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Flyspecks no more

Huge video screens are in use at every Hollywood Bowl concert. The aim is to richen the experience, but the jury is still out on their 2005 return.

September 07, 2004|Libby Slate | Special to The Times

It's the first movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto at the Hollywood Bowl, and Joshua Bell, soloing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is already working up a sweat.

To concertgoers, the matted hair and glistening forehead signify Bell's passionate playing. But to video director Brent Carpenter and his team, on the job in a trailer parked just east of the Bowl's new shell, that dishevelment is cause for anxiety: Magnified on the Bowl's giant screens, Bell's sweat-shine is causing an unpleasant glare.

"Somebody call makeup," Carpenter says, a demand he knows is futile. When the movement ends, Bell wipes his face, to a chorus of relieved cheers and thank-yous in the trailer.

Four nights later, at a concert of Disney music presented by John Mauceri and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, a potential emergency arises. In a "Snow White" sequence involving dialogue between the evil queen on stage and an animated mirror on videotape, B.J. Ward as the queen enters many measures too early.

Mauceri accelerates the orchestra to catch up, and his conducting assistant Scott Dunn, in the trailer as score reader, makes a calculated guess and calls, "Get the tape on!" Fortunately, his timing is correct. Actress, musicians and videotape proceed in perfect harmony before the unknowing audience.

With the advent of the Bowl video screens -- precursors were used sporadically in the past, but this summer the screens are on view for every performance -- a whole other show has been taking place at the venue each concert evening, "like a parallel world," as Dunn puts it. The instruments in this performance are robotic camera controls and video switchers; the conductor cues cameras, not cellos and flutes.

The nightly use of the six screens -- mounted on either side of the box section and at each of two higher seating levels -- is an element of the Bowl's recent makeover.

"When we think about the Bowl, we're always thinking about what will make this a part of the 21st century but is also in keeping with the tradition of the Bowl," says L.A. Philharmonic Assn. President Deborah Borda. "Now, there's a dramatic difference in what you can see from the top half of the seats."

Four cameras capture the performances. Three onstage robotic cameras, operated by a technician inside the trailer, stand to the left and right and in back of the orchestra. A conventional camera is positioned on the promenade between the upper and lower box sections. The system represents "a major financial investment" for the Philharmonic, Borda says, at more than $500,000.

Choreographing the cameras most nights is Carpenter, officially called the image magnification director. Norm Levin, whose company provides the projection equipment, usually handles jazz and world music concerts, while others helm the lease events.

"This is a whole different sensibility," acknowledges Carpenter, 44, who has directed the annual Bowl Hall of Fame programs, music videos and sitcoms such as "Oliver Beene" and "Caroline in the City" and who was nominated for an Emmy for co-editing the film "Robert Altman Jazz '34."

"We don't want to take away from the actual experience of seeing a concert live," Carpenter adds. "We're trying to enhance the experience so the people in the back can see what they would if they were in front."

That enhancement means following a "less is more" mandate from the Philharmonic: no quick cuts from instrument to instrument to follow a theme all the way through, as television might, but rather, lingering awhile on the conductor or a featured orchestral section or player. When there is a guest soloist, the camera stays primarily on him or her, sometimes in a two-shot with the conductor to show the duo's interaction.

The occasional onstage glitch notwithstanding, Carpenter presides over the monitors -- which show angles from all four cameras -- with humor and an assured calm. As the shot the audience sees is displayed on a monitor marked "program," he surveys the other screens to determine his next choice, cuing the camera operator so the image appears on the "preview" monitor and then maneuvering the fader bar on his console so that preview dissolves into program.

"Let's go to the violins on 4," he tells robocam operator Chris Jepsen during the Brahms. Jepsen obliges, using a console lever that looks like a joystick, and members of the Philharmonic's first violin section appear on preview. "Four is up," Carpenter says, and the violinists are now on program.

Next to Jepsen is Jim Agnor, whose job as the shader is to ensure that the on-screen colors match from one camera angle to the next; a white follow spot, for instance, can look yellowish coming from one camera and blue-tinged from another.

Beside Carpenter sits his score reader for the night, Erin Colwitz, a USC doctor of musical arts student and a choral conductor, who keeps the director apprised of the imminent instrumental action.

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