New concert-hall camera techniques come at the expense of quality – and more gimmicks are on the way
Had an email the other day from acclaimed recording engineer Tony Faulkner, drawing my attention to the camerawork and image quality on the BBC's coverage of last Wednesday's Prom 6, in which Paul Lewis began his cycle of Beethoven's piano concertos.
As Tony said, the picture quality as broadcast on Friday evening on BBC 4 was less than fabulous – 'through the bathroom window' is how he described it – and the coverage full of strange close-ups, often shot with wide-angle lenses giving what I saw as a strange 'hall of mirrors' effect. Notable by their absence were crisp shots, and any sense of an audience perspective.
The reason? It seems for this Prom the BBC had decided to do away with conventional cameras, and camera operators in the hall, and instead populate the platform with what can only be described as a load of balls.
Or rather a load of Q-Balls: remote-controlled cameras looking like upsized webcams, driven from behind the scenes. They're widely used in covering events such as sports, where they can be placed in locations beyond normal cameras – you may have seen such cameras in action covering the goals at the World Cup from a 'back of the net' perspective.
It's part of what the BBC sees as a mission to 'bring more drama and access to the broadcasts', according to interviews with the team behind the idea on The Arts Desk website. It's been experimenting with using the remote cameras alongside conventional broadcast hardware on some of the Proms, but decided to cover the Beethoven programme with 15 Q-Balls, and no conventional cameras.
Trouble is, the cameras offer lower picture quality, so director Jonathan Haswell simply got round the obvious switches between HD conventional cameras and Q-Balls by ditching the big cameras. Oh, and avoiding any wide-shots of the whole platform because, Haswell told The Arts Desk, they would 'frankly look sh*te.'
He explains that 'Whenever a new format comes in it develops its own style. A viewer can look at a high definition picture for a long time because it gives you so much detail to explore. When you have a low grade picture you'll get bored with looking at it unless there's real action and content within the frame, and you'll notice the poor quality.'
Hence the coverage of Prom 6, which was all odd angles and close-ups – sorry, real action and content – after the camera technology had been introduced to the viewer with almost gleeful enthusiasm in the prologue to the broadcast.
What's more, go to the Proms website for the concert and you can view the coverage in MaestroCam or Piano SoloCam (or SoloCom – the title seems to vary from page to page).
Oh, and if you're watching the Proms coverage on digital TV, you can use the 'Red Button' service on selected transmissions to view what the BBC calls 'MaestroCam - Full Frontal'. Your next chance will be to see Esa-Pekka Salonen full frontal on August 20.
It's all part of a plan to 'turn the concerts into real stories for television', the BBC's new Commissioning Editor for Music & Events, Jan Younghusband, told The Arts Desk. And she makes it clear Q-Balls are just the cue (sorry) for more innovative camera technology.
Apparently they're going to use a camera on a Furio Dolly for a Prom later in the season – that one's also remote-controlled and runs along a track, like touchline cameras and those used for keeping pace with athletes.
And Younghusband is also keen on the Spidercam system, of the kind 'flown' over football and rugby pitches, although astronomical daily hire rates may put the mockers on that one. Instead, she's looking at a miniature camera able to be slung from a rod as a budget alternative.
So far, no mention has been made of fitting performers with head-mounted cameras, or indeed attaching tiny devices on the end of bows, even though rock music directors occasionally flirt with cameras on the machine-heads of guitars. Perhaps I shouldn't give the BBC people any more ideas…
Having experienced Q-Balls, MaestroCam and Solo PianoCam for myself, I'm not sure I'm at all sold on the thrill-ride school of TV music coverage, and the step back from higher picture quality in favour of endless jumpy close-ups and a picture quality more akin to that coming from the onboard camera on an F1 car.
It came as quite a relief to go back to the calm, measured coverage on one of Japanese broadcaster NHK's excellent Blu-ray discs, about which I have written in the past.
On balance, I think I'd rather enjoy the music, and not be told a story.
Andrew Everard, Audio Editor of Gramophone since November 1999, read English at Queens' College, Cambridge a very long time ago, and was a member of the Westminster Abbey Special Choir even further back in the mists of time. He has worked on What Hi-Fi? Sound and Vision, High Fidelity, Audiophile and Home Cinema magazines, as well as contributing a monthly column to Japanese title HiVi.