OUTSIDE THE great old auditorium, the massive steel door of the TV remote truck swung open violently in the icy winter gale. The scene in the interior looked like something from an old submarine movie - eight figures huddled in a dark space that could scarely contain three comfortably, intent on flickering screen and consoles of buttons, lights and levers; staccato commands crisply barked; and an atmosphere cracking with tension.
Those were the first moments in a taping season for a program in WETA's projected "Tonight at Carnegie Hall" series, scheduled for fall broadcast. Preparations had begun the previous midnight, and now it was 1 p.m., time for a rehearsal of the Minnesota Orchestra directed by Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, playing Krzysztof Penderecki's new Violin Concerto with Isaac Stern as soloist, in preparation for the work's New York promiere.
The tape would roll all afternoon, through the rehearsal of the Concerto and the other pieces by Prokofiev and Ravel on the evening's program, through interviews with Stern, the conductor and Penderecki, and after a brief break, right on through a special performance that same evening.
What I saw in the truck that afternoon was television, so to speak, from the other side of the screen - not just the nuts and bolts of production, but the throb and sinew of the video process. And what it mirrored so plainly was that TV, at least in ambitious, origina undertakings, is not just technology but art.
The nore commonly recognized "artistic event" was, of course, taking place in the music-making on the Carnegie stage. But the network of judgements, decisions and actions surrounding the musical performance on all sides, with its nerve center in the truck, was an esthetic enterprise in its own right. It took intensive forethought and meticulous planning. It had a tempo, rhythm and structure all its own. And the entire process was as much a marriage of technique, collaborative skill and expression as the musical event which was its focus.
Every person in the crew of more than six dozen had an intricate series of tasks, all dependent on each other and requiring instant coordination. No such matrix of operations could hope to succeed without an exhaustive master plan, the heart of which in this case was a mimeographed tome of "shot sheets."
For the taping of a musical rehearsal or performance, the shot sheets constitute a video "score," analagous to the conductor's musical tablature. Every camera shot - there were 500 for the musical portion of this program - is numbered and described on the shot sheets, which were devised by director Paul Salinger months before the taping.
Sallinger, a British-born Israeli hired by executive producer Ruth Leon for the Carnegie series, is a trained musician. He had marked every shot, with its number, timing and choice of seven cameras - a lavish number for any TV production - directly on the musical scores, and he himself worked from the scores during the taping process.
During the taping of the rehearsal of the Penderecki Concerto that I watched in the cramped TV truck compartment, Sallinger sat with the score in front of a bank of TV monitors. To his left was series director David Deutsch, literally "calling the shots" one by one to allert the cameramen in the hall via intercom. Between Deutsch and Sallinger sat music assiciate Carol Stowe, cueing Salinger's eye to the score with a pen-point.
To Salinger's right sat the switcher, or "vision mixer" as the English call him - the technician whose console determines which camera image will be recorded on tape at each moment of the performance. As Deutsch called each shot, readying the cameramen, Salinger peered at the monitors and the score, and at the exact instant - the shots are timed to the microsecond - of change, he signaled to the switcher to execute the shift with a motion of his hand, a snap of his fingers to indicate a sharp cut, a graceful unfurling of his wrist for a gradual dissolve.
Some shots are separated by several seconds, but many fly in a prestissimo flurry, as the desired imagery darts from soloist to conductor, from one section of the orchestra to another, from a distant perspective to a close-up.
All this was no more than the tip of the iceberg. Some shots needed to be "isolated," that is, recorded on a separate tape as insurance against mishap and for other contingencies. Care had to be taken that blank reels which come only in 60-and 90 minute lengths, were punctually changed. Lighting designer Danny Franks, in touch with his own crew, made continual adjustments, and audio producer Andy Kazdin was responsible for tending the complicated sound circuitry and recording. Executive producer Leon, who collaborated with Salinger in preparing the taping of the musical portion of the program, was also concerned with other program segments (the interviews for instance), and supervised the recording and editing process.
Coordination producer Hal Hutkoff kept communications going between all section of the crew. Production manager Jack Frost had to worry about such things, for example, as feeding 75 people exactly on schedule - a few minutes tardiness could incur "meal penalties" with seven separate unions.
Few cultural productions on TV have ever been attempted on the stale of WETA's Carnegie seies. Leon, working with a budget of $350,000 per event, low by commercial TV standards, calls the approach "Rolls Royce TV."
"Even when cultural TV programs turn out well," she says, " they're usually praised by someone saying, gosh, that's really terrific, considering meaning, of course, considering the limitations of time, money, resources, personnel, and so forth. For once, with this series, we hope to see what the very best we can do may be. We'd like to find out if we can combine all that we've learned about the spontaneity of live broadcast, as 'Live From Lincoln Center,' for instance, with all we know about carefully controlled studio broadcasting and extend our horizons beyond both."
Making television programs of any kind involves technical challenge and logistic complexities, and this alone is not guarantee of esthetic merit. But a project such as the WETA Carnegie series obviously goes beyond such issues of craftsmanship. Robert Brustein recently argued that television "has doubtful or superfluous value as a medium of art or scholarship, apart from a capacity to reach a lot of poeple quickly."
The same mistake was made about motion pictures in their infancy - noting the transcription capability but overlooking the possibilities of the medium as an audiovisual canvas. The kinds of deliberations, choices and discriminations that go into a production such as this Carnegie concert are not inherently different than those faced by painters, composers or poets. The finished program may achieve its purposes or not, but there is no rational way to exclude it from the realm of artistic work.