What’s it like to direct opera and ballet for the screen?
Director Ross MacGibbon gives us a glimpse behind the scenes on the 2012/13 Cinema Season.
I’ve been a screen director for over twenty years, but during the 1970s and 80s I performed as a dancer in The Royal Ballet. Because of my background, I specialize in directing dance films but I also produce opera and documentaries.
My job as director is to convey my vision to a team of camera operators, vision mixer, script supervisor, lighting director and sound supervisor as the live feed is sent to over 900 cinemas in 27 countries around the world.
I’ve directed many Royal Ballet productions over the years and for each the preparation is the same: if I’m unfamiliar with the work, I make sure I see it in rehearsal and performance as I have to understand how the choreographer tells the story. If it’s an abstract ballet, I need to understand the shape and form of the movement. I’m fortunate in that I’ve performed in many of the works and have seen most of the others. The benefits of knowing the work intimately are obvious, but my principal aim is to show on screen the narrative the choreographer wants the theatre audience to see.
Once I’ve got to grips with the essence of the ballet the practical business starts. First I write a camera script – a shot-by-shot description of the entire ballet, which details the shots, the sizes, the duration, which camera, and my edit decisions. This process takes about two weeks as I’m considering every change of angle, pan and cut that will happen in the live cinema screening.
When creating this script, I watch a ‘scratch recording’ (a single wide shot that shows the entire stage all the way through the ballet or opera). That script is then written into the musical score, which acts as a template for the vision mixer (the person who physically cuts between the cameras during the performance) and the Script Supervisor (who talks the cameras through the script as it the ballet progresses).
With so many works on stage at the Royal Opera House and stage time limited, we’re only able to have one camera rehearsal before the live transmission to practice the shots. After this camera rehearsal I’ll fix the shots that haven’t worked for whatever reason and then we all get together as a team and watch the recording through to perfect it for the live transmission. I also watch the camera rehearsal in the cinema at a special screening for the Royal Opera House production team – the make up, wigs, lighting and also for the director of the Company to see how they look on the big screen. We scrutinize the screen and try to spot every blemish, whether it’s the positioning of the corps de ballet, make-up that looks too ‘stagey’, scenery that needs touching up, or shots that need adjusting.
I never grow tired of directing the same production as, with different casts, each performance is unique.
Despite a rapid growth in audiences embracing the arts through cinema, I’m occasionally told that, “opera and ballet don’t work on screen”. Not surprisingly I disagree, although I appreciate that the experience is different from watching a live performance. The camera is very good at telling a story; cutting between characters to show relationships that are often missed in the wider perspective of the auditorium.
My favourite ballet to direct is Romeo and Juliet. The contrast of busy marketplace scenes and large-scale sword fights with intimate pas de deux makes for a very rewarding experience as the screen director. I love the dynamism that film can bring to a production like this, with fast cutting and reaction shots that you could never see sitting in the auditorium. Showing a big close up of Juliet as she sits on the end of her bed in Act 3 contemplating her next move, literally makes me tingle. That’s the kind of detail that the screen serves so well.