Theatre on Film: Two Media Unite

Both theatre and film have reeled me in.

That shouldn’t be surprising: they are intrinsically connected as media. Both weave stories through performances, visuals, and sound; both utilize nuances of these elements to set tone; and both, in their most refined forms, pull the audience from their seats and pretend they’re elsewhere, forcing them to expand or reshape their perspectives.

And yet, I adore them for very different reasons. There’s something quite special about a live performance. It speaks to you rather than before you; it acknowledges your presence. Performers can adapt to the room, interact with the audience, and make choices they’ve never made before and perhaps never will again because it felt right in this moment alone. This is the beauty of theatre.

But film has a stronger grip on my heart, for almost the complete opposite reason: its permanence. While theatre is fleeting, films long outlive their creators and thus have the ability to charm and enlighten countless generations. Regardless of advancements in how we display them, films remain preserved in their original states (unless George Lucas gets to them first). Just as theatre’s spontaneity gives it charm, there’s something really cool about watching the same movie that audiences laughed/cried/screamed at half a century ago. The films we write, shoot, and cut today will last until the apocalypse, aging into volumes in the history of human existence.

But what if I could combine what I love about each? What if I already have, and I have four experiences to write about?

Theatre on Film and Tape

Recording theatrical performances preserves both the spirit of live performances and the communal energy of the audience for future theatergoers and artists alike.

The Theatre on Film and Tape Archive (TOFT) is a sector of the New York Public Library that records shows in the New York area and collects theatre-related documents and dialogues for preservation and education. The archive has done a fantastic job at amassing and organizing a massive amount of information for almost 50 years.

In this post, I’ll write about my own experience recording theatre, and three others granted to me by Patrick Hoffman, director of TOFT.

High School Musical: My First Experience

My high school’s drama club typically hires professional videographers to record its shows, but they took a new direction for the spring musical.

They asked Ridge Productions (a media club I’m now president of) to record their production of High School Musical. As the main connection between the two clubs, I directed the project with the aid of Mr. Ortega and Mr. Harvey. Although I was also on the lighting crew, I did not have an active role during the performances themselves, so I was able to operate a camera.

With the equipment we had at our disposal, I plotted out a three-camera set-up: a camera on each side recording close-ups, and a camera recording a wide shot from the spotlight booth above. I used my personal camera and Ridge Production’s new camera for the close-up shots, and Mr. Harvey borrowed a camera for the wide shot. Mr. Harvey would mix sound from the mics on each performer (for dialogue) and mics at the foot of the stage (for more stage sound and audience reactions).

With the set-up in mind, I went through every scene in the show and planned which close-up would capture what on stage. I did this so that Emma Bertram and I, who would operate the close-up cameras, could confidently zoom in on specific moments without missing others happening at the same time. When assigning characters and groups to a specific camera, I contemplated what the curtains would obscure, what the background would look like from each camera, and what would generally look best. Emma and I went through the scenes before…

The Rehearsal

To work out all the kinks beforehand and test out how well my masterplan would work, Emma Bertram, Kira Govindaraju (our wide-camera operator), and I recorded a rehearsal of High School Musical. The recording itself went well, but my SD cards ran out of storage a few scenes before the show’s end.

We’re gonna need a bigger card.

Friday Night

We recorded two shows so I could choose the best performances for the final DVD. Friday was the first.

That day, Emma had to go to the doctors and couldn’t record. Luckily, Mohinder Singh was able to help out, so I upgraded Kira to a close-up and placed Mohinder in the driver’s seat of the wide. Luckily, Mohinder only needed to adjust the aperture based on lighting, and Kira remembered enough of the show from our rehearsal to absorb my extensive notes only an hour before the show.

As this was my first show recording, I didn’t realize that tape must be placed over wires to prevent tripping, so I rushed to get that done just before the house opened.

The house opened. We were excited and anxious about our first recording. We needed to be on our game for the entire two hours to make sure we captured everything. The show was about to begin when

The fire alarm went off. That’s how our first official recording began.

But once everything was sorted out, everyone filed back in and the show went on as normal.

However, a lot of things went wrong during this performance. Lines were flubbed; mics were spotty. This wasn’t a big deal, but it put more pressure on our Saturday night recording to be on point, since I would most likely use Saturday footage for most scenes in the edit.

I spent much of Saturday afternoon taking snapshots from the Friday recording and sending them to actors. My personal favorite is this gem:

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A snapshot from the Act I finale

Saturday Night

Day 2. Let’s do this.

Emma was able to film on Saturday, so I had Kira on the wide camera again.

At the very start of the performance, my camera spazzed out and wouldn’t focus on anything. I used manual focus (as always always always) but the camera wasn’t changing focus. I had to shut off my camera and turn it back on (the remedy to any problem ever) to get it to focus. I missed the first 30 seconds of the performance, but luckily the two other cameras were working fine.

After that, the show went very well. I knew I’d be using Saturday footage over Friday for most scenes.

The Saturday night performance was not only a wrap on recording but a wrap on a show I had worked on for weeks.

Fix It in Post?

Using a hodge podge of our own cameras led to a few problems.

The biggest was the inconsistency between cameras. My camera has a tendency to saturate everything it records, while the Ridge Pro camera essentially records raw footage without a filter. Thus, I knew I’d have to either tone down one’s saturation or raise the other’s so they’d match.

Another problem (which I could probably fix in the settings if I look into them) is that my camera kept auto-white balancing, causing some whacky color schemes due to the crazy lighting of the show. (Shout out to Victoria Anderson on that stunning lighting design!)

But eh, I’ll just fix it in post, right?

Post-Production

This was the most tenuous, strenuous, labor-intensive edit I have ever done. But I don’t regret taking on the job: there’s something empowering about making order out of chaos.

I’ll discuss it in steps.

STEP 1: Align the Footage

Since we didn’t have timecode for our cameras, it was up to me in the edit to align them both (a) with each other and (b) with the audio. I adjusted audio by milliseconds so many times to match it with the footage. I recently got some tips on how to make this process easier, but I’ll get to that. Eventually.

I placed the three camera angles on top of one another so I could chop away without worrying about aligning them every time I wanted to cut.

STEP 2: The Chopping

I went through and picked the best camera angle for each moment. For lines of dialogue and important actions, I typically used one of the close-ups. If both close-up cameras missed a moment, I cut out to the wide so it would still make it to the final cut. I tend to prefer the aesthetic of closer shots, but wide shots have their own purpose. For big dance numbers, I used the wide shot mostly, then cut in for closer footage of the performers.

I used Saturday footage for every scene except two.

  1. The caking. In Stick to the Status Quo, Karthik Iyer (Zeke) got more cake in Annika Helgeson’s (Sharpay) face on Friday night and it looked funnier, so I had to include it in the final cut. Since I liked the Saturday camerawork better up until that moment, I used Saturday for the whole scene until the final moment, then switched to Friday footage for the caking. I think the slight change in some actors’ locations at the cut is only noticeable if I point it out, so it was worth it.
  2. Sharpay & Ryan in a classroom. My favorite moment of the entire show was when Annika knocked Matthew White’s (Ryan) hat off and stepped on it as she stepped over his head. This only happened on Friday night, so I used that scene in the edit.

But something happened along the way.

Disaster struck. Not to be dramatic, but. Yeah. Disaster struck.

My LaCie was unplugged, which corrupted the library. Much of my edit was deleted. I had to redo two hours of work.

Not too bad, right? But then it was disconnected again the next day, and I thought I lost everything I had done so far. Luckily, it had backed up a few hours before, so I only had to redo a few scenes.

STEP 3: Color Correction

This step pushed me. It pulled me. It almost killed me. I am a better person because of it.

Again, not to be dramatic or anything.

I spent hours upon hours upon (you guessed it) hours editing the colors. Our two close-up angles never seemed to have the same white balance. When one was blue, the other was red. When one was white, the other was green for some reason. And the over-exposure. The over-exposure. Those lights were b r i g h t. And sudden. The moments when my white balance adjusted itself during an important moment were the worse. For example, my camera went wild when Logan Sharpe (Troy) was walking down the side aisle toward the stage, so I cross dissolved between multiple versions of the same clip with different color corrections in an attempt to mask these changes.

I was rushing to finish the color correction before the deadline, when it happened again. It deleted all of my color correction work. Here’s a tip for all of my fellow Final Cut Pro editors out there: save Snapshots. They’re copies of the edit as it was at a specific moment in time; they’re essentially checkpoints. You’ll thank me later.

STEP 4: Final Touches

I added the poster to the beginning and video credits to the end. Then, I gave it to Mrs. Harvey for any final suggestions.

And I was done! From the rehearsal recording to the final touches, I spent a total of 80 hours on this project. I hope all the drama club members enjoyed it so that it was worth all the time.

Although, I learned a lot through the process. Like a lot a lot. So I suppose it was worth it no matter what.

To Be Continued

After High School Musical, I have continued to film more performances at my school, including a showcase for the Ridge International Dance Ensemble.

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That was a fun show to film and edit. I even got a shoutout at the show’s end!

Theatre on Film and Tape Archive

My drama club advisor, Mrs. Harvey, invited me on a field trip to visit the Theatre on Film and Tape Archive and attend a presentation by its director, Patrick Hoffman. He showcased some beautiful footage of theatrically significant performances and discussed the process of recording them. For obvious reasons, I was intrigued.

Mrs. Harvey and I talked with Patrick after, and she told him that I recorded our school’s musical this year. After answering some of my questions, Patrick offered to have me come see his crew record a show. I was excited.

Okay, I was ecstatic. This would be such an amazing opportunity for me to learn and improve my own work. I emailed him a few days later.

And it happened: later that same night, I had a date to add to my calendar.

Kiss Me, Kate!: Fast-Paced Storytelling

My family brought me to the Roundabout Theatre Company on May 31st to observe the recording of Kiss Me, Kate!

The show was a Broadway revival of the first Best Musical Tony-winner, and it starred Kelli O’Hara, Will Chase, Corbin Bleu, and Stephanie Styles. Kiss Me, Kate! is the story of how romance and gambling affect a production of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.

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When I arrived, Patrick showed me around the truck and introduced me to his crew:

Video director, Jon Pretnar. His role during the show was to direct the camera operators by giving notes and the technical director by calling shots. For example, Jon would say “ready camera 3” to prepare the TD to switch to camera 3, then “take” when he wanted the cut to occur. Of course, these calls are specific to the video director; in a later shoot, the video director said “hold 3” and “hot 3” to signal the same things. The video director must think and decide very quickly, because those decisions are burned immediately onto a DVD. (This is cheaper than hiring someone to edit after the shoot.)

Assistant video director, Karen Wald. With the annotated script before her, she reminded Jon and the camera operators about character entrances and important moments they might’ve otherwise missed.

Technical director and technical manager, Ori Dubow. He switched cameras based on Jon’s calls. He had to be ready at all times, because there were moments when Jon would say “ready camera 3,” then suddenly call “camera 2 take” based on some momentary change or urgent whim. Luckily, Ori was always ready.

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Sound engineer, Dale Whitman. He planted mics around the stage and theater and controlled audio levels during the show.

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Video engineer, Joe Jett. He was in charge of the lighting levels of cameras. Throughout the show, he used a VectorScope and his eyes to ensure that the cameras matched each other, so cuts wouldn’t feel jarring. A video engineer would’ve saved me a lot of time in the edit for High School Musical.

Engineer-In-Charge, Jon Abrams; 2nd Engineer-In-Charge, Chris Mejia. The EIC was in charge of the truck and its functions. Patrick referred to the truck as a “television studio on wheels,” so it was the EIC’s role to keep it running properly. For example, the temperature in a video truck is typically cool because it’s healthier for the equipment. Jon also maintained the cameras and cables.

Camera operators: Alain Onesto, Judy Willinger, Jeff Hodges, and Charlie Huntley. The role of the camera operators is to operate the cameras. (I know. Shocking, right?) I’ll discuss specifics about what camera operators do to get the best footage and give the video director options later in this post.

They even let me get a feel for their cameras!

There was a four-camera set-up: one from stage right, one centered, one from stage left, and one from above (in the mezzanine).

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This is Judy. She was on camera 4: the mezzanine cam. She told me that she would stay mostly on a wide shot (unless Jon directed her otherwise) so he would have that option at any moment. More on her later.

Patrick brought me with him on his rounds, on which he collected paperwork and ensured everything was on track for the shoot. I got to meet many people involved in the show, including company manager Penny Daulton, the executive producer, two stage managers, the house electrician, the sound board mixer, and a stagehand. I also saw Corbin Bleu rehearsing, which the 5-year-old High School Musical fan in me really enjoyed. Patrick continued a long-standing tradition of giving a Hershey bar to everyone who helped with the shoot, including theater personnel. And including me. Thank you for that.

Off to the truck! A few minutes before the show began, a playbill picture taken by Ori appeared on the screen, and opening credits rolled over footage of the auditorium. A pre-show announcement about the recording was made. Let the live recording commence.

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It’s difficult to verbalize everything that I learned; a lot of it was internalized.

I absorbed much from feeling the exact moment Jon cut, or observing his shot choices for specific emotional effect. He preferred wide shots for large dance numbers but stayed close for intimate moments between two characters. He also sometimes called for camera movements, like a slow zoom in. Even in a stressful situation, Jon always remained kind and respectful to the crew. He used spaces between cuts to compliment them and remind them that they were doing great.

During the show, I got to meet the show’s director Scott Ellis and the Tony-nominated choreographer Warren Carlyle. No wonder he was nominated: his numbers kept both the cast and the audience on their feet. Kiss Me, Kate! was captivating all the way through.

After the show, end credits rolled. And my name was on there! It means so much to me that my name is forever cemented in theatre history. Thanks, Patrick!

Less than two months later, Patrick emailed me again, and I was back in the Big Apple for another big experience.

The Secret Life of Bees: Accessorizing the Theater

Fun fact: this was actually my first time venturing into the city alone.

On July 19th, I made my way to the Atlantic Theatre Company, in the afternoon this time. The show was an off-Broadway musical adaption of a book I loved from school: The Secret Life of Bees. The musical, as does the book, follows a young white girl’s journey to learn more about her mother whom she accidentally killed. She and her black housekeeper run away from an abusive father to a honey house, where they are nurtured and respected by a family of black beekeepers. Taking place in the ’60s, it explores race relations and respect, while never roaming far from the theme of community.

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I arrived earlier this time to help set up the sound and video equipment. I helped Dale and his sound assistant plant mics and wires on the stage. There were three things they seemed to keep in mind:

  1. Get the best audio we can.
  2. Change the set as little as possible. If everything is done well, the audience and performers should barely even notice any sound equipment was added.
  3. Reduce tripping.

We taped wires along walls and under steps.

Dale also installed a mic in the middle of the theater to pick up audience reactions.

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To finish off the miking process, the sound assistant did a click test, for which he snapped in front of mics to check that they were plugged in the correct channel.

I learned a lot about mic placement and cabling, and I also grabbed some terms I didn’t know.

  • Snake: Many cables bound together. We used a snake to slickly send all the XLR cables together to Dale’s sound console.
  • Duplex/Y-Cable: A cable that splits in two.
  • Pop Screen: Soft covering over microphones to prevent undesirable sounds from air conditioning or plosives.

This time, Ori and Jeff were on cameras. Since this was a smaller shoot, there were two cameras and no truck, as Jeff would edit the show on his own time.

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As they set up their cameras and monitors, I talked with them about…basically everything film-related. We discussed editing softwares, drop frame, progressive v. interlaced video, PCM audio, and how sensor size affects depth of field. It was like a lightning round of technical knowledge.

Ori also discussed some important concepts related to two-camera shoots like this. Jeff’s goal throughout the shoot would be to match the atmosphere of the room as closely as possible, while still avoiding excessive clipping (loss of detail at the brightest points). Thus, if the lights in the room went down, it wouldn’t always be best to follow them by opening the aperture. Ori’s goal would be to match the exposure and color temperature of Jeff’s camera, using scopes to help him out.

One would stay mostly wide while the other went in for close-ups. It was extra important that they were not both changing the camera at once, because those would be the only two options in the edit.

Ori also gave me some tips for my own show recordings at school. He said I should check out the Chroma settings on our cameras to match the colors. Also, he recommended I flash the lights (or something equivalent that all cameras can see) so I could easily sync them in post—almost like a giant slate—and record reference audio on one camera. He and Patrick also discussed with me the pros and cons of renting equipment. They would be expensive but save time in the edit and produce more consistent footage.

I helped Jeff tape down some wires, and in turn finally learned how to rip duct tape. A free tip: place your hands very close together on the tape while ripping.

We then went out for a nice Italian dinner, courtesy of TOFT! Thanks, Patrick!

I got to hold up the white card while the lighting changed so Jeff and Ori could get a sense of the lighting levels and color temperatures of certain moments.

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The seats behind Jeff and Ori were partially obscured, so they were sold at a cheaper price.

Because there was no video truck, I sat in the audience to watch the show. It was fantastic. The lighting and bee puppetry were truly beautiful, the music was harmonious and gripping, and the performances were exceptional. And of course, the story. If you enjoyed the book, the musical will not disappoint.

Okay. Onto the final one.

The Cher Show: A Camera in the Crowd

I observed the recording of The Cher Show on August 15th, only three days before its closing performance.

The show is a jukebox musical at Neil Simon Theatre following Cher’s rise from childhood to stardom, narrated by three Chers:

  1. Babe (Micaela Diamond) is Cher from childhood to her early days with Sonny.
  2. Lady (Teal Wicks) is Cher on The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour until her divorce.
  3. Star (Tony-winning Stephanie J. Block) is Cher through her acting career, struggling romances, sickness, and fear of irrelevancy.

The video director for this recording, Richard Stucker, was also the technical director, so he switched between cameras himself. Ori was the assistant video director and technical manager.

It was a four-camera shoot: Judy from stage right, Alain from center, Richie Westlein from stage left, and Jay Millard from the mezzanine (very similar to the Kiss Me, Kate! camera set-up). Dissimilar to Kiss Me, Kate!, I spent the second act by Judy’s side with headphones on, so I could hear notes from Richard and Ori and watch how she reacted to them.

Judy’s settings must have gotten mixed up, because for the entire first act, she didn’t have a tally, a visual indicator of whether you’re camera is hot (think on-air). Every movement she made had to be smooth, just in case Richard was on her camera.

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It was interesting to observe a new video director’s style for the first act.

At intermission, I was off to the camera in the crowd. The seat next to Judy’s was killed—meaning the ticket wasn’t sold—so I was able to sit beside her and watch her monitor.

During intermission, the EICs were able to fix Judy’s tally, so she could be more confident in her camera motions.

Throughout the act, I often saw Judy press the Return button (which shows the hot camera’s shot), typically for one of the following reasons:

  • To match a similar shot of two characters, acting as an equivalent over-the-shoulder. She often matched with Richie’s camera on stage left.
  • To give Richard a different option. She would look at the current shot and try to compose a distinct option that wouldn’t make for an awkward cut.

Over the headset, Ori reminded the camera operators that the man in the back of the scene would soon reveal himself as Sonny. Judy adjusted her shot to accommodate.

During the finale, a couple stood up a few rows before us and blocked Judy’s shot.  I had a similar problem during the High School Musical finale. Luckily, another camera was able to capture the scene with better clarity.

I want to thank Judy so much for allowing me to observe her work from close-up. I learned so much from watching her decisions, and she was also such a nice lady to learn from.

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I also want to thank Ori for always having something new to teach me. Seriously, every time. Thank you.

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And of course, the greatest gratitude of all has yet to come. Stay tuned.

Back to the musical. The Cher Show was fun and exuberant while still bearing heart and thought-provoking conflicts. It maintained the spirit of Cher while honestly portraying important questions she had to answer. Should you leave a man you once loved if he has since changed? How far can you push yourself for a career? How can a relationship work without privacy, without normalcy? How do you retain relevance? Do you need to?

These plots were spun with both honesty and hilarity by the three Chers. The brilliance of Babe, Lady, and Star made this show a shining success.

Patrick Hoffman

You deserve your own section.

I would have experienced none of these opportunities if not for Patrick Hoffman. He believed in me enough to invest time in me, to answer my questions, and to introduce me to his crew. His dedication to art and education is inspiring, and I’m sure it’s touched countless people over the decades.

If Patrick and these experiences taught me one thing that will remain within me until I’m old and gray, it is that kindness counts. Every soul on his crew was welcoming to this seventeen-year-old visitor, and I have never met someone quite as kind as Patrick. Ever since these experiences, I have carried Patrick’s dedication to benignity onto every set. Enjoyable, healthy environments breed creativity.

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Thank you, Patrick. For all of it. I’ll never forget it.

Last week, etc.

Another film-heavy week for me!

Beth and I worked together on FaceTime to compose a score for my film “Gemini” about the dual nature of masculinity. We finished the score and on Friday night, Beth and my friend Sanjana Chimata arrived to record it. I posted the finished product on Sunday. The process of creating this film, from June to August, deserves its own blog post. Oh, that’s my next post? Awesome. Stay tuned.

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Only minutes after my flautist and cellist departed, I had a new wave of people arriving at my door. Although the 24-hour challenge we typically participate in is no longer running, we got the gang together to continue the tradition anyway! Last Saturday, Logan Calder, Gabriella Diaz, Emma Bertram, and I made a film called “Now & Then” which explores the common teen conflict between enjoying one’s youth and working toward a future. The concept was actually based on a mini group therapy session we had at 3 a.m. Like I said before, healthy environments beget creative thought! We actually scrapped a bunch of other ideas before dreaming up this one: an Alice-esque semi-fantasy in which a girl steps into her mirror and is blocked by her reflection from returning, an experimental short about two possible decisions, and even a black comedy about a girl who murders her crush. At 6:30 a.m., we went back to ideas we discussed in that three-o’clock conversation, developed two antithetical mindsets, and let them speak. We recorded Gabriella and Logan spouting some improv as a starting point. With a simple shoot and not too heavy an edit, we managed to finish within twelve hours.

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Monday and Tuesday were fully dedicated to production on “Jarred,” a romantic drama starring Victoria Leigh Morales and Taylor Richardson, whom I met on the set of Generation Wrecks. “Jarred” is a story of love, grief, and time.

The kisses we shared are timeless. They’ll always exist.

I have never been more excited about a film project. The chemistry of my two actresses was beautiful and natural, as were their individual performances, and I am very proud of my cinematography. It’s truly wonderful when things just…work out. Loud thanks to Victoria, Taylor, Gabriella, Julia Schnarr, Logan, and all my extras. You made this possible.

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I also played around with aspect ratios.

I can’t wait for you all to see the film at the dusk of August. It also warrants a blog post, as it was my first experience dealing with SAG-AFTRA.

Cut to many, many more experiences to come.

 

2 thoughts on “Theatre on Film: Two Media Unite

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