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Capturing ‘Holiday Inn’ for Posterity

by PLSN Staff • in
  • Articles
  • December 2017
  • Focus on Theater
• Created: December 14, 2017
Lighting levels had to be balanced for the human eye and camera. Photos by Joan Marcus

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The Art of Recording a Live Play on Camera

For theater lovers, nothing beats the experience of witnessing a show in person. But when one does not have the opportunity, watching it onscreen is the next best thing. BroadwayHD has begun capturing more and more shows for posterity and streaming them live from their website. One of the latest musicals to receive renewed digital life is Holiday Inn, the bright, peppy, colorful show inspired by Irving Berlin movie musical that wowed Broadway audiences last holiday season. It was first streamed live from Studio 54 last year.

Anna Louizos, scenic designer for Holiday Inn, says this is new territory for the theater world. “I think it was always resisted because I don’t think anybody thought there was a way to negotiate a deal that would make it profitable for anyone because they would have to compensate everybody,” says Louizos. But in our brave new digital world where we can record things on our cell phones, “it seems a shame not to preserve some of these live performances. I think people see the writing on the wall that there is a future for this stuff, and now that people are watching live recorded theater productions in movie theaters, there is a whole other component to it.” Now, great performances are being captured for posterity.

Tap dancing and jump rope combine during Shaking The Blues Away. Photos Joan Marcus

‡‡         Not a Simple Task

Recording a play or musical live is easier said than done. Adjustments have to be made in order for a television audience to feel as immersed in the show as the original theater audience was.

On the scenic design side, Louizos did not have to adjust anything. “Avoiding the wings was the hardest part,” she says. “As you know, there’s nothing off stage. You need to keep the camera away from shooting in the wings. Most theatre is intended to be watched from the house straight out, but, of course, to make the shots more dynamic the camera wants to be in different places. I think they cut into close-ups whenever they wanted to capture the moment. Obviously with the dance numbers, wide shots are really important.” And while she says it would have been nice to know in advance that the show would eventually be recorded, she is not exactly sure what she would have changed for this particular production. For some shows in the future, that could become an important issue.

Lighting is where the major changes occur, especially with a show like Holiday Inn. While the musical’s original lighting designer, Jeff Croiter, sculpted the look, made the colors pop, and made the dance numbers sparkle, lighting consultant Alan Adelman was brought in to reconfigure the settings so that Croiter’s work would be well represented on screen, with the light levels balanced correctly. (Although created as an LD, Adelman feels uncomfortable being called a lighting designer on a show that he is reworking rather than designing himself.)

To light this musical extravaganza, Croiter mainly used moving lights (predominately the Vari-Lite VL3500) and a component of LED lighting. While there were also many Source Fours implemented in the grid, he says they were not the significant part of what lights the show. He also had many practical lights built into the sets, including chandeliers and sconces, “just to make it seem like the lights in the rooms are somewhat real. It was a pretty colorful show.”

The LD sings Adelman’s praises. Having seen both good and bad reproductions of other shows on video, Croiter says “Alan has consistently done it very well. I know that I’m always I’m in great hands when I see his name on the sheet.”

Corbin Bleu fires up the audience with a sequence using strobe lights, theatrical dust, and sound effects.

‡‡         Exposure and Color Temperature

Adelman explains that when it comes to being a director of photography for a live theater video shoot, particularly a show with hundreds of light cues and constant cast motion, there are two fundamental decisions one must make, one regarding exposure and the other for color temperature.

Determining the exposure is crucial because, as Adelman notes, video operators cannot be expected to be irising multiple times whenever there is a major lighting change on stage. “They can’t constantly be changing the exposure of the camera,” he says. “That doesn’t mean we can’t change it from time to time. We do, but it can’t be constant. When we’re dealing with eight or 10 cameras, it’s just physically not possible. You have to decide where, in general, you want to expose in the show and all that that requires, which is basically managing the look onstage into that exposure value. That requires a lot of work, and that’s not necessarily changing dramatically what’s happening on stage, it’s just basically trimming the exposures a bit or adjusting the contrast so that you don’t have such extreme levels of contrast as there were in Holiday Inn.”

In terms of color temperature, the key decision comes in deciding what to tell engineers about which light levels to set on the cameras. “The white exists in the higher color temperatures — more of a daylight color temperature, which is great for when you’re using a lot of light sources,” says Adelman. “A lot of shows these days are using more and more arc sources.

Corbin Bleu, Lora Lee Gayer, and Bryce Pinkham (L to R) rehearse a new number for their next show

“This was a classic, bright, tungsten balanced musical, so we were on the tungsten side for Holiday Inn,” he continues. “It was a lot of work to go through and balance out the exposures. When I do these things, I try not to change the designer’s intent. It happens occasionally because, to be honest, sometimes you go in and there are scenes that are poorly lit, so there are times when you have to make some choices about things to make sure the storytelling comes through on television.”

With its extravagant, glitzy nature, Holiday Inn was a challenging show to capture in HD. “It was a lot of work managing down the big light production numbers,” recalls Adelman. One case in point: Act One’s show-stopping number with tap dancing and jump rope, “Shaking the Blues Away.” “That number just builds and builds and builds and builds, and at the end every light in the rig is on,” he says.

“When we got to the final cut of that number, it was almost like there was nowhere else to go. That number required a lot of massaging so that we could bring that down to an exposure level where the people look good, but we also didn’t lose sight of the fact that we are in this environment. If it gets too bright on stage, the video people can’t let somebody totally burn up, so when they bring the levels down what happens is that the surrounding gets dark. It’s like when you iris down when you take a photograph. If you have to iris down the cameras, you either have to put more light on the scenery to compensate, or you have to bring the levels on the talent down.

“Typically, the choice is to bring the level on the talent down because there is certainly not as much light focused on the scenery in general in a theatrical show as there would be center stage,” he continues. “Unless you want to start adding or refocusing lights — which I try never to do, because there are usually plenty of lights out there — it’s just massaging that light — the levels between the talent and the scenery — so they can be better balanced.”

Romance is blooming backstage at the Holiday Inn

‡‡         Camera Cuts vs. Bump Cues

Croiter adds that cameras actually help to enhance certain lit elements without the need for all the bump cues and focus cues he might normally program into a show. “You don’t always need to pop the lights to a certain point, or bump the lights, because in the live version of the show, [the camera] adds a level of dynamics that just inherently exists, just cutting to a different camera or going to close up,” explains the LD.

He spent approximately five weeks designing the show between tech and previews. As per his usual routine during the video transition process, Adelman required three eight-hour tech sessions. The first two eight-hour tech sessions transpired prior to the first of the three Holiday Inn tapings. He usually asks for a camera at the first session of any show specifically for contrast reasons. After the first taping, a flurry of notes usually comes in as it is the first time the live performance has been seen on video. Another eight-hour tech session ensues before the second taping to fix any problems, and this time, he did a two-hour tech session between the second and third tapings to make additional tweaks.

For Holiday Inn, Adelman did not reposition any lights. He remarks that he added one light in for She Loves Me (also performed at Studio 54) to fill in a performer at the very near side of the stage shot at an extreme camera angle. On Holiday Inn, he took the lights on the group rail up in the followspot area, which were rarely used during the show, to create “a front washout of those lights, just for fill. I took what was there and actually changed the color in those lights, put them into a more cleanup color, and just used them to help fill in. It was very helpful because theatrical lighting positions at front of house tend to be very steep.”

“On other shows that I have done like this, we dropped the followspots down to a balcony position so they help with the cleanup to get a better TV angle for the followspot,” Croiter chimes in. “For Holiday Inn, this was not an option.”

‡‡         Fine-Tuning the Followspots

Adelman stresses that one cannot minimize the importance of followspot operators in the video recording process. He believes the spotlight operators in New York City and on Broadway are the best in the world. Whenever he works on digital transitions, he likes to have a spotlight assistant present to help with any changes that arise.

“Overlapping spotlights are problematic for exposure reasons, and there are changes that have to be made,” says Adelman. “We need someone to be able to keep track of them. When you walk into these shows and the operators have been working on them for months or years, they know the show better than we do.” He also praised the “extraordinary spot operators” at Studio 54, whose great teamwork made the process easier.

Something else Adelman likes to do is bring in the original assistant or associate lighting designers and get them involved, and he encourages them to come when they are actually shooting the live show. “Holiday Inn was hard, because Jeff’s associate was not available, so Vivian Leone assisted me,” says Adelman. “Vivian is an incredible associate.”

During our conference call, Croiter asks Adelman if he puts any neutral density on the spots for a shoot. “With a show like Holiday Inn, which is such a bright show, when we’re deciding where to expose the show, that show would be exposed at a pretty bright level because the scenes were all so bright,” responds Adelman. “In this particular instance, where I started was to put the spotlights onstage to see the color temperature I wanted to do the show at, to see how much light I could get out of the followspots. Ultimately, when the stage lights go away all you’re left with is a spotlight. The spotlight has to be bright enough so that I can accept a good exposure level that makes sense.”

He adds that he struggled to get enough light of the followspots, so he set their level to 2900 degrees Kelvin, and he notes that one of the spotlights was weaker than the other two. “In that particular instance, what I did is see the maximum exposure I could get and then balanced the rest of the stage down to that exposure level,” says Adelman. “It’s a lot of work. We go through and adjust every cue. It’s very rare that there is a cue that doesn’t get some love as you’re doing this, because you want the levels to say the same so that Jeff’s work is still maintained in its proper relationship. It’s a lot of fun to do. I really enjoy doing it.”

Echoing Adelman’s positive sentiments, Croiter did not consider working on the musical a challenge as he felt “it was a good, old-fashioned book musical where everything kind of made sense. There wasn’t a lot of difficulty there.” He adds, “I had a great time working on the show. I love that show, and I love that people love watching it. It’s an audience-pleaser. We all do a lot of things audiences maybe don’t like so much, so it’s nice when we get one that people love.”

Louizos, Croiter and Adelman all concur that Holiday Inn looks great in HD, and Louizos is pleased it will give more people an opportunity to see it. “It makes me wish that more of the shows that people have done in the past could have had the same opportunity,” she muses. “I’ve done so many shows where I wish I had a recording of it. It’s only in my memory now and in photos.” Not anymore.

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