Video Directing 101 – Avoid this Common Mistake


By fixing this most common camera placement error, your video directing will connect better with your viewers, lay the foundation for great live appeal, and provide improved story-telling.

In other posts, we have talked about proper camera placement and our ultimate goal of telling an effective story. In this post I want to highlight the most common mistake I see in camera placement. That mistake is simply this: placing one camera in the center of the room and additional cameras on the outside edges of the room. I call this the equal distance between cameras theory.

It looks like this:


Facing the stage, there is a camera that shoots the pastor from the left side of the sanctuary, one in the center, and one from the right side of the sanctuary.

Why is this wrong?

Instead of one simple answer, I would like to lay out some observations that lead to the conclusion that this is not a best practice. Along the way, this discussion will expose some of my presuppositions. As always, although I have strong opinions, and stand behind them, I understand there is more than one way to tell an effective story. However, Hollywood and sporting events have trained people to watch TV and movies in a certain way. By using similar techniques, we minimize barriers to communication.

Think of these techniques as video grammar, if it helps. Grammar is the system and structure of language. Grammar provides the framework for communication. If we all used language in our own way – providing a scrambled word order in each sentence, our unique spelling, not considering subject/verb agreement, substituting our own system of punctuation – communication would evaporate.

The same is true in video story-telling!

Reference Direction Continuity

When you watch a sporting event on TV, all of the cameras are placed on the same side of the field/court and at each end. You may not have ever thought of this, but it’s true.  Let’s take basketball for an example (although this is true for any sport: hockey, football/soccer, American football, even tennis) . Using the equal distance between cameras theory, I would image someone placing the cameras like this:


That would make the game a challenge to watch, because it would destroy reference direction continuity. 

Reference direction continuity is simply the presentation of a constant point of view; a consistent frame of reference (or viewpoint) to the viewer.

In the basketball example, the game would be confusing to watch if on one camera angle the player was shooting at a basket on the right side of the screen, and as the ball left his hand, the camera cut and now the basket was on the left side of the screen. But that is exactly what would happen with the above example. As we cut from camera 1 to camera 3, we would lose reference direction continuity.

Here, of course is the actual camera placement taken from a recent game when the Four Time World Champion San Antonio Spurs beat the Bobcats here in Charlotte (excluding the cameras under each basket):


Reference direction continuity is part of the grammar of video story-telling.

This may not seem like a completely accurate analogy since, at most sporting events, the audience completely wraps around the playing area, where in a church, the congregation is on one side of the room and the platform is on the other side.

In equal distance between cameras theory:

  • on Camera 1 – the congregation is on the right, the Pastor is facing right, and the back of the platform is on the left.
  • on Camera 3 – the congregation is on the left, the Pastor is facing left, and the back of the platform on is on the right.

Although it may seem like a subtle difference, it is why a church service shot in this manner does not feel right to the viewer. We have lost reference direction continuity.

What do we want? More information. When do we want it? Now

Often, when I see the equal distance between cameras theory, each camera is on a tight or waist shot:

  • When the pastor turns or walks to his right, the director dissolves to camera 1.
  • When the pastor turns back to the center, the director dissolves to camera 2.
  • When the pastor turns or walks to his left, the director dissolves to camera 3.

Yikes! I’m breaking out in hives just typing those bullet points.
The Pastor speaking is not the only thing happening in the service. Please review my post on Telling the Story. I spend some time discussing what story we are actually trying to capture and tell. Suffice it to say, if we are going to only show one camera shot (a tight or waist shot of the speaker), then we only need one camera, and one camera at a live event will not communicate the story.

As a viewer I want as much information about what I am watching as I can get. When watching a sporting event, the networks provide commentators. They help the viewer analyze what is happening by showing replays and discussing strategy. They give additional information that enhances the experience (although, sometimes they can talk too much and detract from the event).
When watching an awards show, we don’t just see the presenters. We see the reaction of the nominees. We see the winner hug those around them before heading to the platform.
There is a similar opportunity we have in the video storytelling of our church services. There is much more happening in the service than just what is happening behind the pulpit.

My camera 2 is a tight shot. My camera 1 is a head to toe. Both of these cameras, as much as possible, are centered on the podium. I talk more about this in my post on camera placement. When we cut from camera 2 to camera 1 there should be some valuable information that is captured better on camera 1 than camera 2. We aren’t just switching between cameras to pass the time. If more than one camera is showing the same basic shot, you are wasting the potential of good camera placement and coverage.

If our cameras are only showing one element of the story, we are failing in our video communication. That may seem hash, but there’s no way around it.

Conclusion – Video that feels live

One of the greatest compliments a church video director can get is when a viewer tells them that watching their line cut (through the internet stream, podcast, or DVD) made them feel like they were at the service.
That means:

  • there were no communication barriers between the director and the viewer.
  • the mechanics of the video production were behind the scenes and the viewer was able to connect with the story.
  • the viewer forgot they were watching a video and just engaged with the service.

If you want your video to have a live feel, maintain reference direction continuity.
When we attend a live sporting event, our frame of reference does not change. We are in the same seat for the entire event.

If you want your video to have a live feel, give the viewer all the information.
When we attend a live event, we supply the context in the room; including the people and their reactions. We clap because everyone else is clapping. We sing louder when everyone else is singing louder. In person, you can look around. Your viewers are trusting you to “look around” for them with good camera placement.

So now you know the most common error in camera placement, why it’s wrong, and why you should fix it.

Agree? Disagree? Let me hear about it below.


2 thoughts on “Video Directing 101 – Avoid this Common Mistake

  1. Mike, Great information. It gives me a clearer understanding of the reasons for using the different cameras. As I understand the goal of the finished product, I have a greater appreciate of all your efforts and the advice you give us with your postings. I know that I am learning from them, even when I get confused directing the cameras. There is a lot going on in the service and we want to keep the viewers engaged in what they are seeing so they won’t miss the pastors message.


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