try to leave the venue looking better than you found it. Remove not just all your equipment but any other material you have left around, including cables, gaffer tape, scripts, cups, etc. And once you've packed everything away, do a nervous: check the entire venue again, even where you're sure you've not left anything. Things are never left behind in places where we know we've put them: it's the places where we think there's nothing that hold the missing goods.
The thing which most distinguishes the recording of groups from other scenarios and, indeed the most challenging aspect of such recordings is the way sound is recorded. If a set-up can be prepared which enables you to record decent sound, the rest of the recording will fall into place. Think carefully about the nature of your group event and understand its sound requirements early in the planning stage and remember that in this scenario, as with so many others, the sound is almost certainly going to be more important than the picture.