Why do so many concert DVDs miss the boat?

By Thomas Dimock
This is the first part of a reader’s opinion column about his pet peeves with concert DVDs.
KEEPING THE CAMERA on the action, as this shot of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham does in “The Song Remains The Same,” gives concert DVD viewers a more enjoyable experience. Copyrighta Rhino/Courtesy of Warner Home Video
KEEPING THE CAMERA on the action, as this shot of Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham does in “The Song Remains The Same,” gives concert DVD viewers a more enjoyable experience. Copyrighta Rhino/Courtesy of Warner Home Video
Your favorite group has just released a new DVD from its recent concert tour. You rush out and buy it, power up your high-def TV, crank up the surround sound and prepare to be blown away. Then reality hits. What happened? It was the most unsatisfying concert imaginable. At best, it was only a hint of what the actual performance was like. At worst, it was a DVD rip-off.

Many concert DVDs fall short of what fans expect: a true concert experience in their homes that is second only to being there in person, front row center. Here are what I feel are the major problems, with guidelines for performers and producers for preventing these problems in the future. Lest readers conclude that these criticisms are the rants of one grouchy, old curmudgeon, be advised that I have actually compiled many of them from acquaintances, magazine reviews and online reviewers, who, I was delighted to discover, shared my outrage and disappointment with many concert DVDs.

1. Keep the camera on the action. While the musicians are performing keep the camera or cameras on the musicians. Don’t interrupt the performance with shots from other activities at the concert. A live musical performance is no different than a sports event: When the ball is in play, the camera stays on the action. Can you imagine the outrage of sports fans if the camera operator turned away from the action just as the winning touchdown was to be made, only to show what the team mascot was doing on the sidelines? DVD viewers feel the same way when the camera turns away from their favorite part of the song to show what someone in the audience is doing.

While watching a concert DVD, I had to curse the video editor because at the moment of the buildup to the climax of the song, instead of zeroing in on the female vocalists as their amazing voices climbed two octaves to the finale, he cut the scene to the audience. Repeat after me: While the musicians are playing, keep the camera on the musicians.

2. Keep the cameras at a minimum. Just because you can afford to hire two dozen camera operators doesn’t mean you should. Pick the minimum number necessary to adequately cover the performers on the stage. You don’t need cameras in the nosebleed section. You don’t need cameras behind the performers or 50 feet up on a crane for those “bird’s eye views.” And you don’t need cameras roving among audience members once the concert has started. (More on audience cameras later).

3. No aerial tram cameras, rail cameras or other “robo-cams.” Those cameras on aerial cables or cranes that zoom over the audience add nothing to the performances and are useless to DVD viewers. I’m convinced they are only for the entertainment of the cameraman who operates them. Rail cameras are those Olympic games-style cameras that run back and forth on a track at the front of the stage. Their repertoire of shooting angles is quickly used up in the first 15 minutes of the concert, and the home viewer easily predicts every subsequent shot afterwards. The camera operators and their toys are not the stars of the show, as much as they might like to think they are. If musicians need fancy cameras and overenthusiastic operators to make the concert exciting, then maybe they don’t know how to put on a good show in the first place.

4. Hold the camera upright and hold it steady. Here on planet Earth, we watch performances sitting upright or standing up. The performers on stage are (usually) standing vertically with their heads upright. Don’t turn the camera on its side to get that “special angle.” Don’t try any corkscrew shots to make the performance “more exciting.” We shouldn’t have to crane our necks or lie on our sides to watch the DVD on our home screens. And hold the camera still. The jiggly-cam effect was in vogue only for the early television broadcasts of “NYPD: Blue.” It is annoying on repeated viewings of concert DVDs. And enough with constantly moving cameras. The performers are the movers and shakers, not the cameras. Do follow the lead singer or musician as he or she moves across the stage; but if they are standing or sitting still, lock the camera in place.

5. Include both close-ups and wide-angle shots, please. Give us a good mix of close-up and wide-angle shots. While we enjoy seeing our favorite soloists up close and personal, be sure to show us the entire stage with all the band members playing together. Stage sets, lighting effects and rear projections of art all are part of the concert experience and they need to be shown with the musicians.

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