LAST EDITED ON 25-12-01 AT 09:55 AM (GMT)
This is a piece I wrote for the Ballet.co magazine about the BBC's filming of Don Quixote at the ROH in early November. Publication of the December edition has been delayed for very good reasons. But I thought I would offer the piece as a posting in advance of its transmission at 3.15 pm today on BBC2
THE BBC AT THE BALLET
“VT – we are recording”. “Stand by. One minute”.
The BBC has come to the Royal Opera House to record the new production of Don Quixote to be shown to audiences in Britain on Christmas Day. In the outside broadcast control room, a floor manager’s voice crackles from a speaker: “The House lights are going out ---- now. The conductor is coming on ---- now. Tabs going up ---- now!”
Ross MacGibbon, who is directing the broadcast for the BBC, sits in the mobile control room, or scanner, as it is known. A fleet of trucks are parked alongside the Opera House in Covent Garden Market, where the BBC has set up a television village for a week, and the scanner is the nerve centre. A bank of monitors shows pictures from eight cameras in different parts of the Opera House. Separate screens show the actual output, the pictures MacGibbon selects for broadcast.
Ross MacGibbon was himself a dancer with the Royal Ballet and he is a member of the board of the Royal Opera House. Not since Margaret Dale in the 1950s has a BBC dance producer come from a similar background. He famously directed Ballet Boyz with Michael Nunn and William Trevitt, and he will soon succeed Bob Lockyer as the BBC’s Executive Producer in charge of dance programmes.
Preparing the Camera Script
For three weeks before the recording Ross MacGibbon immersed himself in the choreography of Don Quixote. First he watched a ‘scratch tape’ of the Australian Ballet’s production, a wide angled shot, filmed from the back of the theatre. While lacking close definition, there is just enough detail to show the ballet’s ‘architecture’. MacGibbon also researched work by dance scholars on the ballet, and, above all, immersed himself in the music. Next he developed a camera-script with the angles he intended to use, and the points at which he would cut from one shot to the next. He sat in on rehearsals; developing an ever-clearer sense of how the ballet should ‘look’ on television.
Sitting alongside MacGibbon at the director’s console in the scanner are Priscilla Hoadley the vision-mixer; Anna Antoszekiewicz, the score-reader; and Clare Mathias, the production assistant. All have music backgrounds. The collaboration between the four is as closely choreographed as the ballet itself. It needs to be. From beginning to end of Don Quixote there are 865 different camera shots. Cueing them in and out is complex. While some shots are relatively straightforward, others are specially crafted to a particular section of the choreography.
The orchestral score is the ‘roadmap’ from which they work. It has been marked up with every shot, and the camera from which it will come. It is not an infallible guide. A dance phrase can sometimes overlap its associated music. Cueing the next camera-shot at the end of a bar might mean cutting inelegantly away from a step before it is complete.
Dancers and Cameramen
The cameramen themselves work on programmes as diverse as Grandstand, Question Time and Songs of Praise. Nonetheless there is a core group who have frequently worked with MacGibbon on dance relays, and he makes sure to book them well in advance. Filming dance is a very particular skill. An inexperienced cameraman may be taken unawares by a dancer’s sudden change of direction. MacGibbon has generous praise for his BBC colleagues: “I look at a lot of productions from around the world where cameras aren’t really sure where the dancers are, and where they are going. Whereas ninety per cent of the time, these guys know what’s going on. That’s because they have done a lot of dance and are used to the way dancers work”.
MacGibbon insists that eight cameras are an absolute minimum for filming a ballet, and to offer the necessary variety of wide-shots, close-ups and angles. Since he started to direct the BBC’s ballet relays from the Opera House, he made one important change. There are now three cameras at the back of the auditorium, where previously there were two. Most ballet is designed to be seen from the front; cameras at the side are of limited use. It is, MacGibbon admits, a real advantage to have been a dancer. He understands the movement, and from where it is intended to be seen. “You can’t see an arabesque from behind the body. Well you can: but it doesn’t make any sense”.
Calling the Shots
In the scanner, the PA cues the cameramen, who are listening on their headphones, to prepare to present their next shots. “427 – 7 next”, she calls. By this she means “we’re on Shot 427; Camera 7 is next with 428”. She continues – “428 – 4 next, 429 – 1 next”. The score-reader’s pencil pulses along the copy of the score, watched carefully by both the PA and the vision-mixer. The vision-mixer’s skill is crucial; hers is literally the finger on the button, it is she who actually implements the director’s instructions. Patricia Hoadley is a rare breed in the BBC, one of a handful of vision-mixers who combine an instinctive understanding of dance with the right musicality and skill. While the pressure on her is immense, it is fascinating to watch her almost dancerly body language. Every now and again her spine contracts ever so slightly and then releases as she responds to the dance and the music.
Directing a ballet relay is one of the ultimate tests of a television director. The composition of each shot is crucial. The director needs to watch the picture selected for transmission at any given time, as well as the framing of the next. Ross MacGibbon’s style is not histrionic; he does not raise the temperature among his colleagues in the way that directors sometimes can. Instead he keeps up a quiet flow of direction to the cameramen and the vision-mixer. Occasionally his voice rises, his back straightens and he clicks his fingers to indicate the shot-change. The music is not always a sufficient cue. Ross is watching the dancers intently – only when a phrase is complete can he cut away.
It is time for an interval. The engineering manager arrives in the control room with steaming cups of coffee from Starbucks across the road. Even now Ross does not relax. He asks that the video be played back; something has caught his eye and he isn’t satisfied. If, when he comes to edit the ballet in a post-production suite, he is unhappy with a particular shot, he can use the material recorded from one of the other cameras to “cover” the shot in question.
A Collaborative Approach
While all this is happening, Ross Stretton, the Director of the Royal Ballet, watches the relay in a room just off the Balcony at the Opera House. He is as concerned with how his company looks on television as he is with the actual performance on the stage. Every so often a detail excites his particular interest. It may be the dancing, or something that has been missed by the camera. He talks quietly to Bob Lockyer, the BBC’s Executive Producer for Dance. Lockyer and Stretton are both accompanied by their assistants, who note the detail. What they say to each other will be raised the next morning at rehearsal, and at the next BBC production debrief. Occasionally it is the BBC side that makes a suggestion. If Kitri and Basilio, tonight danced by Tamara Rojo and Johan Kobborg, were to be slightly closer to each other at the end of a duet, Lockyer suggests, it would make for a better two-shot. This too will be taken on board.
Ross Stretton takes a collaborative approach to television, whereas many other artistic directors, tend to say ‘take it or leave it’. He is sympathetic to requests from the BBC side to reposition dancers slightly if this helps the screen presentation, as long as it does not compromise the experience for the audience in the Opera House.
The BBC films three separate performances at the Opera House. There are good reasons for this. However carefully prepared the camera script, it needs to be refined in live performance. The cameramen need to familiarise themselves with the ballet, and the lights need adjustment. If MacGibbon had his way, he would make four or five recordings. In practice, the final recording is usually best, because the various adjustments will have been fine-tuned.
What will not change is the dancing, MacGibbon says. “Tamara Rojo’s amazing fouettes in the previous recording won’t get better. They were absolutely perfect and there was a quadruple pirouette, almost unheard of”. In the editing suite, he will cut that in, even if most of the performance is from the final recording.
The Royal Ballet’s Don Quixote has had mixed opinions from critics and audiences. If you have not seen it already, you can judge for yourself on Christmas Day.