Television shows are often referred to as being single-cam or multi-cam. This directly relates to the style of filming. Back in the day when TV production was more straightforward, mutli-cam referred to 30-minute sitcoms and single-cam to hour-long dramas. This general rule of thumb isn’t always the case any longer. It most closely correlates with the production schedule.
A single-cam/ multi-cam show can be broadly applied to assess both the production style and the type of storytelling. Since it’s a film and TV production technique, multi-cam shows tend to be either live or fast turnaround TV shows which don’t have the time for multiple takes of the same scene.
Single-cam TV shows tend to have a more generous production time schedule that allows for more takes of the same scene. More multi-cam shows are filmed in a day than single-cam. Think of it as the difference between preparing a meal from scratch to heating a frozen dinner in the microwave.
Let’s take a look at the major differences between multi-cam and single-cam TV shows:
1) DOUBLE-SPACED SCRIPT FORMAT
If you’re unsure whether a script you’re reading is a single or multi-cam, check the spacing. If it is single-spaced without act breaks, it most likely is a single-cam TV show. A double-spaced sitcom script is a dead giveaway of a multi-cam format. The extra spacing allows cast and crew to write additional directions and make production changes during filming.
2) HOW MANY CAMERAS?
How many cameras are used in a single-cam production? This is not a trick question. The simple answer is one camera used to film the main action and additional ‘single’ cameras for second and third units shooting in different locations.
Single-cams utilize a main camera and sometimes a B-camera for additional footage of the same scene. B-camera material may not always end up in the final edit.
Typically, broadcast network TV sitcoms are shot with a three or four camera setup. The center camera films the master shots, while the left and right cameras film the reaction and cross-over shots. Add live or canned laughter and there’s your TV show.
Single-cam shows generally have smaller and more nimble production crews. This means they can film more exterior shots in more locations than a multi-cam show.
Multi-cam TV shows tend to have a few key STANDING SETS such as a cafe. office or an apartment, where the majority of the action is filmed. These are called FIXED SETS because they are used in most episodes of a TV show.
Less frequently used standing sets are called SWING SETS which are quickly swung (or wheeled) on set for an easy filming setup.
Occasionally. there may be a roaming single camera in a multi-cam TV show to film an exterior shot or a scene in a specific location.
4) MOOD & PACING
Multi-cam TV shows tend to more fast-paced and joke-driven. Single-cam shows have the luxury of lingering reaction shots over a longer period of time. They can convey more complex, nuanced emotions and themes. Consequently, they can explore a wider range of genres.
Multi-cam TV shows have a more limited point of view and confined angles. Single-cam shows can be more cinematic in their visual style. This allows single-cam shows to explore a wider range of themes and characters. Single-cam also allows for more stunts, car chases and more action scenes.
A multi-cam TV show more closely resembles a theatrical experience. Actors on stage and audience in their seats. A single-cam TV show is more intimate and immersive. Audiences can get on stage with the actors and get to know them more deeply.