Theater to Video Translation: Mr. First Nighter
December 1, 2010
A great test of a lighting
man’s skill comes with
a seemingly simple
task: the video recording of a
live theatrical stage presentation.
This common task usually
comes without warning,
but has one redeeming benefit—the success of the translation
between the two very contrary mediums
will depend greatly upon your understanding
of the differences between the two.
It is quite common today to record live performances,
anything from a rock band to a symphony
orchestra, a single stand-up comic to a multiscene
drama. The recording can be done in every
possible venue—from a Broadway type theater to
an aircraft hanger.
THE BASIC IDEA
In most elementary terms, the successful transfer
from a live performance to video (or film, for
that matter) should accomplish one very important
goal: The viewer of the final recorded product
should have the same emotional experience
as if he were viewing the event live.
Of course, this is not completely attainable; although,
in terms of the lighting, the basic intent
and mood can be maintained. This may take some
doing, but can be very rewarding in that the alterations
to the lighting still retain the integrity of the
original theatrical lighting design.
LIGHTING RANGE AND INTENSITY
Angela Lansbury and George Hearn in “Sweeney Todd”
The range of brightness of a theatrical production
is the most immediate consideration. It is
meant to be viewed by the eye. In order to establish
the areas of importance to the theater viewer,
the lighting designer will use very high contrast
in the lighting, which is in complete opposition
to what the camera desires. This is the always first
problem—attaining a narrower range of brightness.
It is not uncommon to find that the principals
in a musical are in a follow spot at about 500-
foot candles with nothing but ambient light on
the scenery. When exposed for the spotlight, the
camera will not “see” the scenery at all. Not only that, but the next scene may be in fixed
lighting only, no follow spots, but at 20-foot candles.
So we have added a second consideration
to the mix, the variation of exposure
settings for the camera. Common practice
on multiple-camera television production
is to basically use a fixed exposure
throughout the entire production. Because
of this it is necessary to inspect each
theatrical lighting cue and alter it to not
only maintain the narrow dynamic range
the camera desires, but also to provide a
consistent light level. It can get awkward
if you attempt to expose for each scene
where the range of light levels is extreme.
On many productions, numerous theatrical
lighting adjustments made to subtly
direct the viewer’s attention should be removed
as the cameras will do this function
more directly. What happens is that
many times these subtle adjustments take
place exactly on camera changes, when
the change of viewpoint is desired for the
same reason that the lighting change was
included. This results in a not-so-subtle
change in light level that, unfortunately,
may look like a mistake.
COLOR OR ILLUMINATION
Standard operating practice for video
as well as film camera is to maintain the
illuminant that the camera sees as “white”
throughout the sequence. In most theatrical
presentations, this illuminant would be provided
by tungsten lamps.
Usually, it is impossible to determine
what the “white” or basic illuminant is in
a theatrical production. It varies all over
the map. Most commonly it is a low-color
temperature as a result of amber-based gels
placed on the stage lighting instruments,
coupled with the lamp voltage dimmed to
a very low reading.
The eye, of course, adapts to this illuminant
and attempts to restore color (in
this case blue) to retain the colors of the
subjects. The camera, with no ability to
adapt, must be readjusted (white balance)
to reproduce the colors. Many times, under
the stage lighting, it is impossible to attain
white balance because the sensitivity of the
camera has reached its limits in the ability
to “add” the missing spectrum.
Under these conditions, bite the bullet,
remove the color from the theatrical instruments
or actually replace the instruments
with ones with no gel. The reader should be
aware that we are not necessarily referring
to the use of color as a theatrical effect (fire
is red), but in acquiring a realistic rendering
of the color of the human face under
situations where the lighting is considered
THE CAMERA’S EYE
I mentioned in the beginning that a theatrical
scene is usually quite contrary and,
when seen by a camera, will appear even
more so. In fact, the detail may disappear entirely
at either end of the brightness scale—at the white end and the black.
Fig. 1 is a simple graphic representation
of this phenomenon. But this exaggeration
can be extended into other elements that
make up our scene. For example, colors will
appear more saturated. Don’t be surprised if
your favorite primary blue becomes Congo.
A rouge applied sparingly on the cheeks of
your star may become clown-like under the
camera. What looks medium gray to your
eye may become white when you properly
expose the actor.
Fig.1: Contrast Range
As implied in the follow-spot example I
used at the beginning, we will have to add
instruments to light the scenery to properly
balance the background to the foreground
Now, here is the big issue. The reality of
the situation is that you cannot satisfy both
media at the same time. Either the live performance
or the recorded result must take
precedence. One will suffer diminished
results. If our goal is to obtain “broadcast
quality” (for want of a better term), great
compromises will have to be made to the
lighting of any event designed for a live audience.
A perfect illustration of this is that in
most theater productions, a drop of light
on the proscenium is considered extremely
bad form and lighting designers take great
care in insuring this never occurs. If we are
recording the same production, we would
welcome spill on the proscenium as it
would immediately establish the real estate
of the locale to the viewer.
Of great importance is that a properly
balanced scene for the camera will appear
quite “flat” to an observer in the theater. Not
a very pleasing result for Mr. First Nighter.
And what if we desire audience reaction
shots during our performance? The rush to
the box office by angry patrons demanding
their money back will be a stampede!
But, as I stated at the start, if you have
done a good job and solved all the obstacles
head-on due to your understanding of the
basic principles, the result will give you
great satisfaction as well as a permanent
record of the theatrical production—in
Bill Klages would like to invite all the
lighting people out there to give him your
thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.