Third row, center. Pretty good for the hottest show on Broadway–even better when it’s a free seat.
The challenge? To convert a once-in-a generation stage-play into a multi-million dollar budgeted film. So pay attention, right? No stress. For a photographer there’s perhaps no greater thrill–finding that one great angle, great color, great contrast.
Cinematographer Declan Quinn was asked to help bottle the magic of the Broadway juggernaut through an itty bitty lens–or twelve. He joined me in a podcast to discuss the 2016 shoot–and even passed along his camera schematics of the monumental project on a very tight schedule.
“We embraced the sweat, because you know you’re not going to take the sweat off of them unless it was, extreme…
“About four to four-and-a-half hours would be your biggest chunk of time to film in a morning or an afternoon. So basically, you’ve got eight to nine hours of filming time with actors and everybody ready to go so it’s not a huge day for filming a show. In filmmaking we usually work in a 10 to 12 hour shoot-day.”
For Broadway-starved fans–and anyone who hadn’t yet been able to nab tickets–last July 3rd was a COVID-myopic-world’s dream-come-true with Facebook and Instagram posts of fans celebrating its premiere in socially distant garages and backyards everywhere. And while we waited for that late sun to set so we could watch Quinn’s handiwork on that steamy night, my techie-self was very curious to see how the experience would cross-over.
Hamilton was released on Disney+ three months earlier than it was supposed to hit theaters, instead, at a financial loss but seen as an important boost for the country’s morale. It soon became the single-most streamed and downloaded movie of the year. The Disney+ app itself had a 73% increase in downloads that week–with 37% of all of its users having watched Hamilton by the end of the summer–20% higher than its nearest competitor.
With the start of award season, the film has already been given a special honor by the American Film Institute and Sunday it competes for the Golden Globe’s Best Picture – Musical or Comedy.
Quinn has enjoyed a long career from his 1984 short U2 documentary while living in Ireland and on to music videos in the US then to motion pictures (Leaving Las Vegas, Monsoon Wedding, In America). His music roots have continued to take him back to the stage working with artists such as Neil Young, Smashing Pumpkins and Justin Timberlake. His first broadway gig, the 2008 filming of Rent was followed in 2015 with Shrek for Netflix.
Listen to MMD’s podcast interview with Declan Quinn
After his first Hamilton scouting trip with the great seat, Quinn moved his vantage point everywhere he could go. The producers’ goal was to maximize the impact of the live performance–while not interfering with the performers, musicians and especially the audience who had emptied their wallets and calendars 12 months ahead of time to be there that night.
It wasn’t a hard-sell to get his A-listers together to capture this bit of history. “And I had all my best crew–people that I’ve worked with over the years and the best camera operators, focus-pullers, digital imaging technicians, script scripts and electricians.”
Three performances of the show were recorded live, including cameras sheltered behind black curtains no higher than the audience’s heads (see diagram above)–Quinn’s team let the house managers know which chairs had to be temporarily removed. In the end-edit, the film’s content is at least 75% in front of a live audience.
Going where no stage audience can go…
Then for closer pick-up shots the cast and crew returned on “dark” theatre all day Monday and Tuesday morning for, what Quinn describes as, just one key “intimate shot” per song–basically 15 one hour set-ups and recording of a key moment–from a crane, a dolly or even a hole in the wall…
Those brief days of shooting required over two months of planning–the script broken down for the live-performances–then he and director Thomas Kail decided where to walk the steadicam, when to use the crane, “When do we want to be up in the air, like a Busby Berkeley type shot, right?”
And Quinn relied upon a favorite technique in giving standard dolly-shots some lateral flexibility, “It gives us another layer of attention, the camera is a little more active…It’s only a matter of a small move, you just feel the energy of it.”
“The actors line up in an important scene, you’ve got this perfect shot over the shoulder of Hamilton and George Washington–but Hamilton’s wig is just hitting Washington’s mouth…the camera can just gently slide left, and correct it within a second or two.”Declan Quinn
In addition, subtle fill-lights were added to lessen the harsh contrast on actors’ “upstage” profiles. In the eight years since Quinn’s Rent‘s filming, and even since Shrek, technology with camera light-sensitivity had advanced and with isolated, hidden lighting along the balcony much of the “blackness” could be made less harsh.
Throw in a double-turntable and it created a cinematographer’s dream-come-true.
Many who could never make it to Broadway or pay the ticket prices for the traveling shows–near midnight last Fourth of July finally experienced the magic they’d heard over the past five years.
For others who were lucky enough to see it again–in a whole new way–they could see the show fresh through the eyes of an artist like Declan Quinn.