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Filming the Bard: how the Royal Shakespeare Company brings live theatre to the big screen

John Wyver talks about the joys and challenges of bringing theatrical shows to cinematic life

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Filming the bard – how the RSC brings live theatre to the big screen

The RSC's Cymbeline, screening nationwide on Wed 28 Sep / credit: Ellie Kurtz

Transmitting a stage play to cinemas and theatre across Europe is a lot more involved than you might think. We talk to the Royal Shakespeare Company's Director of Screen Productions, John Wyver, about why it takes over 50 people to make it happen.

Live screenings have become enormously popular in recent years. Why do they work so well?
I think it's partly because we're not trying to make a movie out of a stage presentation – we're trying to find an engaging and dynamic way of translating what it's like to sit in a theatre to a cinema, with fantastic quality pictures and great audio.

The other thing that's crucial, is that you're watching it with other people – both sitting around you, and at the theatre in Stratford or London or wherever it's happening - and that social experience is enormously important.

During a show, audiences can choose where to look. How do you decide what to focus on during a screening?
Well of course to a degree we're directing where the audience is looking, but we try to get the right balance between wide shots and close-ups. So you'll find, if you analyse it, that cinema broadcasts have more wide shots than television drama. And that's because we're trying to offer the audience watching the screening the opportunity to understand how the characters are deployed on the stage, to see what else they're doing, and get a real overall sense of the production at every moment.

Talk us through the timeline of putting a screening together
Just after the stage show opens – We record the whole show on a single camera at the back of the auditorium. Then the screen director works with that, and the original script, to create what we call a camera script, which could involve 800 or 900 separate shots. We work out what cameras will be used at every point in the show, where they'll be positioned, what kind of lenses we'll use, and whether there will be any movement.

Eight days before broadcast – Just over a week before the broadcast, we'll do the first camera rehearsal. Prior to that, the screen director and stage director will have had a few chats, but this is a chance for them to watch the show together.

Seven days before broadcast – The stage director and screen director both watch the recording of the previous day's camera rehearsal shown in a cinema. It's important to watch it in a cinema, on a big screen, to judge it properly. Afterwards, the stage director gives a bunch of notes saying 'great' or 'you just missed that' or 'I'd like to see so and so's reaction shown', that kind of thing.

The day before broadcast – The screen director has revised the camera script based on the stage director's feedback, which is rehearsed again the day before the broadcast, this time with an audience. The stage director watches with us and gives further notes which we use to create the camera script for the next day.

How many cameras do you use on broadcast day? And who's operating them?
Six. One of those is on a crane, so it can move up, down, around and over parts of the stage – and that's operated by a team of four. Then there are three other cameras that are on tracks, so they can move up and down the side of the stage or across the front of the stage. Then two more cameras are on pedestals, so they're fixed in place but can move up and down.

And each one of these cameras has a highly skilled operator. It's really important not to have robot cameras because even though we know what the shots are going to be, there are always little variations with a live show. So the operators are always making little adjustments or judging how the action works, extending a shot for a second or two. You can't do that with automatic systems, you need those cameras to have humans behind them.

And what happens to all that sound and vision they're capturing?
Parked outside the theatre on broadcast night are four large vans – one of which is where all the camera feeds go. It's a big articulated truck with an awful lot of expensive equipment inside, which is used for football coverage and big rock concerts – it's top of the range stuff.

Inside that truck are three crucial people (as well as lots of other people checking the quality of the picture and all of that): the screen director, the production assistant and the vision mixer. The production assistant provides a running commentary for the camera operators just ahead of what's happening, so they can get into the right position. The vision mixer is pressing the buttons to choose the next shot, and the screen director is making little adjustments to the script and talking to the camera operators.

And very importantly, there's a parallel process with the sound – so there are three people monitoring all the sound channels. All the actors are on radio mics, and there are a bunch of mics in the band room with the musicians, and mics in the theatre. So over 100 channels of sound go into the sound mixing truck, where the team carries out a live audio mix to go alongside the vision mix that's being done in the broadcast truck.

The third truck contains an electricity generator, and the fourth is the satellite uplink truck with a big dish on it, where the pictures and sound are brought together and sent out to 500 cinemas around northern Europe. It's a big, complicated operation and there are at least 50 people involved just on the broadcast – in addition to the stage crew!

All of which sounds pretty stressful – and expensive. Why do it live?
Because we want to translate as much of a sense of going to the theatre to cinema audience as we can. So that sense of liveness, with all the uncertainty and jeopardy that it involves is an important part of the experience. And we think audiences like that, so we do it live – with all the challenges that involves.

Royal Shakespeare Company: Cymbeline broadcasts live to cinemas on Wed 28 Sep at venues nationwide, including the Edinburgh Festival Theatre, Glasgow Film Theatre and the Barbican in London. For full listings, see rsc.org.uk

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