12 December 2011

Truth or Dare – Toby Phillips speaks

In anticipation of the tentative 2012 Lionsgate release of Truth or Dare remastered on Blu-Ray, the beats within follows up the exclusive interview with Truth or Dare Line Producer, Lisa Hollingshead, with part two of my exclusive interview with cinematographer, Toby Phillips.

Read about Toby’s work as cinematographer of the stunning Blond Ambition concert footage, filmed for Truth or Dare, touring, technical problems, ticking-offs and techno pigs! Plus, WE find out about the W.E. director learning her craft and the real reason why she ditched that Blond Ambition pony tail – finally!

** Go to Pud Whacker’s Madonna Scrapbook for Pud's take on the age old question - ponytail or curls from his amazing Madonna archive **

** Click here to read part one of my interview with Toby, where he talks about his work as cinematographer of The Girlie Show – Live Down Under, technical problems and “ra – aaaaaa – in” **
** Click here to read my interview with Lisa Hollingshead, Line Producer of the Blond Ambition concert footage, filmed for Truth or Dare. **

the beats within: How did you get the job as Director of Photography of the concert footage shot for Truth or Dare?

I had been shooting a lot of different live rock & roll shows. Although I hadn’t worked with Lisa Hollingshead (Truth or Dare Line Producer) or Alek Keshishian (Truth or Dare Director) before, I guess I had got a bit of a reputation. I forget who it was, but either Lisa or maybe even Jay Roewe (Truth or Dare Producer) called me up to see if I would meet Madonna at a concert that she was performing at the Meadowlands, New Jersey (at the Brendan Byrne Arena, now the Izod Center). So, I went there and saw the show and then the following night I met her when she was getting her make-up done prior to the show and then I saw the show again. Although I thought I was already on the job, I think that was my audition!

So, they hired me and I went on to work out the best plan for shooting the concert component and although another DP (Director of Photography) had been hired to shoot the black and white 16mm documentary component, the concert was a different kettle of fish. We planned to shoot that in Paris at the Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy over three nights.

the beats within: Do you know why that particular venue was chosen to shoot the show for the movie?

I think it was that they probably had looser restrictions on where the cameras would be placed. The floor was standing and not seated and that makes things a bit easier, and it wasn’t too big a space. I think the capacity for concerts was somewhere between 18 and 20,000.

We went and did some prep, watching the show again in Gothenburg, Sweden whilst we were setting up – I think that was the show that was immediately prior to the Paris dates. We had a rehearsal day during sound check where we talked strategy a little more.

the beats within: Can you remember specifics, like how many cameras you used to shoot the show?

I forget how many cameras we had in total, I think it might have been somewhere in the area of 12 to 15. We shot over three nights and the plan that I used was to switch the cameras around over the three nights, so you’ve got different shots from the Louma Crane and different positions for the dollies. So, over those three nights you’ve got coverage that came from different areas of the arena, with slightly different angles.

I operated both the camera in front, as well as the Steadicam. When I wasn’t on the Steadicam, I would jump down in front and get a low angle, close-up. Once again, for those three nights I would cherry pick the songs where I would go onstage with the Steadicam. A lot of artists don’t dig having the Steadicam around. Madonna was cool with it, provided I didn’t run into her or anyone else, and I felt good about that.

I actually came from being a child performer on stage, so I had a good sense of stage and choreography and what was going on. At a certain point at that time I decided I was more comfortable behind the scenes and that’s where I stayed.

the beats within: Lisa Hollingshead told me about an accident that occurred while shooting the Paris shows, which caused some technical problems.

That caused a little controversy later on. The Louma Crane hit one of the receivers for the wireless mics and took out Madonna’s – I don’t know if it took out someone else’s as well. On the first or second night – I think it was the second night – the Louma Crane swung around near the audio booth that was over to “stage left” and took out one of the receiver antennas and her mic went dead.

the beats within: Footage of which was actually included in Truth or Dare...

Yes, and there was also a whole thing where someone’s getting reamed for that in the movie, but I don’t think the real reason is established. What the movie does is make the viewer think that the concert footage is throughout the entire journey of the tour. But some things that happened live during that concert are sort of slightly out of context in terms of how they’ve been paired with the documentary aspects of what was filmed throughout the entire tour. But it’s done in a fairly good way and it wasn’t demeaning to anyone. It was what it was and accidents happen.

Madonna was slightly feistier at that stage in her career when I met her and much less feisty on The Girlie Show. But I can’t remember whether I came and addressed it or not. Lisa was the Line Producer, Jay played probably more of the executive role in dealing with Madonna and Freddy DeMann and people like that, so he may have gone to her. I can’t remember whether we had a meeting about it. We probably had a meeting with the stage manager and the audio guys. The camera was moving the next night anyway, so we probably moved it to a position where it couldn’t happen again.

the beats within: Can you tell me more about your strategy meetings with Madonna?

Madonna generally used the sound check as the forum for her meetings. So, if there was something she wanted to talk about – like a song where I was going to be on stage with the Steadicam – on that day she would stop and ask to talk to me while she was standing on the stage. It was probably the thing crew people feared the most!

We were there for a short window of that tour, so I would come in and spend a pretty big chunk of time talking to the lighting designer in terms of adding, probably a significant number of, lights and making some pretty big changes to the way the front light is used and what level it’s at. In general it usually needs to be less bright, in terms of the light on the performer’s face. That way there’s more balance on the film and you have to get the colour temperature right for skin tones.

What you see as an audience member standing there in the arena is dramatically different to how it would be captured on film. I told Madonna that we would be reducing the amount of light on her face and she said, “So, what happens to the audience? How are they going to see me?” I said, “Well, you know it’s not going to be that much different”, and she said, “Well, how different?” And I said, “Well, if you walk into a dark room and there’s a light on in the corner and the light is lighting someone sitting in the chair underneath it, you adjust. The audience will adjust. In fact, they probably won’t even notice. They’ll be seeing a bright Madonna.”

Otherwise what would happen is if you left it as it was, they’d see you looking normal, but all of that background lighting and everything that’s gone into making that whole set look fantastic could get very dark. So this concept of getting a balance means that the set will look great and you’ll look great as well.

Most often, lighting designers would use two Followspots for a performer but that often gives no shadow, which isn’t that appealing. Especially when she had the head mic, you could get a double shadow from that. I got the strongest Followspot we could in the arena and we softened it as well, which made it difficult for the Followspot operator to use. Basically, I put what’s called a cosmetic diffusion on the Followspot and we used one, not two. There’d also be another guy there as back-up, in case that one went out. In general that’s what was used and it goes slightly off-angle, so you get a bit of detail and shadow in a cosmetic way. That became the thing that I did on all of the concerts, starting with her. Madonna’s was probably the only one where I elected to use the cosmetic diffusion.

the beats within: For an artist such as Madonna, obviously her image is very important, so were there any other technical challenges in presenting Madonna in the best light on the big screen?

There was another conversation that Madonna and I had about her hair. She had often used that I Dream of Genie hairdo, with her hair pulled back in a tight bun at the back of the head and it was my feeling that for the movie, that was a little severe. I thought that she looked a good balance between commanding and a little bit more feminine with the blonde bob look. I don’t know whether I talked her into it, but I told her which one I preferred.

In truth, she probably could have done both. Thinking about the way it was edited, it wouldn’t have been bad to have a show where she did it with one look and a show where she did it with the other look and then through the cut, put in a bit of both. So, I’m not sure who decided that she just did it all the same way.

the beats within: Was it a challenge coming in towards the later stage of the tour and requesting changes for the purpose of filming the show?

The difficult part for a Director of Photography coming in to work on a show that’s well established is sometimes the lighting designer isn’t on the tour anymore and so there’s some politics in getting involved. There were two guys credited with the lighting and both guys were working on both shows [Blond Ambition and The Girlie Show].

I already had a good reputation with the lighting designers when I’d come in to do a shoot. Generally, there was often some friction towards someone like me coming in and telling the lighting designer, “I want to change the lights here, and make an adjustment to this scene and add some lights here and there”. I mean, if it was me I’d say, “Go fuck yourself!” But if you could show through experience and from some other shows that you’d done a good job, then generally I was well accepted.

By the time I got to working with other lighting designers, they all knew that I’d done Madonna’s show and other shows, and they would embrace what I wanted to do. On Pink Floyd, I think we added about a thousand lights for their show in London. For them it was like, “This is fun” Now we’re doing something huge!” In general, I added to what they were already doing.

In the arena in Bercy we had to add audience lighting, which can be a bit confronting because the performer usually doesn’t want to see the faces of the people in front of them. Only for the encore do they usually light up that strip of lights across the front of the stage and light up people’s faces. I would use ACL can lighting and position the trusses further back, so that they all became sort of “rim-lit”, so that it would work for both cameras at the back and cameras at the front – and make something that looked a little bit more attractive and less obvious to the performer.

Generally, after the first show of almost every tour we did where we wanted to light up the audience, the performer would come back and say, “Can you do less of that tomorrow night?”

the beats within: And a lot of artists also don’t like having the Steadicam on stage either...

Yea, I think it was great that Madonna allowed the Steadicam on the stage, as some people don’t at all and it’s an absolute no-no.

the beats within: By using the Steadicam, it seemed that you were able to film the show in a way that concert films had never been shot before.

The Steadicam shot that I did on Truth or Dare that Steadicam guys often talk about, is the part during Live to Tell, where there’s a shimmering, blue light that goes down across Madonna’s face and the camera goes right around her. A lot of Steadicam guys would talk about that particular shot. That was a decision to do that on one night only. Out of the three nights I chose the time to step on to the stage and just make that one 360° lap around her, and then step back off the stage again. So, in a way, that choreography of mine, along with the way that the cameras moved from night to night, ensured that we got that different kind of coverage. It was the same with other songs that had more choreography from all of the dancers and back-up singers. My camera would be there for one night on the Steadicam to capture an element of that choreography and then I would disappear.

the beats within: Did you use the Steadicam for every song on the show?

We probably didn’t use it for every single song on the show. We probably didn’t use it for Like a Virgin on the bed.

the beats within: Really? There’s some really super close-up shots during that number used in the movie...
Those shots would just be from the long lens, positioned sort of mid-way in to the arena. We were using a re-worked lens that we called the “techno pig”. They were sort of new at the time, but they were a faster techno zoom and it was a massive, big lens. It was a little bit faster in terms of speed, so that I didn’t have to juice up the lights any more – and working wide open, it makes the focus pretty for those guys. We would have been using a Canon 300, or something like that, that was sort of just stuck on a long tele-photo like that.

There were some guys that I brought from London as camera operators. Generally, there would be a team of guys who had experience to operate all of these cameras – some were better on the dolly, some were better on the long lens and some were better on the Louma Crane. Each guy was hand-picked to operate the particular camera and although the camera on each night would move, they would still operate that particular camera, but in a different position.

It wouldn’t be mean in saying that Alek didn’t have a huge wealth of experience in this area, so he leaned heavily on me to orchestrate, collect and build the coverage that would then give the editor good choices from the three nights of shooting.

the beats within: With Blond Ambition, Madonna really raised the bar in terms of how rock concerts were staged. Were you aware at the time, that the show was so groundbreaking?

I was really impressed with the lighting and the staging. It was the most theatrical of all of the shows that had been out there and it was very appealing to me because of how theatrical it was. The lighting was already at a place that was genuinely great and I wasn’t going to need to make significant changes. My job was to capture it and just make the best out of it. That carried over I guess into whoever decided to hire me to go and do The Girlie Show.

the beats within: Were you involved in the post production of the concert footage for Truth or Dare?

Only in the colour correction stage. I had seen some of the edits of different songs as they came along. I did sit in with the Editor a couple of times. There was probably about a solid week where we did the colour corrections in LA.

Madonna would come to some of those days – I can’t remember if she was there every day. It was about a week were we would go in and spend all night colour correcting. I know Madonna was there on a few occasions, but I don’t know if she was there all the time. She really didn’t say anything too much – she was just there to watch.

I would give my direction to the colourist and back then there was still quite a lot you could do – there’s a huge amount more you can do now. But the technology afforded us to make significant changes to the way the film looked, so once again it was a case of using that technology and using the tools to make the best looking film. In general, for most DPs that’s their role, to go in for that final colour and give it the look of what we’d set out to do, which was to do a pretty strong representation of the show.

If you put aside the way the film looks, there is a lot of work that goes into getting those camera angles, doing camera moves and getting the right camera operators to do those moves. The director can’t really call all the of shots – a lot of the time it’s very difficult to hear in the environment, most times the camera operators are all on headsets and they’re getting some feedback, but in general it’s all about creating visual vibrancy.

For me, visual vibrancy is what the concert experience is all about. That’s where you really get the benefit. If the performer gets so comfortable with the concept of the show being filmed that they actually “work” the camera, then you add that vibrancy that wouldn’t exist otherwise.

I did a lot of work with Garth Brooks with the Steadicam and he got very comfortable with it and he would often come up and look right into the lens. During the song Friends in Low Places, where everybody starts singing together, I’m standing in front of him and he moves over and starts singing with some of the other performers on stage and next thing he grabs me and pulls me around next to him, so I’m being filmed by another camera, singing with him. Luckily I was wearing a cowboy hat - it added to the realism!

Another time, I was working with Ozzy Osbourne on a live show in Moscow. He talked to me before the show and told me to make sure I was there for a particular moment and he would give me the nod to come racing out on to the stage. As he hit the climax of the song, I ran out on queue and he just spat all over the lens. It sounds disgusting, but it’s so completely Ozzy and it’s so completely great that he knew how to do that and make it look completely, spontaneously ugly. In his world, some people might think he did it because he hated the camera being there on the stage, but the truth is he planned it.

When you have an artist like that who’s very cognisant of what they can do with the camera, then it takes it to another level. With Madonna, the staging and the lighting was fantastic, but it was really all about her, where she was and what she was doing along with the singing.

the beats within: Having filmed both shows, how do you think Blond Ambition and The Girlie Show compared to one another?

The Girlie Show was very different and it was sort of vaudeville and burlesque. It was on a much tighter and controlled stage and you didn’t have as much depth or width. There was additional depth in the thrust stage that Madonna would often come out on to. But the only thing that I would say was the same, was that it had a huge amount of great choreography and it had Madonna – they were the only similarities.

In terms of tone and delivery, they were very different shows. I liked them both, but they both they had their own merits in different ways. I liked the sexiness of The Girlie Show, but there was equally as much vivaciousness in the Blond Ambition Tour too.

** Special thanks to Toby Phillips and
Nick at Pud Whacker’s Madonna Scrapbook. **


Rabbitbunny said...

Truth or Dare-do I remember that movie! Another vulnerable moment for Lady Madonna-in Live to Tell, she fought for freedom of expression as a basic human right and in Promise to Try, she prayed next to her mother's grave feeling very sad. Both moments made me love Madonna even more than I already did! My fandom turned into fervor and ardor but little did we know was was to come in her future. Madonna was just getting started...

Cristian said...

FANTASTIC read, thank you so much Peter.

Man, what would we do without the internet?

I gotta admit, I couldn't wait till I got to the part about the ponytail vs. the curls. Now the mystery is solved! Ha ha. I'm sure it was due to various reasons, but I do agree, the ponytail (while awesome) gave her a more "severe" look at times...though it did also tighten her face at the same time.

I've done video projects, several of them, and the Live to Tell "circle shot" as I call it, was always one of those shots that I was most awed by watching the concert footage. Great to hear the story about how that happened.

WONDERFUL read Peter. A great Xmas treat.

Thank you!

Pud Whacker said...

fabulous, as always peter. xo

Vincenzorm said...

Very nice interview , I want full Paris shot!!!!

Boytoy77 said...

Extremely fascinating, there just isn't enough info regarding the technical aspects of a madonna show. I had often wondered if that circle shot in Live To Tell was shot with madonna alone, with no audience. I am so happy to hear it was all part of filming the shows at Bercy!!

Josef said...

Fantastic to read about that 360 lap shot during Live To Tell, certainly a superb piece of filming, i have often wondered how that particular shot was pulled off... terrific to read the rest also, most enjoyable and interesting. Thank you !