Picture Perfect: A New Era of Live From Orchestra Hall Webcasts, Thanks to the DSO's Upgraded 4K Camera System
If you take the backstage stairs of The Max to the basement and follow the checkerboard floor, you’ll find musicians’ dressing rooms with vanity tables, clothing racks, lockers, coffee mugs, and well-loved foosball tables. Continue farther, turn two corners, and you’ll arrive at the door of a small locked room all but unknown and unentered by the general public.
A plaque next to the door reads “Alfred R. Glancy III Control Room.” This 19-by-14-foot room is the home of the DSO’s Live from Orchestra Hall webcast series; since the series’ inception in 2011, the control station has enabled nearly 2 million viewers across the globe to watch live DSO concerts wherever they are.
And now, it’s the command hub for an improved technological backbone for the Live from Orchestra Hall experience, including a new 4K ultra-high definition camera system.
Installed over the summer, the upgraded system includes new fiber-optic wiring throughout The Max, new studio equipment for the control room, and eight state-of-the-art Panasonic AW-UE150 4K robotic cameras, which replace six older Sony models. The DSO has also created nine new camera positions in Orchestra Hall (up from six, creating 15 total), meaning that camera positions can be reconfigured and customized for each individual webcast. The new cameras perform better in low light and offer a clearer, more colorful image.
“We’re among the first orchestras in the world to have a 4K camera system,” explains Marc Geelhoed, the DSO’s Director of Digital Initiatives. “And the new cameras provide fantastic images. I ran into [Principal Clarinet] Ralph Skiano and he jokingly said ‘The image quality is so good that I’ll have to find a way to play better to match it!’”
The DSO is a leader among orchestras worldwide in advancing accessibility through technology, and we’ve always had a bit of a trailblazing streak. In 1922, under the baton of Ossip Gabrilowitsch, the DSO was the first orchestra in the world to perform on a live radio broadcast. A dozen years later, the beloved Ford Sunday Evening Hour radio concert series was inaugurated; these weekly performances were enjoyed by millions nationwide during the series’ 8-year run.
The new 4K camera system allows the DSO to webcast at the same high caliber at which the musicians perform. As has happened many times in the DSO’s past, we’ve created the capacity to present exceptional artistry via technology – in a way that does the artistry justice while building new pathways for audience accessibility.
And while the experience of listening to the orchestra on the radio – or today watching it in ultra-high definition – will always be different from attending a concert in the hall, technology can be used to create unique experiences for the viewer/listener that are just as powerful as sitting in the Dress Circle. “I saw Mahler online,” one recent webcast viewer commented. “Makes me want to go to Orchestra Hall!”
Making It Happen
Patterson McKinney, now in his second season as a webcast director, stresses the importance the new system plays in the production process: “This system opens a new world of creative possibilities,” he says. “The movement of the cameras is much smoother and makes me more confident to program shots that really follow the progression of the music. So much is happening at any given time; there are so many different sounds and instruments, and now the cameras can capture and communicate more of that.”
In the basement, webcast director Habib Azar’s movements resemble those of the conductor upstairs on the stage: trained eyes moving quickly to different camera feeds, arms outstretched and pointing – though at monitors, not instrument sections – with facial expressions bouncing from tense focus to exaltation.
And just like the concert upstairs, the webcast needs robust preparation and rehearsal. A director assigned to a webcast will review the scores of the pieces to be performed and begin developing a shot list. Crew members will place cameras throughout the hall accordingly, and a day or two before the webcast the entire team will assemble for a run-through – a beat-for-beat rehearsal of the whole show that takes place during a performance onstage but isn’t actually broadcast to audiences’ screens.
As assistant director, Geelhoed communicates with camera operators to jump from shot to shot. A system of camera presets forms the structure of this work – Camera 1 might have Preset 1 (or “P1”) trained on the Principal Oboe, for example. Geelhoed’s directions often sound like a game of Battleship gone awry, as he rapidly speaks letter and number combinations into his headset: “Send 4 to P3. Send 2 to P9, 1 P8, 4 P3,” and on and on, with as many as 1,200 shots called for a single concert.
Webcasts also require a switcher, two operators, and an audio engineer. The director tells the switcher to “take” a shot on camera, sending that shot to the live feed. The operators move the cameras and the audio engineer monitors sound.
It’s an incredible feat of teamwork and passion. “We want to provide the viewer with visual cues – like the conductor’s face or the energy of the musicians – so they can see how this giant piece with so many parts comes together to make music,” explains Geelhoed.
Around the World and Up the Street
The intention of the Live from Orchestra Hall webcast series has always been to share the work of a world-class orchestra with a worldwide audience. Importantly, there’s no cost to viewers – anyone can participate as long as they have an internet connection. Audiences include classical music fans in all 50 states and well over 100 countries, but it also comprises tens of thousands of Detroit-area students who tune in to Classroom Edition webcasts and experience our Educational Concert Series right from their schools.
But making something accessible is only part of the mission. Increasing accessibility is just as important, and a new partnership with the Detroit Community Technology Project is doing just that.
Not all Detroiters have reliable access to high-speed wireless internet. Enter the Detroit Community Technology Project’s Equitable Internet Initiative (EII), which incubates neighborhood-governed community wireless networks in Detroit’s North End, Southwest, and Islandview neighborhoods in addition to Highland Park. Each network is also equipped with an intranet (a network still available to users even if an internet connection fails) designed by middle and high school students through the Next Gen Apps education program.
These students also developed an app called Detroit Music Box for each neighborhood’s intranet. In partnership with the DSO, Detroit Music Box will now host high-definition video recordings of DSO performances in addition to other content. The most accessible orchestra on the planet teamed up with a group that puts accessibility first – meaning more music will be available to more people!
Live from Orchestra Hall is presented by Ford Motor Company Fund. The technology upgrade was made possible by support from the Knight Foundation and the Al Glancy Technology Fund. The DSO’s new camera system was designed by the video team at the Dutch firm PolyCast. Local installation support was provided by Vortex Communications (fiber optic cabling), Thunder Valley Enterprise (fiber optic cabling and electrical work), Douglas Electric (electrical work), and the DSO’s stage crew members of IATSE Local 38.
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