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Site & Scene: The Art of Performance-Art Shooting
Posted Jul 13, 2005 Print Version     Page 1of 1

A recent performance art event at the Art Gallery of Ontario, captured by eight video cameras, has given the phrase "video shoot" a whole new meaning. Following the performance of contemporary artist Fabian Marcaccio, musical composer Claudio Baroni, and a supporting cast of live musicians and paintball artists, the word "painting" may also be redefined.

As he conducted the real-time creation of a large-scale work of art, Marcaccio's team of eight gunner/artists transformed the main entrance to the Toronto gallery, blasting the walls with up to 800 colored paintballs each, as a large audience looked on.

The performance was recorded using both HD and standard-definition cameras. The event was simultaneously webcast for Internet access, projected on-site for audience members to watch, and recorded for a series of planned TV documentaries.

Pulsation, Propagation
Pulsation 2 - Toronto is an expanded and entirely new version of Pulsation, first performed in Barcelona in 2004. Marcaccio's internationally renowned live performance art is rooted in the here and now; his vision is mediated by the real-time participation of his team.

His instructions for the paintballers included where and when to shoot, and the sounds of the guns themselves were integrated into the musical soundtrack. But Marcaccio recognizes that all the participants--including the video crew--will exercise their own freedom within those parameters.

"The interrelationship of the crowd and the artist, the dynamics of the individual versus the collective, is fascinating to me," says Marcaccio. "Each paintball gunner influences the final creation in unique and unpredictable ways, as do the cameras. How the cameras document an event so tied to real time and space is fascinating. If the camera simply imitates the event, that's not good. I want them dancing in and around the piece itself. The painting and the documentation should both be self-propagating."

In the Line of Fire
Self-propagation is one thing; self-defense in another. During the performance, production crew, camera operators and audio assistants wore hooded parkas and goggles to protect themselves (and the equipment) from unwanted paint splatters.

For the event videographer, plotting camera positions, planning shot lists for each operator, setting up audio gear, and coordinating among performers and video crew are standard duties. Key actions in an event must be anticipated, often without benefit of full rehearsal. Occasionally, additional technical challenges posed by multi-format shooting, live web casting and a need for almost instant (next day) playback of raw (yet synced) camera footage are thrown into the mix. But dodging paintballs?

Nicholas de Pencier and Jennifer Baichwal took on the challenge; together, they are the partners behind Mercury Films Inc., which acted as director/producer/DoP for the shoot.

"The conundrums presented by performance art grow from those presented by any live event video documentation," de Pencier says. "There has to be a give and take between the needs of the archivist and the performer. It's not like a movie shoot, because you're not really giving direction. You have to let the real-time, real-space nature of the event come through. Yet it is more than a documentary, as you have to give it the energy it deserves so that it still feels 'live.' The event becomes something else entirely for the viewer, because a whole other set of rules is in play."

One of the first affected rules was the axis of action, also called the 180-degree rule. It says that an invisible line, running through any scene or shooting space, should not be crossed. Mixing shots from opposite sides of the axis will reverse the screen direction of any action. That's why TV cameras at a football game almost always cover action from one side of the field; cutting across the axis would show the teams running in opposite directions from shot to shot.

The rule also helps ensure we see the same side of an on-screen character's face; following the rules, a person looking from the right side of the screen to the left will not suddenly seem to be looking from right to left.

The 180-degree rule is part of the syntax of modern visual communications; we expect consistency and recognizable settings from one shot to the next.

But in the case of Pulsation 2, four paintball gunners shot against an east wall, four shot to the west. Video will show them pointing in different directions, even without crossing the line. Just about any video production rule can be broken; the trick is to know the rule first, and then know why it is being ignored.

Tracking Angles
Three Sony HDCAM 900 series camcorders were used, but no matter the type, they still had to be strategically situated to capture strong establishing shots of the entire setting, as well as close-ups of different performers. One camera was placed on an overhanging balcony, about 20 feet above floor level and right in between the two target walls. As the master or cover shot, it was fed the mixed audio signal (via a 175-foot XLR cable).

A second HDCAM was on a tripod, directly adjacent to one row of westerly shooters; it was still on the right side of the axis. The position was almost in harm's way--gunners were standing within inches of its lens.

Meanwhile, a third HDCAM showed Pulsation from the west side, getting low-angle shots from temporary dolly tracks laid down for the event. The tracks run in parallel with a row of four shooters, so it straddles the line. "Paintballs were whizzing right my over my head," recalls de Pencier, "but Marcaccio liked the perspective." Knowing this camera angle could cause continuity issues in editing, the camera also moved several times between dolly and handheld positions, and its footage is mostly of close details that can be shown from any angle without too much disorientation.

The camera operators were told to avoid long pans or sweeping movements whenever possible, and for the most part, to concentrate on short, static, and very editable shots. "Not knowing exactly would it would be like, I was anticipating a very 'cutty' program, one with lots of straight cuts and a rather staccato style of presentation. We had a list of main shots for each shooter, with instructions to hold shots for 30 seconds to a minute before moving on. And as we knew there would be a use for the unedited raw footage, we tried to avoid any really jarring camera pulls or re-composing."

A fourth camera, the native widescreen (but SD) Sony DSR 500 was locked down in a position that could cleanly shoot one entire wall. Running without an operator, the camera was triggered just prior to the start of the event, and left rolling throughout.

A fifth camera, the new Sony HVR-Z1U, was positioned outside the gallery itself, shooting street scenes of gathering crowds, as well exteriors of the event taken through the gallery's front windows. Needless to say, this camera position was highly illegal, in terms of the 180-degree rule. But the unique nature of the shots it captured, and the fact that it was shooting from the outside in, easily justified its unusual position.

A sixth camera, shooting SD 4:3 MiniDV, was also locked down, and pointed at one of the video projection screens, across which were flowing words, typed by an on-site art critic using a laptop PC, commenting on the event in real time as it unfolded before him. Two other cameras, a Canon XL1 and an older Panasonic 700, were used to feed video to the webcast team (from the opposite side of the line).

Sound Stage
Feeding the webcast (as well as the main cover camera) was the mixed stereo sound feed, coming from a dedicated rack of audio gear set up and operated by Doug McClement of LiveWire Remote Recorders. Pulsation 2 was recorded direct to CD using 12 separate microphones. A 16-track DA-88 digital recorder was also used, with one mic per channel, to allow for re-mixing of the soundtrack after the fact.

It was not the loud percussive nature of the audio, but the amount of reverb in the large entrance hall that gave McClement the most trouble. "All those hard parallel surfaces and a very high ceiling meant that room was very lively," he says. "This meant I had to mic everything closer than I normally would in an acoustic performance, in order to get a more direct and less reflected sound."

Of course, by the time some 200 people crowded into the room, the acoustics improved as absorption increased.

Post Haste
The actual performance lasted about 24 minutes, and as soon as it was over, the main camera tapes (one each from the HDCAMs, as well as one from the JVC and HDV), were shipped to a local post-production facility.

It was important to the gallery to have footage from the event on display the very next day, conveying to those visitors who missed it a taste of the excitement that filled the space the night before. For two weeks afterwards, video playing off DVD filled large TV screens positioned in the entrance hall with sights and sounds from the event itself.

The fast turnaround, and the multi-format, multi-aspect ratio nature of the material itself, posed some challenges.

But the post facility, Fearless Film and Video Corporation, knew what was coming, and had the gear required to accommodate the demands. "Using a Sony HDCAM editing recorder, we took the HDCAM material, downconverted it to standard def for playback," explains Fearless owner Al Micalik. "The unit, with its optional 3:2 pulldown board, also converts 24p material into 30-frame video."

Then, taking advantage of the unit's uncompressed, 10-bit digital component serial data stream running up to 1.5Gbps, the converted material was fed to a Pioneer LX1 DVD recorder, and stored temporarily on its 120GB internal hard disk drive.

The LX1 has both multiple drive and high speed transfer to DVD capabilities, so the job went fairly quickly once the content was lined up properly.

The trick was to ensure the DVDs all had content that ran the same length, starting at the same time. When forced sync cannot be run to all cameras during a shoot, getting the camera tapes in perfect sync would normally mean using some sort of clapper that all cameras see and record. But not all cameras, as mentioned, were able to shoot the exact same subject area. So a sound element captured by all cameras was identified, and by backtiming from that spot on every tape, the editors synced all the cameras.

After making the length of video consistent across all sources, the Fearless crew burned the DVDs and delivered them the next morning. DVD playback in the gallery itself is left unattended, as RS-232C control devices are used to recycle and restart playback on all units at the same time.

As Marcaccio said prior to the event, "The paint on the wall is residual. The live performance, and the interaction with the performance, is the real show."

It's true for any live event, whether an art performance, school play, or graduation ceremony. Without documentation, the action is only known to the participants. When captured on videotape, the event has a new life and an energy of its own, as surely the medium has massaged the event, and the reality, in some way.

Event videographers know just what Marcaccio means.

Equipment Used
Real-time DA-88 digital audio recorders; Tascam CD-402 4X dual CD recorder; 16 ATI 8MX2 mic preamps (No EQ, no compression on individual mics); Empirical Labs Fatso Jr. stereo compressor; Sennheiser 441 hypercardioid dynamics (Trumpets); AKG 414 condensers (Percussion); Sennheiser 421s inside the drums; Audio Technica 831b shotgun mics (Paintballers); AKG 451 condensers in a Blumlein Pair (ambient sound)

Video Cameras: Sony HDCAM HDW-F900s (3), Sony DSR 500WSL/1 (1), Sony HVR-Z1U (1), JVC 300, Canon XL1, Panasonic 700 S-video

In the Spotlight
Fearless Film and Video Corporation

LiveWire Remote Recorders Ltd.

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