The pleasures and perils of filming lower league games with one camera
The life of a lower-league cameraperson is not an easy one and the last year of relying on online streams and highlights of the games has brought a lot of criticism from fans about the quality of the footage. As someone who has filmed at many grounds, I’d like to lift the lid a little on what it takes to shoot that footage in the first place.
We’ve been spoiled by mega-productions for the Premier League, where games are covered by at least 30 cameras at every conceivable angle and production costs run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. Down in the lower leagues it’s somewhat different. You turn up on your own at Dagenham & Redbridge with a camera, tripod and microphone, and the chairman pulls a ladder out of the undergrowth and tells you to make your own way up the back of a stand on to a knackered-looking scaffold tower. Or not being able to film any play in the corners of the pitch at Gillingham because the gantry is so tiny.
Generally the very least you expect watching football on TV is a three-camera set-up, the ideal, minimum requirement for covering a match. Camera one provides the high, wide shot that follows most of the action; camera two captures set pieces, goals and close-ups; and camera three roams and offers different angles.
While three cameras may be the ideal minimum, below the Premier League it’s a relative luxury. Covid restrictions required live coverage of games and sometimes three cameras were made available at the bigger Championship matches but normally EFL games will only be filmed by a lone cameraperson who has to navigate a myriad of obstacles to get you that footage.
The first thing I look for on arriving at a ground is the camera position. If I’m lucky, there will be a purpose-built gantry at the top of a stand with plenty of room for me to get my high, wide shot from directly along the halfway line. At a good ground there will be a lift or some sturdy stairs to lug all my equipment directly up. At an ageing stadium I might have to climb a rusty ladder that is planted directly between spectator seats and removed 45 minutes before the match starts, leaving me no way of getting down. Many gantries of a particular age are covered in rust and bounce and sway disconcertingly, making it almost impossible to move while you’re filming.
If I’m not so lucky it’ll be a 3x3m tower that was erected in 1973 by a long-dead local scaffolder, teetering on the edge of the roof of the stand. No cover over my head, no harness, no guarantee of any safety whatsoever. A colleague recalls filming on a scaffold tower that semi-collapsed on one side halfway through a game. No matter – he adjusted his tripod to match the 45-degree angle of the tower and carried on filming.
Despite the dangers of scaffold towers, they at least give us a chance to shoot the game from a decent position. Yet even now in an age of on-demand footage, many clubs simply aren’t set up to give us the best shot. A lot of stadiums are made up of low, one-tier stands and I’ll often find myself at the back of one, filming behind spectators, barely above pitch level. This makes for some awkward angles and panning left or right means the action can be obscured by the backs of spectators’ heads.
This is often the main difference between the big broadcasters, with their 10-truck, multi-camera circus, and me turning up with some hired kit in the back of my car: when Sky or BT cover a game they have almost total control over what happens in a stadium. I have little or none. I’m given fantastic access and, it has to be said, I am looked after by some very kind and generous club employees who are delighted to have me there, but I am absolutely not permitted to do anything that might spoil the matchday experience for the fans.
So, if I’m setting up my camera at pitch level on the halfway line and I’m obscuring the view of a few supporters in the front rows, I’ll be told to move in no uncertain terms by both the fans and the club. If I’m permitted to stay I have to hope the supporters behind me will not be annoyed by my presence and start swearing, because my microphone is the only one in the stadium and a thousand Cambridge United fans singing “the cameraman’s a wanker” is not the ideal soundtrack to the highlights of today’s match.
I have filmed, produced and directed many genres of television over my career but, as a football fan, nothing beats visiting a club I’ve never been to before, being welcomed and offered endless cups of tea and biscuits, and being able to film a game in a way as close as possible to how you and I would like to watch it. It’s never easy but it’s worth it. I hope that the next time you catch some footage of your team you’ll think of me and dozens like me teetering on the edge of a scaffold tower, doing our very best to capture what we can.