British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

National Video Archive of Performance

… no editing should take place because it would impose a layer of artistic judgement that might conflict with that of the theatre director

Roger Jenkins, an experienced television producer who was establishing the methodology for Margaret Benton, took advice from the theatre profession and decided that no editing should take place because it would impose a layer of artistic judgement that might conflict with that of the theatre director. The viewer would be told where to look rather than have the freedom to choose, as at a live performance. The only alternative would seem to be to record a single wide shot of the whole production, but if the tape was watched on the average sized monitor, the performers would be tiny within the frame (unless both venue and cast were very small); facial expressions and subtlety of performance would be lost as well as details of the set and costumes. Such a recording could only be used for reference, without any notion of enjoyment – which must be intrinsic to watching performance, and without which no justice can be done to a production.

So Roger Jenkins decided that three cameras would be used, each filming a single choreographed shot. The tapes would be viewed on a pyramid of three monitors, so in principle, you could choose where to look, as in the theatre. In practice, it was impossible to make the viewing copies, playing on domestic playback machines, run in synch and of course it was tedious to stop and review a section or to fast forward or back – hardly ideal viewing conditions for a researcher.

A BBC music director was brought in (as music, opera and dance, though not drama, were then regularly recorded live for television) to advise on an alternative system. Adapting the methods used for television outside broadcast (o.b.), he recommended that two, three or four cameras be positioned among the audience and cabled to a van fitted with television recording equipment outside the theatre where a director would talk the camera operators through the shots and cut between the cameras, creating an immediate ‘live’ edited recording. The immediacy of this method would better capture the spirit of the performance but the director would need to be well prepared and have spent time making a ‘shooting script’ using a ‘scratch’ tape or wide shot of the whole performance, filmed early in the run, and a copy of the stage manager’s prompt script.

The quality of the sound would be crucial and a sound supervisor would need to place microphones as near the actors as possible, which would involve battles with stage management who want neither cast nor audience to see microphones. Radio microphones would not be appropriate unless the actors were already using them.

An o.b. van was important because of the inability of cameras to deal with theatre lighting, which is often too bright or too dark. Equipment in the van enables a skilled engineer to compensate for the extremes of stage lighting and ensure that the cameras are colour balanced.

Jenny Jules and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith in Gem of the Ocean, recorded at the Tricycle Theatre in 2006 (image copyright V&A)


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