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Filming live theatre for cinema release?


We are looking for a producer / production company to partner with, who has experience filming live theatre for release in cinemas. We are an opera company based in West Yorkshire / Manchester (

Initially we would like to find out more about the challenges and skills involved in this particular process, so I'm opening a discussion here rather than posting in the work section. Questions so far...

- Is it normal to have a separate director for the film?

- What other roles and equipment are required at a minimum? (editor, sound recordist, camera...)

- How do people feel about different camera angles and close-ups vs. the live audience's view (i.e. static shot of the whole stage)

- How easy/hard is it to eliminate live audience noise, and is that even desirable, given that there will be some synergy between the actors and the live audience? Do the cinema audiences pick up on that too?

- Or is it recommended to record for the cinema in an empty theatre, without a live audience?

- Who are the main distributors for this kind of film? What are the typical models?

We have a show in mind (on stage in Sept 2016) which we want to distribute to cinemas. (Yes it will be a commercial i.e. paid project, if you want to pitch your company/services to me that's fine)

  • If you have backers, I can point you towards producers/companies who do this kind of thing regularly - eg Serpent

    Yes, you absolutely need a separate director for the broadcast, and separate sound mix, and basically a full OB with satellite uplink. You produce the play as normal and the production company will hit you with a load of questions and requirements, and do all the magic.

    You'd usually rehearse the tech in an empty theatre, then film a preview show (which you can use for cutaways/fixes), and then do the 'main' show live. This also allows you to get a few shots from angles that would irritate a premium audience (eg steadicam on stage)

    You need to consider audience 'kills' for camera positions (seats you can't sell), and also usually extra lighting PLUS audience lighting (you need some reverses of the audience if they respond to something on stage, you want to at least see that there's an audience). Live also improves performance, makes an event, and the audience effectively represent the cinema audience in the venue. Keep audience noise, in fact your sound truck will mic up the auditorium for this.

    Yes you need a wide of the stage, but nobody will pay for just that - you need to cover the action from multiple angles with dollies/jibs. A soliloquy needs to be a close shot, probably with a slow push into the actor - on a wide/master alone, it'll be absolutely dead.

    Any of that any help as a starter? :)

    5 years ago
  • BTW Serpent did La Traviata for ENO this April, if you want reassurance! I can make the introduction if you go down this route :-)

    5 years ago
  • Thanks Paddy! We don't have the budget of ENO (even ENO doesn't have the budget of ENO, any more), so if they're a top-end company we probably won't be able to afford them, but certainly happy to have the conversation at least.

    That's all very useful, what you've said. Personally (speaking as a composer and stage director) I hate seeing live opera from close-up / "filmic" camera angles, as the stage director and more to the point, the composer, are doing "closeup" for you. All the costume, set, make-up will all be done for being seen from an auditorium, and can look grotesque, shabby, or unintentionally comic in a close-up. But clearly it's popular with general audiences to have the different angles, it's what they are used to seeing on a screen.

    We wouldn't need the satellite uplink, I suppose, as we'd be recording for later release, not for simulcast.

    I'll check out Serpent for sure, and would welcome the introduction, if a 4/5-figure budget is OK rather than a 6/7-figure one.

    5 years ago
    • Hi Tim, frankly 4/5 figures will not go far, certainly at the lower end of it, and certainly won't go as far as cinematic quality. I think to get this right is a far bigger job than you may be expecting!

      You simply cannot cover a stage production with a lock-off. In the theatre, you can turn your head, you can scan the stage and the action, you can look where the director wants you to and can easily identify the speaking actor to focus on. In cinemas/TV, the camera has to do the moving for you. Think how small a face is when a shot covers the whole stage - you barely see the lips move, there's a lot of wasted screen in every shot. The whole language is different. By all means, try getting a lockoff/master of any other stage show and see just how DULL it becomes when you watch it back!

      The satellite uplink isn't the expensive part - getting the job right is! Anyway, let's say you cover the show with (an unusually small) 6-8 cameras - you need kit and cam ops for 2-3 days, plus grip, plus OB plus creatives and production. Luckily doing a live edit in an OB is actually relatively cheap as far as TV/film goes, but it's still real money.

      Speaking candidly, are we talking £10k, £50k, £100k-ish? I wouldn't start unless there's at least £50k, then see how much you can get for the money and work backwards to some degree. Over say £50k, each £10k will go a lot further, I'd suggest! If under £50k, you may be making some pretty major compromises - but this is all 'finger in the air' guesstimate pricing ;-)

      5 years ago
  • Tim you're asking for a lot. You're asking for a course in live performance film making with a complete technical briefing of all of the several options!

    From what you've explained we can eliminate the obvious option which is to film the performance without an audience and controlling the act specifically for shooting purposes. So that leaves a choice of options as to how to capture the live play for a TV or cinema audience, which is entirely different from the perspective of a live audience. If money is no object the standard broadcast method is to set up a lot of cameras and microphones linked to a central control room with a vision mixer, technical crew and director. Typically this control room is located in a purpose built truck. Each camera operator is equipped with talk back so that the director can direct them. This wpuld cost a lot of money. Each camera can also serve as a safety back up together with a principle safety back up camera. If the live mix is good enough then only minimal editing is required but typically the final effort will need a fair bit of editing and post production.

    The minimum option is a single camera take supported by a wide safety camera. This is much cheaper and can be remarkably viable in the right hands but requires a very skilled and experienced self directing camera person able to smoothly follow the principle action by virtuoso use of the servo remotes for zoom, focus and exposure. However from what you specify the end product will need to be good enough for large screen cinematic distribution; for me these days that means 4K multicamera, not to be confused with 4k sub broadcast domestic cameras. I really cant see you guys doing it yourselves unless you happen to have professional film makers of your own; and even among professionals it's very specific skillset required for this project.

    Directing cameras for live theater is entirely different from theater directing and generally the two skills rarely reside within the same individual. The camera sees theater very differently from the naked eye. Same goes for dancers who never understand the difference but usually appreciate the arcane results from a skilled producer. In many ways the camera needs to 'see' the action in almost the diametrically opposite way to the naked eye. Theater and dance folk trying to film live performance invariably achieve a very flat and tedious result that'll be unwatchable to all but the most incestuously involved.

    Technically the options are equally extreme, how much do you want to spend and how low a standard is acceptable?

    At the end of the day, if you're serious about getting a viable result, you'll need to learn the art in the same way that professional film makers have had to; you won't get anywhere near enough to that from asking how to do it on Shooting People; You don't have any option other than to get a professional film maker to produce this project for you.

    5 years ago
  • You want to distribute to cinemas and your starting point is production questions?

    Your starting point should be the cinemas and distributors. What do they want? Be prepared for them not wanting anything you can afford to deliver.

    The live shows are popular, but that's a very different sale to a recorded show.

    This is going to cost money, you def need to start by having some idea of what the market wants, what it will pay for what it wants, before spending limited resources this way.

    You really do not want to DIY it. It is a complex shoot because it's all in the planning. The director can't shout CUT and do it again.

    Not sure what the aim is, but this might make good reality TV? They did Royal Opera house, time to go regional? Loads exposure and pros handling everything for free :-)

    5 years ago
  • Thanks v much for the further responses!

    Please don't try and shoot me down though, I come here for friendly discussion, I'm not posing as an expert on the topic - I'm an expert on other topics, not this one - hence asking for friendly advice and recommendations.

    The budget we're looking at for the filming side is in the £10k ballpark, not the £50k ballpark.

    The budget of the stage show itself will be in the £50k league which does, in fact, buy you quite a lot of professional opera, unless your initials are "R.O.H." in which case you are missing a couple of zeros off the end. You can check out my previous work easily enough, I know what I'm talking about when it comes to stage shows. But not filmed stage shows :-)

    This idea came up in a production meeting because our new show is too big (size of cast) to tour very practically. Normally we tour to different venues in our region (northern England, but also London). This time however we have got a nice big well-equipped stage (in Manchester) and plenty of time to use it, for this show. Also we noticed that many of our regular venues do screenings of ROH, ENO, etc., but don't have what you might call top grade cinema-quality setups (i.e. they aren't going to be competing with your local multiplex). Furthermore we noticed that there are quite a few regional indie cinemas who, again, show pre-recorded theatre.

    Putting all this together we figured that for the cost of touring the show to a couple of regional theatres, we could film it, have it shown in those same theatres, and have a product that we could show in many more other places such as the indie cinemas and other arts centres / theatres who show independent film, reaching a greater audience than otherwise possible. We'd include some "making of" / behind-the-scenes material as well as the piece itself, and we're also looking at having live Q&A's before/after the projection.

    I don't for one moment suppose that we are going to afford anything like one (or more) of the BBC's OB trucks. However I figured that we can still record and edit it to a decent standard: say, to the standard of the many quality independent films made by users of this very site, which are of course shown at film festivals and the like, at precisely the kind of venues I'm looking at.

    *Is this hopelessly optimistic, then?*

    As I said in my original post, I am also trying to research the distribution angle, and considering how to /technically/ film it is not my main interest (as opposed to aesthetic questions of camera use etc which I am very interested in). I'd like to meet people who have the film side as their area of expertise, as it isn't my area, and I don't pretend that it is - that's the essence of collaboration! I am merely the Artistic Director of the opera company looking to create this project.

    5 years ago
    • Hi Tim,

      Not shooting you down! Just want to make sure we're on the same page :-)

      I do see what you're thinking, but I think the finance model is probably not the same that the other companies use. They already have the distribution agreements, based on named brands/talent, and those distribution agreements pay the production costs of the filming - not the company itself. ENO and their ilk effectively sign promoter deals much like do. I think that's where the disconnect is!

      The upside is that maybe you can use that £10k-odd to redesign the show as a touring show. I can introduce you to the guy who made Northern Ballet's tours much cheaper, with faster ins/outs - he is a lovely bloke (based in Leeds area) and may have some suggestions how you can do this? I honestly think it could be more profitable for you overall, as the cost of filming well enough is quite high.

      5 years ago
    • Hi Paddy, I very much doubt our tours could get any cheaper. Fundamentally for this show the problems are about moving 35-40 people from A to B, putting them up for the night, and securing their availability for the period. And let's not forget the risk of selling enough seats for the live show, which is shared with the venue, and is subsidised by ACE, but nonetheless exists. It's just not a path we want to go down with this particular show, at the current stage of the company's development - it's growing nicely but we don't want to bite off too much. Our previous tours have been easier to manage for various reasons and haven't gone above about 15 people. Hence I've been tasked with investigating the film option!

      5 years ago
  • Thanks for putting your aspirations into a clearer context Tim. So for about £10k (don't forget the dreaded VAT. Are you VAT registered, if not the actual budget will be £8,333; it's doubtful if an entity able to do this project, without some 'ducking and diving' won't be VAT registered). I've produced many low budget films from live theater and been successful enough to be constantly in demand to do more. All of these films have been distributed on DVD or in the old days VHS and some have been projected onto cinema screens. If I understand you correctly the sort of thing you want is a two or three camera coverage of the show (definitely a specialist skill not usually available from the big OB type operators) and a bit of documentary. The making of bit I imagine will require several days of coverage? So your £10K won't be a hugely attractive prospect for the sort of companies that operate in the form of sustainable businesses, as defined by accountants; however, referring to ducking and diving options, I imagine there are some developing outfits who might fit the bill, but not many who will have the all round skills to turn a proverbial pigs ear into a silk purse (not casting any aspersions on the opera but on the meagerness of the film budget). The minimum format could be 1K HDV type which projects quite nicely onto a half sized cinema screen and quite frankly not at all bad on a full sized screen, if the aim is to satisfy local art house type screenings rather than commercial distribution per se. A bit pricier would allow 4K using such as the Canon 300 or Sony PXW-FS5 or FS7. My company, Moving Vision, is a relatively low cost outfit in most peoples books but we couldn't offer the later at so little budget. How about asking one of the media colleges? Make sure they really know what they are doing though.

    5 years ago
    • Hi John, thanks for this. Yes, the dreaded VAT. We ourselves are not registered but the principal backer/investor for this element of the project is, so, we'll see about that.
      Good to hear your thoughts about the "minimum format". I would think, by the sounds of it, that would be perfectly acceptable, and presumably is therefore also fine for a DVD release, as we'd be silly not to consider that option. How does it compare to "broadcast quality"? Presumably not up there with the BBC's HD standards - but this is the kind of thing that might get a broadcast on an arts channel somewhere in the world.
      I'll certainly look into the media colleges, that might work quite well, and although I'm keen to have professionals on the case wherever possible in our projects, we also have a number of educational partnerships going on...

      5 years ago
    • @Tim Benjamin Hi Tim, John's HDV suggestion (I imagine he intends 720p) will certainly be enough for DVD, but the BBC will almost guaranteed reject it unless the content is so unique and compelling that they have no other option. You may, to save cash, want to get professional department heads involved such as John's company, as you will not be in a position sadly to get all pro's by the sound of things. It's shocking how quickly costs mount up when making quality film/TV, so take any genuine offer like John's seriously - my overheads are too high to be able to even consider the project viably, as much as I'd love to help. Maybe I can cheer you on from the sidelines a little!

      I hear what you say about the touring difficulties, it's a problem when you don't have the cash to make those problems just go away. If you want to chat with a friend of mine who tours circus shows (probably more overlap than you'd first imagine - large companies, lots of heavy sets!) he may be able to give pointers, but again I suspect you're right that it's a lot to squeeze out of a few grand! Those circus shows are, of course, also promoted, so the financial model isn't the same as the share of risk is much lower.

      All the best,

      5 years ago
  • Just a quick note about HDV; JVC did the 720p x 1440 version and Sony did 1080i x 1440 with the Z1 and A1 and 1080p x 1920 with the Z5 and Z7 for example, all at 25mbps (which meet EBU/BBC SD standards). Whilst not strictly meeting the EBU/BBC HD broadcast standard of 1080 x 1920 at 50mbps with a minimum of 3 x 1/2" chips or a full frame sensor, the Sony's are pretty close and have been able to cut with full broadcast HD formats with some success. But as Paddy correctly states in order to meet universal HD broadcast standards without quibble, it's best to use a format that fully meets them. The 1K PMW-200 and PXW-X200 are probably the base line for that but the 4K Canon 300 and Sony PXW-FS5 and FX7 are now established favorites, even threatening the justification for much bigger and more expensive cameras for a whole host of high end productions.

    5 years ago
  • Tim, just to let you know about SP: Paddy, John, and Marlom are the most knowledgable help you can get anywhere. I mean that: ANYWHERE. Listen to what they have to say. Having a solid film director is essential. It can be done without trucks, but you still need a minimum of equipment as John suggests.

    As for distribution, look to single territories in Europe. American is OK with these types of things, but wouldn't pay what, say, Italy or Germany would pay. I would look into grants in those two countries as well. You might be surprised at what you can get produced on the national television network's dime. From what I've heard about the U.K. and BBC lately, that might be pissing into the wind. But, hey, I live in America. What do I know!

    5 years ago
  • Dear Tim. Interesting thread. I may have some ideas: please give me a call on 07802 522672 or email me with your number and I'll give you a call back. Cheers!

    5 years ago
  • Hi I Have some experience of this, including footage which has then been cut into ITN news reports.
    I'm glad your finally looking at minimal coverage. Best thing to do is research by watching bbc big screen theatre events. You'll see they soon dropped close ups and over shoulder shots in later productions.
    It's a theatre production so your cast will be acting projecting from the stage to a traditional 4th wall. I'd suggest 3 cameras (yes I know more than some suggest but 2 or all can be locked off-static). a. Camera in that magic house seat centre mid audience picking up full stage, b. camera to one side slightly closer in slightly tighter shot, c camera either wide from the gods (or use a d. Cam for this), or to the other side farther back framing full stage again. The varying perspectives and angles will give the full audience experience, allowing you to keep changing shot which will make it easier to watch on a screen but also make the most of angles for blocking and stage action. Cutting the edit accordingly to where the focus should be on stage and in time with the 'energy' of the story telling or and music.
    If you want close ups it's a who let different production/direction/performance.
    Always shoot tech and dress with at least 2 cameras safe central wide and backers no closer than a wide mid shot.
    Making of, mini dictums try - Get cast /stage crew to start shooting with smart cams now held landscape, upload to a cloud star age of some type and thin out now so your editor has a easier job. The rest can be 'set up' simply when you decide on story/style of docu.

    5 years ago
  • Thanks for the votes of confidence guys, we are after all, and in all due modesty, part of the now officially recognised ‘Unofficial Tutorial Team’ .

    The naked eye sees the whole stage but the mind’s eye focuses on the centre of action. The mind’s eye automatically closes up on that centre of action and whilst still retaining peripheral awareness of the whole stage manages to prioritise where its attention is focused. Once the scene is viewed through a camera though this inbuilt ability of the mind’s eye is disrupted and that ability to focus attention through a natural mental correction filter is lost. A good example of this phenomenon is why we use fill lighting. Imagine a person sitting by a window, side facing the window; the side of the face lit by the window is bright whilst the other side of the face is dark. When you look at that face with the naked mind’s eye that emphatic line of light and shadow running down the centre of the face is barely noticeable because the mind is a much cleverer natural camera than any bit of hard technology; so if the shadowed side of the face is not lit by a light or a reflector and filmed, when you look at the face on a screen, that half lit face looks massively unbalanced even though it is exactly what the mind’s eye originally saw. The mind’s eye view of a screen image is no longer able to make any allowance for the error. So it is with everything you film.

    The idea that a filmed version of a stage play should rely heavily on wide shots results in a flat, almost 2D perspective. Wides of stage plays and dance revues are visually boring; therefore, if the viewer is to be engagingly held, sacrifices of some parts of the stage must be accepted in order to have those close ups and wider close-ups where two or more actors or dancers are the centre of play. Just because the BBC have too many camera operators and not enough cameramen/women and are therefore forced to rely on fixed or semi fixed camera arrays does not mean that they've got the best way of recording stage events. Really good camera folk can simulate the mind’s eye by constantly and smoothly moving in and out of the action; other cameras can provide wide safety angles to provide cutaways and cover ups for the odd erroneous focus pull or where an important peripheral aspect needs showing. The notion that the 'sweet spot' for a camera is centre audience is plain wrong; there’s only one less useful angle than that and that's the camera positioned above the stage. It's a fact that given no professional advice, theatre and live show people always assume the best spot is centre high, because that might be a good spot for the mind’s eye, but its rubbish for the camera eye. The most useful angle, especially if only one or two cameras are used, is diagonally across the stage at performer’s eye level. I’ve seen several recordings from a maestro single camera that was far more engaging, interesting and entertaining that that produced by a mega buck multi camera production.

    Whilst one generally does get what one pays for, one does not always get value for money, no matter how great or small the budget. At the end of the day, the only way to gauge whether the 'expert' one is consulting is actually an expert is to check out their credits and to be sure that the show reel being presented really is all their own work!

    5 years ago
    • I wouldn't lightly disagree with you John but I'm afraid I do about this business of what the camera should do with respect to a stage show!

      Firstly about your lit-face example. Is the problem in fact that, if you see that lighting contrast in real life, you are yourself situated within the lighting context, whereas when you see it on film your light context is different, leading to the disconnect? I don't know if I'm right - you're the expert - it's just a theory. But following the theory through to the stage: the cinema audience is in the same light context as the live audience, so I would suppose that the stage lighting ought to work nearly as well for the cinema audience, when seen from a similar perspective.

      In terms of angles. As an opera "fan" it annoys me intensely when a film director decides that I need to see a close-up of the person singing, and not the people in the background, etc. Even more so if the film director ignores the 4th wall, which the singer is not ignoring, because she wants to project her voice to it and face it as much as possible, as that's where the audience is.

      Here are some examples of it done badly and well (imho only of course! - chosen for the purpose of discussion)
      Watch the first few minutes of:
      After the opening titles (which are quite cool I think)
      1'40 - that's nice to see the orchestra while the stage is dark, you don't normally see that in the live audience, so it's a bonus of watching it on screen and an interesting shot.
      1'55 - first wide shot, great! so we see that the huge set has things going on L and R of a main set.
      2'20 on - argh! stop it! I want to see what else is going on: clearly the stage director has all kinds of things happening, but the damn roving camera is telling me what to look at. Not only that, when the camera is positioned looking diagonally at performer height (as you suggest as being a good angle) it seems to make the set look bad and artificial, it takes me out of the world that is created on-stage. It's not a disastrous shot though, except when it obscures something else going on. Where does the half-naked man go? We don't seem him exit... is he hiding somewhere?
      4'43 - when the soldiers come in, we can't see if the ladies in the side rooms can hear them or not. As that scene develops we are deprived of seeing the background characters' reactions. And so on for the rest of the piece.

      Admittedly the set in this case is so wide that the widest of widescreens would not do it justice, so a compromise must be made. But I think depriving the audience of deciding what to look at is bad. It is obviously quite different to a film, where the director is very carefully and deliberately focusing the view. In an opera, that happens in the music, less in the stage presentation.

      Here's another example - a great production, but some irritating camera work:
      You only need to watch a minute or so. The wide shots are good, you get to see the lovely set and the interesting positioning of the characters in this famous sextet. But the close-ups! argh! who is talking to whom? They are all more or less facing out to the audience, but an already hard-to-follow scene is hardly helped by the gratuitous, shaky close-ups. The various wide shots really help fix the disorientation though.

      A 3rd example. In this case it's ballet, where we really must see as much as possible at once. But there's no singing, so we have to see the detail, and here the camera work is very good for the most part and does a good job of showing us the story (but frequently cuts off the feet of a solo dancer...)

      Hopefully these examples show up a valid difference of opinion - the "sweet spot" centre-of-the audience (or "front row of the circle") is really a very good place from which to watch an opera on screen, in my book.

      Overall I am not convinced that more than about 3 fairly wide shots adds an awful lot! But this is a very interesting discussion to have, and I'm intrigued to hear alternative views.

      5 years ago
  • Hi again Tim,

    If you really are just after what we'd typically call a 'master' lock-off, you can do this for yourself very economically. You won't need a separate director, just need one camera, and maybe a few seat kills so you have the best seat in the house!

    I'm not personally a fan of the results, but we're talking about art and taste, so we're both right ;-)

    Things to be aware of
    - the sound will be awful recorded from the camera or from the desk. The desk is mixed for the house PA, and will sound wrong on video. Onboard mic will be poor (all camera mics are), and get too much audience rustle that will spoil the experience. Get a separate sound mix, from a proper Soundie, and get the mix to include some venue ambience but also a nice mix from the stage mics.
    - light - stage lights are usually much dimmer than they look, thanks to the versatility of the human eye. Get a massive sensor camera and expect to need to throw extra lamps in to avoid sensor sizzle!

    This should be a very cheap option, a couple of grand probably. If you only have the one master shot, you'll have nothing to cut away to, so the edit is going to be a top and tail, maybe some credits and titles. The grade - frankly there's no matching to be done, so again it's quick and easy. Maybe try doing it and seeing if it works for you, and if not, add some angles and do a live mix which can still be affordable if you get a 4 camera OB, and a sound mix on the fly.

    Just some more thoughts for you :)

    5 years ago
    • Hi Paddy,
      Yes we've done exactly that with a DSLR for our past 3 years' shows, it's an OK picture for "archive" purposes but no good for showing. The sound I actually did myself, being a composer primarily, I'm into sound, and I have a good range of mics and I got good results. (There's no live desk for these shows by the way, it's all "acoustic", and how you place mics for opera is a whole other problem.)

      The picture when we did this before had 2 main problems which you've alluded to:
      1) no chance of cutting to something else, so if there's a mistake, there's not much you can do about it. By contrast it's quite easy to fix things in the sound.
      2) the light levels range from almost pitch dark to extremely bright. So the picture was only satisfactory in a middle range. I think it's something that has to be adjusted on the fly at the camera, by someone who knows what they are doing and what to expect (i.e. has the cue sheet, sees rehearsals, etc)

      It was also tricky to focus it right. Perhaps a shortcoming of the hardware, or the way we had it set up, I don't know, but obviously a clued-up operator would be able to deal with that.

      5 years ago
  • I think there is some middle ground to be had, here. CUs aren't absolutely necessary, but 3 locked off cameras, each showing a wide shot of the entire stage would be just as bad. I personally hate it when I see dance performances in close up, for example. And given that, I would go back to how old Hollywood covered a dance sequence with Fred Astaire (who had it in his contract that he would always be shot from head to toe in a dance sequence). Those old musicals were beautifully covered with a dynamic camera and editing, even with shots kept wide. That's the templet I'd use for this sort of thing, anyway.

    5 years ago
    • Funny, my grouse is when IMAG directors for ballet *don't* go in close enough! Maybe opera is a little different, but seeing a singing mouth a few pixels high also isn't to my taste!

      5 years ago
    • Ah but check out that Nutcracker example in my other post - quite often the dancer is shown pirouetting from the waist up only! - there's a lot of fancy footwork there that simply isn't seen, and that the afficionado will be looking for.
      Often in opera the stage, set, and auditorium can be disproportionately huge, so the singer will be acting with quite exaggerated movements (especially compared to a film actor). They'll also be taking a lot more time over things than a speaking actor would be. I think if you look at that too closely you can find it pretty weird, whereas it seems quite natural when seen in the bigger/wider context.
      Dan - do you have a moment to link to any particular example that shows what you mean for the old musicals? Obviously there are plenty on YouTube but I'd like to spot exactly what you are refering to!

      5 years ago
    • @Tim Benjamin Absolutely anything with Fred Astaire should do it.

      5 years ago
    • @Paddy Robinson-Griffin HA! To each his own!

      The thing is, there seems to be an either/or argument between Tim and the rest of us (for the most part). Film transforms a 2D space extremely well. I simply don't know why you'd want to keep a stage audience's POV. If there are things happening behind the main character that you want to see, well, show it! In a live stage show, the audience is the editor. In film, I am. And I'm better than Mrs. Gigglebottom in the 2nd row.

      You're trying to take a huge canvas and shrink it down to a flatscreen in a living room. You simply have to make it for THAT audience, however you decide to shoot and edit it. I think there are ways to make an opera incredibly interesting for the home viewer. But it has to be planned as a film, not a stage show--whether you use close-ups or not.

      5 years ago
  • Hi Tim and all, I’ve just been able to get back into this conversation. I'm responding to Tim’s specific response to my last contribution. I'm reminded of a job I had a few years ago to cover a massive staged event of several dance companies. I proposed my usual style for a low cost two camera coverage but the 'boss' of the event, a very experienced stage producer insisted that the cameras had to see everything without exception. I pointed out that if the four hour film was to be of interest to anyone, who did not have an incestuous interest in the performers and the set, watching more than about ten minutes of flat 2D footage of ‘stick people’ would soon become tiresome. He insisted. So basically he hardly needed a cameraman just a locked off camera. I gave him the locked off camera and did my usual 'mind's eye' coverage with the other one. It took about one minute of reviewing the footage for the obvious to be revealed. Everyone but him wanted my version and secretly, even he must have preferred it too. Do bears shit in the woods?

    What so often happens with live stage producers is that because they are so intensely interested in every minuté of their creation they want every bit of it to be seen on film. Dance directors who’ve choreographed everything down to the last gesture of the back line want the same. One has to decide whether the film is primarily a record of technical set ups and choreography, so that those behind and on stage can assess their work, or whether the film is to be enjoyed, and indeed endured, by a general audience. One simply cannot have it both ways.

    The three examples you provide reveal the following;

    Example one;
    A huge complex set impossible to shoot as a continual wide and also keep a neutral audience engaged for, in that case, three hours. That’s the real challenge; these shows are usually over two hours long. Two hours of 2D from a distance is too much! But hey its art and all about taste, but if you want a big audience beware of taking one’s own taste for a generality. One thing about the three examples Tim offers though is that they are all relatively expensive centrally controlled vision mixed multi camera shoots, so we’re not comparing like with like. The options are quite different with your £10,000 budget. Apples are not oranges as they say.

    Example two;
    Again an expensive film production, but ironically this example pretty much concurs with what I’ve been saying, mostly shot at performers eye level from two diagonal cameras with a good mix of wides, medium close ups and tight close ups! The reason for having a diagonal perspective is to give the shot, well, perspective. To ameliorate the tendency of square on shots to lose the sense of depth. The occasional use of a high located camera in this example might be acceptable to some, even if not by me. In any event that camera was not used much and probably only used at all merely to justify its existence.

    Example three;

    Again much more use of medium close ups and tight close ups than of wides. At 103 minutes I imagine that those who watched the performance on film were grateful for that.

    So I’d have to conclude Tim that we seem to actually be largely in agreement, perhaps this issue is one of semantics.

    Finally, with regard to my analogy about the face at the window, clearly I wasn’t clear enough. It has nothing to do with lighting per se; it’s about how differently the naked mind’s eye and the camera eye ‘mentally compute’ the images they’re looking at. It’s one of the basics we teach on our camera production classes. Anyone aspiring to have a notion about film making will need to understand this in order to be able to make any film of quality.

    5 years ago
  • Hi Tim
    I think all the logistics and realistic budget issues have already been covered plenty but thought I would just throw in some 'food for thought'. This made me think of the director Guy Maddin's collaboration with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet to make Pages from a Virgin's Diary. This was more of a stand-alone feature film ('art film') using the dancers. If the live show thing looks to be too lofty a goal I would say that many documentary/art house/music video(?) type directors would chomp at the bit to have access to your production to create some sort of stand-alone representation that may not literally be a filming of the live show. This could even be a short film (realistic based on the budget). And if not possible to get onto the big screens (another big challenge) could create something interesting to go online- there are plenty of well curated places that would get plenty of views and attention for your production, just in a different way.
    You will see the Guy Maddin thing had a fair sized budget itself but that was for a feature film and was on 35mm before the age of digital cameras.
    Thought I'd just come in on this different angle. I think there are so many unique and exciting ways for you to make something interesting.

    5 years ago
  • I'm a little late to this discussion, but it's one that really interests me. I was the producer for SHPLive, an ACE funded 3 year project to develop and deliver live streamed performance projects ( We had a strong focus on exploring this medium as an emerging platform for performances of many different types; some with a live audience, some without.

    Whatever the situation, your filmed audience is not the same as your live audience, and so shouldn't be treated as such. It simply isn't possible to give them the same experience so don't even try! Instead, think about how you can best present the work to this second (equally legitimate) audience, making best use of the technology/facilities available. One thing this means is that you can present different content to them (pre-recorded, backstage, etc.) Another is that you can put cameras in places, and get views of the action, that aren't possible to a live audience member. They are stuck in one seat with one view throughout; I'm sure it they could instantly move around the auditorium to get the best view of every scene then many would love that, but it's not possible - however, it is possible for a filmed audience, so embrace it!

    Now obviously this all still has to be appropriate for and sensitive to the work in question, and there is a need to show the filmed audience enough and the right things at the right time, so I'm not advocating ECUs regardless, but there is a need to do the "mind's eye" job that John has thoroughly covered. So those choices do need to be made, because we do have technical limitations that mean a wide shot isn't the same as sitting in a live auditorium.

    One thing I do disagree with John about is in his example of the face at the window. He said "when you look at the face on a screen, that half lit face looks massively unbalanced even though it is exactly what the mind’s eye originally saw." A lot of the reason that the mind processes filmed images so differently is precisely because we do not see the same thing on screen as in real live-far from it. What we see on screen is only what has been captured by the camera's imaging sensor, which means for one thing massively reduced dynamic range; the shadow is stronger because the camera has to choose whether to expose the shadows or the light and throw away the rest. For another thing we cannot choose where to focus, as that has already been done by the camera. Then there is the factor of 2 eyes in a 3D space gives enhanced depth perception.

    One day we may have the technology to capture and recreate a 3D scene with enough detail to allow the mind's eye to work as well on the screen (although it probably wouldn't be a screen at that point), but for now we need to compensate.

    For me, I have a background of 15 years in theatre and several years of filmmaking, so I see this from both perspectives. There is definitely a tension between 'presenting theatre' and 'making a film', but it's a tension that can have great results. As for budgets, you can certainly achieve something with the money you have, and since the way it is done at the top end is out of your reach, a more 'theatre' approach may be called for; how can I get the best possible value out of the budget I have?

    (apologies for the long and rambling post)

    5 years ago
  • A good contribution to the conversation Stephen. I'd just add though that whilst there are realities concerning the contrast latitude handling abilities of cameras compared with human eyes, the analogy I make remains valid. We know this because during exercises when demonstrating this phenomenon we return to the naked mind's eye view to reveal how once it's been demonstrated the student then acquires an ability to notice the cameras view with his naked eye. It simply amounts to an ability to switch off the automatic naked mind's eye contrast latitude compensation switch which then reveals that stark line of contrast running down the center of the face. So whilst the reality of contrast latitude differentials are quite as you state, so are the auto correction mechanisms of the mind.

    I also have no doubt that a £10,000 budget, plus VAT, should be enough for a skilled team to make a good coverage of the performance, with perhaps two fully operated cameras and a fixed wide and also to provide a back ground documentary shot over a period of time prior to the show, such a budget won't be enough for an OB unit style of multi camera production and a decent documentary too; well at least not within the business model of an entity relying on such for a sustainable decent living.

    5 years ago
  • First a technical disagreement.
    It's not just about the camera's latitude, it's also the screen's latitude. This is what we're used to: (not perhaps the best example!) An 8 bit image lit high contrast without fill will never carry what you would see with the eye. And it's not just the latitude, it's also the eye's ability to change f-stop as it scans. It sees into the shadows in a way the camera cannot. A face photographed so that one side is completely dark will always look wrong. Certainly you can acclimatize to deep shadows for short periods, but for longer it gets a bit tiring. Hopefully REC2020 will change all that.

    Multiple theatre lights will yield multiple shadows, and the theatrical colored gels will likely be a bit OTT. For example, blue 17 (often used as a backlight, or as a cool wash) has a nasty green tinge to it when filmed. You might expect this to look theatrical. It will, but it will also look nasty.

    Theatre lighting on a large stage is about emphasizing shapes. The typical lighting angle is about 45 degrees to vertical. For film this is way too high and contrasty and needs moving or else fill.

    So you're going to shoot in an 8-bit space? This is intended for cinema right? That's 12 bits. If you're not going to throw money at a proper grade it will look nasty. It will never look great.

    All that said, it's do-able, but you'll need a bigger boat...

    5 years ago
  • You haven’t told us much about the project. How many people are on stage? Is there, for instance, a choir of children? How long is it? A 2 1/2 hour production poses a cinema programming challenge and is less attractive.

    A great model for filming theatre was the C4 production of the RSC’s Nicholas Nickleby. What they did there is show us the audience at the beginning and for the first few minutes. The action is directed out, but as it proceeds, and as we move on to the stage, there is a shift towards the camera being the audience. It's subtle and works well. They had an audience in to shoot the beginning and end, but dispensed with them for the rest of the shoot.

    I find it hard to see how this could have worked with 1 - 3 cameras set at wide. The impact would be substantially diluted.

    When you first approach any production with an intention of commercial exploitation you should take a look at what other people have done. Has anybody else shot a stage show with just wide shots? You won’t find any in the cinema. Nada. Do you have any star names attached? So why would any one go to see this?

    You say you have 40 people on this? Add the theatre and film crew and that’s.. let’s call it 50. (It’ll be more) At a rate of £10/hr (!) that will use up £5k in one 10 hour day.

    This is opera, so you will need first class sound. That will cost… a lot.

    You need to rent cameras and lights. Decent cameras. Which means decent crew. You haven’t the space for learning curves. The Royal Opera House spent £20k just on the Carmen previz video. For the shoot they used two Technocranes, a motorised dolly tracking along the front of the stage, a steadicam, couple of cameras way back, and an OB truck parked out back. That’s the competition. They don’t do it often - it’s not worth it. But that is the level people expect when they pay for a cinema ticket.

    My suggestion is you get a name singer on to your production that will attract cinema audiences, and go for crowd funding for a much much larger sum. Crowd funding is no longer the sole province of just low-budget projects. Star Citizen will hit $100,000,000 by Xmas. (I’ve met them - great bunch of geeks!) Opera is as yet untapped. I’m sure that with a creative strategy you could raise the funds, provided your project is attractive enough! Step learning curve though. Do something smaller first to get a taste.

    5 years ago
  • This is what your up against:

    5 years ago
    • EXACTLY, Karel!

      5 years ago
    • Ha, that is precisely NOT what we are "up against"! The audience for that kind of thing is almost mutually exclusive with our audience, who tend to be either into contemporary theatre or are opera first-timers that we've managed to tempt via outreach and the promise of something fairly short, in English, with exciting, moving music and drama and that is perfectly comprehensible without being dumb. Also we make a point of *not* being tuneless modernists like so much contemporary opera. Our last season explored a wide range of Brechtian techniques for example, and was a huge hit with both the public and critics. I have spent a long time trying to convince people that "opera" is so infinitely much more than the stereotypes of the "Go Compare" advert and fat people singing tedious Italian for hours on end!
      So - this film - is not going to be some 3D mass market (they hope) slush like that link. It's going to be shown in small-to-medium size arts centres and indie/artsy cinemas, and sold on DVD at our shows and by mail order. This is an audience we have ready access to. I didn't intend to start a discussion about audiences etc but it's important to realise that the actual shows we make are nothing like ROH / ENO / Met / etc! Almost the polar opposite. I just want to make an attractive screen version of our stage show. So yeah, of course use some of their high production values, but only in the sense that good indie film-makers will use the best of Hollywood's production values - but will also avoid like the plague many of Hollywood's clichés and focus-group-driven nonsense.

      5 years ago
  • I'm enjoying this discussion not because we agree, but as it's great to be reminded, firmly, that tastes really do differ! I'd probably go to see Carmen as presented, I probably wouldn't go to see anything that presented as a lock-off, and that's fine. The audience will be smaller but so will the costs, so there may be a profit in there to be made to justify the expense, and at least you'll have some subsidised archive :)

    The comparison between mass-market Hollywood and indie art-house is interesting, but imperfect I feel. The distinction is artificial, both systems make good and bad films, hits and flops. They borrow from one another, they push different boundaries. And the distinction isn't clear-cut (Slumdog Millionaire, for instance - every inch a big budget, innovative, test-screened film but with a ripping story and atypical soundtrack), and everyone is just a creative trying to find a market and get paid at the end of the day. Hollywood gave us much of the cinematic convention we now assume is somehow absolute. Crossing the line, 30° jump cut angles, matching eye lines, reverses and cutaways, Foley etc. Those have become cinematic language because people like them, but there's nothing inherent in any of them. I fear that *that* is the aspect of Hollywood you risk throwing away, not the glossy and homogeneous aspect.

    And the great thing is maybe you're right and I'm wrong - I'll accept that quite happily and I love learning! I guess I just want to flag the risk of alienating your audience you're working hard to build. You still have sets, stages, seats, makeup, lights, singers, etc in the opera - it still follows the basic (accepted but not inherent) rules of presenting a show to the public and that's no bad thing - but it seems you don't feel the same for the language of screen presentation of a show.

    Either way, hope it goes really well and that you find and expand your audience profitably from doing so!

    All the best,

    5 years ago
  • I have to take Tim's point about this not being about what sort of art genre or operatic style is at issue. It's about how best to capture whatever the style on film. I think the major point that's been revealed here is that a film and a live presentation are the things that are mutually exclusive, not what kind of audience is being targeted. Irrespective of my own personal taste about what type of opera is better what this discussion underlines is the the fact that live stage directors and producers too often seem unable to grasp how to film their shows for the benefit of film audiences rather than for their own preciousness and conceit.

    5 years ago
  • @Tim - you have a clear idea of your target audience and what they need.

    I predict HUGE rows with whoever takes this on, unless you get prepped first :-)

    I think you could probably go so far as to storyboard it - you have the artistic staff, and doing it will force you to really think about the result you are aiming for, AND this will give you and the potential production cos a set of visuals that will ensure you are all on the same page and not talking at cross purposes.

    That should also help you decide who is on your wavelength, who isn't, and who is nodding their head to get the contract :-)

    And finally, it also allows the production company to very quickly assess whether what you want is doable in the budget.

    Speaking personally on the wides vs tight front I've filmed a lot of gigs and some theatre, and while wides are good, when you know that the audience is focussed on a character or character set, your camera must be tight on them/their group too.

    5 years ago
  • Shoot a test. I know all your friends will probably agree with you about eschewing what you regard as being Hollywood big-budget conventions, but I'll bet that really they'll react differently to the real thing. Or are you so certain you don't need to test out your thinking..? You do seem to be.

    Follow the screening with a blind questionnaire WITHOUT leading questions (not "Do you find filmed opera boring, and would you like to see it done in an exciting and radical new way?" - everyone will say yes to that.) It's actually quite difficult to do: you need a few warm-ups questions that you ignore; followed by the chance to enthuse, which you ignore too, then the heart of it stated in a neutral tone, perhaps even leaning away from what you are looking for; and finally (potentially the most revealing) a section for comments. Not too long though. Insist it's a test and they can be as scathing as they like.

    I did this at a screening/live-competition a while back for a short I felt was complete, but wasn't certain. They all said they loved it. Well, of course they would! And the film won the competition too, even in it's rough-cut form. But in the questionnaire a few folks said they found a scene confusing. After a moment of thinking that they must be idiots, I could see their point, went back and re-edited it. I'd be the idiot not to.

    Here's an idea - find an opera that's filmed the way you approve of and use that as a test. Be careful not to seed your audience with the kind of responses you'd like to hear ("I love how this is shot - don't you?"), and ask for ways they think would improve it (aargh!). Maybe get someone else to ask the questions.

    And seriously consider crowd-funding. There's a whole world out there keen to fund something exciting, and if you have 40 people working on this then they have friends, who also have friends...

    5 years ago
  • Hey, here's a radical idea - think about shooting this VR! The first crowd-funded VR opera..?

    5 years ago
  • Tim - I'm curious to know , now that the dust has settled on this discussion and some time has passed, what you thoughts/conclusions are on the style and approach to take?

    Did you do any tests? Have you revised your plans? I'm sure we'd all be interested in an update…

    5 years ago