Monday, February 02, 2009

Unfocussed GBS, HD, & the Christopher Plummer Legacy

George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) was perhaps the greatest English language playwright since Shakespeare. His works were full of biting social comment, much of which rings as true today as it did in the late 19th and early 20th century when he was at his peak. His published work is now, of course, in the public domain in Canada, since Canada has sensibly stuck to a life plus 50 year copyright term.

So, Shaw’s copyright in Canada, at least, is one thing that the producers of the magnificent Stratford production of Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra starring the incomparable 78 years young Christopher Plummer and the new American star Nikki James didn’t have to worry about. The play dates from 1901. It’s all about how to manage empires and enemies, and many other topical things. Bush and Cheney really should have read it before they blundered into Iraq.

CTV/Bravo has produced a high definition recording of the recent Stratford production by artistic director Des McAnuff.

It was a thorough delight and filled dozens of Cineplex theatres across Ontario this past Saturday January 31, 2009 at more than $20 a seat. This goes to show that people are quite prepared to pay well for digital value.

However, and I don’t mean to sound petty or ungrateful, much of the production was quite literally out of focus. Mostly, and ironically, it was the shots of Plummer that were blurry. Since none of the reviewers mentioned this, I was tempted to think that the fault may have been with the local projectionist or equipment. But on reflection, this was not the case because much of the production was indeed perfectly well in focus. And I’ve seen numerous Metropolitan opera productions in the same Cineplex Coliseum theatre in Ottawa that were perfectly in focus and otherwise perfectly presented. The Cineplex people know what they are doing and are very responsive to audience feedback, including in this case when I asked about the focus.

This is really too bad. With all of the usual Canadian film subsidies listed in the credits, and with the need to leave a legacy of Christopher Plummer worthy of his extraordinary work, one would have expected more technical competence. The Metropolitan Opera has been doing HD live - and I mean really literally live via satellite feed - for two years now and hasn’t flubbed a single shot. A Metropolitan opera production is much more complex in terms of HD production than a Stratford play. The Met uses virtually invisible remotely operated cameras that don’t disrupt the audience experience and get shots as close and in focus as can be imagined and then some.

This Stratford performance was taped with nine large cameras, mixed and edited afterwards. So, there can be no excuse for “out of focus” in this digital day and age. Certainly not for great events like Plummer playing Caesar. Not even for a St├ęphane Dion video.

Plummer himself got producer credit for the production, along with the celebrated Canadian entertainment lawyer, agent, and otherwise polymathic and highly competent Michael Levine. So, although Shaw’s copyright term in Canada, at least, is not something that the producers need to worry about, they really do need to focus on getting this otherwise magnificent production in focus.


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