Generally, the two outer cameras shoot close shots or crosses of the two most active characters on the set at any given time, while the central camera or cameras shoot a wider master shot to capture the overall action and establish the geography of the room. In this way, multiple shots are obtained in a single take without having to start and stop the action. This is more efficient for programs that are to be shown a short time after being shot as it reduces the time spent editing the footage. It is also a virtual necessity for regular, high-output shows like daily soap operas. Apart from saving editing time, scenes may be shot far more quickly as there is no need for re-lighting and the set-up of alternate camera angles for the scene to be shot again from the different angle. It also reduces the complexity of tracking continuity issues that crop up when the scene is reshot from the different angles. It is also vital for live television.
While shooting, the director and assistant director create a line cut by instructing the technical director to switch the feed to various cameras. In the case of sitcoms with studio audiences, this line cut is typically displayed to them on studio monitors. The line cut may later be refined in editing, as the picture from all cameras is recorded, both separately and as a combined reference display called the quad split. The camera currently being recorded to the line cut is indicated by a tally light on the camera as a reference both for the actors and the camera operators.
Although it is often claimed that the film version of the multiple-camera setup was pioneered for television by Desi Arnaz and cinematographer Karl Freund on I Love Lucy in 1951, other filmed television shows had already used it, including another comedy on CBS, The Amos 'n Andy Show, which was filmed at the Hal Roach Studios and was on the air four months earlier. The technique was developed for television by Hollywood short-subject veteran Jerry Fairbanks, assisted by producer-director Frank Telford, and first seen on the anthology series The Silver Theater, another CBS program, in February 1950. Desilu's innovation was to film with a multiple-camera setup before a live studio audience.
The multiple-camera mode of production gives the director less control over each shot, but is faster and less expensive than a single-camera setup. In television, multiple-camera is commonly used for sports programs, soap operas, talk shows, game shows, and some sitcoms. Multiple cameras can take different shots of a live situation as the action unfolds chronologically and so is congruent with events that have a live audience. For this reason multiple camera productions can be filmed or taped much faster than single camera. Single camera productions are shot in takes and various setups with components of the action repeated several times and out of sequence; the action is not enacted chronologically so is unsuitable for viewing by a live audience.
Sitcoms shot with the multiple camera setup include Mary Kay and Johnny, The Dick Van Dyke Show, All in the Family, The Cosby Show, Seinfeld, and Friends. Many sitcoms from the 1950s to the 1970s were shot using the single camera mode of production, including The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, The Andy Griffith Show, The Addams Family, The Munsters, Get Smart, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, Gilligan's Island, Hogan's Heroes and The Brady Bunch. These did not have a live studio audience and by being shot single camera tightly edited sequences could be featured, along with multiple locations, and visual effects such as magical appearances and disappearances and actors playing doppelgangers appearing on screen together. This would not have been feasible with a multiple camera production. More recent programs such as The Larry Sanders Show (1992–1998), Malcolm in the Middle (2000–2006), Scrubs (2001–), and My Name Is Earl (2005–) are also single camera.
Television prime-time dramas are usually shot using a single-camera setup. Most films also use the single-camera setup. In recent decades larger Hollywood films have begun to use more than one camera on-set, usually with two cameras simultaneously filming the same setup, however this is not a true multicamera setup in the television sense. Sometimes feature films will run multiple cameras, perhaps four or five, for large, expensive and difficult-to repeat special effects shots such as large explosions. Again, this is not a true multicamera setup in the television sense as the resultant footage will not always be arranged sequentially in editing, and multiple shots of the same explosion may be repeated in the final film — either for artistic effect or because the different shots are taken from different angles they can appear to be different explosions to the audience.
The choice of single-camera or multiple-camera setups is made separately from the choice of film or video. That is, either setup can be shot on either film or video. However, due to the inherent and significant differences between film and video equipment certain choices became de facto standards. Video cameras used in TV studios are much bulkier and heavier than similarly used film cameras, and also require large electrical cabling in and out of them that film cameras do not. Therefore it is actually easier to shoot video with three cameras simultaneously rather than to move one large, cumbersome video camera from shot to shot. Consequently television productions shot single-camera and on videotape are extremely rare.