Q & A: Video producer puts dancers, musicians on SPAC big screens
SARATOGA SPRINGS If you sit on the lawn at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, you might have a better idea of what’s happening on stage than those seated inside. For the past decade, as many as eight screens have projected a clear view of the amphitheater stage — the crystalline choreography as performed by New York City Ballet, the flying fingers of a guest pianist with the Philadelphia Orchestra or a bluesy trumpet solo at the Jazz Festival.
This larger-than-life look at the performance comes to the audience via some discreetly placed projectors, remote controlled cameras and the keen-eyed staff of Myriad Productions.
Myriad, a Saratoga Springs-based producer of video — live and otherwise, was founded and is managed by Ralph Pascucci. A five-time Emmy Award winner for his work at the four summer Olympic Games for NBC, Pascucci designed a system by which six cameras capture the action and project the images on retractable screens.
Initially, Pascucci was uncertain what impact the images would have. On the first night, he found out.
“Santana was the first concert,” he said. “At one point, there was a drum solo and it got very quiet. During this quiet section, one of the camera guys got Santana, in silhouette, behind the drums. I decided on the shot, and just then, he took a big drag off of his cigarette. I could hear the crowd react. They went crazy. We knew it worked.”
Prior to establishing Myriad, Pascucci, a mechanical engineering graduate of the Rensselear Polytechnic Institute, was a cameraman for local performing arts productions for WMHT television. He worked on “I Love NY” television spots for the New York Network. After a time in manufacturing, he worked for the Today Show and then NBC Sports with the 1988 Olympics in Korea and later in Atlanta, Barcelona and Sydney. He also traveled the globe covering Formula One racing for ESPN.
A Saratoga resident, he is now fully invested in enhancing the experience for performing arts audiences at SPAC and occasionally the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic.
Q: How did the video at SPAC shows come about?
A: I knew Herb Chesbrough (former executive director) from the arts community in Saratoga. In 1993, I tried to arrange video at SPAC. But it never came about.
In 1999, SPAC decided to look for people to design and install video projection. A lot of the proposals were extreme. Herb asked me to look at it. The hard part was how do you integrate video cleanly without disturbing the architecture. Most of them would have completely ruined the look of the lawn at SPAC because they would have to put up this big tower and hang screens on the building.
I suggested projectors underneath the ramp with the screens. We did a test and they liked it.
[Board member] John Breyo bought all the equipment. I designed and installed the system gratis.
You think back on what SPAC had, it was probably the only video system of that type at that time. Most places had two camera operators standing up inside with the audience. I designed it, so there would not be anyone out there disturbing the audience.
It’s become more and more popular over time. Now, many of the large pop acts travel with their own video systems.
Q: You didn’t know how well it would work on that first night out with Santana?
A: No. I had no idea. I didn’t know if people would watch it or throw mud at the screen. But when we heard the crowd go wild when we put up the picture of Santana, I got chills.
Q: Then the ballet came. How did that work?
A: We worked very carefully with the ballet. Ballet is different because it’s not about the people onstage, it’s about the choreography. After the first rehearsal, we realized that the best view of dance is dead center in the house. By the end of the first week, Peter [Martins, ballet master-in-chief] was comfortable with what we were doing. We’ve been doing it the same ever since.
When you don’t know who will have the solo, you always give way to the girl. With many [George] Balanchine ballets, if there is an exit downstage left, often he would have an entrance upstage left. He draws the eye to that side of the stage and wants your eye to stay there. But the modern ballets are not always like that. Peter might do something completely different, surprise you with another entrance on the other side of the stage.
You can tell a lot, too, with the lighting cues. If there is going to be a spotlight somewhere, that’s where you will point the camera.
Q: How do concerts differ?
A: The symphony is more complicated. For the orchestra, we like to use a score reader, usually the assistant conductor, to tell us where the music is going. Sometimes, if the tempo is quick, it’s hard to keep up. With the more modern stuff, it’s difficult because it is less predictable. There won’t be a cadenza or the melody doesn’t go to the instrument you would expect.
When there is no guest performer, it’s harder to follow the melody. With soloists, you can follow them. Without them, you follow the orchestra musicians. What you don’t want to do is have a picture of someone in the orchestra who is not playing anything. It’s easier when you know the music.
With rock shows, the jazz festival, it’s a format. Usually, there’s 12 bars with a chorus.
Q: How do the video screens enhance the SPAC experience?
A: It brings the classics to people in a palatable form that does not interfere with the experience inside. I think it’s great for the lawn, especially for the kids. If they go to the ballet, they can jump around and not interfere with the audience. They can really see what the dancers are doing, what their costumes are.
For the orchestra, they can hear movie music by John Williams and see a musician play the instruments that make a special sound. I think it’s important for the kids because they are the future fan base. Anything you can do for the kids is important.
I think people who buy all this expensive mega speakers, surround sound equipment are hoping to duplicate the live experience. You can never replace the live experience. You can’t duplicate it. You have to be there because every performance is different.
Q: What’s next? More cameras, screens?
A: We hope to transition to high-def. We’re working with a large video equipment company now which is willing to help. We also need a benefactor or two to get things under way.