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By ROBERT BETHUNE
Video is one of the best things that ever happened to theater. With modern video technology, a theater willing to master a few basic skills can create lasting records of their work that are not only valuable, but beautiful and entertaining in their own right. To make best use of the technology, however, theater people have to learn a few things.
First, we have to learn that video cant ever really capture the esthetics of live performance. Live performance happens to live people in a real space; it isnt wrapped in a frame. So dont expect video to do that. You dont expect a CD of a singer to capture what its like to see that singer because you know thats not realistic, so dont form unrealistic expectations of what you can and cant capture on video.
Second, remember that youre not making a movie. Youre trying to capture everything you can about a real event. In other words, youre shooting a documentary, not a dramatic feature. So, as you plan and as you shoot, acknowledge and include the live theatrical reality youre recording. Dont worry about showing the edge of the stage. Include the audience. Do some backstage footage. Make a documentary, not a movie.
Dont go crazy on equipment. You need one digital camera, a simple mixer, a few microphones, assorted mic cables, and a computer that can edit video. If you buy good used gear, you can do the whole thing for less than $3,000, if you cant find an enthusiastic hobbyist who has all the toys and would love to play with them.
Remember, when youre shooting stage action, to shoot it in a way that reflects the audience experience. TV-style talking-head shots are completely unrelated to what you see in the theater. Include the bodies of the actors. Let us see all the actors who are speaking. Let us see the full range of body movement and arm gestures. The basic shot of a single actor is not a head shot; its a waist-up or knees-up shot that allows the actors arms enough room to do whatever gestures are going to be done.
Let the camera work be very, very smooth and unobtrusive. Let the frame move the way the audience's attention moves, pulled this way and that by the action. Dont force a point of view. Let what happens on stage drive the camera, just as you would if you were shooting live action on a news crew or at a sporting event.
Shoot on more than one night, and be brave. Dont ever lock the camera off on a wide shot and let it run on the theory that "this way, we wont miss anything." You wont miss anything, but you wont have anything worth watching either. That kind of shot is useful only for the most boring kind of archival record-the sort of thing that nobody ever watches.
To get the best coverage in the fewest nights of shooting, plan the shoot by marking up a script, and have the camera person on headset with someone whos following script and giving warnings of key moments-entrances, exits, fast stage action, hard-to-anticipate stage action.
Shoot using the existing lighting. Modern cameras can darn nearly see in the dark, and are perfectly able to shoot in theatrical light if operated properly.
Get some microphones close
to the stage.
Run them through a simple mixer to the camera.
Review each nights footage the following day and plan accordingly.
If you do the job right, you can sit down after the show is over and edit together a really enjoyable video that doesnt just document the show, but is fun to watch in its own right. And by so doing, youll partially ameliorate one of the theaters great sorrows-its ephemerality. A good video of a production doesnt capture the live performance, but it makes it easy to understand what the live performance was like, and thats well worth it in and of itself.
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