The filming of live theatre productions has come a long way since the days of setting a solo camera at the back of the auditorium and hoping for the best. Over the past few years the capturing of shows has become increasingly sophisticated with a multi-camera approach absorbing the live experience and transforming it into a virtual one. The best work is created by a fusion of the skills of a theatre director and those of a DOP.
Over the past few years my colleague Robert Delamere has morphed into an artistic hybrid able to employ both. In this week's blog he illuminates the careful process of prising a production off the stage and preserving it digitally without damaging it along the way.
"Movie first…scene second…moment third." The words of Sam O’Steen, the film editor of Roman Polanksi’s brooding, fatalistic and beautifully composed Chinatown. An accepted and admired classic, the film is a prime example of some of the finest editorial work in modern cinema - each cut, including the famous flick-knife assault on Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes, a visceral jolt to the senses.
Working as an editor at the moment on another American classic offers some of the same opportunities for the frame by frame exploration of character, dramatic tension and feral, explosive violence.
A fellow director’s stage material captured, clipped, and labelled is at once a deeply revealing and deeply involved process and can take hours, even weeks of careful reconstruction and textual consideration. This working conversation with the stage visions of directors is an intriguing process; a rolling masterclass in differing temperaments and sensibilities.
Close study evokes a sense of the artist as a whole. This could be the remarkably drilled and deftly executed poignant human dynamics of Maria Friedman's work or Jonathan Kent’s total theatrical vision – a director who works like a Renaissance portrait artist, worlds so beautifully realised in The Faerie Queen or Private Lives or in the live London theatre scene through Imelda Staunton’s towering performance in Gypsy, a performance so achieved and complete, it seems hewn from some ancient theatrical rock. More recently it’s been a close encounter with Richard Eyre’s meticulous humanity, again and again so beautifully revealed in Ghosts, and Yaël Farber’s immersive deep-souled plunge into the depths of character and environment in her acclaimed production of The Crucible.
This private engagement is a sort of benign eavesdropping on the interior process of these talents and in parallel their actors. You dissect and re-piece together ‘the emotional line’ – a phrase we use in-house - and the moment-by-moment decisions and behaviours laid bare before you in their separate clip existence on a graphic timeline that sits mechanically before you.
It's an obvious and profound difference, sitting with a whirring Avid machine and multiple screens compared with being with a timeline of your own imagination when you stand in front of a room of actors or across a bare floor of the first day of rehearsals looking at the blank canvas, wondering how each actor, technician and creative will add colour, hue and skill to the act of creation. It's a moment of immense possibility and pure alchemy; with the right ingredients you can create private wonders that you hope will translate in previews and beyond.
In an edit, there’s an initial objectivity in this mechanical reassembly, which quickens into the attempt to enter into or immerse oneself in the emotional line, the living, breathing, time-based theatre experience you are trying to recreate, sketching with each cut and intervention to bring it back to the raw momentary vitality of the exchange between actors and audience. This comes to its most keen and attuned state during the fine cut process when you are broadening your graphic timeline to its widest extent and removing or adding shots frame by frame and replaying again and again an exchange of looks or words or the passing of a mood from one frame or perspective to another. Cutting in minute detail, each intervention an attempt to create the appearance of ‘real’ stage time.
The latest edit, a chamber study in fraught and grieving masculinity, offers an opportunity to engage with a filmic level of character study. This presents a real opportunity to use classic film grammar and so bring the play of time more keenly into consideration with known and tested techniques.
This inevitably involves a process of selection beyond the 3D ‘Brueghelian’ overview of the experience in the theatre auditorium, where you can look where you choose to look. It's a selection process that involves a perspective beyond mere editing and is an attempt at a recreation of the experience one witnessed as a member of the audience.
The privilege for an editor in this afterglow moment during the assembly process is the privilege of recreating an experience for others who have no means to witness it first-hand. It's a chance to journey to another world, another story told of our humanity, the edit suite a digital slab on which the living body of the story and its soul is reconstructed.
“It was the secrets of heaven and earth that I desired to learn; and whether it was the outward substance of things or the inner spirit of nature and the mysterious soul of man that occupied me, still my inquiries were directed to the metaphysical, or in its highest sense, the physical secrets of the world.” ― Mary Shelley, Frankenstein