Monthly Archives: May 2014

Macbeth – MKA 7th Graders


I wasn’t originally going to blog about this.  It was just going to be some shots for the kids, but darned if there aren’t some compelling visuals in here!

I met Christian Ely a few years back when I choreographed the fights for a play he was directing for a short play festival.  It was a food fight that goes over the top… in an elevator!  Fast forward 7 or so years later and Christian reconnects with me through a friend — he’s teaching and directing at a middle school in NJ and would I like to come fight direct a Romeo & Juliet?  Well, schedules didn’t work out that year, but this year they did for Macbeth.  I didn’t know what to expect — I knew going in that we had a cast of almost 40 thirteen year-olds.  20-odd witches, an army of soldiers… but what could we actually accomplish?  I needn’t have worried.  These kids were committed to the play and to their director.  He does not pull the play down to a “middle school” level, he pushes it up above some NY productions I’ve experienced!  The witches are an omnipresent force of nature (or supernature?) and create some gorgeous images with their striking makeup and costumes.  The set is a mobile and grand canvas for evocative projections (created by an MKA alum, now in the business).  Add haze, lights and sound and it’s an effective take on this story of ambition.

One of my favorite moments was a discussion about if we should have blood.  “Oh, I want blood,” Christian said.  “OK, how bloody can we get the children,” I asked — expecting a couple little smears or blood packs.  “Buckets!”  came his response.  A gallon of blood was ordered and with dilution, we’re talking about 1.5 – 2 gallons possible.  From what I’ve seen, I’m guessing these kids will wring every last corpuscle out of that jug!

On to shooting it.  The auditorium is a vast space and the stage, including an apron built into the space made for a lot of area to cover, especially trying to fit all 37 kids into a single frame.  I moved between all of my lenses, but relied more heavily on the 70-200 mm f/2.8 L IS II than I have been recently in the usual small NYC spaces.  Light was challenging — the look of the piece was very stark, so lighting tended to be dark, sometimes accented with hot spots, with few scenes in any kind of wash.  the witches in their white makeup and gowns tended to blow out quite easily, especially when they were sharing the stage with Macbeth and Banquo in their pseudo-military garb.  The witches movement was very dance based so I tried to dial down the shutter speed on a few occasions to get some motion blur to evoke that dynamic.

The battle scene was pretty epic, with just about everyone on stage — soldiers fighting, witches applying blood and feasting on the carnage.  Visually it was chaotic — we slowed the fight to slow motion, not for safety concerns (the kids were very good about stage combat safety!), but because there were so many bodies, it was too much to take in at full speed.  Blood effects for the final fight went well.  You can see the spray of blood coming from a couple of syringes, which “painted” his body with blood, but were also effective photographically.

Posted in Shows

The Tragedy of Dandelion


Joan Kane, the director of this play, also directed of one of the pieces in Nylon Fusion’s last This Round’s On Us: Spring Break Forever! (The first three images in the gallery for TROU – Spring Break Forever!)  She and her partner at Ego Actus reached out to me about shooting their production of The Tragedy of Dandelion at Urban Stages.  The play is a bold undertaking — 29 roles played by 10 women across 5 acts, 13 scenes and 12 locations.  Oh, and in verse!  From the playwright’s website:

The Princess Dandelion dresses as a boy in order to escape her rapist and would-be husband, along the way falling in love with another princess, and traveling through her society, meeting nuns, soldiers, and clowns, and all the time her pregnancy continues, the impending birth complicating everything.

The play takes a lot of familiar tropes and stands them on their ears to defy expectation.  Shakespeare allusions abound, but there is a serious through line about identity and the ever present danger of being a female in a male dominated society.

Urban Stages is a small showcase theatre (65 – 74 seats) with a fairly deep stage.  The producer and director both told me they needed wide shots that would highlight the scenery and costumes for their website, so I tended to work a little wider on this shoot, again favoring the 24-70 mm f/2.8 with my new standby, the 16-35 mm f/2.8 coming in second.  The 70-200 mm f/2.8 still saw duty and got some of my favorite shots.

Lighting was widely varied — from a well lit throne room to a dark, dank dungeon cell — but most challenging were the scenes where the space was strongly defined by the lighting, for instance a hallway defined by a strong diagonal lane of light across the stage.  The actors had obviously not had much time to acclimate  to the lighting and were frequently half in and half out of the light.  This resulted in their heads and torsos in shadow and their belt and below strongly lit.  It took some work with the gradient filter tool in Lightroom to save what could be saved.

Ultimately, this is one of the challenges with working with a show so early in its life and especially showcase productions that don’t have the leisure of more than one or two runs on the stage before opening night; the actors are still trying to figure out their environment.

Posted in Shows

TROU: Spring Break Forever!


The latest installment in Nylon Fusion Theatre Company’s This Round’s on Us series featured 10 plays loosely inspired by the theme of spring break.  Nylon Fusion and I have a great photographer/theatre relationship, but they came and saw me in The Merry Wives of Windsor last year and realized I can act, too!  Now things are complicated.  They want me to shoot the show, but they want me to act, too!  So you will only see 8 of the 10 shows  that were presented. The other two were right before mine and mine.  Sorry, guys. Maybe I’ll wear a GoPro next time, like I did for a certain zombie project…

Photo by Lori Kee

Photo by Lori Kee

We were back in T. Schreiber’s Gloria Maddox Theatre and I was still trying to find a good location for shooting.  Luckily, with the purchase of the EF 16-35 mm f/2.8 L II USM, I had a few more choices, in this very shallow, but wide space. I ended up on the furthest house left, front row seat, on the tip of the shallow U that makes up the audience.   The 24-70 mm still saw the most use, but I was glad to have the 16-35 mm at a few points — about as many as the 70-200 mm.  It wasn’t a bad location, unless actors weren’t cheating out when they were stage right. Know where the camera is, people! 🙂

The lighting at the Maddox remained quite nice to work with — even the darkest play, about a man counting stars, was lit enough to not have to resort to extreme measures. In fact, I was able to drop the ISO to 3200, well below the 5000 & 6400 I was using to shoot SITI Conservatory’s “Darth Vader” show.  As I mentioned in that post, I had changed to Spot Metering, due to the high contrast in lighting.  I probably should have moved back to Evaluative Metering for this show, since the lighting was more even here, but it wasn’t a big hindrance (again, it’s a suggestion from the camera, it doesn’t actually affect any settings).


Posted in Nylon Fusion, Shows

This is How I Don’t Know How to Dance


I’ve had a close relationship with SITI Company for several years now.  I started training with them about seven years ago and what I learned fundamentally changed my relationship with the theatre and my process as an artist.  It even colors how I approach photography.  I’ve been wanting to shoot a SITI show for some time now, but they have a relationship with the wonderful Michael Brosilow, whose work has been inspirational to me.  But last year, SITI started their conservatory.  A nine month full-time program to teach a new generation of artists how to create using the processes, tools and sensibilities that SITI has refined in its years of exploration as a company.  The culmination of this program is a devised piece of theatre created by the students and SITI Company, under the direction of company member Leon Ingulsrud.  And Leon asked me to photograph their show —This is How I Don’t Know How to Dance (TIHIDKHTD).

I had seen a sneak preview of the show a couple weeks prior and I knew the space they were using, The Barrow Group Theatre, where I had shot The Tragedy of King Arthur.  So I knew two things: 1) I had 20 performers wringing every millimeter of space out of a moderately sized space.  2) I knew some low angle shots were going to serve the stage pictures well and, since it’s a raked audience from stage floor to the back of the house, I knew I needed to be in the front row.  This meant I needed the final piece to my puzzle.  The missing panel in the triptych.  The last item in a fulfilling list of three things!  I needed a wide angle lens.  I ran into this issue back on Luft Gangster, actually in this same building, albeit in a different and smaller space, and I knew a wide angle lens was going to be an eventual necessity.  I knew I needed f/2.8 or faster, because… theatre.  I wanted as wide as I could go without going fisheye and obviously I needed good image quality.  In the months since Luft Gangster I’ve been researching and there was only one real contender: Canons EF 16-35mm f/2.8 L II USM.  So I’m now covered from 16 – 200 mm (400 with my 2x extender 🙂 ).  I also knew that I was going to go back on Saturday and shoot the matinee performance from the back of the house and that would be exclusively on my 70-200 mm f/2.8, so I could be a little more creative and cover anything I might miss later.

On to the show!

Leon’s first words to me when I entered  were “It’s a Darth Vader show.”  I looked at him, puzzled.  “It’s on the dark side.”  Yep, that f/2.8 was the right choice!  Up goes the ISO!  I shot the whole thing at ISO 5000/6400, which isn’t crazy, but certainly not optimal.  While there were some moments that were VERY dark, the biggest challenge was actually contrast.  Often there were performers in very bright lighting, while others were in darker areas and often interacting, so you either expose for the person in the light and lose the other in shadow or vice versa and let the bright performer blow out.  Well, it is easier to recover detail from shadow  than from blown out whites in Lightroom or Photoshop, so generally I split the difference a little, slightly overexposing the brighter actors, which I could fix in post without losing detail and not have to recover as much out of the shadows.

The lighting challenges did prompt me to make one major change in my regular camera settings.  Normally I use Evaluative Metering to judge exposure.  This means the camera looks at everything in the viewfinder and tries to set the exposure so the whole thing evens out to about 18% grey.  With a evenly lit scene, it gives a decent idea of exposure and since I shoot in manual mode, the metering is a suggestion to me — it doesn’t change any settings.  The pitfall of evaluative is if there is a very dark subject matter (say someone in a black tuxedo against a black wall), it will tell you the scene is underexposed unless you change the settings (or add flash) until all that black looks 18% grey.  Same thing in an all white scene.  It will prompt you to make your settings lower until the white is grey.  For this show, the Evaluative Metering kept trying to increase exposure until everyone’s skin was blown out, since so much of the rest of the scene was dark.  So I tried Spot Metering for the first time.  Spot Metering does what it sounds like — it judges the exposure based on one spot in the viewfinder.  I could quickly meter someone’s face, judge the settings, compose and shoot and have much better results, much more consistently.  Definitely a new tool in the toolbelt.  So thanks, SITI Conservatory, for that lesson!

Several moments were in extremely low light.  Like almost none.  Lit by cellphone screens or just very low, blue washes, nothing was going to help but moving the triangle of aperture, ISO and shutter speed to the extreme and I was out of aperture.  I really didn’t want to go much higher with ISO, because of noise, but I guessed that there would probably not be much fast motion in the dark.  So I started dropping the shutter speed, braced the camera as well as I could to reduce shake and hoped for the best.  There were some nice results.  There is a whole “dream ballet” sequence with the performers lying against a wall “asleep” while doing choreographed group movement.  A shutter speed of about  1/3 of a second, the motion added a dreamy quality to the images.  As some of the performers moved into the main playing space, the light came up a bit, but the shutter speed still was low enough (1/40, 1/60) to add a little motion blur to the choreography, which I quite like.

Getting the wide angle for this show was so very much the right choice.  There are several moments where performers are looking directly out into the audience and being below their eye line was just the look I wanted.  Above them and their view gets shortened and at the same level they are often looking right into the camera — but slightly below, their gaze seems to be infinite, extending above and beyond you.

I was not expecting much from the Saturday matinee — I was in the next to the back row and the house was pretty much full.  Despite the relatively steep rake of the audience, there were still heads which would be in shots for things happening near the front of the stage.  I needn’t have worried.  Yes, there are some silhouetted heads, but the higher angle did grant, literally, a very different point of view and one that still offered great images.

Posted in Shows, SITI Company