The Atlanta Journal
Wednesday, December 23, 1987
>Messiah= airing this week with great attention to detail
By Derrick Henry
When the Georgia Public Television (GPTV) production of the Christmas portion of Handel’s “Messiah” airs this week, producer-director Phillip Byrd hopes viewers will pay more attention to the music than to the pictures. The hour-long program features the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chamber Chorus under music director Robert Shaw.
Filming musical performances presents a special challenge, says Byrd, in that an aural medium must be transferred to a visual medium.
“The goal is to use a viewer’s eyes to open his ears. In a piece like ‘Messiah,’ you don’t just [focus] on a soloist’s face. You want to show how the soloist interacts with the conductor, the orchestra, the continuo,” he says.
“Shaw’s chorus is so very well-trained. Television allows you to show that tight discipline, how the singers breathe as one.”
Byrd, who was trained as a trombonist before turning his attention to television, specializes in filming the performing arts. Among his many programs are Public Broadcasting Service specials with Ella Fitzgerald and Oscar Peterson, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and three shows with Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony, including last year’s nationally televised Family Christmas Festival.
Byrd approached the “Messiah” filming as if he were a conductor and the camera operators his orchestra. Like any good conductor, he prepared throughly. In May, he came to Atlanta to study the layout of Symphony Hall, find out how the performers would be situated, learn what edition of “Messiah” would be used, where pauses would be taken for late-comers or tuning and myriad other details.
Besides months of preparation, it took nine cameramen, stagehands, maintenance engineers and a truck full of audio and visual crew – a cast nearly as large as Shaw’s orchestra of 33.
Because the worlds of audio and video are fundamentally different, what works well musically does not necessarily work visually. In one instance, Shaw’s cooperation saved the day.
To achieve a better blend, Shaw wanted to arrange his 60-voice chorus in independent quartets, each consisting of soprano, alto, tenor and bass. But in a TV production, it is often desirable to isolate individual sections, such as an entrance of the sopranos. That’s virtually impossible if the sopranos are mixed with other sections. Understanding the dilemma, Shaw set up the chorus in sections.
Byrd had another luxury: time. He had three days to set up and three performances that served as practice sessions before the actual filming of Saturday’s concert.
With so much time for refinement, said Byrd, “I could be adventurous in the angles, the number of cameras and the precision of timing shots.”
Byrd arrives with a master list scripting every shot. Each cameraman gets a computer printout of the shots for which he is responsible. After reviewing the initial taping, Byrd decides which shots work and which don’t – much like a football coach examining game films.
He tries to exploit the visual personality of the vocal soloists. “Sylvia McNair moves around a lot, looks toward the conductor a lot, so a high angle suits her. With Jon Humphrey, you want to focus on those incredible eyes.”
In the hall are the nine camera operators: six from GPTV, plus three
Outside the hall is GPTV’s remote trailer, divided into three compartments: one for video, one for audio, one for a technical crew. The compartment at the front houses the seven members of Byrd’s video crew. The seeming bedlam is in fact highly disciplined.
Janet Shapiro, the assistant director and music associate (and Byrd’s wife), follows a large score marked with numbers designating the camera operator assigned to each particular music passage. Elaine Warner, associate director, communicates via microphone to the camera operators, giving notice for the upcoming shot.
Byrd cues each shot and issue instructions to his camera crew. Lighting director Bill Greenfield of CBS New York conveys instructions to his men.
The remaining video crew members are local: Frank Harrington, a technical director at GPTV; Chuck Baker, a GPTV staff producer; and Melissa Hampton, a producer at Peachstate Public Radio. Harrington and Baker handle video switchers to ensure the right shot gets on the screen, while Ms. Hampton notes problems needing correction.
In front of the crew is a board full of monitors. There are two color screens – one for view what is being filmed at that moment, the other to monitor the upcoming shot. Eight small black-and-white monitors line the bottom, numbered and named according to the camera operators. On top are eight more monitors serving an identical function.
To the right is the output from a ninth camera, placed underneath the chorus bleachers to focus exclusively on Shaw and the audience. Manning this camera is Bill Johnston, director of local productions for GPTV and executive producer of this “Messiah” program.
On production day, the atmosphere in the tiny room is charged with adrenalin.
Amid the ongoing cuing by Byrd and shot preparation by Ms. Warner (“Shot number 211. Five next. Ready five. Cut. Shot number 212"), Byrd keeps up an intermittent commentary. “The chorus sounds a little snappier than last night.... Tony [a cameraman] is in the shot on 3 ... check the focus.”
The back compartment houses four technical engineers. Their job is to make sure the color shades are consistent from shot to shot and that the final product has adequate brightness. Focus and framing are the responsibilities of the cameramen in the hall.
In the middle compartment is the sound crew – audio producer John McClure and his assistant, Susan Presson.
Now a free-lancer, McClure produced many notable recordings for CBS Masterworks, including those of conductors Bruno Walter, Leonard Bernstein and Igor Stravinsky. But recording a television production is a “totally different kettle of fish,” he said.
“When you make a record, you search for the perfect abstract audio picture. Here you are the servant of the video picture.
“Microphones must be placed so they don’t impair the visual elements – the mike layout can’t look like Frankenstein’s lab. In making CD, every noise or tiny slip must be repaired and corrected. But in a live performance, audience noise and mishaps are part of it.
“It’s important that the soundman and director have a common view of the music,” says McClure. “It makes no sense to zoom in on a delicate percussion instrument when the rest of the orchestra is making a huge noise. It’s annoying to watch an instrument you can’t hear.”
Many times, in viewing musical programs on television, those instruments you see seem to be more audible than those you don’t. This is not just an illusion. McClure acknowledges that often he’ll increase the volume slightly on the subjects of close-up
shots – “just enough to bring out that part.”