Tuesday 15 October 2013

Opera on to film - an encounter with Ian Russell

Lise Lindstrom as Turandot, Royal Opera House
Lise Lindstrom as Turandot, Royal Opera House
Ian Russell is the film director who turned the Royal Opera House's recent performance of Puccini's Turandot into live cinema. Having seen performances both in the theatre and in the cinema, I was interested to learn more about what goes into creating a live film of an operatic performance, so I met up with Ian to talk about creating films of opera and what it takes to make a good one. Ian is the founder of the company Sparkly Light and has been responsible for the most memorable television broadcasts of the last two decades.

Ian Russell
Ian Russell
For Ian the most important feature of a film of a live opera performance is to deliver what the audience wants to see. Subconsciously we don't want anything between us and the essential theatre of the story, we don't want to notice the extraordinary camera work, this would only add to the tension. One of the impressive things about Ian's film of Turandot was how he got this right, allowing the cameras to dwell just where we wanted them to be.

Opera is a multi-layered art: with the music you can enjoy it without understanding a word. When you add a layer of pictures, the language is still universal but there are more dialects. And when filming opera there is a world of a difference between making a film, where the film director is in complete control of all creative aspects and filming a theatrical performance. Here you are covering someone else's creative work and Ian feels you need to understand it and reflect this creative work on the screen.

When filming the National Theatre's NT Live, the event is run as a filming event with the audience coming second. Cameras are put where the director needs them, then they work out how many seats are left and sell them at discounted prices. This would be too expensive with an operatic performance, and cameras must work round the paying audience. But cameras are getting smaller and more discreet.

In fact Ian's ideal would be for the camera to have no physical presence at all, for him this would bring a purity to the film by capturing something without interfering. But at the moment you cannot be invisible. 3D filming is highly invasive, but even with 2D filming though the cameras do not get in the way, the performers are aware that this is the the performance that will be seen around the work. For Ian, this sense of 'This is the one' goes against anything theatrical where you have a sequence of performances, some better than others. Filming brings the extra pressure that this is the one performance being entombed.

The first stage of creating a film of an opera performance is a planning meeting, early on, to propose the camera positions. This takes place well before getting into any detail and, if the production is new, it won't have been on stage yet. Ian tries to position his cameras at a variety of angles, to give the possibility of varied shots at any one moment. Also, he tries to find out if there is anything that might influence the camera position. For instance in Turandot the chorus is positioned in tiers around the edge of the stage, and the whole production is very symmetrical which needed to be reflected in the camera positions. Ian used eight cameras, placed symmetrically which suited the nature of the set. For Turandot there was also the benefit of existing archive recordings of the production. Camera placement is limited both by space and budgetary considerations and you can end up compromising, having to place the cameras carefully.

For Turandot the second stage was a meeting with designer Sally Jacobs, choreographer Kate Flatt and revival director Andrew Sinclair. Ian admits that this sort of meeting does not always happen, but for Turandot the three wanted to give him the benefit of their knowledge. The symmetry of the production meant that Ian wanted a central camera, but for a variety of reasons this is difficult to achieve at the Covent Garden even for the remote camera in the middle of the Balcony. Though on this occasion it was managed to rig it so that the camera was dead centre, something which Ian feels was very necessary for the look and feel of the filming of the production. For example in acts two and three with the Emperor suspended exactly at the centre of the set, any feeling that the camera was off-centre would be noticed by the viewers.

Next stage was for Ian to take shots of the empty stage, to get a feel for the camera angles.

Turandot was a revival so there was an archive recording made for reference purposes. This is very useful, but inevitably there will be differences between performances and between revivals.

Ian sat in on rehearsals as they brought the opera to life in rehearsal room one. (Again, this is something that does not always happen when filming operas.) These sessions helped inform him of the importance of elements of the staging, for example when Ping pushed Timur to the ground in act three.

Once the preparation is done, Ian prepares a moment by moment plan, choosing what the viewer will see. He feels that it is best to start from a blank sheet with no preconceived notions. It is important to reflect only the particular production on which you are working You can take clues from the staging, often looking at the person doing the singing. For an aria like Nessun dorma there is only one performer, but when do you change shots, do you show the singer against the whole set making him look small and insignificant, or do you go in closer, or do you not change shot at all.

With two people, it is a little bit mare complicated, you don't always want to see the singer you want to see the reaction, but the audience does not want to lose contact with the singer. Ian feels you can spend hours pondering the hots, but the answer is usually in the performance. For examples the non-singing performer will generally stand still, but choose moments to react which helps you choose the shots. As the performance develops such moments may get set, but many will not be set in stone; as such the process can be quite forensic.

Once the performers start rehearsing on stage, Ian and his team make scratch recordings and study them. Nothing stands still, after each stage rehearsal Ian updates the shooting plan being careful where points of action change; these may settle down but many never do. The main concern is that, when Ian delivers the final cut it won't leave him sitting in the cinema feeling, why am I seeing that. If the camera is spends too long in wide shots, then you can feel you are missing the detail, but if too long on close shots then you can't see the spectacle.

There are some things that film is better at than others, but when filming an opera you can always go back to the wide shot. This is the purest view of the opera, but in a cinema it can tire the viewer and you want to go in to see the emotions.

An example of one of the tricky points in the translation from opera to film is the moment in act one of Turandot when the moon descends. After a frenetic scene, calm descends the moon appears on an empty stage with people huddled at the back. In the theatre it is magical, the visual contrast of an empty state with little happening and no focus. In the opera house you can ignore the stage and listen to the music, or focus on small groups of people. For the camera, a wide shot does not work, you need to go in close. In the cinema, we expect the camera to show us detail.

Ian feels that the whole process is about not rushing a decision, and if you are unsure than get to know the production better.

He starts making notes in the rehearsal room and he ends up with a fully marked up vocal score, with camera number plus a description of the shot. These can change, of course, with little details finessed.

When it comes to the performance, there is the camera crew, plus the team in the gallery including the vision mixer and the script supervisor.  The script supervisor reads out the shot numbers and camera numbers so all know where they are, also the script supervisor deals out the shots, giving a printed list to each camera. If a camera operator gets two shots close together then they need to know the time involved so they are prepared. The camera crew watches the scratch tape once, with the script supervisor calling the shots to check everything through. They also have to be careful of the possibility of shots being blocked by others on stage.

The first recording is done at the final rehearsal. The performance day is one long day from 9am to 11pm when the opera finishes. Plus it takes Ian 10 working days of planning beforehand. For Turandot this meant that he devoted much of his working life in September to the opera, but he needs to make sure that he doesn't miss anything. Ian uses fractals as an analogy, the more you look at it the more complex the filming becomes, with moment by moment choices.

Ian in profoundly enthusiastic about filmed opera, feeling that it is a great complement to live opera. For him there is nothing to beat being in the opera house, really seeing and feeling the emotional response from the singers. But film performances are increasing audiences particularly those who cannot get to the opera houses and there are burgeoning communities who meet regularly to see performances from the Royal Opera, the Met, NT Live, Glyndebourne and such like. These live films are always shown with short background films, which help increase the depth of the information available, and Twitter shows that the reach of performances is very wide. The people in the cinema also have something of a shared bond, even to the extent of applauding. Ian himself attends such performances, partly out of interest and partly to see what others are doing.

So next time you attend a live opera film in the cinema, just think about the investment in expertise and man-hours which went into it. That someone like Ian Russell will have sat down and planned every shot so that, if things work perfectly, you will hardly notice the camera or its operator at all and appreciate the performance all the more. As we part, Ian's final word is that it is all just a process, you must understand it then ignore the technical aspects and simply listen to the emotional responses.

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