Digital Studio



London’s The Old Vic to cinemas in cities around the world, including — for the first time — Dubai.

This unique convergenc­e of stage and cinema has been made possible through the expertise of Creative Broadcast Solutions’ Chris Bretnall, who has served as NT Live’s technical producer for all 10 of its seasons.

National Theatre Live is not about turning a stage play into a fi lm, Bretnall avers. The intent instead is to faithfully capture the live performanc­e.

“The idea of NT Live is to recreate what you would get from the best seat in the house in a theatre, in a cinema that is somewhere in the UK or Europe or further worldwide,” he says. “The original intention was to take the National Theatre to those who couldn’t afford or haven’t got the time or the ability to buy tickets for the theatre and give them a replicatio­n of what happens in a theatre, in a cinema of their choice close to home. In essence, that was the brief to me.”

Adjustment­s are made for lighting, sound and make-up; however preserving the integrity of the play director’s vision is non-negotiable.

Bretnall and his team’s task is focused on transposin­g the stage picture to work on camera as effectivel­y as possible. The camera choices and set-up vary according to production, usually ranging from five to eight cameras, which are cut live into a single feed.

“Everything else is negotiable but the starting point is that we faithfully reproduce the intentions of the stage director and design team on the 2D screen that they have designed for a 3D live theatre experience,” Bretnall elaborates. “We try to do as little interventi­on as possible to accommodat­e the technicali­ties of the broadcast system.

When watching a play, audiences use their eyes and ears to interpret what’s unfolding on the stage. And they do it better than any TV camera could.

“When you are sitting in a seat in a theatre, your brain and eye works out what they want to see at any one time, then flit around the stage, and you build the story yourself by looking around,” Bretnall shares. “When the play is on a screen and is being broadcast as cinema, it is the TV director who has to narrate the story for you, he has to select what you are going to look at and what you are going to listen to at that time – that is the biggest challenge. How do you tell that story captured by the camera on to the screen?”

With the human eye being better at seeing difference­s in light, Bretnall says the lighting design has to be adjusted so viewers in the cinema can feel like they are watching live theatre.

“Your eyes can see around 30 kinds of difference­s in light but a TV camera can only perceive 13. We have to modify that thinking. If the director offers a close shot of somebody, we want to hear them close. If they are in a wide or perspectiv­e shot, we want to hear that as wide and open. So there are challenges in changing our audio for every single shot.

“We put radio mikes on every performer but we can’t control every word spoken. So the big technical challenge is reproducin­g for the screen, what you can sort out for yourself in a theatre.”


Chris Bretnall, Creative Broadcast Solutions

The approach to fi lming NT Live broadcasts is to prioritise the audience in cinemas for that night. The camera director is given complete flexibilit­y in choosing camera positions, so that the performanc­e can be captured from the best seats in the house and with a sophistica­ted camera setup, involving tracking shots and, for example, when appropriat­e, a crane. The audience in the National Theatre are aware that cameras will be present, so the theatre is transforme­d into something of a live studio.

Bretnall shares that the other big challenge when broadcasti­ng in high quality UHD that every minutest detail of the stage production is captured, and not all of them may be flattering.

“When you are sitting 30 or 40 metres away in a theatre, you cannot see every detail with your eyes. But a high definition or 4k camera captures all the blemishes in the make up, the wigs and laces, how tacky a costume could be or if a set needs painting since it’s been standing for six months.”

To prevent these unwelcome surprises, two full camera rehearsals take place before each broadcast, with time in-between for the stage director and camera director to work together to discuss how best to capture the production.

The use of high-defi nition cameras and the scale of the big screen allows the aesthetic to remain theatrical and offer audiences a dynamic full stage picture. This is matched with the intimacy the camera can offer, taking the audience to the heart of the emotion and the nuances of the actors’ performanc­es.

The broadcasts also features live interviews (usually with members of the creative team) and, sometimes, a pre-show fi lm which offers a look behind the scenes or greater insight into the production.

“For our full rehearsal, we take all the cameras in, do a fi rst rehearsal and then we go watch that fi rst rehearsal in cinema we see how it has been translated from stage to the big screen so we can see all that needs to be fi xed to make it work for the big screen.”

Over 10 seasons of NT Live, Bretnall has done 85 plays. “For each play I have done over the last 10 years I am given complete freedom to start from scratch. Each play is a challenge as its a new production.”

However, his most challengin­g production so far, Bretnall says, has been Angels in America. “It was a very demanding play as it is actually two plays and very long ones at that; of 4.5 hours and 3.5 hours duration each. Maintainin­g your concentrat­ion for that length of time, getting satellite links, and keeping an audience engaged was all terribly challengin­g.

He describes All My Sons, which was broadcast in Dubai as “a tour de force of Arthur Miller, depicting a great time in American history”. “It has a fabulous

cast of actors who have never been on the London stage before. It was a hot ticket in London for many weeks, beautifull­y staged and captured. Director Jeremy Herrin did a great job of capturing it and getting it out to an audience who would have never had the chance otherwise to see that cast.” All My Sons was broadcast to 34 countries in Europe, Asia and America.

Another milestone for Bretnall’s team was the NT Live broadcast of War Horse, which was the fi rst live to cinema in 4k.

Bretnall says plays for UHD broadcasts are cherry picked, based on the ones the team sees “having longevity or tertiary sales”. Plays selected for NT Live are naturally the ones that will translate best to a big screen and appeal to a world-wide audience.

The National Theatre produces around 25 new production­s a year, which vary from Shakespear­e and classics to new plays, and the aim of the programme is to have NT Live as a microcosm of the repertoire, “showcasing the diversity and wider ecology of British theatre.”

Currently NT Live broadcasts 8 to 12 plays a year.

Speaking of the logistics of the broadcast, Bretnall says. “We get the best equipment contracted from outside broadcast facilities. We have the same sound team wherever possible across all the shows. The broadcast director is hand-picked to match what we believe is the temperamen­t of the stage director and stage design team. Some directors are more convention­al than others, and some are more out there and wacky! We try and match our approach and our staffing to the working environmen­t so that the stage team works well together.”

During a NT Live broadcast, Bretnall has a standing OB van that can take up to 30 cameras, recording devices and transmitti­ng facilities. Next to it is the satellite truck which uplinks it directly to European cinemas and can arrange a downlink into a teleport in the west of England.

“We then fibre it across to the US and organise a satellite to go live there. We do storage as well, so we can defer it across the various timezones. Coming back to the site, there’s a sound truck for the sound mixing. There is another truck with all the camera equipment and the cranes dollys - And a crew of 35 across any one show. It’s a bit of a circus really.”

Other broadcasts confi rmed so far in 2019 are Small Island, the adaptation of Andrea Levy’s Orange Prize-winning novel.

NT Live works with a range of art house and independen­t cinemas, as well as major chains, but also community centres, cultural venues and theatres (such as Warwick Arts Centre in the UK or the Guthrie and Shakespear­e Theaters in the US).

In the UK, NT Live works directly with cinemas for distributi­on and now reaches over 680 screens, 90% of all cinemas in the UK. Outside the UK, the distributi­on partner is BY Experience, who also distribute the Met Opera and Bolshoi Ballet broadcasts globally and a wide range of alternativ­e arts content.

 ??  ?? NT Live broadcast of The Tragedy of King Richard the II from the Almeida
NT Live broadcast of The Tragedy of King Richard the II from the Almeida
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 ??  ?? NT Live broadcast of All My Sons from The Old Vic
NT Live broadcast of All My Sons from The Old Vic
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 ??  ?? Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan in All My Sons
Jenna Coleman and Colin Morgan in All My Sons
 ??  ?? Sally Field and Bill Pullman in All My Sons
Sally Field and Bill Pullman in All My Sons

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