Interview: Ross MacGibbon

Thursday 28 March 2013 by Carmel Smith

Royal Ballet 'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' Dancer: Sarah Lamb. Photo:  Johan Persson, Royal Opera House.

Ross MacGibbon danced with the Royal Ballet in the 1970s and ’80s and for the last 20 years has been a screen director, specialising in ballet and opera. Now the Royal Opera House’s Cinema Screen Director, he’ll be in charge of next Thursday’s live filming and relay of the Royal Ballet’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from the stage at Covent Garden to cinemas around the world…

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is such a large scale multimedia production including video projections – does it present particular challenges in filming?
The principal challenge in filming a piece like Alice for me is telling the complex narrative as well as staying true to the usual concerns when filming classical ballet. The video projections work very well in their own right, so I don’t need to do anything particularly special except point a camera at them!

It has been filmed for TV – is there anything you’ll be doing very differently for a live relay?
I deliberately haven’t looked at the TV since it was first broadcast so that I won’t be influenced by anything. If you were to compare the two, the principal difference would be, I suspect, the framing and duration of the shots will be different because my version is for the cinema screen and not TV.

What do you say to people who think that the only way to experience theatrical productions is live in a theatre?
I’d say that they were wrong! That sentiment is often put to me but I feel that both ways of consuming these ballets work. However, they are very different so don’t imagine the experience will be similar. I would revel in the differences!

What are the positive benefits of seeing it on a live relay?
The benefits of seeing a work like Alice in a live relay is that I can guide the audience through the complex story by inter-cutting between the characters to tell the story the choreographer intended. In the theatre you have to choose what to focus on and can often miss some of the narrative simply because you are looking at the ‘wrong’ part of the stage! The ability to show close-ups, especially of Alice, is a huge bonus because much of her characterisation relies on her very expressive face.

Take us through your planning process for the live screening
I have actually only seen Alice in performance a couple of times. I plan the entire programme myself over several weeks in the run up to the recording. Every shot and every edit is scripted precisely and the shots are put into the orchestral score. I show the camera men and women the performance and they have a list of all their shots so they can see my intentions. During the recording I work with a very small team of PA and Vision Mixer. The PA calls the shots and the vision mixer cuts them up. My job is to cajole and encourage the cameramen, keep an eye on the lighting and see what’s coming up on stage for the inevitable slight variations in performance so I call the shots earlier or later than they were originally planned. Sometimes there are cast changes which mean that there are subtle alterations to be made all the way through. Like the Boy Scouts, my mantra is always ‘be prepared’!

How many cameras do you use – and where are they placed in the Royal Opera House?
I use between 6 and 8 cameras and the positions at Covent Garden are now very well established. They are placed to give as little disruption to the audience as possible whilst giving me all the angles I need.

Does the fact that you used to dance inform the way you approach filming a production?
I suppose the fact that I danced with The Royal Ballet for 13 years will always affect the way I approach filming ballet! I feel I know what the choreographic intentions (I have often danced in the ballets myself) are so I know when the camera should be looking at the whole body and when I can move in a bit closer. I also know the angles that certain classical positions should be seen from to keep the beauty of the shape

How do you balance when to do a close up – and when to show the whole stage?
Those decisions are dictated by the narrative, the choreography and the mood of the piece. Filming is often the art of compromise – you can’t simply show the whole stage picture but you also can’t afford just to focus in on the main action. You have to strike the right balance and that often dictates how successful or otherwise the recording is.

You were Head of Dance at the BBC for many years – what do you think about the current level of dance coverage on TV?
I think the current level of dance on TV is abysmal as it’s virtually non-existent. I left the BBC when it was made very clear to me that they weren’t really interested in dance any more. It’s a shame as we have many really talented film directors of dance and dozens of choreographers whose work won’t get the wider audience it deserves. I started in TV making short dance films but now that opportunity simply isn’t there for aspiring dance film makers any longer.

Are you excited about the possibilities of filming dance in 3D – and have you tried it yet?
I filmed Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake in 3D for Sky and cinemas last summer and we were all thrilled with the result. I think that 3D and dance are made for each other and I’m currently making a feature documentary about the brilliant Ukrainian star Sergei Polunin which will have lots of specially shot 3D showing off his incredible technique.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will be showing in cinemas across London, starting at 7.15pm on Thursday 28 March, including:
Odeon Covent Garden, Kensington and Wimbledon
Curzon Mayfair and Richmond
among others.

For a full list of cinema screenings in London and across the UK please visit:
www.roh.org.uk/cinema

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