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Conceptualizing and Realizing ‘Live Cinema:’ Focus on Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘Distant Vision’

Coppola is currently developing his idea of "live cinema," which he sees as a combination of the immediacy of a live event with the sophisticated cinematic grammar of film.

While many of Francis Ford Coppola’s contemporaries are well into retirement, the director of the Godfather films, Apocalypse Now and other classics is busy exploring new types of visual storytelling and experimenting with new technologies. An early proponent of multicamera film production with the 1980 musical One from the Heart, Coppola is currently developing his idea of “live cinema,” which he sees as a combination of the immediacy of a live event with the sophisticated cinematic grammar of film.

The filmmaker has written a roughly 500-page script called Distant Vision, an epic story about multiple generations of an Italian American family, that is designed to be presented in multiple parts as an introductory example of his notion of “live cinema.”

Distant Vision Workshop at UCLA TFT, by Live Cinema LLC. Photo © 2016 Regents of the University of California. Used with permission.

Last summer Coppola tested his concept by selecting a half-hour section of Distant Vision to stage on the campus of his alma mater, the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). He worked with a group of 70 students majoring in either theater, film or television and a troupe of theater actors. With direction from Coppola, technical director Teri Rozic created a live feed from the production’s 40 cameras and 12 playback sources via an EVS DYVI IT-based switcher. An EVS XT3 live production server handled recording and playback of material.

Though Coppola has found some of the recent live theatrical musical broadcasts to be inspiring, he sees a gap between the approach used for these TV network presentations and the more cinematic style of storytelling he hopes to employ live to audiences via multiple platforms.

Recent live musical event broadcasts include The Sound of Music Live! (NBC, 2013), Peter Pan Live! (NBC, 2014), The Wiz Live! (NBC, 2015) and Grease: Live (FOX, 2016). FOX is currently preparing for its Rocky Horror Picture Show live broadcast on Oct. 20.

Coppola says of the networks’ live musicals, “Usually they tend to come off as events that are televised. Grease was the most exuberant of the recent ones, but it relied a lot on [shots from] Steadicams wandering through [the sets] uninhibited.” He adds that the live show didn’t really define a “a cinematic language” like a production does “whenever a sequence is told through ‘montage’—ideas expressed by putting shots next to one another in a particular order.”

Distant Vision Workshop at UCLA TFT, by Live Cinema LLC. Photo © 2016 Regents of the University of California. Used with permission.

By way of example, he mentions a baptism party sequence in the section of Distant Vision staged at UCLA. That scene makes use of “many close shots intercut, or parallel editing. Most of what we did for the sequence was to interrelate the progress of the different elements of the party that are going on at same time.”

For the creative force behind such classic cinematic montage sequences as the baptism scene in The Godfather and the animal sacrifice sequence that ends Apocalypse Now, “live cinema” needs to do more than capture exciting performances.

The idea of live switching even the half-hour slice of Distant Vision, with its multiple scenes, locations, fantasy elements and stunt sequences, was an extremely daunting one, particularly because the 40 cameras were spread out over many different sets. It wasn’t like covering a football game from that many angles—the Coppola production involved groups of cameras devoted to specific scenes, which could then regroup while different groups of cameras were hot.

The 40 cameras assembled for the UCLA live production included models from Canon (Cinema EOS C300, C300 Mark II and C500), Blackmagic Design (Studio Camera, Micro Studio Camera 4K), Sony (PXW-FS7, PXW-FS5 and HDW-F900) and GoPro (HERO3).

Distant Vision Workshop at UCLA TFT, by Live Cinema LLC. Photo © 2016 Regents of the University of California. Used with permission.

According to Jürgen Obstfelder, EVS’ senior product specialist and one of the software designers of the DYVI switcher, a DYVI feature attractive to the producers of this live event is that it can be set up to allow an unlimited number of inputs, which the team could pre-configure into groups both on the board and in the preview monitor.

In other words, the production team could select “scene 7,” for example, and only the cameras and playback channels involved in that section of the overall show would be available on the switcher; the outputs of only these sources would be displayed on the large multi-display monitor, keeping Coppola, Rozic and her team focused solely on what was necessary at any given time.

A key to being able to work this way, with displayed sources being rearranged dynamically at any time during the production, was to bypass the restrictions of a hardware-based switcher and go with this IT-based unit, according to Obstfelder.

EVS DYVI switcher

During the actual shoot, the camera and playback outputs were routed into the DYVI system and displayed on one of the three multiviewer screens in UCLA’s control room, while the next scene’s setup was displayed on another. The DYVI system creates per-scene individual “logical sources” out of these inputs, so that for scene 5, for example, camera 18 can be named “Betty close up,” and in scene 6, the same camera can be named “Alfonso on the stairs.”

All 17 scenes were recorded during a complete dress rehearsal and rolled during the live performance. “If something went wrong during the live portion,” Obstfelder explains, “they could immediately cut to the XT3 channel and use some of the prerecorded content so the show could go on.”

The exciting event provided a laboratory for Coppola to experiment with live cinema for real without having to make an enormous investment and potentially cope with unforeseeable problems in broadcasting the live production to a large audience.

Distant Vision Workshop at UCLA TFT, by Live Cinema LLC. Photo © 2016 Regents of the University of California. Used with permission.

“I hadn’t realized how central the function of ‘script supervisor’ would still be,” says Coppola. “Perhaps [the title should] be combined with the function of ‘IP director.’” He acknowledges that the team struggled “to get all the very best camera positions on the scene without seeing other cameras in the shot, but ideas for solutions came up.”

“This is something you normally would never dare to do live,” says Obstfelder, who spent three weeks in the UCLA theater space setting up the EVS gear to the production’s specs. To hear him tell it, the 30-minute event was enormously ambitious. “There was a stuntman falling from the ceiling of the theater to simulate a boy falling from the roof in a chromakey scene”—layered live through the DYVI switcher—“a large cast and so many cameras! The idea is [to find out] how far you can go with live. Francis Coppola is a person who always tries to experiment and really push everything to the limit.”   

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