Sarah Day speaks to Ryan Metcalfe, the producer and editor of the new filmed theatrical production of Romeo & Juliet.
We would love to hear about the technology of Romeo & Juliet, and how it all started.
Ryan: For the last five years, I’ve run a company called Preevue, which was set up with a goal of using architectural and construction tools within the theatre. We use the high-resolution scanning, high-resolution CAD, 3D models and scanning that goes into building a building and bring that over to theatre production.
Still to this day, theatre production is an incredibly antiquated production process; using a cardboard model, which then gets built at extreme cost, and then a producer walks round and says ‘It doesn’t look like I expected it to. Do it again’. Or you arrive at a venue and it doesn’t fit through the dock doors so you get the chainsaw out. So, the idea was to use that technology and do a 2mm accurate laser scan, so we get a 3D model of the space. We can then build the show in its entirety inside that building – actual set design, lighting rig, automation etc. – and then a producer can sit in their office, put a headset on and look at exactly what the show is going to look like in New York or Germany, three years before anybody even goes there.
That is such an efficient way of doing it, and must save a lot of time and money?
Ryan: Exactly. If a producer needs to go to New York to look at three potential theatres to put a show on, that is at least a day, plus the travel back and forth, the cost of a business class return flight and the environmental impact of doing it. Whereas it can be a 15-minute job in a headset that we’ve got in the producer’s office and they can sit in every single seat and look at what the shows going to look like.
So this was all leading up to the pandemic, and I guess the beginning of Romeo & Juliet?
Ryan: Left, right and centre zoom-call play readings were kicking off and, as great as they are at keeping art alive, there is however a limit creatively to what can be achieved and produced through that medium. We wanted to use a full West End team to produce this production just like a regular show, albeit this one would never appear on stage. So in April/May, I started thinking ‘could we take the technology we are using right now, put actors in it, and film it.’ After a fair bit of R&D and teaming up with my co-producer, Simon, five months later we were in a studio shooting Romeo & Juliet.
How does it work filming in a pandemic?
Ryan: We’ve got 15 cast members and – with the exception of one day with Romeo & Juliet together so that they could shoot the intimate scenes – nobody else ever shot together or was in the same space.
There are separate tech elements to it. One of them is that we are putting them into a 2mm accurate version of the Manchester Palace theatre, and the other is that when two people are sat on a sofa next to each other that have never even met, never mind filmed there! We used brand new technology with several monitors around the studio, where we were able to playback the previous person’s performance – say, the Nurse filmed on Monday, and Juliet on Tuesday – we would cut down the footage, use the take we wanted, and then realign the cameras and play it back live, so we could all see it on a monitor and check things like eye line and timing.
How was it for the actors to not be acting alongside someone else in a scene?
Ryan: I commend all of them for taking it and running with it because the most we ever gave them was a piece of tape on a wall or a ball on a stick. We didn’t want to restrict any of the actors in terms of the flow of the scene, which brings me to part three: The monster edit. We let all the actors control their own flow of the performance, but it meant that nobody was ever in sync, so the edit was all about cutting from one camera angle to another, to mask the fact that we have duplicated three seconds of another character’s take. And the other thing is the beauty of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter, and so the edit had to recreate the flow of the language that you get when you’re in person.
Once you’ve done all of the filming, how do you get the actors onto the stage?
Ryan: About a third of Romeo & Juliet happens on the stage, and the rest is within the theatre. Our director, Nick Evans’, the vision was to use the whole theatre as a space that the Capulets and Montagues have moved into. The next stage is putting them back into the space and having our lighting designer light and cue it like an actual show, and our set designer finishing the set pieces. The whole thing is then recorded almost a second time (The green screen footage being the first), so we build a virtual camera rig, we build the cameras inside this virtual world, we build the crane shots that we want for the big grand scenes and then we record it, and our finished product is that film.
There are 482 visual effect shots that make the final edit.
How long did it take you to finish the film from the moment where you picked Romeo & Juliet, to the finished product?
Ryan: We pulled the trigger on Romeo & Juliet end of September. We cast it incredibly quickly – a credit to our casting director, Jim Arnold CDG – and we had the meet and greet about 2-3 weeks after the casting went out. We weren’t messing around! We went through every shot in the play and said ‘this is a five-minute scene for Juliet, we’re going to give her five takes at it, and the cameras are going to take six minutes to set up’, and we did that for every single shot and worked out we needed 79.5 hours, so we booked 8 days in a studio and we used 79.5 hours. It had to be incredibly methodical.
As it was so methodical, did you feel that some of the creativity you’d have in a normal rehearsal room was restricted?
Ryan: No I don’t think so, and we have a lot of wiggle room in the edit too. Its credit to Nick for having a clear idea of what he wanted out of the actors and that continued in the studio. We wanted to give Emily [Redpath], who plays Juliet, the flexibility of 5 takes so she could try different things if she wanted to. It’s also a health and safety concern at the moment, with needing to limit the time people spend together. It’s a balancing act and I’m really happy how high we’ve set the benchmark, given the challenges we faced.
Why did you decide to pick Romeo & Juliet?
Ryan: Rights-wise we wanted to do something in the public domain and our director Nick is a Shakespeare guy at heart, and he wanted to do a production of Romeo & Juliet that used a theatre more than an actual stage. We play on this disused theatre – we don’t necessarily explicitly mention COVID – but it’s set in a world where theatres are no longer used as performance spaces, they are just empty. There are plenty of things that make it appropriate for our current world.
What other things did you have in mind when producing Romeo & Juliet?
Ryan: We had a few clear things in mind. One was that we wanted to make sure everyone was paid. We also wanted to cast brand new talent straight out of drama school. We wanted to do that because they’ve graduated into an industry that is closed so we wanted to give something back. We also wanted to make sure it was as diversely cast as possible. Romeo & Juliet allowed us to do all those things, and Nick had the creative visions to do them.
We cannot wait for the release of this theatrical film; have you already got future productions in the pipeline?
Ryan: We have stumbled on a more long-term solution that will last longer than COVID will. It’s a viable way to produce a high-quality production for a low cost. We have plans in the pipeline, potentially something more long-term, and then another one similar to Romeo and Juliet. It would be great to work with existing productions, potentially ones that had to shut down because of COVID. To remount one of those productions would be incredible.
Romeo & Juliet will be available to stream via atg tickets