Filming on location is rarely straightforward, but the filming of The Play of the Weather at Hampton Court seemed immediately to present several ‘challenges’… In this document, I’ll attempt to explain the considerations and constraints we were working with; the decisions we took, and how those decisions influenced the final output.
We knew from the beginning that we were going to have only one chance to make this recording. The budget was such that we could afford to film only one performance, and the disruption that the filming would cause meant that we didn’t feel we could ask a paying audience to sit through the recording. So, a decision was made to stage a special performance for the cameras, with an invited audience largely consisting of those involved with the project, along with friends and family. From a safety point of view, Hampton Court felt that the audience should be limited in number to reduce the likelihood of incident given the amount of technical equipment which had to be present for the filming.
So the planning from the start was more akin to coverage of live event than a drama recording. The aim was to capture the entire play in one take, which was incredibly ambitious given that the majority of the crew didn’t even have a chance to watch the performance beforehand, and certainly there was no chance of a technical rehearsal.
Another key aim all the way through was that the finished film should feel like an observational piece rather than a dramatisation for television. By this I mean that as a viewer I hope you feel like you are watching a performance of a play in the Great Hall of Hampton Court Palace. The setting and the audience were just as important as the acting itself for the purposes of this project. That’s why the audience is clearly in shot in both foreground and background: to make you feel as though you’re there as part of a bigger audience.
The traverse setting of the piece was a challenge for camera positioning. Normally when covering theatre, you’d set up a pair of cameras directly in front of the stage (wide shot and close-up), and one on each side much nearer to the stage to give good close-ups when the actors are talking to each other at 90 degrees to the audience. Because the audience is on the same side as the cameras, everything that the audience can see, the cameras can see. Simple! But in a traverse, you’ve essentially got two audiences, which means the actors can legitimately face one of two opposite directions. The natural response is to put cameras on both sides – but that leads to two problems, which I’ll explain:
Firstly, if you put cameras down both sides of the Great Hall, you would inevitably end up with one set of cameras ‘seeing’ the other set. And, although we weren’t attempting an authentic reconstruction of the play, I felt that the distraction of seeing a camera in shot (together with its associated operator) would draw away from the performance.
Secondly there is the concept of ‘the line’ in television and film, a line which as a director you try not to cross. But this isn’t to do with taste and decency, more geometry. If you imagine two actors talking to each other, and draw an imaginary line drawn between their two heads, TV grammar dictates that you should put all your cameras on the same side of that line. The reason for this is simple: if two people are talking to each other, and you’re showing that conversation by cutting between two or more cameras – the person on the left should always be looking to the right of screen, and the person on the right should always be looking to the left of screen when in close up. If you break this rule, it has a subtle psychological effect on the viewer – although you know that these two people are talking to each other, you don’t feel as though they are – because as far as the TV screen is telling you, they are not looking at each other. You see this effect sometimes when TV discussions are shot ‘in the round’ – the line is crossed repeatedly and you lose track of who’s talking to who. (Imagine crossing the line when covering a football match – as you cut from camera to camera, the ball would appear to change direction and you’d totally lose track of what was going on).
So we settled on four cameras along one side of the Hall, with the ‘master’ wide shot coming from one end (this was the only position from which the entire width of the space could be contained). And the rough principle was that one camera kept the entire space in wide shot; the other three tended to get a pair of opposing close-ups and a 2 or 3 shot of the key players at that time.
We took the decision to record each camera independently and construct the overall film in the edit suite: without camera rehearsals it would have been nearly impossible to generate a ‘live cut’ of the play, so independent or ‘isolated’ recordings were essential.
When we came to consider how to capture the sound of the play we very quickly came up against another of our major challenges – working with modern technology in an historic space. There are very stringent rules about what you can and cannot do in the Great Hall of Hampton Court Palace – rules designed to protect the building and its contents for centuries to come. From a television point of view, the most restrictive of these rules are (a) nothing can be attached to any part of any structure with the Great Hall, and (b) anything mounted on a freestanding stand has to be placed at a distance of its own height plus one metres from any wall.
Typically when mic’ing up a stage you’d put microphone up on high stands to capture the overall ambient sound, and augment that with more detailed ‘spot’ microphones. But in the Great Hall, putting a microphone on a stand 3m in the air would mean that it would have to be at least 4m from the wall, i.e. in the middle of the acting space! So we quickly realised that the only practical way to capture sound would be to use tiny personal microphones on the actors themselves, much like they would in a West End musical. But personal mics worn on costumes like those being used would inevitably pick up so much rustle from the fabrics that the sound would be useless. So we decided that the mics would have to be worn either in the hairline, or actually taped to the actor’s face. It’s not an ideal scenario, as the mics can be seen in close-up – but it was the best compromise. (A particular challenge was Jupiter’s costume – his breastplate was solid metal and acted as a perfect barrier to the radio mic signal!)
Again, without rehearsal it would have been impossible to generate a mix live on the night, so we recorded every microphone separately on a multi-track and produced a mixdown afterwards.
Recording the band was also quite tricky. The perfect solution would have been to suspend a pair of microphones above the musicians and about six feet in front of them. But that would have required attaching a line to the wall of the Great Hall – not an option. So we mic’d each of the instruments individually, and added artificial reverberation in the mixdown process afterwards.
Perhaps the greatest challenge was the lighting. The performances had been planned to be in candlelight originally, but the risk of fire in the Royal Palace ruled out that idea. So it was decided to use no additional lighting at all, simply the house lights (a dozen or so small spotlights which were angled up to the ceiling). For television use, it was never going to be enough – so we set upon finding a solution which would (a) fit within Hampton Court’s stringent rules about light intensity and positioning; (b) illuminate the area enough to allow cameras to expose the picture; (c) be unobtrusive enough not to feel like it was contributing to the artistic interpretation of the piece.
Our lighting directors, Ruth Sidery and Emma Chapman between them had experience in both theatre and television – and fortunately both Ruth and Emma are very pragmatic and robust characters! The brief was virtually impossible: provide even lighting of a very large space with no lights in shot anywhere, without fixing anything to the building, with no lighting stands close to walls, with no direct light hitting the tapestries, and with the overall light level not to exceed 600 lux (just brighter than average office lighting).
The final solution was innovative and brave – the use of lights mounted within two huge cylindrical helium balloons. Hampton Court were happy because they didn’t need anchoring to the structure of the Hall and the light could be screened off the tapestries by large curtains draped over the balloons. They also had the advantage of being relatively quick to rig (around an hour from getting in to getting the room lit).
Another huge challenge was the logistics of getting everything in and tested within some very tight time constraints. As the Palace was open to the public, we weren’t able to have any equipment left in the Great Hall during opening hours. This meant we had a very limited window in which to rig and test the equipment the night before; we then had to de-rig everything except the cables, and re-rig it again when the Palace closed to the public on the night of the recording. That gave us less than two hours to rig four cameras, all the sound equipment and the lighting!
Conservation was once again at the fore during rigging – anything which was placed on the floor of the Great Hall had to have a protective layer underneath it to avoid damage to the floor; the staple of TV – gaffer tape – was banned for fear of damaging the ancient surfaces (or even removing centuries of dust and dirt); and every cable laid had to be done under supervision of the Conservation department of HRP to ensure no damage was done to the building.
Despite all these constraints, we were fortunate enough to have to retake only two small sections of the performance owing to technical issues. The first 30 seconds or so of Jupiter’s opening speech is a retake, as is the scene between The Boy and Merry Report. Both of these were due to radio mic failures during the main performance. The rest of the film is a true record of the actual performance, with no actual edits – just shot selection.
I hope that overall the film has been successful in making the viewer feel as though they are a part of the audience in the Great Hall. There are some moments where the cast directly address the camera – I was keen to keep these in, since they mirror the effect in the space of being addressed directly as a member of the audience. Watching the film also (though unintentionally) reinforces how central Merry Report is to the proceedings – barely a minute passes without his being in shot.
There are minor annoyances – you can see the microphones from time to time, and the thin black ropes holding the balloons up are also visible; but overall I’m pleased with the film, and I hope that watching it gives a fair impression of what it felt like to witness such a unique performance.
Richard Jack, Filming Director