We need to talk about ‘capture’

13th June 2016

I want to begin outlining some thoughts and some questions about the idea of ‘performance capture’. And I want to do so partly in response to a ‘capture’ of Rambert’s dance work, Tomorrow, which is choreographed by Lucy Guerin as a response to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. (There is a very good Judith Mackrell feature for the Guardian here about Rambert 90 years on from its founding.)

The Tomorrow capture is on BBC iPlayer for another four months and was made possible by Shakespeare Lives 2016, a six-month online festival from the BBC and the British Council in partnership with Shakespeare’s Globe, the British Film Institute, the Royal Shakespeare Company, Hay Festivals and the Royal Opera HouseShakespeare Lives 2016 is publishing a wealth of fascinating stuff, more of which I hope to highlight and discuss in the coming weeks. Just as I intend to develop in more detail my argument below. But for the moment my interest is Tomorrow and the questions it brings into focus.

Disclosure: I have represented the RSC, for whom I work on a part-time basis, at a number of Shakespeare Lives 2016 partner meetings, and I curated the Great Shakespeare Speeches collection for the project – which is also well worth a look. I have no connection with Rambert’s Tomorrow, nor – as will become obvious – have I had any role in or possess any privileged knowledge about the production of its capture. I have also developed projects for The Space (see below) and other partners, but these have to date not come to fruition.

On the Shakespeare Lives 2016 website there is a very useful introduction to Tomorrow by Lucy Guerin, as well as some short background videos, including one that features composer Scanner who created the score. The dance work developed from the contribution that Lucy Guerin made to a production of Macbeth that she co-directed with Carrie Cracknell at the Young Vic at the end of last year. I saw that on stage and, in part as a consequence, I am pleased to have had the chance to see a video recording of Tomorrow. This feels all the more important given how little contemporary dance from companies like Rambert makes it on to broadcast television these days.

I have to say, however, that I found the ‘capture’ disappointing. There are some technical issues, including (when I viewed it) the first two minutes or so seeming to be entirely mute – that is, without even the “atmosphere” audio of a silent theatre, which comes in, apparently unmotivated at around 2:15. I found this simply puzzling. I was frustrated too that the wide shots did not include the downstage areas on the extreme left and right of the performance area. The recording features just a modest number of moving shots, and close shots are only sparsely employed. There is also an overall dull-ness to the images which have little of the vitality, precision and visual sensitivity of Johan Persson’s stills of the production, a detail of which I reproduce above.

The staging of Tomorrow is undoubtedly hard to translate to the screen, not least because for much of the dance there are two distinct areas in which parallel activities are taking place. Only towards the end do two groups of dancers come together. But the capture was clearly done on a modest budget, with perhaps just three cameras and only minimal preparation. The consequence is that as a work for the screen it falls far short of capture as it can be achieved with greater resources, more time and, inevitably, a higher budget. I have no idea of the budget for Tomorrow, but capture done for £5,000 is very different from capture at £50,000, and indeed £500,000.

The budget and production context is only one element that is missing from this capture and its online presentation. As far as I can see, neither on the film itself, nor on Shakespeare Lives 2016, nor on Rambert’s own website, is there any indication of the production team who made the video. There is no credited director and the camera operators are not named. [Note; this was the case at the time of writing, although the credits have since been added – see the first Comment below.] It is as if the capture is in some way an unmediated and unauthored version of the dance. Yet of course the shots, the sequencing, the camera moves, the lighting and the sound are all the product of interventions, both motivated and automatic, by humans and by technologies.

‘Capture’ as a word, however, effaces all of this, suggesting the simple creation of an accurate ‘record’ or doing little more than gathering data. We somehow persist in thinking that ‘capture’ is as straightforward, as direct and as uncomplicated as, say, the operation of a mousetrap.

There are two, perhaps three, aspects of all this that especially concern me. The first is perhaps only a problem if you are a producer, but it derives from the renewed (and very welcome) interest in ‘performance capture’ by broadcasters, by the funding agency The Space and by other interested cultural bodies, from ACE to a host of arts organisations. On the website for The Space, for example, there is a call for ‘Capture projects […] which digitally capture live arts performances, events, exhibitions or other experiences for wider distribution in order to increase audiences for existing work.’ We all speak on occasions speak about ‘capture’ as if it is a singular process, distinct from funding and budgets. Yet the latter shape and largely determine every aspect of the many different kinds of capture processes. I sometimes wonder whether this is always recognised as fully as it needs to be.

Connected to this is the idea that is sometimes prevalent that ‘capture’ is in every case, and in whatever form, A Good Thing. Why would one not want to enhance ‘access’? If some money can be found, then there can be a tendency to expect that capture should be embraced, whether or not the budget is high enough, rights can be appropriately paid for, and sympathetic and skilful collaborators can be identified. Perhaps this is right, and perhaps I am hideously mis-representing the wholly laudable intentions of funders and others, but perhaps too we need to talk more about ‘capture’ and to interrogate more deeply the assumptions that come with it.

My other concern is that we do not have any kind of developed language to discuss ‘capture’. You can tell that from my stumbling description of Tomorrow. There is next to no critical tradition that can explore the success or failures of capture, and relate these both to the work on stage and to the production context – including questions of budget, resources and appropriate distribution forms. I believe that this is the case both in journalism and in academic discourse. Until we can talk and write more precisely about capture and its myriad of mediating elements then I worry that we will not properly understand its problems – and its vast, exciting and spectacular potential.


  1. John Wyver says:

    Many thanks to ‏@BBCShakespeare for Tweeting on 13 June:
    Credits now added, they were supplied to us and were omitted in error

  2. Tim Wood says:

    This is thoughtful as always, John. As someone at Rambert who was involved in the making of this film, I thought I’d add something about how we see it.

    This is the first time we’d done something like this, and we learned a fair bit through the process. There might be things we’d do differently next time around, but we, the filmmaker, the choreographer and her creative team, the BBC editorial team and the British Council were all happy with the budget, and then with the results. So now it’s over to you and everyone else to let us know what you think. I’m grateful for the feedback.

    A more sophisticated critical discourse can’t be a bad thing, though this discourse doesn’t feel *that* unsophisticated to me. And I’m wary if that becomes a coded way of saying that we necessarily need bigger budgets and more expenditure.

    A film like ours is never going to recoup even modest costs. Your budget estimates (and I recognise the price range) start at £5,000 for a 25 minute film. That’s already pretty daunting price tag for a great many arts organisations.

    Yet the really exciting thing that’s happened in recent years is that entry-level costs for filming and distributing work have decreased to the point that they’ve begun to enter the orbit of these organisations. So we’ve now got the opportunity, and perhaps even the duty, to make affordable performance capture work.

    I find that audiences are pretty good at judging context, and in choosing to care or not about it. The more material arts organisations can make available, in all sorts of production contexts, the more we’ll get from them a sense of what’s most worthwhile.

    • John Wyver says:

      Many thanks for such a thoughtful and informative response, Tim. And while I am always looking for more money for screen performance, the impetus behind my post absolutely wasn’t to argue for higher budgets.

      You are absolutely right that it’s very exciting that arts organisations can now credibly and effectively be media producers, extending audiences for their work and undertaking creative screen projects over which they, and not broadcasters, have both creative and commercial control. This is a fundamental shift, and The Space, ACE and others are facilitating it. It’s great too that initiatives like BBC Arts Online and Shakespeare Lives 2016 can be supportive partners.

      At the risk of repeating myself, I do believe there should be more recognition of how determining budgets and production processes are – and that ‘capture’ is not a singular thing. And I stand by my plea for a more detailed and nuanced critical language – as well as for others to engage with the processes of capture in a whole range of journalistic and academic contexts.

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