How I Did That: Creating A Live Movie At Toneelgroep Amsterdam For Antonioni

I first met with director Ivo van Hove and production designer Jan Versweyveld to discuss video for The Antonioni Project in July 2008. Van Hove had recently finished his second feature film, Amsterdam, and was really struck by what he describes as the “architecture for constructing emotions.”

Anyone who has been on a film set knows what this is. Often, the actors are hidden behind lights, scrims, reflectors, camera gear, etc., while the director watches the scene from a remote monitor. A great actor, who trusts the microcosm he inhabits, will bring to life a world much bigger than the few square feet in which he is permitted to move. Behind all of the smoke and mirrors is the distillation of emotional expression.

As the director of the Netherlands’ premier theatre company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, van Hove has adapted a number of films to the stage including Cassavetes’ Opening Night, Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers, and Bergman’s Cries and Whispers, another project on which we collaborated. For this adaptation, van Hove wanted to draw on his experience directing actors for film to conceptually express the isolation of director Michelangelo Antonioni’s characters in what is known as his Alienation Trilogy.

In the early 1960s, Antonioni created his masterwork, a trilogy of films about the contemporary alienation of man. Each of the films—L’avventura (1960), La notte (1961), and L’eclisse (1962)—charts the ambivalent course of a romantic relationship between two individuals who struggle to define a reason for being together. Instead of narrating the loneliness of his characters, Antonioni uses a variety of non-narrative editing techniques to lure his audience into the experience he wants to express. For this production, the play was composed into 45 scenes extracted from Antonioni’s screenplays and assembled into a series of intertwining vignettes by dramaturg Bart van den Eynde.

High Concept
During the course of 10 productions on which we three—van Hove, Versweyveld, and I—have collaborated, I have often used live camera work to explore the intimate complexities of an actor’s work. This time, something new was needed. I wanted to set the characters in a world outside of the theatre and, at the same time, work with Versweyveld to create a uniform world on stage that would express the isolation in the daily lives of these characters. We hit upon the idea of turning the theatre into a giant blue-screen film stage with the technical armature necessary for manufacturing an alternative reality in full view of the audience. This stage would also function on a symbolic level, providing the environment in which our characters would struggle with their inhibitions and loss of identity.

I wanted to find a unifying landscape—a virtual environment that I considered alienating—for shooting the background plates that would be keyed behind the actors, so I spent three days on location in Minneapolis shooting in the skyway system. In addition, I shot a variety of other footage in the Netherlands, including the North Sea, formal gardens, and an amateur rocket club in a field.

I chose the Sony XDCAM EX3 camera to shoot all of the backgrounds as well as the live content. I love these cameras. In addition to using professional lenses with a smooth aperture, they have detailed color control and the possibility of transferring settings. They have an SDI output that can be used for HD or SD and can be remotely shaded, although we could not afford another engineer for the production.

As part of the production design, we placed all of the technicians in an “orchestra pit” between the audience and the stage, so that all of the live manipulation would be visible. A series of plasma screens and production monitors showed video of the composite elements as well as the various camera feeds. The final composited “film” was front-projected onto a 30'-wide screen hanging over the stage at the proscenium.

Technical Wizardry
There’s nothing new about blue-screen technology. I’ve even seen it used for live stage performances before. The trick here was to present the first 30 minutes or so of the production as seamlessly as a live film. This meant a live edit of three cameras as well as the background plates containing the appropriate location and POV for each shot.

I worked closely on this production, as I have in the past, with Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s chief video technician, Karl Klomp, to create a technical design that could deliver our concept on a tight budget. As any designer working with live video knows, there is always a battle to reduce the frame delay inherent in any video chain. By working with SDI, carefully choosing equipment with a low delay, we ended up with a four-frame delay that was unnoticeable to the audience.

We purchased three Sony XDCAM EX3 camcorders and investigated using a 35mm lens adapter and lenses but decided the additional complexity and budget outweighed the aesthetic gain. These cameras were mounted on tripods, on a doorway dolly on a track along the front of the stage, and onto a jib for the second part of the show.

For the switcher, I chose my current favorite HD switcher, the Panasonic AV-HS400. It offers a multi-view output, so that all of the camera feeds, as well as preview and program, appear on a single screen in a customizable interface. The switcher also has a built-in, switchable 10-bit frame synchronizer for each input which was great when we chose to add in an old consumer H8 camcorder for a particular scene. The cameras were tethered to the switcher with cable harness that included HD SDI, power, gunlock, and tally lights. The image was also cropped to fit the screen in the switcher.

I used Apple Final Cut Studio to edit and color grade the backgrounds. This video was then converted to M2V MPEG2 files in Apple Compressor and programmed onto a Green Hippo Hippotizer HD. I personally find programming the Hippotizer to be a bit difficult, but I greatly appreciate its ability to do quick, smooth geometry and temporal corrections. The final visual was projected by a Sanyo PLC XF47 onto the 30'-wide screen with a ratio of 2.35:1.

Searching For A Perfect Key
Creating a perfect matte and key is always problematic, but in a studio setting with proper lighting and intensive postproduction, the magic really works. Doing this live in a theatrical setting is a completely different story.
We knew from the outset that we would want a dedicated engineer and hardware to get this right. We used an Ultimatte 11HD/SD multi-definition compositing device and a set created from a Gerriets blue/green vinyl floor and a blue fabric cyclorama. In addition to theatrical lighting, we used set film lighting with a mix of Kino Flo units, ARRI fixtures, scrims, and reflectors to light the scenes.

Naturally, we struggled to get the best key for each scene, but we had to always balance the needs of the audience to experience a theatrical performance versus creating the best possible video experience. It was essential to find a way for the camera people to get shots, marry those shots to the perfect background shot (with the same focal length), and light the shots for a key within the greater context of a theatrical experience that was both about making movies and about the fictional narrative of the play.
The most difficult aspect of controlling the video was that the Hippotizer, Ultimatte, and switcher all reacted to a single command at different rates. Klomp was able to write a custom patch in Cycling ’74 Max/MSP/Jitter that incorporated the millisecond delays into a cue command so that he could use his laptop to control the switching of this complicated show.

For the second act, we shifted mode conceptually and aesthetically to a single feed from a jib-mounted camera that swooped in and out of the different narratives as all of the characters and stories merged and overlapped at a decadent party with a live band on stage. For the last 30 minutes of the show, a 40'x 60', full proscenium screen dropped into place, and the lens was changed on the projector to completely cover over the blue-screen universe. The actors performed only for the camera, both behind and in front of the screen, dwarfed by their projections as we delved into the depths of their characters’ crises.

The Art Of Compromise
Ultimately, I think The Antonioni Project is a show about learning to compromise with reality. As much as the characters live in their heads, disengaged from the raw realities of life, they are, in fact, trying to face the truth and find a peaceful compromise with the certainty of their own mortality.

As theatrical designer and as an artist, I face a million choices everyday in an effort to get the truth of what a show wants to be. Many of these choices are made for me by my collaborators, including the actors and technicians, by circumstances, and by the laws of physics and nature. I love the process, the tough compromise, the moment when reality hits you square in the face. That’s why I work in a live medium and share the process with so many equally smart, complicated, emotional, and creative individuals, because the joy and revelation of the unexpected enriches my life beyond belief.

Tal Yarden is a projection designer currently working on Pop! (Yale Rep), Sounding (Here), Idomeneo (La Monnaie), and Zoom (MASS MoCA).

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