Single-Camera vs. Multi-Camera TV

Can someone please give me an idea of a single-camera TV show vs a multi-camera one? As in, XXXXX is single-camera, and YYYYY is multi-camera, and here is how you can tell the difference.


Sent from my SGH-i677 using Board Express

Big Bang Theory and Two & a Half Men are both examples of multi-camera. They perform in front of an audience usually and the cameras catch everything at once and they edit the show from those single takes.

The Office, Arrested Development, New Girl are all single-camera - meaning more of a “cinematic” approach to filming a scene with one camera over and over again from different angles. No live audience.

Lots of classic sitcoms are multi camera - think Cheers or Seinfeld, where it almost looks like the action is taking place on a stage - compare to the look of a single camera show like Community or 30 Rock (in one of the live episodes of 30 Rock they made a joke about how its (multi camera) look was so different from their typical episodes - “like a Mexican soap opera”.)

Here’s a list of single-camera sitcoms.

Multi-camera sitcoms would be shows like Roseanne, Cheers, Friends, All in the Family, Three’s Company…

Single camera involves a lot of editing and scenes can be easily shot out of chronological order.

Multi-camera, while not necessarily shot in scene-by-scene order, are easier and faster to shoot. Giveaways are usually the presence of a live audience and the almost exclusive use of a very small number of permanent sets.

I read somewhere online (so you know it’s true) that NBC’s Up All Night is transitioning from a single-camera to multi-camera in order to save money.

Single camera has a wider variety of shot sizes and angles than multi camera. Single camera is shot very much like film. All hour dramas are shot single cam style. All of them. Only soaps and some sitcoms are shot multi cam.

Multi camera is mostly limited to what can be captured by the 4 or more cameras in front of the set. I say mostly because some multi cameras now shoot some of their interior scenes single cam style - How I Met Your Mother did this. It’s also true that pretty much all multi cams shoot their exterior scenes single cam style. If the scene is actually out of doors - as opposed to simulated outdoors that’s actually on a soundstage - it’s shot single cam style.

I guess it should be noted since it may not be so obvious. Multi-camera shows are shot on a sound stage where the set does not have the proverbial forth wall. So all the cameras are basically on one side of the action but at different angles. Think Cosby Show living room.

Single camera shows are shot on full sets where additional cameras would be seen in the background if there were more than one.

Another single camera show was ER. I remember when they did a Live episode where the concept was a film crew following around the staff, they had to use multiple cameras due to the action taking place in different areas of the set during a live performance. While this was not a true ‘multi-camera’ show in that aspect, Anthony Edwards noted that they typically used a single camera except during the episode where it was suppose to appear to have been shot with a single (documentary) camera.

Here’s a picture of the set of The Honeymooners.

A laugh track (whether live or canned) is a dead giveaway, multi-camera shows can be filmed in front of an audience and sometimes they announce that fact (e.g., “Cheers is filmed before a live studio audience”). On the single camera shows there would be no room for an audience. Can’t recall any single-camera sitcoms that have added a canned laugh track, it would certainly be highly out of place if they did.

Watch these clips from the “Soup Nazi” episode of Seinfeld.

The scenes in Jerry’s apartment and inside the soup shop are multi-camera, and they have a distinct “soap opera effect” quality, while the scenes out on the street are single camera, and have a distinct film-like quality.

The lighting is a good thing to watch for in the Seinfeld clips…in the apartment (multi-cam) scenes the lighting is harsher and more directional, you can see the tops of their heads/hair lit up by the overhead lights and the actors cast shadows in places; in the street (single-cam) scenes the lighting is much more even looking.

Bewitched and I Dream of Jeanie. Because of all the special effects it wasn’t feasible to film before a live audience. The laugh track wasn’t canned though, they’d show the completed episode to a live audience and record that laughter.

MAS*H’s was (in)famous…lots of 60’s comedies had one too.

Although it was shot three-camera The Honeymooners are kind of a unique example. You can actually tell if you zoom in that picture, that the cameras are rather large. That’s because they were both video cameras and film cameras combined! Honeymooners was done in the pre-videotape era, so episodes were performed and broadcast live via the video cameras, but also captured for reruns (and posterity) via the film cameras. Gleason had a lot of influence (and money) and he knew that this show was something special. So he wanted high quality copies available for the future. Before videotape the only way to save live shows for rerun was to simply point a film camera at a stage monitor (i.e. a TV screen) and literally film that. It’s called a kinescope and it looks, well, like what it is, a film of a TV screen (IOW rather crappy).

Note that only the first, original ‘classic 39’ episodes were shot this way. Clips of it when it was just a sketch on his variety show and later revivals are kinescopes and videotaped respectively.

In regards to today, single or three camera, everything is shot with HD video, which is indistinguishable from film. The only things that still look like video are soap operas and things meant to ‘look’ live like talk shows, SNL etc. This is done deliberately by shooting & broadcasting the HD video at 30fps (same as old video) instead of 24fps.

MASH, Sports Night, and of course The Flintstones.

Until recently, say the last ten years, single camera sitcoms were extremely rare, and it’s kind of related to the laugh track. By the 1970s laugh tracks seemed corny, unrealistic, and out of place. So the alternative was to always shoot comedies in front of a live audience (i.e. with real laughter), which meant you *had *to shot three-camera (film or video).

Something interesting, the few comedies that were shot single camera with a laugh track, the performers & creators were often at odds with the networks over the use of it. MASH* & Sports Night for example. So was the first season of The Odd Couple (it switched to 3-camera/live audience in season two). They even convinced the networks to try an episode or two without it, but the networks always felt people at home still needed to know when to laugh.

Even today, single-camera sitcoms are the exception, and I think the lack of any kind of ‘on-screen’ laughter in them is still the reason. The only successful one I can think of off the top of my head is Malcolm in the Middle

It should be noted too that some shows use multi-camera set ups because of the new trend in writing that has actors talking over each other. It helps with continuity in editing.

IIRC, Sports Night had this foisted on them by the network; the first few eps don’t have one.

Wow, I had blocked out the infamous Sports Night laugh track from my memory. It does seems to be the exception in modern single-camera sitcoms though.