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Live Switching With Digital Video Mixers

Please Note: We DO NOT sell or provide support for video mixers.
We offer instructional videos on the Panasonic MX-50, MX-30 and AVE-7.

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“Camera One, hold your shot and begin a slow zoom in on my mark. Camera Two, stand by. Camera One, begin zoom... take camera two. Standby, Camera Three with a close two-shot. Camera One, go back to wide.”

Are we listening in on the control room crew at the David Letterman show?

Maybe it’s the broadcast of the Academy Awards. Perhaps the multi-camera coverage of the Super Bowl.

Well, actually it’s a wedding ceremony being covered in a technique known as “live-switching”. And this could be just as easily a high-school graduation, dance recital or a stage play.

Live-switching is the process of mixing “on the fly” two or more cameras that are fed into a video switcher or digital mixer and recording the mixer’s output directly onto a single VCR.

This procedure has the advantage of planning each shot before it goes onto tape, thus providing the creativity that is often absent when you try to mix together the pre-recorded tapes from camcorders later on during editing.

It also has the advantage of completing the “edit master” tape when the performance concludes. And this particular edit master is going to be first generation rather than second or third and your subsequent client copies are going to look gorgeous.

With the availability of high-quality, low-cost digital mixers, anyone with access to two or more video cameras can pull off a production that rivals any television program in both content and quality.

Multiple camera shoots provide the viewer with a variety of different angles of the program resulting in the absence of monotony of watching just one camera’s point of view. While one camera covers the close-ups, another can reinforce the ambient surroundings and provide cut-away shots.

Watch any of the talk shows to see how the broadcast world handles multiple cameras covering multiple performers. Seldom does the technical director (the guy pushing the buttons on the video mixer) stay on one shot for more than five or ten seconds. It’s this frequent change of visual perspective that gives an otherwise boring TV show a fast pace look.

In this first part, we will discuss the logistics involved in putting together a live-switch system. In the second part we’ll cover the actual live-switch shoot itself.

Live-Switch Equipment

Obviously, the heart of your live-switch system is going to be your digital video mixer, be it a Videonics MX-1, Panasonic AVE-5, AVE-7, MX-30, MX-50, AVE-55, MX-20 or any other digital mixer.

Unlike the old days (before digital mixers) where each camera involved had to be electronically synchronized to every other camera (genlocked), the modern-day digital mixers permit you to plug in any combination of consumer, industrial or broadcast cameras or camcorders. And if your camera arsenal is limited to only one camera, they’re easy enough to borrow or rent for your live-switch gig. (If at all possible, try to use cameras that are similar in quality and resolution so that matching the two or three of them up won’t be a chore.)

Along with your two or three cameras and digital mixer, you’ll need a video monitor to see what you’re doing and a VCR to record the mixer’s output onto. Since the VCR will be recording continuously throughout the program, it doesn’t necessarily have to be an editing VCR with flying erase heads or insert capabilities. However, the VCR should be of a high-resolution video format such as S-VHS or better.

And it’s a good idea to use, as your main monitor, a fairly high quality color monitor so that there will be no doubt as to the color matching qualities of the multiple cameras.

In addition to the main video monitor, it is quite advantageous, if not necessary, to have separate additional monitors for each of the incoming camera feeds. This way, you, as the technical director calling the shots, will know what each shot looks like before you “switch” to it during the program.

And since multiple camera require multiple camera operators, you will need some form of communication with your camera operators. This can be anything from a home-made wired intercom to a wireless two-way headset systems.

Hooking It All Together

If you are performing a live-switch video job the very first time, make sure that you take into account the obvious extra time that you are going to need to connect everything together and perform a check of the system before you go “on the air.” Generally, an extra hour or so above and beyond your normal set-up time will be necessary.

If you’re planning to live-switch a wedding, make sure that have permission to do so from the church or synagogue. Anymore, it is commonplace to have multiple videographers covering a wedding ceremony, however the additional equipment, cables and personnel required for a live-switch may clash with some clergy members.

And in any case, plan the routing of your cables so that you’re not endangering anyone who might be passing over them.

A good place to begin your setup is at the location where you will be operating the video mixer. A folding conference table generally comes in handy for laying out your gear. Try to set up close to an electrical outlet (or at least bring enough extension cables).

Place your video mixer on the table where you can easily reach it and also have your main program monitor nearby for easy viewing.

Connect the video and audio outputs from your video mixer to the video and audio inputs on your recording VCR. Use the S-Video connectors if you have them for the best video quality results.

Place you cameras in their respective positions and run high quality broadcast-grade composite video cable from the cameras’ video output to the video inputs on the video mixer. Under most circumstances, the length of these cables can be up to a hundred feet or more, however due to nature of the beast with S-Video cables, it’s not a good idea to run them more than twenty feet. (If you are running high quality cables, such as Monster 2 or Monster 3, you can run up to one hundred feet without any problems). Good 75 ohm composite video cables can run anywhere from a dollar a foot to five dollars a foot.

If you will be using additional separate video monitors for each camera, either run the camera cable through the monitor’s video loop-through (if it has one) and then on to the video mixer’s input, or feed the camera feed into a distribution amp to split the feed to both the camera monitor and the video mixer.

In the case of the Videonics MX-1, you can get by with a total of just two video monitors: The man program monitor and the Preview monitor which already displays all of your incoming cameras.

Your video cameras should also have access to AC power if possible. Having to change a battery in the middle of a live-switch shoot can be disastrous.

It is generally not necessary to run an audio feed from each camera to the video mixer, usually because an independent audio mixing system will be feeding the mixer.

We’ll talk more about this later.

After all of your connections are made, turn on the cameras first then the video mixer followed by your VCR and monitors. If all of your connections are made properly, you should see at least one of your cameras displayed on your main program monitor and all of the cameras should be displayed on their individual camera monitors.

At this time, it would be a good idea to test your communication system with your camera operators. If you use the wireless type, make sure that the batteries are fresh and that not on a conflicting radio frequency with any wireless microphones that are being used for the live-switched program.

Make sure that you have rehearsed the various types of commands that you’ll be using with your camera operators. The most important command is “hold that shot,” which, believe it or not, is the most violated command used in live-switching. Make it very clear to your camera operators that any unexpected camera movement on their part can ruin an entire live-switch production. Remember, you are the technical director and you are responsible for every camera angle and movement. As difficult as it may be to accept, the camera operators are merely remote-controlled tripod heads that move the camera only when you instruct them to do so.

Now that you are completely set up, perform a test recording onto your recording VCR and include switching to and from each camera, as well as once again rehearsing camera movement commands. Play the tape back to insure that everything, both video and audio, is recorded properly.

A very inexpensive and easy back-up to your entire live-switch system is to run individual video tapes in each of the camcorder. If all else fails, at least you will have camera tapes to take back to your studio to edit the “old fashion way.”

We are now going to re-enact a live-switch production that we performed at the Phoenix Symphony Hall. The venue was a one hour variety show that was put on for a local charity and the performers were local celebrities who had donated their time and talents for the cause.

The original plan was to hire a number of professional videographers to capture the event and then render the resulting camera tapes for editing. It didn’t take a lot of arm-twisting to convince the promoters of the show that the finished product could be literally handed over to them at the conclusion of the show and the overall cost would be almost half if live-switching was incorporated.

Hey, let’s put on a show!

Once the necessary “paperwork” arrangements with the show’s promoters were taken care of, a meeting was scheduled with the three videographers who would be running the cameras during the live-switch.

The plan was to have three fixed position (tripod-mounted) cameras and one “roving” camera for close-ups of both the stage performances and the audience reactions.

Two of the three tripod cameras were to be manned and the third un-manned camera was going to be “locked” into a static wide angle shot close to where the live-switching gear was situated (in the event I needed to reach up and make any needed adjustments on the camera).

The actual cameras were going to be provided by the individual hired cameramen and fortunately, all four of our cameras were very similar, if not identical, in image attributes and quality.

On the day of our pre-shoot meeting, which was four days before the performance, we coordinated camera assignments, locations and communication techniques. And, of course, we detailed a number of backup plans that would immediately go into effect in the event of either equipment failure or last minute changes in the program of the show.

We also made a master list of all equipment that was to be needed and who was going to bring what (i.e. camera cables, microphone cables, extension cords, video tapes, etc.). A good rule of thumb is to bring at least one and a half the amount of gear that you think you’re going to need.

This is what the list looked liked:

Cameras

* 4 JVC GY-X2 S-VHS camcorders w/AC power supplies.
* 1 NRG Power Pro Max 13.2 volt battery belt (to power roving camera).
* 3 Bogen fluid head tripods.
* 6 100 ft 75 ohm broadcast-quality cables w/BNC connectors at each end.

Videotapes

* 10 Fuji H471S ST-120 S-VHS video tapes.
* 3 BCT-90ML 90 minute Betacam SP video tapes.

VCRs

* 1 Sony UVW-1800 Betacam SP recording VCR (primary recorder).
* 1 JVC BR-S622 VCR (back-up recorder).
* 4 Monster Cables Series 2 6 ft long S-Video cables (mixer to VCR connection).

Digital Mixers

* 1 Panasonic MX-50 Digital A/V Mixer (primary mixer).
* 1 Videonics MX-1 Digital Video Mixer (back-up mixer).

Video Monitors

* 4 JVC TM-9U 9” color monitors w/loop-through composite inputs (camera feed monitors).
* 1 Sony PVM-1354Q 13” color monitor (program monitor).
* 6 - 4ft composite BNC to BNC broadcast-quality cables (camera monitor to mixer connections).

Audio

* 1 Mackie 1202 audio mixer.
* 5 various low impedance microphones.
* 500ft of XLR balanced microphone cable.

Communications

* 4 Nady UHF-50 5-watt 2-way handheld radios w/belt clips & headsets.

Miscellaneous

* Various connectors/adapters.
* Gaffer’s tape.
* Power cords and outlet strips.
* Large bottle of Aspirin and pack of Tums.

Know What’s Going On.

The actual performance was on Friday evening, however a dress rehearsal was held that morning. Needless to say, all of us made a point of sitting through the rehearsal taking precise notes of all acts and performers’ movement.

Nothing is worse than showing up to perform a live-switch shoot and not knowing what is going to take place. You, as the director, are going to have to anticipate every action that takes place on the stage so that you can have at least one camera covering it that you can switch to.

The result of our rehearsal attendance was a seventeen page “cue” sheet that was a life save later on when it came time to set up the next-in-line camera shot. Plus, it gave us an excellent timing reference for determining when each act was to be concluded so that the necessary transitions or fade-outs between acts could be planned.

Set-Up Time

As soon as the dress rehearsal concluded, we all went to work setting up our respective gear. Each cameraman was responsible for his camera set-up and getting a camera cable run back to the mixing area. (With the exception of the roving camera, all camera cables were gaffer taped to the floor under the auditorium seats.)

Cameras sent a composite, not Y/C or S-Video, signal to the digital mixer along their 100 foot video cables. Y/C (S-Video) cables may cause problems with long runs, as the the separate chrominance and luminance signals may arrive at different times at the receiving end. The result is color shifting and a multitude of other problems. Hence, quality composite cables do a better job in long lengths.

For audio, we discretely placed three microphones on stage and two in the audience to pick up audience response (applause, laughter, etc.). These five mics were fed into the Mackie audio mixer along with a direct feed from the Symphony Hall’s audio system. This way we could blend a mixture of live ambient sound with the otherwise “dry” sound being emitted from the house system.

The stereo outputs from the audio mixer were sent directly to the audio inputs on the two recording VCRs.

Camera Position

“Camera One” was mounted on a tripod left of center stage. “Camera Two” was in a mirror image position right of center stage. “Camera Three” roved the area between cameras One and Two and his cable length permitted occasional positioning up in the wings of the stage where he could not only obtain side shots of the performers, but also shoot back into the audience to get audience reaction shots.

I was positioned about ten rows back in the center of the auditorium at the mixing station with the un-manned “Camera Four” on a tripod right behind me.

The primary job of Camera One and Two was there to capture the main action of the performance with there shots varying between close-ups and mid-angle shots. The roving and fixed cameras were available to provide cut-away shots from the primary action.

Even though the fixed camera was un-manned and static (a seemingly boring shot), it was a comfort knowing that if all else failed, a predictable, stable shot could be had at a moment’s notice.

Test Run

After all connections (both audio and video) were made, video tapes were inserted in all of the cameras, as well as the recording VCRs. We had several members of the cast perform their respective acts as we began rolling tapes (record) in all of the machines.

This provided an excellent opportunity to adjust levels in the audio mixer and make any necessary adjustments to the cameras (i.e. iris settings, gain boost, etc.). And, just as important, it gave all four of us an opportunity to once again go over our camera commands.

Just as the performers rehearsed their lines and songs, here we were rehearsing zooms and pans. After about ten minutes of equipment and communication testing, we played back all the video tapes to verify that each machine was doing its job. Once confirmed, all equipment was left turned on and the tapes were rewound. Dinner time.

Show Time

The curtain was schedule to go up at exactly 7:00 p.m., so we donned our two-way radios and manned our stations at about 6:30 p.m. just as the audience began entering the auditorium.

Last minute briefing takes place over the radio and then at 6:55 p.m. the command came from the technical director (that’s me) to “roll tapes”. This means start your camcorders recording and under no circumstances stop them from recording until the entire show is over. With these “back-up” tapes recording in the cameras, we could use them, if necessary, in editing to correct or re-do any portion of the show that was botched by either human or mechanical error.

The recording VCRs hooked up to the output of the digital mixer was also placed in the record mode and left recording until the conclusion of the show.

At this point, the master fade control on the MX-50 digital mixer is in the fade-to-black position. The master faders on the audio mixer were slowly brought up so the ambient sound of the audience was recorded as the TV screen still remains black (this builds the anticipation).

Meanwhile, I instructed Camera One to go to a mid-angle shot at the curtain where the MC will appear when the show begins. Camera Two was told to go to a wide angle shot of the same area on stage as Camera One.

Camera Three was off to the left front of the stage with a wide angle shot of the audience. And Camera Four is on full wide angle of the entire stage to provide the first opening establishing shot once the MC walks out onto stage.

At exactly 7:00 p.m., the opening theme music begins and I fade from black to Camera Four’s shot followed by a quick cut to Camera One’s close-up of the MC.

Shots alternate between Camera One and Two from this point on covering the show with cut-a-ways to Cameras Three and Four. The duration of the shots varied from between five and twenty seconds before moving on to a new shot. And the actual transitions are either straight cuts or soft cuts (dissolves).

Once the show was in progress, the technical director’s job is to watch what each camera operator’s camera is doing on the camera monitor and coordinate those cameras’ shots to match the action of the show by calling camera positions to the camera operators.

The camera operators’ job is to do what the technical director tells him to. Nothing more. Nothing less. All it takes is one “creative” cameraman deciding to start panning to some other part of the stage while his particular camera is “live” and being matched with another camera.

This particular live-switch shoot went off without a hitch, primarily because I was fortunate enough to be working with professional camera operators who themselves have previously sat in the technical director’s chair.

The entire one hour program wrapped up with final bows and a standing ovation from the audience and when the curtain eventually came down, the final camera shot was the fixed position wide angle camera that fed the MX-50 right as the digital mixer faded to black. Audio was slowly faded out about 30 seconds afterwards.

It’s A Wrap

Now the cameras and VCRs can be stopped and the dust settles as the audience leaves the auditorium.

The four of us scurry to wrap up our equipment and much to the show’s producer’s surprise, we were able to show him the entire four camera live-switched program right then and there on the program monitor.

He was happy. We were happy.

Even though the equipment used on this particular production was probably higher end than most have access to, the very same set-up and coordination can be utilized with any two or more video camcorders, any digital mixer and any VCR. And though the quality of the equipment will make a difference in the final product, the most important tools used in a live-switch production are communication and pre-planning.

So, go on out and give it a try the next time your kids are appearing in the school’s play or band concert. Or if you’re a wedding videographer, try live-switching a ceremony. You’ll quickly find that with a little practice and fine-tuning, you can make live-switching a very effective and profitable form of video production.

You may find yourself “switching” to this style of videography completely.

Live Video Switching Update

When shooting an event with multiple cameras, live video switching can be a very useful tool. This is very common with live events. Even if your video is not going to be seen live, using live switching can reduce your post-production process greatly. Even wedding videographers, who use multiple cameras can use live video switching during the ceremony.

Keep in mind, before you jump into using live video switching during your productions, you will need to practice in order to become proficient.

Focus Enhancements MXProDV

Formerly the Videonics MXProDV, this mixer has been around for a while. The MXProDV offers four inputs, chromakey, picture-in-picture, many different types of transitions and effects.

Panasonic MX-20 and MX-70

The Panasonic WJ-MX20 offers four inputs, chromakey, picture-in-picture, a large variety of transitions and effects. The street price for the MX-20 is around $1000. This is an excellent mixer for performing live switching.

The AG-MX70 offers 8 inputs and has a large LCD screen to monitor the mixer and for selection the various options. There are approx. 600 effects and an additional 1500 3d effects with the optional 3d unit. The AG-MX70 is a high end switcher and sells for around $6,500.

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Please Note: We DO NOT sell or provide support for video mixers.
We offer instructional videos on the Panasonic MX-50, MX-30 and AVE-7.

Instructional Videos Menu Page.