Sounding Off: It’s long past time to build a better concert DVD

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the conclusion of a reader’s opinion column about the way he would like to see concert DVDs produced. His previous points dealt with cameras.
CONCERT DVDs offer a great way to enjoy your favorite artists, often in one-of-a-kind situations, such as this clip from the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival featuring Jimmy Vaughan (left) and Eric Clapton.  Rhino/Copyright 2004 Crossroads Concert LLC
CONCERT DVDs offer a great way to enjoy your favorite artists, often in one-of-a-kind situations, such as this clip from the 2004 Crossroads Guitar Festival featuring Jimmy Vaughan (left) and Eric Clapton. Rhino/Copyright 2004 Crossroads Concert LLC
As concert-going becomes more expensive and our favorite groups spend much of their time in far-flung countries, concert DVDs are the salvation of fans who cannot make it to see their favorite groups in person. With better planning, cinematography, editing and post-production, DVDs can be a quality substitute for the concert experience.

1. Know the music. Camera operators and video editors should be familiar with the artists’ music so that they are ready to catch important performance moments in each song. We want to see the vocalist sing our favorite lines, see the bassist’s fingering on a well-known riff, discover how the keyboardist plays those mysterious opening chords, watch the drummer display his chops at the song’s coda, and yes, see the backup singers go for the high notes.

2. Give screen time to the other members in the band. Solo artists naturally get most of the screen time, but with a group of musicians, the singer and lead guitar player are not the only members in the band. The other musicians worked just as hard to get to their positions; give them substantial in-focus screen time. There wouldn’t be a concert without them.

3. Don’t show people in the audience while the music is playing. When we go to a concert, we go to see the performers. We face the stage. We don’t turn our backs on the performers to watch the audience. Why would we want to watch the audience on our DVDs? If nothing is happening on stage, show the audience. Repeat after me: “While the musicians are playing, keep the camera on the musicians.”

4. Banish fast-panning between performers. Split-second panning breaks viewers’ concentration and causes vertigo. Worse, it wastes time with blurry scenes. In addition, blurry pans break up into pixels in the DVD format if any compression is used during the transfer. Judicious editing is preferred, but more on that next.

5. No split-second scenes. This has become a common complaint of critics. Madly cutting between cameras every second, whether it is done live or in post-production, is annoying and stressful. A reviewer coined this “Camera Attention Deficit Disorder.” I was watching a DVD in which there were 178 camera-switch edits in four minutes. Do the math: That’s 1.35 seconds per scene. Avoid camera work that draws attention to itself. The musicians are the stars.

6. No interruptions, please. Never interrupt the concert with interviews, up-close-and-personal features, etc. These specials belong in the bonus features section of the DVD so that the concert flows without interruption.

7. Keep the screen clean. The DVD viewer wants to see the performers on a clean, uncluttered screen without having to look between, through, around or under graphics that some art director thought would look great. If performers think viewers need artsy graphics, put them in the bonus features or on the DVD packaging. Song titles should be small, unobtrusive, and brief, before the song starts.

8. No special effects. No splicing black-and-white footage with color, no positive-to-negative effects, no flutter-motion or slow motion mixed in with the real-time performance, no grainy effects and no split screens. Put the extra footage into the bonus features or onto a second DVD with additional camera angles. Save the special effects for the music videos on MTV.

9. Don’t mic the audience. We go to concerts to see the performers and hear their music. We don’t go to hear the audience yell, hoot, whistle, heckle or shout obscenities. No one wants to hear their favorite song ruined by a drunken yahoo shouting, and no one wants to hear it each and every time they play their DVD.

10. Great sound, please. Have you noticed that you can always tell the difference between the sound of a live concert and a recording of that same concert? One reason is the sound recordings of live concerts are compressed, limited, filtered and engineered to sound “better” on your home system. There is no way to reproduce the thundering dynamics of stadium concerts in your home, but the DVD sound quality must be excellent, and all instruments and vocalists must be clearly audible to capture the live performance so convincingly that the viewer is transported to that front row, center seat. 

11. No more than 70 minutes per disc layer. We all enjoy getting a lot of concert for a great price, but trying to fit a three-hour concert in widescreen format with 5.1 surround sound on a standard (not Blu-ray), dual-layered DVD pushes technology’s limits. Watching the drummer’s arms or guitarist’s hands break up into pixels while they are playing ruins the realism of the concert experience and reminds the viewer that the producer and performers went for economy over quality. Have a lot of bonus features? Put them on a separate disc to avoid compressing the main program more than necessary. Multiple angle options are nice, but they seriously cut down on disc space. Better to select the best camera angles to begin with and use them for one magnificent concert document.

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