All the World’s A Stage

Neil Bregman, president and executive producer at Sound Venture Productions in Ottawa, has done dozens of arts and culture documentaries, but shooting the National Arts Centre Orchestra with Pinchas Zukerman for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. last fall (CAN$400,000/US$270,600) was his first...
June 1, 2000

Neil Bregman, president and executive producer at Sound Venture Productions in Ottawa, has done dozens of arts and culture documentaries, but shooting the National Arts Centre Orchestra with Pinchas Zukerman for the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. last fall (CAN$400,000/US$270,600) was his first attempt at capturing a large-scale live-to-tape performance. ‘It’s a hell of a scary experience,’ he says. ‘You have all of these uncontrollable variables that converge. We had 60 musicians on a rigid clock, 30 crew and 2,500 people in the audience. That’s a lot of people to deal with.’

The gritty reality of shooting a sold-out performance, whether it be dance, theater, classical or a rock concert, is that a camera crew is often in a position where their needs are considered last – after the promoter, the performers, the stage crew and the audience. ‘It’s a struggle against the factors that go into play in making an auditorium happy versus what you need to actually execute the TV production. There was a lack of willingness to compromise to make the television better,’ admits Bregman.

‘It’s a completely different frame of mind,’ agrees Camille Verbunt, a freelance director who has shot opera, dance and classical performances for AVRO in the Netherlands. ‘The stage crew likes being there live with an audience, but [cameramen] don’t like audiences. The [cameramen] like being there, but they don’t want that direct interaction.’

Getting the optimum technical conditions and necessary camera positions to capture the essence of a performance, while remaining unobtrusive, is often the biggest challenge for filmmakers. ‘If you stick a camera in an artist’s face so they can’t see the audience, they lose the intimacy of the crowd. Then they might end up doing something like kicking the cameraman,’ says Ian Stewart, managing director of Done and Dusted in London, a production house specializing in filming such large-scale rock concerts as Blur and the Spice Girls.

Stewart says, for the most part, there isn’t any magic way to get cameras out of view other than positioning them very high or very low, or shooting from far away on long lenses. ‘We get way back using a really long lens – 55:1 with doublers.’ He says that the only problem with having such a long distance in focus, is that if the camera moves a millimeter, it looks like it’s jumping around five feet or more. ‘If you’ve got a crowd dancing on the floor, you’ve also got dancing cameras. So we have to build independent spring camera mounts so they don’t bounce when the audience does.’

Making sure the performers aren’t aware of the cameras is equally important. ‘The biggest challenge we had was not infringing on the musical performance,’ remembers Bregman. ‘Especially in our case where it was classical music. There was a very purist attitude, and the conductor was very difficult.’

One key trick is to strategically place Elmos (small, hardy cameras) and lipstick or finger cameras (literally the size of a tube of lipstick) directly on the stage. Tiny cameras can be placed at each edge of the keyboard of a piano for instance, inside a set of drums, or on the head of a guitar without interfering with the performer. ‘It doesn’t give a great image technically,’ says Verbunt. ‘Actually, it’s quite crude, but it can be very dramatic, and sometimes you need it. You have to be very careful, though, because it might turn out to be a gimmick, and you don’t want that.’

Cranes and jibs are almost a necessity when filming large-scale performances. They can let a director keep cameras 25 yards or more away from something that they need to get close to. They also allow for some dramatic shots like hanging directly over a performer’s head, or flying through the crowd.

Mounting unobtrusive lights and getting stage crews, performers and camera crews to agree on lighting can also be a challenge. ‘Lighting was a definite problem because the musicians wanted clean, flat lighting so that they could read their scores, and we wanted dramatic, stylized lighting. We had to strike a balance there,’ says Bregman.

‘Generally, I like my lighting very hard, when it comes from high top, but I’ve shot in low light situations and was quite happy,’ says Verbunt. Still, he says that if possible, the best thing is to have the stage lighting director turn up the lights and use some fill light for the shadow.

Lighting the audience is pretty straight forward at a classical music performance, where they are generally used to having some house lights up, but for theater, opera or a rock concert, the audience is in total darkness, and lighting them can kill the energy at a show. ‘Audiences don’t mind changes as much as they mind a horrible constancy,’ says Stewart. ‘We just blast them with blinding light during an especially rousing chorus when everybody is jumping up and down and screaming anyway.’ Shying away from white light, Stewart uses what he calls blinders – eight lights, flat-packed, which he says can also be used as an effect because the harsh light blows out the cameras, resulting in a white flash and a washed-out screen. Obviously, this tactic isn’t always practical at a more subdued performance, so often the only chance to get good shots of the audience comes either at the beginning or end of the performance.

Shooting indoors at a concert hall or stadium is one thing, with the environment being fairly easy to assess and control, but when a performance takes place outside, the risks and complications grow exponentially. Every year, Oliver Rieger, production manager at EuroArts Entertainment in Germany oversees the shooting of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra’s annual open-air concert in Walgbuene. It is attended by over 22,000 people, and goes live to air in both Germany and Japan.

He explains that at an outdoor venue, getting good sound with unobtrusive mics can present a problem. ‘We always have a struggle with the sound guys because we want a frame without any microphones in it, but then again, we need perfect sound,’ says Rieger. Compromise generally comes through agreeing to hang mics from the ceiling of the stage or bandshell. The same problem exists for lights, and cameras, so additional sets are often built to camouflage equipment from the audience’s and performer’s sight lines, as well as from the camera’s framing.

Safety is always of utmost consideration at any performance, but at an outdoor venue or a stadium the opportunity for disaster multiplies. With nightmare scenarios always a real possibility – like $100,000 cameras falling off of wires and smashing into the audience, or an entire stage going live in a rainstorm and electrocuting someone – shooting an event can go from a challenge to a headache to a tragedy pretty quickly. ‘The horrible fear is that you’ll kill someone,’ says Stewart. ‘You could say, ‘Oh well, we’ll get away with something in order to get a shot.’ That’s fine unless you’re the person who is going to go to jail. And since that’s me, if we can’t do it [safely], we turn it down.’

Digital betacams are by far the cameras of choice for live performances. Aside from being more expensive, film can just be too unwieldy to use at a live event with a large audience, besides the fact that you cannot send a live feed with film.

Digital video cameras also allow for a multitude of effects built directly into the camera – from changing the frame rate, to skipping or double printing various frames, to adding effects that make the outcome more film-like, which is always desirable.

The number of cameras and crew necessary for capturing a live performance runs the gamut. Stewart says that with really large gigs the crews can reach upwards of 350 people, with 25-plus cameras. Bregman shot the National Arts Centre Orchestra with ten cameras and a crew of 25-30 people, and Verbunt generally works with seven or eight cameras and an average crew of about 20 people.

Production costs also vary greatly, with skilled labor often accounting for the lion’s share of the budget. Stewart figures that the low end for a concert would be about £50,000 (US$77,600). He estimates that to really cover a large concert well, with at least 20 cameras, costs approach the £350,000 (US$543,600) range.

‘It really depends where you are shooting,’ says Rieger. ‘It costs more to shoot in a church than a concert hall for instance. You have to bring more equipment and every camera brings more cost.’ He says that for the performances he works on, the budget range for technical considerations alone is somewhere between DM 200,000 to 600,000 (US$93,500 to $280,600).

Maintaining movement on screen at all times is one

of the single most important rules when shooting any

performance. Regardless of whether it’s the Smashing Pumpkins or Mozart, static shots are deadly. They can bring the entire performance to a halt for a TV audience, says Verbunt. ‘An audience can easily move their eyes around, but TV viewers can’t, so we have to substitute that uneasiness with something else. The key is lots of angles, and constant, fluid motion on screen.’

If the performance isn’t going out on a live feed, the ability to shoot multiple performances or a dress rehearsal is a welcome advantage. Stewart says that with the proliferation of DVDs, getting multiple shots with different angles for one track has become essential. ‘You just cheat the sound from one night, re-mix it, cheat the shots from the next night and sync it,’ he explains.

Rieger feels that the skillful cutting together of different shots is nearly as important as sound quality in bringing the essence of the music across to the television viewer. ‘We always have a script where each camera, each frame, is linked to the music itself. Beforehand, the director actually takes the original music and writes into the scores the cameras he is thinking he should use.’

There is a general camera law that says you can’t cross an axis – switch the side from which the camera mainly captures the action. But when recording a dance or music performance, the rule doesn’t always apply. ‘I always cross the axis,’ says Verbunt. ‘I don’t pay attention to conventional rules, because I’m not trying to be part of the audience. I’m trying to interpret the thing that happens on stage for television. There’s a big difference.’


Roll over Beethoven

Peter Rosen, president of Peter Rosen Productions in New York, has been directing and producing long-form arts and culture programs since the late ’70s. His credits include Midori Goto’s debut at Carnegie Hall and the Van Cliburn Piano Competition in Fort Worth, Texas. In the last few years, however, he has seen a discernable shift in the demand for shorter, stylized projects. ‘We realized that unless you could find ways to bring younger audiences into some of the more classical type of programs, there wasn’t going to be too much of a future for the arts on television.’

Rosen now focuses almost exclusively on making MTV-style music videos for classical artists. He recently put together a nine-minute video of a Katchutaurin piano concerto performed by Dora Serviarian-Kuhn (budget: US$75,000). The video had over 600 special effects, and saw play as a filler on A&E’s Breakfast with the Arts, as well as on various arts networks internationally.

Rosen says the biggest outlet for classical arts music videos in the U.S. is the Classic Arts Showcase, a not-for-profit foundation that uplinks a new eight-hour strand of videos every Friday night, which can be down-linked by broadcasters all over North America free of charge. In the U.S., Classic Arts Showcase reaches over 53 million homes through local educational or public access channels. In New York, it’s on PBS affiliate WNYE four hours per week, and on CUNY, The City University of New York’s cable station, 32 hours per week. ‘That’s 36 hours a week of classical music videos in the world’s largest TV market,’ exclaims Rosen. ‘It’s incredible exposure, and that alone justifies artists making videos.’

The high end for a classical video budget is between US$75,000 and $100,000, with most of the financing generally coming from the artist’s record company or management firm. Still, Rosen says that he has seen some great videos produced for $5,000 to $10,000. ‘These projects are finance-able whereas a lot of other independent projects aren’t and they offer the same kind of creative work for directors, producers and camera crew. Probably more so than commercials or feature documentaries.’

A Tale of Love and Torture – A Filmmaker’s Delight

Tosca: A Tale of Love and Torture follows the rehearsal period of Opera Australia’s 1999 production of Puccini’s famous opera from day one of rehearsals to opening night at the Sydney Opera House. Its approach of blending backstage footage and shots of the performance bound by a strong story represents a growing trend in arts and culture programming.

The film’s budget, AUS$390,000 (US$227,000) was financed primarily by Film Australia. The state-owned production and distribution company made both an 85-minute and one-hour version. ‘We set out to make a film that would appeal beyond the opera set,’ says director Trevor Graham. ‘I think arts docs tend to take themselves too seriously. We broke the mould of what an opera film can be. It’s actually quite funny.’

Graham says he recognized immediately that the time crunch the opera company was under would provide the all-important back-story for his doc. Local diva Joan Carden was playing the title role for the umpteenth time, but her two co-stars were first-timers. ‘With only three weeks before the curtain went up, there was real doubt as to whether the performance would be a success,’ says Graham.

He admits that when he first pitched it to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s documentary strand, there was resistance. ‘They didn’t like it because it was an opera film, not a big audience for the documentary slot,’ says Graham. He then pitched it to ABC’s Arts and Entertainment strand, who immediately stood behind the project. ABC will air the feature-length version in primetime next fall, a move Graham sees as an indicator of the changing view towards arts and culture programming. ‘I hope that programs like this will encourage the networks that the arts can be very strong and engaging for audiences,’ he says.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.