Based in Houston, TX, the Alley Theatre (www.alleytheatre.org) is one of America’s leading nonprofit theatres and a nationally recognized performing arts company that produces as many as 12 plays each season. When the pandemic hit, artistic director Rob Melrose and the Alley’s leadership team identified the need to deliver theatrical experiences digitally to keep its community engaged. However, this would require the creation of an in-house video production department, complete with an end-to-end post production workflow. While there is a natural crossover between video production and theatre, post production was a new territory for Alley Theatre.
To support the new business model, the Alley made sure to invest in professional tools from the start. The theatre’s post production workflow includes a custom system from Puget Systems, running DaVinci Resolve Studio with dual RTX 3080 cards and 128GB of RAM. This ensures 4K, real-time editing and playback. Two Asus 32-inch 4K ProArt monitors serve as the main displays, along with a smaller 1080 display connected to a Fairlight Desktop Console. Additional hardware includes a DaVinci Resolve Speed Editor, DaVinci Resolve Editor Keyboard, DaVinci Resolve Mini Panel and several internal project drives so staff can keep multiple shows in the pipeline before moving them to the NAS via iSCSI connection for archiving and availability to the rest of the theatre for distribution.
Keeping everything in one system as much as possible is crucial to the theatre’s stage-to-screen pipeline. The team edits and grades in DaVinci Resolve Studio, with audio mastering done in the Fairlight page, and any keying or special effects are performed using the Fusion page. The accompanying Fairlight audio and DaVinci Resolve editing and grading hardware have also helped make this process fast, effective and intuitive. Staff can simply reach over to EQ a channel, use automation to mix a scene on the panel without having to switch screens in DaVinci Resolve, or use the jog shuttle and specialized keys to reduce the need to use a mouse to click and drag.
Typically, the night after the Alley Theatre opens a show, the video production team deploys several cameras around the theatre, all with connections back to the video village, where the director of video productions is on coms with the camera operators to direct them through the show. The next day, the team comes back and steps through the show to capture additional scenes and moments from different angles to ensure needed coverage has been captured.
The Alley also has a Pro Tools system running with jam synced timecode that records all the performance’s audio, including individual lav mics hidden on each actor, and strategic shotgun and floor mics hidden around the stage, providing the best possible chance of capturing clean audio.
The footage is uploaded from all the cameras into a timeline in DaVinci Resolve Studio, ensure it’s all synced and aligned using timecode, and then converted to a multicamera clip. Once that is done, the team can start playing through the show and picking cameras just like it was a live event, with the advantage of being able to stop, go back and move the edits around with ease. After that, the video production team begins layering in the pickup shots captured on the second day and blending the two together in a similar multi-camera fashion.
Once the team has a solid cut from top to bottom, work then begins to master the performance’s sound and to ensure that all the audio is properly synced via timecode and EQ-ed to sound as much like the live experience as possible.
At this time, video production at the Alley Theatre not only helps shape the look and style for all video projects, but also for its presentations. By creating this department, the Alley Theatre has expanded its ability to provide internal training and marketing videos, and has also helped support its Education and Community Engagement and Development Departments.
During the Alley Theatre's fully digital 2020-2021 season, the theatre produced 14 productions enjoyed by more than 298,943 remote patrons. However, even now with in-person attendance returning, the theatre is still reaping the benefits of video production, having moved to a hybrid workflow and offering digital versions of the shows to be purchased for remote viewing within the two-week period immediately following a show's closing. The Alley Theatre’s biggest goal is to bring a high-quality experience to its remote patrons so that they feel like they are taking part in live theatre, even though they are in the comfort of their homes. The Alley has achieved that by creating a dedicated video production department and investing in a professional post production workflow.
Victoria B. Sagady is the Director of Video Production at Alley Theatre (www.alleytheatre.org) in Houston, TX.