Knowing When How Much is Enough

I suppose that it's just another example of market forces at work, but still I'm troubled by the constant escalation of what are usually referred to as "production values" in the shows that we make. Maybe it's because I'm not often a beneficiary of the accompanying budget increases that I look upon this trend with such a jaundiced eye, but I would like to think that it's really because I hold on to a reasonable set of aesthetic standards.

Over the holidays, I watched a Christmas carols broadcast from a station where I worked long ago. What used to be lit with a crew of four in a day or two using six ancient Mole 10Ks (Mole Richardson 10 kw Fresnels), a dozen Mole 5Ks, and a van load of Mole 2Ks, has become a monster. A couple of decades later, this 20-camera production (formerly four), with a set that now requires three months to construct, uses hundreds of moving lights and hundreds of LED matrix fixtures.

Staged in the same amphitheater as ever, it now takes that city's largest concert production company a full week to rig the truss system and lighting. Yet the band and the choirs are not noticeably larger and they still sing the same carols and mostly the same popular Christmas songs. Clearly, the show's producers were able to find sponsors to buy commercial time and branding at a sufficient price to pay for the production, and still make a handsome profit. I'm left with the nagging question: "Why?"


That production however, was really only the icing on the Christmas cake of the question that has been forming in my mind for some time now. After a lot of rumination, I think the question finally coalesces into: Why is too much never enough?

What originally provoked these thoughts was a totally baffling awards presentation broadcast. It was obvious that the producer of this show was an avid fan of the Oscars, as the set was essentially a replica of a previous Academy Awards broadcast. Since borrowing the best from others' ideas has been the driving force behind human civilization, such derivation would hardly warrant any comment if only it had been even vaguely appropriate for this production.

The three vast LED screens at the back of the set worked well for showing the nominations packages for each award, but the stage itself was simply too large. Once a winner was announced, it could take the recipient up to half a minute to cross the football-field sized seating area to reach the stage steps. Then followed a further excruciating 20 seconds of walking across empty acres of high-gloss black stage floor to reach a lectern at the far camera left of the set to receive the award. On finally arriving at the lectern, recipients were given their award, then curtly reminded that acceptance speeches were to required to be very brief.

With such a vast stage and screens, I expectantly awaited the big production number that would fill the area with singers, dancers, musicians, acrobats, choirs, illuminated staircases, horse-drawn wagons, a moto-cross demonstration, sailing ships, a fleet of vintage cars, or an entire company of Cirque du Soleil.

Instead, what I saw were two songs played by a popular four-piece rock band tucked under the video screen in the furthest camera-right corner of the stage. To avoid losing them completely in this cavernous abyss, the director wisely shot both segments almost entirely in close-up on handheld cameras. This was a highly successful strategy, as it was almost impossible to tell that these were not pre-recorded inserts, shot someplace else.

Only once was the center of the stage used: when two presenters stood at a single microphone to announce that year's inductee into the hall of fame. Sadly, this was a posthumous award, so the night's only opportunity for an award recipient to walk directly up to the presenters to receive their award was missed.

My worry about this production arises not from the extravagance or expense of the set, because we can safely assume that somewhere a sponsor must have been willing to reach into their pockets to provide whatever that set may have cost. The real concern is that there was no apparent relationship between the set and the aesthetic and production requirements of the broadcast.

Maybe it was even a selling point when the producer was gathering sponsors that this awards presentation was to be on a set that replicated the one at the Oscars. No doubt, that set must have looked damned impressive to the audience walking into the presentation, especially to the sponsor and their entourage of important corporate guests, who got to have dinner with the award nominees and a ringside seat at the presentation.

The set certainly looked spectacular in the opening shots, with zooming, craning and panning cameras, moving lights and followspots doing ballyhoos around the dining tables, and frenetic montages running on the screens. However, it didn't take long for the vast emptiness of the stage and the interminable delays as the award winners made their way to the lectern (usually well and truly exceeding the length of the covering video footage), for the production to become a travesty. The stage got more airtime than the awards recipients, and totally dwarfed them on the wide shots. Most of the set was not used during the broadcast, which must have been a source of some frustration to the crews who constructed, painted, lit and equipped it.

It must be very hard for a production team to turn down a huge production budget, and the opportunities it brings to try out some new gear and new techniques, even when it's clear that the production simply won't work.