Interview with Ross Macgibbon, Camera Director: ‘The terror of being filmed is much worse than the actuality.’

The second in London Student’s interview series about non-acting professions in the theatre industry, Anthony Walker-Cook chats with Ross Macgibbon, camera director for the upcoming screening of King Lear hosted through the NT Live scheme. Ross has worked on around 150 productions and took the time to chat with London Student about the processes and challenges that come with screening a show.

AWC Could you explain your role?
RM I look at the existing production that is to be filmed and I decide how many cameras are needed and where in the theatre they will be. Then I take the play apart and turn it into film shots. These have to work one after the other in a live scenario: it’s not like film where you can take it away and edit it. King Lear is long. I imagine the whole play as a film running in my head and then I write it all down and convey it to a large group of people.

What films have you worked on through NT Live?
If I explain my history it’ll explain how I got here. I was in the Royal Ballet and trained as a dancer for thirteen years. During my time there I was filmed a lot and I was always passionate for the making of and crafting filming. But I was often filmed by those, I thought, who didn’t do a good job, so I thought there was a retirement plan! I taught myself to edit and became a film editor. From there I went into multi-camera editing, and edited opera and ballet, and then I went in to directing. So, I came from within the industry. For directing with the NT, I was beginning to direct these just as the scheme was beginning and since then I’ve done a couple a year, including The Cherry Orchard, HangmenandMedea.

Could you attest to some of the benefits of the NT Live scheme?
What is great about NT Live and more generally screening shows is that it lets people see a show they wouldn’t otherwise see for a tenth of the price. Now it has matured, it’s done very well. I tell actors it’s not like making a movie, but we try to provide a filmic experience, so we will cut to actor’s reactions. Reactions are often incredibly important. With HD and 4k forthcoming, you have a very good experience in the cinema. Camera can give you the detail that can never be achieved as you filter backwards in a theatre to the cheaper seats. If a screening is done well I think it’s better than a crap seat at the back of a theatre auditorium. What is great about NT Live is that it makes amazing theatre affordable and ensures the shows live on in an interesting way. The performances are often amazing. It is the ability to see amazing performers from across the world. Of people will go from the cinema to the theatre to see the same thing. The Arts Council did a report a few years ago that proved the screenings drive people back to the theatre.

Could you explain the early stages of planning a screening?
I’ll see early performances and sit in on rehearsals. I’ve done so many of these now I can imagine the space. It is more a case of planning where the cameras are within the space. I spend ages breaking down the script line by line into shot by shot. Every shot is written down and described. With Shakespeare it can be difficult to completely understand what they are saying: do I need Kent’s reaction, etc? It’s a lot of people but is now at a stage where it looks good and is not simply coverage.

‘The strength ofLear is in its performance’… Ian McKellan and Danny Webb in King Lear. Photograph: Johan Persson

How many times will you see a show? If you do so, will you sit in different parts of the theatre?
Firstly, I’ll sit in the best possible seat I can get. Then I might see it again from a weird angle. I try not to shoot down since that doesn’t make sense. For Lear, we have a camera in the middle of the circle. The strength ofLear is in its performance, so no cameras are moving and it’s all simple. Experience shows you what to do. It’s all about planning and, on the day, being flexible to change if needed. I’ll then meet with the cameras and vision mixer. There’ll be a PA calling out the shots. We’re talking to them all the time during rehearsal, but by the time of the actual live event I’m much more quiet. Someone is reading every shot and so you don’t want too many voices speaking over. I spent today with cameramen talking through the whole show. It’s often about framing and slowly we’ll get neater (I’ll have already thought it through but it’s a process of tightening up). I always do what the director wants. I don’t bring that creativity to it: my aim is to make the director’s creativity work to a cinema audience.

What is the biggest challenge of screening a live theatre show?
I think it is getting the sense that you are watching a theatre show live! I want you to feel that you could be in the theatre, that the narrative really works and that the director’s vision comes across. There’s a huge amount of work happening around you and it’s about bringing a different technique to the cinema. I get a great buzz of imagining people around the world watching it live: it actually is live and if something goes wrong, it goes wrong! I want to ensure the theatrical experience is shown on screen.

Would you say any show can be screened or are there some that wouldn’t work?
The challenge is to bring a new element to it to make it work. Here’s an example: the Hull UK City of Culture series of events had a play set in a dock at the end of the world. It was one of those things where everyone was saying it couldn’t be done. The BBC had approached some other people but when it came to me I said ‘let’s put the cameras in boats so it’s at water level.’ I came up with a solution and suddenly it worked. We did it and we had lots of rain and shot it at night when it looked like the end of the world. There’s often the thought dance doesn’t work: you can always make something work, it’s just a different animal. You need a non-conventional approach. I’ve not been stumped yet, though that’s not to say it won’t happen! It is a different way of looking at it and you need the directors and staff to be willing to go along with you.

What is the biggest challenge for an actor being recorded on the stage?
It’s often asked, ‘how do we modulate the performance?’ Actors need to give the same performance and it is up to me to change the shots and if it is too much I’ll talk with the director. The hardest thing for an actor is to forget the camera is there. They’ll ask which camera is recording them, but I won’t tell them. I don’t want anyone looking like they’re being filmed. There’s never too little, but there can be a problem of too much. When I did Medea, Helen McCrory asked great questions and I just asked her to do the normal show. If she gets too hysterical during the show, then we’ll work it out. The terror of being filmed is much worse than the actuality.

When you work in your job, what do you learn of/about theatre?
I’m kind of different in my background so, there’s no way of saying this without sounding slightly pompous, I know how it all works. The thing I try and convey to my team is that often it is often seen as actors and cameramen being separate and I’ll try and stress that we all want to support them and that we are all good at our jobs. As a director that it is also my job to ensure the theatre people are happy: I go to rehearsals, engage with actors and generally create a dialogue.

Lloyd Hutchinson and Ian McKellan in King Lear. Photograph: Johan Persson

How would someone try and get into your profession? What training is necessary?
There used to be a lot of training, but television has changed. The BBC, I think, do a multi-camera training course but they do not offer as much as they used to. I started as an editor, self-taught, and then ended up cutting documentaries and theatre productions. I learnt to direct through being an editor. There are many routes in theatre. You have to have a passion. Everybody these days needs to know exactly what they want and go for it: if you’re not sure, there will be ten people that are qualified and passionate for the work. There’s no classic route if you want to do it. It’s a weird, highly specialised job. I have no idea what you’d need to do to get on the BBC course. You really have to know why you want to do it and go for it and be smart about it.

Looking back, what show that was not screened do you wish was? Or that we now have a recording of?

Pina Bausch was a contemporary performance artist in Germany. She does these amazing shows that are life changing. I saw one at the Paris Opera and I was so moved by it, but I don’t think everything should be recorded. I enjoy the experience, but that is the one thing that I’d like to see again and try and understand what was so special about it.

Why does King Lear work in particular for a screening?
I’ve seen a few King Learproductions, and this is a very good one. It’s an engaging, contemporary production but the history and language are still there. It is seamless and this production works since the space is intimate, which makes the camera work much smooth: there’s little moving around. All Shakespeare works on film, but the central performance of this Lear is exciting to capture.

Obviously, this production has Ian McKellen, but what else should audiences be looking for when Learis screened into theatres this week?
I think the things you get from these screenings are the reactions of other characters. Richard Munby [the director] and I spoke about who we should focus on. So early on we’re looking at the other sisters as they petition their father. These are not things we necessarily look at in the theatre. This Learhas a brilliant amount of rain, and on camera we can isolate particular things. Fantastic images come from the camera. It helps the narrative and this piece is full of incredible images that really work on camera. This production also has a walkway down the middle of the seating, which means we have audience’s heads in the background, which constantly reminds us we’re in the theatre. It should be really tremendous.

King Lear will be screened to cinemas worldwide on the 27thOctober, 2018. It remains at the Duke of York Theatre until early November. Those aged between 16 and 25 can get £5 day tickets. Our thanks to Ross for his time and to Elaine Jones at the National Theatre’s Press Office for organising.

Feature photograph: Philip Vile

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: @AntWalker_Cook

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