Making Music at Masada

The quest for the best is the ultimate goal. In the world of TV production, a producer wants the best shot in the best location with the best lighting and the best sound.
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CHICAGO
The quest for the best is the ultimate goal. In the world of TV production, a producer wants the best shot in the best location with the best lighting and the best sound.


(click thumbnail)David Broza and Jackson Browne rehearse the night before the first concert.The creators behind the making of “David Broza at Masada” with special guests Jackson Browne and Shawn Colvin had no shortage of opportunities to challenge their abilities and test the stamina of the equipment. The program is set to air in December as a one-hour PBS pledge special.

Israeli desert temperatures reaching more than 120 degrees Fahrenheit. Winds gusting up to some 75 miles per hour creating an almost blinding sandstorm. Crews from three different countries.

Not to mention a high-definition production in a country that has no HD.

DISASTER AWAITS

“I kept thinking that at any moment during the whole process, everything could have gone south in one second,” said Nicolette Ferri, executive producer and whose dream it was to develop the project. “Everything was so complicated.”

The story begins some eight years ago when Ferri met Broza at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago where he was performing in a Hanukah concert. As a TV producer who specializes in music, Ferri was following up on a lead that the concert would make a good regional special.

“When I heard the soundtrack of David rehearsing, my jaw dropped,” Ferri recalled. “It was just one of those things that hit me like a ton of bricks. I knew from that moment on that I wanted to do something with this man on a much larger scale.”

With more research on Broza, Ferri learned he was an Israeli composer, guitarist and singer who, as of now, has 16 gold, platinum and multi-platinum releases. Broza is an international superstar, but he is known in the United States by mostly Jewish Americans. As Ferri describes Broza’s music, “He’s James Taylor meets Bruce Springsteen meets Bob Dyan meets (Jimi) Hendrix. He’s rock, folk and pop.”

Then, two years ago Ferri reconnected with Broza when he was performing at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts in the Chicago suburb of Skokie, Ill. The end result is the production at Masada, a massive and jagged mountain that rises 1,424 feet from the Israeli desert, with a summit of 18 acres, on the edge of the Dead Sea in the Jordan Valley. Broza has performed there annually for 14 years.

HISTORICAL SITE

While he has held his concerts at sunrise at the base of the mountain, King Herod the Great fled to its heights around 40 B.C.E. and later established a fortress there. In the period around 70 C.E., Jewish resistors to the invading Romans held out on Masada until they committed suicide rather than face capture. Inhabited later by monks during the Byzantine period, Masada was unknown until the early to mid-1800s.


(click thumbnail)From left, Tom Siegel, Don DeMartini and Steve Miller assemble a Sony HD camera at Masada.Ferri, who is producing the program for WTTN National Productions—a division of WTTW11 and a Chicago public television station—conducted a site visit in October 2006. Co-producer is The Angel Group from London.

Among those with Ferri was Director Julia Knowles, internationally known for directing the Nobel Peace Prize concerts, the Australian MTV Awards and for her work with Madonna, Quincy Jones and U2. Also checking out what the group was taking on was WTTW Engineering Vice President Ron Yergovich.

“The producer kept talking about doing the show on top of the mountain, and when I saw it I almost fainted,” Yergovich said. “There was only one way to get gear to the top (and that was) via cable car.

“When I realized that the shoot was really at the base of the mountain, it was almost a relief.”

The shoot took place June 29 and July 1, with consecutive concerts beginning at 3 a.m. and ending at sunrise. One rehearsal was held June 28.

NATURE IN PLAY

Yergovich said he knew the logistics would be difficult, but he readily admitted he underestimated the elements.

“I expected heat, and I have done shows in extreme heat before,” he said. “It was the winds that I did not anticipate… nor the dust.”


(click thumbnail)David Broza is joined by a Palestinian singer and a choir of 20 Israeli and Arab children. This shot was taken in King Herod's “entertainment center,” where temperatures were 120 degrees with 70 mph winds.Arriving early for the production, Ferri said she knew trouble was brewing when she was informed that the heat in the desert was so severe that the Israeli army was issued warnings regarding the temperature.

“It was a heat storm normally typical in August,” she explained. “They do not get these heat storms in June.

“What ends heat storm?” Ferri said rhetorically. “Wind storms. We are now praying that this wind storm comes before our show.”

The project—the culmination of years of planning and months of extensive, detailed coordination—was in peril. Ferri said she was “very concerned” for the crew, not only in regard to the heat but because of deadly snakes and scorpions that roam the desert at night.

Yergovich shipped all the gear from England because the director wanted to post in London; shooting was in 25p on PAL-based equipment. Also, sending equipment from the U.S. was cost prohibitive.

In the intense heat, the project began with unpacking the fly cases, setting up the equipment room in tents and staging the cameras. On the second day, they built cameras and got the system working.

“We had two tents,” Yergovich said, “one for a control room and one for tech gear, tape and audio.”

On day one, one of two air conditioners in the equipment tent overloaded.

Among the equipment in the set-up were 10 Sony HDC-1500 HD multi-purpose portable cameras with Canon lenses; 11 Sony HDW-M2000 VTRs and a Grass Valley Zodiac switcher.

The “biggest problem” Yergovich said the crew faced in trying to get everything working was the fiber camera cables.

“By the time you got the caps off and the cable connected to the camera, the fiber needed to be cleaned,” he said. “After several rounds of cleaning and reconnecting, we finally had everything working.”

Then, the winds set in over one night.

“The first gusts blew so much dust into the tents, it looked like someone had taken a shovel full of dust and threw it in the tents,” Yergovich said. “The next gusts moved the tent physically almost a foot.”

They took action by covering the VTRs, tech racks and cameras but not before the wind blew one camera over destroying a lens.

“Of course the next day we had fiber problems again,” Yergovich recounted. “So we decided for the rest of the week to place the cameras in bags on the ground but kept them cabled up.

“After that, they worked fine.”

As for shooting the concert from the middle of the night to sunrise in HD, Yergovich said that because of the sheer size of the mountain to the rear of the stage, they had to balance lighting on the stage to the background “a bit more” than he would have liked.

“We ended up adding 3dB of gain to the cameras,” he explained, “and used the Sony electronics to balance the cameras to daylight instead of using filters to give the shader some iris room to work with and to give the camera operators some depth of field so that they would have a fighting chance with focus, which is critical in HD productions.”

LIGHTING, AUDIO PLANS

For lighting, the production incorporated 100 Mac 2000s, 14 City Colors, four follow spots and 10 Xeon search lights. To accommodate the vast distance of the set, they used five generators for lighting, each located strategically to minimize power runs. Control was via a wireless DMX system.

“Everything was color corrected to daylight because the show started at 3 a.m. and did not end until after sunrise,” Yergovich said.

For sound, Yergovich went with an Israeli crew and producer Gia Jaffe who has recorded Broza.

“I counted on that relationship to maximize the quality of the recording and to give David a level of comfort with the mix,” Yergovich said.

The audio was recorded on Pro Tools and tracks were backed up with Tascam multitrack drives.

As both Yergovich and Ferri recollected, the wind blew so hard during the rehearsal, a sound check was impossible. But, miraculously, it died down for the first show and was completely silent for the second show.

The only sound correction that Yergovich and Ferri expect to have to make is in the opening sequence. That is the mountain-top shoot Yergovich had dreaded in the beginning.

NO COMFORT ZONE

Ferri visualized the sequence on the site visit last October when she was on the top of Masada with Broza and the director.

A helicopter flies around with the camera zooming in on Broza as he sings and plays his guitar.

“We recorded David… using two Sony HDW-F 900 camcorders,” Yergovich said. “One on sticks, and one on a Steadicam. We isolated the vocal mic, a guitar mic and the guitar DI on separate tracks on the camera.

“The winds basically overloaded the pickups on the guitar and howled through the mic,” he said, “but you couldn’t tell at the time because the winds were howling through the headsets as well.”

Ferri said she thinks it can be cleaned up digitally; otherwise, Broza can record for an overdub.

Yergovich, too, is amazed at how successful the shoot was considering the situation.

“There was no comfort zone,” he said, “…no place to turn to get a spare monitor or even a roll of gaffers tape.”

Ferri could not be more pleased, with nothing but praise for the crew and how the three groups from the United States, England and Israel “just gelled.”

She added, “I have never seen such beautiful footage.”

Post production was to take place in London with Broza, Knowles and Ferri working with Editor Damien O’Neill.

“It is a dream come true,” Ferri said.