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How National Theatre Brings Its Live Plays to the Movies

For nearly a decade, National Theatre Live has brought live theater from London’s acclaimed Royal National Theatre to a global audience, broadcasting productions such as “Hamlet” and “War Horse” via satellite to movie theaters all over the world.

“It’s unadulterated, unedited, no post-production,” says Creative Broadcast Solutions’ Chris Bretnall, who has served as National Theatre Live’s technical producer since the initiative’s inception.

The goal is “to replicate — as best as we possibly can — the experience you’re going to get seeing a play in the Lyttelton Theatre or the Olivier or the Dorfman and give you the best seat in the house in whichever country, whichever time zone you might be in,” Bretnall says.

The next play coming to U.S. movie theaters courtesy of National Theatre Live is “Julie” on Sept. 6. The modern take on August Strindberg’s 1888 play “Miss Julie” stars Vanessa Kirby and Eric Kofi Abrefa.

National Theatre Live began working with the creative team behind the “Julie” revival — playwright Polly Stenham and director Carrie Cracknell — well before rehearsals or set construction began, in order to figure out from a technical and creative perspective how to best capture the performance for the 2D cinema screen.

“If you and I sat watching ‘Julie’ in the auditorium, we’d use our eyes, our ears, our brains to selectively and subconsciously focus on what we need to build the story in our own minds,” Bretnall says. “If you’re sitting in a cinema, you can’t do that. You have to rely on the screen director to tell you that story. That’s the great challenge on every play we do, but a great privilege, too, to be allowed to take somebody else’s vision for a stage setting and bring it into a cinema.”

No two plays are staged in the same way, so the National Theatre Live team always faces new challenges. In the case of “Julie,” which is playing at
London’s Lyttelton Theatre, “the set is really, really deep, and they play it deeply,” says Bretnall. “If there’s dialogue that’s played across the stage, as there often is, it’s not always delivered straight out.” Bretnall also notes that there are crucial party scenes in the play. “You have to get the camera angles all around,” he notes.

All National Theatre Live performances are shot in 1080 high definition at a minimum, Bretnall says. A number of productions have also been shot in 4K ultra-HD and in high dynamic range, even though not many cinemas are equipped for such high quality. Whether or not a ready movie theater can be found, those performances are being preserved for future showings on the formats.

Audio, too, is high end, Bretnall notes. “The sound is never less than 5.1, usually 7.1, for the latest Dolby Digital technology that movie theaters have,” he explains.

The National Theatre Live team, made up of a couple dozen skilled craftspeople and engineers, has never experienced a major technical glitch or lost a show during a live broadcast. It’s an enviable record, and one not taken lightly. Says Bretnall, “We put lots of resilience in the capture chain and in the broadcast chain.”

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