Some thoughts on filming a theatrical stage performance
First of all a big ***Thank you*** to Alex and Laura, the co-producers of CUADC’s production of The Emperor’s New Clothes at the ADC Theatre in Cambridge.
The above is a teaser-medley I put together, as most of my weekly allowance of file space was used up for a Transition Cambridge event with Cambridge MP Dr Julian Huppert. Videos of Julian’s speech, and the feedback presentations are here. I also recorded the audio of the Q&A session Julian hosted – avoiding filming so as not to put off people from asking questions. Click here for the audio – which I recorded on an old smartphone that I’ve kept old of, attaching it to a standard lapel mic clipped onto Julian’s shirt. Note to self, adjust the mic volume before recording!
Going beyond ‘setup and record’
This is the next step for me – going beyond being the static cameraman. Many of my previous recordings have involved little more than setting up the camera and letting the hardware do the work. With a theatrical performance, you cannot do that. If you capture the whole stage, you don’t get any detail of the actors’ face expressions. A lot of the nuance and communication is lost. You run the risk of ‘stick figures moving to audio’ with that approach.
The optical zoom on my camera was powerful enough to zoom in close enough for a decent head-and-shoulders shot. The problem with that is you have to be aware of what the rest of the case is doing outside of your view-finder. When you have multiple characters in dialogue, this is a huge challenge. Even more so if the characters are spread across the stage – as they often are in plays. It takes a huge amount of practice to learn what level of zoom corresponds with what levels of camera movement. The slightest touch of the camera when zoomed in on a distant performer will knock the performer out of shot.
Comparing actors moving across a stage with a single pianist in one place
The above is one of my favourite performances by one of my favourite young musicians, Grace Sarah – filmed at The Junction in Cambridge just after she had completed her GCSEs. This was filmed from the same distance on my old camcorder that only had a digital zoom. In the grand scheme of things, that 2010-era consumer model camcorder did a reasonable job. But it struggled with other performers that evening. It would have had no chance with a theatre performance. The movement and changing light patterns would have been too much for it. Ditto with trying to pick up the music from a relatively large theatre band. Interestingly, there were a number of occasions when even my upgraded camcorder really struggled with trying to auto-focus in on some of the actors – particularly when the light contrasts were large, eg with spotlights.
Improving on the audio
In the grand scheme of things, audio counts for at least 50% of your videos. People can tolerate slightly shaky visuals. Screw up the audio and they switch off – as I found out with a very early digital video project a couple of years ago.
Take this performance below by the Cambridge-based octet Makossa.
You can hear the bass, but you can’t feel it – if that makes sense. The same is the case with this performance by Fred’s House from earlier this summer at a pack Alex Pub. (Dowsing Sound Collective friends may recognise Paul on the drums). Again, you can hear but not feel some of the various musical instruments.
As a single operator, I’m faced with the constant challenge of the trying to find a decent place to film from as well as a decent place to get audio from. In the case of the Fred’s House performance, there was neither as the garden was jam packed. In both these cases, the amps were linked up to a professional standard sound mixer. In the case of Makossa, there wasn’t anyone operating the sound mixer during the performance. In an ideal world you’d have someone who knew reasonably well what they were doing & were passionate about it on the sound mixer, with your camcorder plugged in. (I don’t have the kit to plug into such kit, hence relying on an external mic – which I suppose makes me ‘look the part’!)
On theatre performances where you have people moving across the stage, & multiple voices appearing in different places, I can see how rehearsing can make a huge difference. Furthermore, I can see how having a ‘camera script’ of who to focus on and when, being really useful too. The better clips – in particular the face expressions that I filmed from the ADC Theatre earlier were down to luck with anticipation and bloody hard concentration. The last time I concentrated so hard on a screen for an extended period of time was during second reading of a bill going through Parliament that me and my team were supporting ministers for. That was a good seven hours concentrating on every single word uttered by every MP.
In 2015 I’d like to try out filming another show – not a serious play but a light-hearted one, with rehearsal & preparation time. Hard work, but I imagine damn good fun!