“Hamilton” through the Lens of Cinematographer Declan Quinn–with Podcast

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…

Declan Quinn

The incredible room where it happens…

“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.”

Find the shots in this trailer that you can’t see from even the best seats.

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.

A balmy dusk, complete with extra fans and lots of bug spray.

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.

Jonathan Groff’s saliva-spewing closeup of King George

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.

Keyhole camera A/B (see below) of George Washington (Christopher Jackson) seconds before his entrance
Camera positions for recordings during Sunday and Tuesday audience recordings (courtesy of Declan Quinn)

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.”

Camera in the Wings: “Thomas Jefferson’s Coming Home” with Daveed Diggs

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.

Camera positions and movement for “dark” theatre performances all day Monday and Tuesday morning (courtesy of Declan Quinn)

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…

Bird’s-Eye View to a Kill

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?”

Lesley Odom Jr.’s Aaron Burr, Sir…up close and personal

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
“We thought, how about when George Washington is up the stairs at another level…”

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.

“It’s like instant cinema, as soon as you put somebody on a turntable…these amazing arrays of shots like in kung fu movies.”

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.

An unforgettable night in our backyard

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.

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About Kevin Walsh

Kevin began MyMediaDiary.com in 2013 as an experiment that was as simple as "What's a blog?" and ended up becoming a forum for fellow writers. He's been a high school teacher for 28 years and worked as an administrator and instructor in colleges for 6. Contact him at: kevin@mymediadiary.com He is also the producer of the web-series and blog, www.DiggingDetroit, founder and producer for MMD Productions at www.mmdphotovideo.com which offers quick, professional photography, video and multimedia solutions for individuals, organizations and businesses. His high school media production text, "Video Direct," has been used in 40 states--and he occasionally still sells a few. He is the current president of the non-profit DAFT (Digital Arts Film and Television) which sponsors the Michigan Student Film Festival. He lives in Royal Oak, Michigan, is married to Patrice and is tolerated by his two kids Aidan and Abby who have all graciously allowed him to write about them on occasion. Follow Kevin on Twitter @kwteacher

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