I have gone on ad nauseam in these ticket tales about my quarterly gig with the National Arts Centre and no wonder…I love the job. Like, love it. At the risk of adding to your nausea, a recap would remind you that I run the big screen that plays behind the orchestra, which involves directing camera operators and editing their shots in real-time so that the most important, interesting, and engaging images related to the music being performed are projected onto the screen. The screen is officially called the “NACOtron” and my role is that of “NACOtron operator”, though inexplicably my officially job title has always been “script assistant”.
Anywho, the nuts and bolts of it is I get a copy of the conductor’s scores a couple of weeks before the concert and spend several hours designing the shots and marking the scores in such a way that I can be constantly directing each of the four cameras to different instruments whilst simultaneously telling the switcher which shot is coming next and when to take it. Even after twenty years and almost a hundred concerts I still find the experience exhilarating and like I say, I love it.
The NAC season had long since ended when my phone rang on the morning of June 28th, 2005 and I discovered one of the Rogers Television directors on the other end. He told me they were running the big screens for the Ottawa Jazz Festival and asked if I would like to come out and try calling the shots for the headlining act that night? “We don’t have the scores or anything for the show,” he said, adding, “…but I remember you saying you were a fan of Bela Fleck.
“So maybe you’ll already be familiar with some of the material.”
Who knows and who cares? I had woken up that morning mourning the fact that I didn’t score a free festival pass that year and cursing the nonexistent wages of guitar teachers in the summertime that made buying a ticket for the show fiscal suicide, so of course I jumped at the chance. Plus it would be a nifty experience to see the show from the confines of the Rogers mobile unit.
Though I very much prefer following scores the NAC concerts have offered ample situations where the best option was to simply wing it, and that was the case for the entire Bela Fleck show. The legendary violinist Jean-Luc Ponty was on the bill as well though bassist Stanley Clarke missed the show for reasons I forget or never knew; he was replaced by a pair of local Ottawa players. And while the Ottawa guys did an admirable job and Jean-Luc was understandably brilliant, of course Bela stole the show. Err…he was the star of the show, so I guess he can’t steal it, but good luck watching any of the other guys on stage.
Especially when a guy like me is directing all the cameras to shoot the banjo player! Not really, but kinda. Sure, I divvied up the shots between all the players so I could cut properly from one Bela Fleck shot to another* but there were times when I wasn’t doing much switching at all. Take for example when Bela sat down on a stool and played all by himself for a few tunes. About three eighth-notes into the Presto from Bach’s 2nd Violin Partita I recognized the piece and my heart leapt right through my soul. When I had first been introduced to the mathematical musical monster that is JSB this was exactly the piece that was handed to me for learning. I had spent untold hours trying and trying to perfect the sinewy arpeggios at even a modest pace, a feat I have still never quite realized all these years later. It is not for a lack of trying, I can promise you that. Anyway, here was Bela Fleck plucking every note in the cascading masterpiece with perfect precision, and at a gallop that was both perfect for the sonic sensibility of the piece and perfectly unattainable from such an unnatural as myself.
As I gaped in rapt glee at the monitor showing the closeup of Bela’s fretting hand courtesy of camera 3 I tried my best to block out the intrusive noises coming out of the switcher sitting next to me, who kept piercing the brilliance with intrusive comments such as, “Which camera are we going to next”; “What is our next shot going to be”; and “Todd…Todd…can you hear me?” And still I let that single closeup of Fleck’s flicking fingers forge on, uninterrupted.
I could see no reason to cut to any other angle, no reason why anyone in the audience (nay, the world) would want to look at anything else, and I certainly wasn’t going to change the shot for change’s sake. I suspect the four minutes we sat on that image stands as the longest single shot I’ve ever called. Or (more accurately): not called.
I spoke with Bela briefly either before or after the show and was pleased to discover that his musical genius has not stopped him from being an approachable, affable person who seems happy to spend a little time chatting music with admirers. Which makes him that much more admirable I suppose.
In the end I really enjoyed experiencing the concert in this unique way, though I’m not sure I’d like to see all the jazz fest concerts from inside the truck. I wouldn’t have to worry much about that though, as I think I was only asked to call a festival show once or twice more after this. I guess I got too much drool on the control board.
*It’s visually weird to switch between mirror-image shots (unless one is an extreme closeup and the other isn’t). Which is to say, you don’t want to switch from a camera positioned to the left of a performer directly to a shot taken from the performer’s right**. To do so you want to put a different image in between, either an extreme close up or a distant shot of the stage but more likely you stick a shot of another musician in between. And that’s why I get the big bucks. Oh, and for showing up on time wearing a clean shirt.
**Did you ever notice that the cameras at a hockey game (aside from the close-ups) are all on the same side of the ice? If they weren’t, when you switched between cameras the player would appear to be suddenly skating in the opposite direction. Switching between reverse shots of a musician causes a similar cerebral dissonance.