Brandenburg Productions, Inc.
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The Perfect Vision

July/August 1999


Keeping It Real

Producing Classical Music for Television




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GS: Do you ever interest your camera in the mechanics of the orchestra playing?  Musicians turning pages, or the brass players emptying spit from their instruments?

JS: Well, there was that famous live shot in Houston a long time ago!

PB: I guess we can tell you about that!  For seven years we did a July 4th show with the Houston Symphony live, in an outdoor park.  Once, for some reason, we had been unable to rehearse everything with the orchestra.  So I had a low angle shot looking up at the trumpet section, and something that I had failed to think about was the fact that right up to this point, the trumpets were using their mutes. And so just as I took the shot with great precision, these four trumpet players grabbed the mutes out of their instruments. And what does a trumpet player do with his mute when he’s in a real hurry?  He sticks it in his crotch!  So here were those four guys sticking their mutes in their crotches, which was quite exaggerated because the shot was a lot angle looking up.  We cracked up in the truck, and we must have blown off four or five shots.

GS: Now I could argue that there should more of that! Somebody should film what I could call the industrial side of orchestra playing, musicians counting rests when they don’t play, or turning pages in their music.

JS: Reading Newsweek!

GS: Or going off stage when they’re not going to play in the next movement. But, seriously, there seem to be two issues that have come up.  One is creating something that specifically works on television, and the other is being true to the music.

PB: We like to use the pictures not just to show you what is obviously happening, but to also show you something that you might not have heard, had you not seen the picture.

GS: Such as?

JS: A counter melody or a rhythmic thing.

GS: And how do you emphasize a rhythmic thing?

JS: You show the players who are playing it.  You might show the melody the first time around, and the rhythmic thing the second time around.  Say the basses – their bows are hitting the strings. And that, by the way, is a case where the audio producer might help you out.

PB: And there’s also the issue of do we really need to see anything other than the conductor?  When we were working on Beethoven with Michael Tilson Thomas, he would say why do you get off me just there? Just there stay with me for two more bars.  Let me start working the theme before you get off me!

GS: You had sent him a rehearsal tape?

JS: While we were editing.

GS: So you had both shots? 

JS: Well, we haven’t gotten into the mechanics of this yet.  But we make more than our line cuts.  We keep what we call iso’s as well – isolated shots.

PB: It’s very much like what happens in sports coverage, where you have what they call an isolated camera.  It’s a tight shot of the quarterback as he runs the play.  Afterwards they can back it up, and show you what he did when he dropped the ball.

JS: Say we’re working with eight cameras.  Some directors will record every single camera.  That gets expensive, and it also makes the show cumbersome to edit.  We will typically record what we call our switched line, which is cut as if the show were live, and three others. One of them is what we call a leading iso, the shot that’s coming up next, so if we get to it late, we still have it.  We can place it in post-production.  Another is the camera that shoots the conductor more than anything else.

GS: Do all the conductors you work with play as active a role as Tilson Thomas does?


PB: Some of them just smile, and say, “Do what you want.”

JS: We’ll almost always get audio notes, saying that movement was better Thursday, and that one was better Friday, except the harp blew it. There isn’t a conductor that won’t do that, and I take those very seriously.  But MTT is much more interested in pictures that most other conductors.

GS: You’ve told me you like to shoot pieces that are suitable for TV.  What in the classical repertory might not be?

PB: One of my favorite pieces in the whole world is the Schubert Ninth Symphony, which I think would be an incredible yawner on television, because Schubert does the same thing over and over and over again.

JS: And to put it bluntly, it’s long. Shorter pieces make better TV.

GS: But speaking as a devil’s advocate for Schubert, wouldn’t that be a great challenge, to make it work for television?

PB: Well, I think there wouldn’t be a lot of people left watching when you got the finale.

GS: And there’s nothing you could do as producers and directors to change that?

PB: If we were hired to go shoot the Schubert Ninth, we’d shoot it and we’d make it look very pretty.

JS: We could try lighting tricks, or show pictures of Vienna.  But those are tricks.

GS: So your focus is to take something that comes directly out of the music, and make that what you show on TV. What are some of the issue in that?

JS:The real issue is preparation, and knowing the music.

PB: But also decide what to put on the screen.  How many visual tricks do you do?  At what point does virtuoso cutting from one instrument to another begin to distract from the music?  Sometimes we cross that line.

JS: We’ve crossed it.

PB: We look at it, and we back off.

JS: You’ve got the flute and the timpani in dialog, and you cut, cut, cut, cut, back and forth.  Or don’t you? Maybe you do it once, then cut to the conductor.         

PB: I remember something back in the Seventies, when I was working as producer-director for a Milwaukee station.  I had shot a Mendelssohn Fourth with the Milwaukee Symphony.  And in the last movement there is a moment where this theme is bouncing all over the place.  At the time, we were not doing iso’s, because technology was much clunkier.  I worked really hard, chasing that little theme all over the orchestra, and I nailed it every time.  A few weeks later there was a show on PBS that Humphrey Burton directed with the Chicago Symphony, doing the same piece.  And Humphrey Burton didn’t change the camera, he mostly stayed on Georg Solti, and on the whole woodwind section.   And I said, I did something Humphrey Burton couldn’t do!  He couldn’t execute it, and I could.  And maybe that was true.  But the other real question was whether chasing that theme all over the orchestra the smartest thing to do.

GS: What do you think the answer is?

JS: I think you have to put it in the context of the overall show you’re making.  If it falls within a whole lot of other virtuoso shooting, it might fit.  If you’re doing a more leisurely look at the music, it won’t.

PB: You don’t want to give your audience whiplash.  And at the time, we didn’t have the cameras and lenses we have now.

JS: So those probably weren’t pretty shots.  Though I haven’t seen it.

PB: I’m sure we have it in our basement someplace!  But they weren’t good shots.  Nowadays, if a theme goes from the clarinet to the bassoon, you can shoot a much prettier two-shot from a camera on stage.  You can shoot from the top or from down between them.  So you don’t want to give the audience whiplash, you want to put pictures on the screen that are aesthetically pleasing.

GS: One last question.  Tell me about shooting classical music for HDTV. 

PB: We did a show in November with Jessye Norman, which will be on PBS Christmas week, and was shot in HD.  One of the things that we learned is that in the control room, you’re looking at images that are actually smaller than what you’re used to watching.

JS: The monitors are the same size, but they’re not HD monitors, so the image in the picture is smaller.

PB: TV equipment needs to fit into a standard sized space.  So if you want to put two monitors side by side, they’re nine-inch monitors.  In the TV we’ve been doing all these years, the picture is 4 by 3, so it fills the frame in that monitor. And HD picture is 16 by 9, so it’s letterboxed in the monitors we watch in the truck.  And the pictures have more information, which now fits into a smaller space.  So it becomes a bit of a challenge to recognize what you’ve got in the picture and how it’s going to work.  We found little things, like the eyes of the people in the chorus were not focusing all in one place. Someone who was watching on a larger monitor in a larger truck was able to tell us that.

GS: So if you’d been shooting it in old fashioned TV, you would have noticed that, but shooting with higher technology you didn’t notice? 

PB: We would have more likely noticed it, because we would have been looking at larger images.  On the other hand, a high definition image seen on a good High Def monitor would have made it more obvious that the eves were out of focus. 

JS:  Like when the Dolby system came in and suddenly you heard the pedal on a piano squeaking.

PB: Well, ths is having an effect on how a production facility is designed.  In Houston, we’ll be doing our show with a new HDTV truck.  It has as bigger rack, and the control room is laid out quite differently. We’re looking forward to seeing how it works.  But when we’re shooting an orchestra show, we’ll have to think differently about how we frame the picture.

JS: You have a shorter, wide picture, so that your right and left sides have more real estate in them. You have more room to do things.

PB: There’s a lovely shot in a show we did in Colorado, which was shot 16 x 9, but not High Def. We had a very good camera operator, who set up this wonderful shot in a passage for the flutes and violas.  He was able to show the first stand of violas in the right side of the frame, and the principal flute in the foreground in the left.  It was a pretty image, something someone in the audience would never see.

GS: It sounds as if shooting in high Def encourages you to re-conceive what kinds of shots to do.

JS: HDTV redefines the close-up.  There are no close-ups!  A face fills a 4 x 3 frame quite nicely, but it doesn’t fill the 16 x 9.

PB: If you’re shooting the conductor at 4 x 3, you can put him in the middle of the frame.  If you shoot him at 16 x 9, there’s a lot of room on either side.  So you might have to put the conductor on the right side, and now you have room on the left for something else, which can be a wonderful way to introduce the next shot.  You can use multiple images, which you couldn’t do nearly as well as you can in 4 x 3.  But does it make sense to see multiple images?

JS: High Def gives us new and different opportunities... but we have to figure out how to

use them.