Filming Theatre Experiment – Part #1

So here goes, this is a blog well outside my comfort zone of both arts marketing and winging about how badly I’ve died on my ass at a comedy gig. This one’s about recording theatre shows.

When lockdown began there was a frenzy of people putting shows online – from the National Theatre’s NT Live to Spymonkey and Imitating the Dog. I watched a few but, I must confess, only finished one – Jesus Christ Superstar – although that was less of of something I wanted to watch, more a compulsion to see what Chris Moyles was like and find out what happens to this Jesus fellow.

I found myself feeling a bit cold when watching many of these videos, it’s not that the shows weren’t good, many were, its that they left me a bit cold and disconnected.

Filming live shows is notoriously expensive and challenging – that’s what everyone says – that’s why no-one tries to replicate NT Live. But I was talking to my boss about recording shows and filming etc… and it got me thinking.. does it have to be notoriously expensive and challenging? Can a 3 camera shoot be done for under £1k with a theatre’s inhouse team and some enthusiasm and risk-taking?

That’s where this little blog (maybe series of blogs as I progress might go). So I started researching cameras, filming and editing – what the cheapest way to do something that’s incredibly challenging to do?

I should mention that multiple people have told me it’s impossible. But I’m arrogant as fuck and am of the opinion that lateral thinking and experimentation can go a mighty long way.

I started by looking at the most user-friendly cameras around – the humble ipad. There’s loads of really good things you can do with and to an ipad to get some really great results it seems – to list a few:

  • Use an iographer to add different module to add cold shoes for microphones and other attachments such as lenses
  • Install Filmic Pro – an app that really upgrades the usual video/camera app.
  • Use Lumia Fusion – a great app that allows for lightning quick editing and exporting with loads of functionality (there is a slight learning curve!)
  • Use a tripod and a RODE video mic to improve the sound.

I also started to look at options for multi-camera filming – apps like RecoStudio MultiCam which allows you to use multiple ipads connected via wifi to live vision mix and export a recording.

It all looked great so far theoretically – but I had a go (mostly at comedy gigs) and, well, if I’m honest all the footage left me cold – firstly it works well for well lit studios and cheap looking videos on facebook but the overall quality and, importantly, feel wasn’t right. It felt a bit cheap, static and, well, obvious.

The thing about the ipads is that the cameras aren’t great in low light, they also have everything in focus rather than have any depth of field which bizarrely makes everything feel flat rather than 3D, and there’s something about the tripod recording that feels a bit boring. Don’t get me wrong the technology is great – but for what I’m wanting to film (essentially a 3 camera recording of something simple in a theatre space – it’s not going to do it. Also 3 x ipads for filming is potentially £1.5k (excluding iographers & lenses) – although you get a built in editing system potentially. For reference the show I made 2 years ago was recorded on an ipad – it was a dark room, the quality is horrible (but the show is a solid 6/10)…

The feel of what I was recording started to burrow into my head – how do we answer the question “live performance is so great because” in aesthetic terms? It’s a simplistic question but a good one. I’ve a slight problem with the idea that simplistic questions can’t yield good or interesting answers – they absolutely can, if you’re open minded enough to recognize that from a simplistic question can come complex multi-stranded answers.

So then I started to think less about the technology possibilities of recording and more about the feel I’m wanting to replicate – here’s the list – “I want to replicate the experience of watching a show…”

  • …from the front seats
  • …where the view is consistent with what an audience member sees
  • …where the the movement of watching replicates how the eyes work
  • …where focus follows the action – and is always playing catch up
  • …with people
  • …that feels cinematic, but also fluid and natural

With that list I started to try and understand the aesthetic I’m trying to replicate – and this is what I landed on – the show will be filmed…

  • …on steady cams amongst the audience
  • …with a fixed focal length on all the cameras
  • …with minimal direction of cameras
  • …we should see audience members, but not faces (this isn’t Live At The Apollo), but as voyeurs surrounding the viewer
  • …we should feel sat in darkness watching the lit stage

I’m crucially not trying to replicate NT Live or the Met Opera – they have a glossy aesthetic style and isn’t what I’m looking for. I’m much more interested in, rather than the £15 – £18 a ticket recording at the cinema, instead a £3.99 watch on laptop or TV at home feel. Or to put it a better way, I want to make the Blair Witch recording when the majority are Mission Impossible.

With that in mind I started to have a look for a camera to trial this on (which is where I’m at now) – and this is what I’ve landed on:

  • Canon EOS M (£119) – With Magic Lantern installed to improve the video functionality – it’s a cheap older camera that’s capable for 1080p recording, can do well in low light and is light. Filming at 24fps with a shutter speed of 50.
  • An EOS-M to FD lens adapter (£18) – the EOS-M lenses are expensive because of the electronics in them – if, however, you’re working manually, then the FD lenses are a) good, b) very cheap.
  • A vintage Canon FD 50mm 1.8f lens (£32) – To get the “human eye” perspective, and also work well in low light.
  • A 60cm Mini Handheld Stabilizer Steadycam (£35) – to get that “constantly moving head” feeling.
  • 64GB Memory Card (£16)

Total cost so far £220.

It’s worth mentioning three things about this process:

  1. I’ve watched a fuck load of videos and test footage – also researched “best camera 2012” and spoken to lots of people.
  2. Forums are a black hole. I looked at a lot of videographer forums and there is brutal brand loyalty and a snobbishness about everything that’s a little bit alarming. I’ve read comments from inexperienced people torn to shreds because someone was considering buying a certain thing. Equally I’ve seen a lot of opinions about what looks good and interesting that are dubious at best.
  3. I’m not wanting to create something to fool videographers and filmmakers – I’m wanting something of a quality to fool the average person in the street into thinking a pro-videographer or filmmaker made this (which, of course, may be impossible).

I’ll keep updating and adding footage as I progress – as I said this might be a fucking disaster, then again it might be a work of genius. Let’s find out.

And finally… While I was looking for the ipad footage I stumbled across this… It’s something I loved doing…

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