What's a "single-camera" show?

Much like Pron, I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

But what, beyond a pseudo-mockumentary, is a single-camera show? How does it differ, technically, from a three-camera show? Is there such a thing as a two-camera show? Does it have anything to do with the actual number of cameras on the set?

Besides Kitchen Confidential, AD, R911, and every Christopher Guest movie, what are some other single-camera shows/movies?

Ever notice how all the shots on Cheers look pretty much alike? Or how varied Scrubs is by contrast?

Most sitcoms are shot with three cameras in the interest of efficiency. Say you have a scene on Friends with all six main characters in Central Perk, mocking one another’s love lives in a while that quite belies the name of the program. There’ll be different cameras aimed at different place–one at the whole group, one on Joey sitting to the left, one on Rachel sitting to the right. This way you can get through the scene with a minimum of takes, repositioning, and so forth, and is particularly useful when you’re shooting in front of a studio audiience. However it’s visually boring and unartful.

By contrast, a one-camera show will have one primary camera (of course there may be others) in every scene. It follows the characters around (think of how much the characters on Scrubs or Arrested Development move around and allows for a much more interesting composition.

Most people prefer the look of one-camera. But again, it’s not that there’s literally only the one camera; it’s more of an approach to filmmaking. You can do good work either way; it simply depends on how much money you want to spend and what you want to emphasize. I think Frasier, for instance, was three-camera, and it was certainly a high-quality show; but since it emphasized witty dialogue, there was no need for the greater versatility fo the one-camera setup. On the other hand, I can’t think of any single-camera shows I think are poorly done, perhaps because the commitment to the greater effort involved in that approach bespeaks a greater commitment to quality.

Didn’t we just have this thread?

Examples of single-camera shows are Arrested Development, Malcolm in the Middle and The Brady Bunch. Single-camera shows are basically filmed like movies, with each shot being individually set up. (I’ve never heard of a three-camera movie, although big explosions and set pieces are usually filmed from several angles at once to ensure proper coverage.) Three-camera shows have three cameras filming the action at once, with the actors effectively performing the episode “live,” with minimal interruption. This allows three-camera shows to film before an audience, whereas the stop/start nature of single-camera filming would make it impossible for an audience to follow the action and laugh/react appropriately. Single camera shows can also achieve more complex compositions and lighting effects because of the extra time and flexibility afforded by the format.

I can. That Julia Louis-Dreyfus vehicle that was on for five or six episodes a couple years ago was pretty awful.

I can see how a live studio audience show wouldn’t be conducive to the single-camera format.

The Brady Bunch? Really?

The Office (both the BBC and NBC versions), and the aforementioned Kitchen Confidential, Scrubs, and Arrested Development are the best examples of single-camera sitcoms I can think of. But almost every TV drama, action, or sci-fi show on a major network is shot single-camera style, like a movie.

True. I should have said “single-camera sitcom.” though I’m sure there’s tons of crappy ones anyway.

You betcha. It may be harder to notice because the Brady house, like most sitcom homes, has no fourth wall; there are certain angles you never see because they would normally reveal the presence of the audience (unlike, say, Malcolm). But the show is nonetheless single-camera, with wide, “master” shots alternating with tight close-ups (or “turnarounds”) of the characters speaking.


How about The Partridge Family?


Frank’s Place
The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd
Sex and the City
Curb Your Enthusiasm
The Wonder Years
Square Pegs
The Larry Sanders Show** (except for the actual talk show stuff, which is 3-camera)

Yep. I think a lot of 60s “laugh track” sitcoms (without live audiences) were filmed that way, but I can’t be sure as I don’t care for most of them, so haven’t watched them much.

You could think of it this way …

  • a three-camera show is filmed the way you might record the performance of a rehearsal of a play. There are occasional interruptions, and do overs and the like. And some of the scenes might be done out of order, but overall, if you were sitting there watching it, you would be able to follow the story and you would be expected to respond to the jokes.

  • a one-camera show is not “performed” as such. The basic building block is not a scene that can be completely understood by a casual viewer. The basic building block is a shot and in the editing room, all the shots are put together to form a coherent performance.

I’ve read that most tv was a two camera show untill Mork and Mindy. An extra camera was added for Robin Williams. Or was M&M a four camera show?

Using three television cameras goes back at least to Ed Sullivan’s variety show The Toast of the Town in 1948. Three 35mm film cameras originated with I Amos ‘n’ Andy in the summer of 1951, several months before the debut of I Love Lucy, which is often credited with the innovation.

I was watching a rerun of What’s My Line? from the early 60s, and a celebrity contestant was asked if he was on a “standard three-camera show.” So by then it was considered “standard.”

Time magazine, March 6, 1950:

Watching Ellie (I had to look it up). The weird thing is that as soon as I read Creature’s comment, I thought of that show. Must be the defining example of a bad one-camera sitcom.

I thought Oliver Beane (I might be spelling it wrong, but it was a sitcom on Fox’s Sunday night lineup a few years ago) was pretty bad too.

At first, tdn, I wondered if you might be in the biz.
We call any project (commercial, doc, narrative et al) a show.

Most narratives are shot “single camera” style. Makes for more precise and hopefully artistic lighting with each set up. So besides the capture medium, film versus video, lighting is an important factor that separates the “movie” look from the “soap opera” look.

There’s also an audio component, isn’t there? Soap opera v. three-camera sitcom v. one-camera show – I notice significant differences in the sound atmosphere between the three.