The Last Pianist

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One of the many perks of working in film is having the opportunity to meet people whose reputations are surpassed only by their extraordinary talent. We recently had the pleasure of working with the great Barbara Nissman, one of the last pianists in the grand romantic tradition. She has forged an international career and performed with many noteworthy orchestras, including the London Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony, the Munich Philharmonic, and the Chicago Symphony, among others. Barbara has become especially well known for her association with the late Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera, whose final sonata was actually composed for Nissman from his hospital bed.

Needless to say, it was an incredible honor to be approached about shooting a video for one of Barbara’s master classes on the work of Ginastera. She makes music relevant to all of us, spinning out wonderful tales that evoke colorful imagery and deep emotion. We collaborated with Jesse Naus of Red Caiman Media, a highly experienced audio engineer whose knowledge in this area was of crucial importance. Getting pristine quality audio in a live setting where the acoustics are never cooperative is easier said than done. Barbara was adamant about performing these pieces on a specific piano at Duquesne University and needed the recorded audio to reflect the sound of the Steinway model that lives there. Jesse adeptly handled the challenge… but only after a sufficient infusion of coffee.

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Because the musical selections were being performed from memory without the aid of a click track, we deemed it necessary to set up three cameras for this shoot to ensure all angles would perfectly sync up in post. Our ‘A’ camera was a static RED Epic with a wide 24mm lens. The other two cameras were both Canon C300s. One was positioned stage right with an 85mm lens for a close shot through the piano lid. It was also set up on a cineslider to make the shot a little more dynamic. The other C300 was attached to a Kessler Pocket Jib, which allowed us to capture Barbara’s rapturous performances from a unique angle. She would often lay into the keys with unrestrained power and conviction, and so it was important to show her hands during these times.

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Rob Ruscher served as the DP and jib operator for this project. Rob’s lighting expertise helped transform a typically bland stage into a dramatic location that suited the grand music being played. We used a couple FloLight 4-bank Divas, with diffusion, to illuminate Barbara. The FloLights worked extremely well for our needs — and they even have remote dimming capabilities, which was a nice bonus. A smaller 2-bank FloLight was set up stage left to give Barbara a bit of an edge light. Finally, a portable 500w LED light was put in the back to give the curtains a subtle shine.

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As far as audio equipment is concerned, Jesse covertly placed a number of mics in various spots to perfectly capture the sound of the piano. A stereo pair of Neumann KM184 condenser microphones were used about 15 feet into the hall, along with a stereo pair of DPA 4006 omnidirectional mics about 25 feet into the hall. A stereo pair of compact DPA 4011 cardioid mics were also placed inside the piano itself.

All in all, the shoot was fun and we’re looking forward to sharing Barbara’s virtuosic flair¬†with you all. Here is an ungraded still frame taken from our ‘B’ cam, the jib-mounted C300:

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