The wonder of "Hamilton" and the future of the filmed musical
Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton" is surely the greatest musical of the 21st century, and one of the best of all time. Michelle Obama gave it even greater praise than that. Miranda may not quite reach the level, but he deserves comparisons to Shakespeare -- presuming Shakespeare also set his plays to music he wrote and arranged, and played the lead role. While every aspect of the creation shines, it is as a lyricist that Miranda is unmatched in this history of the musical theatre.
I experienced Hamilton first by several listens of the cast album, then live on stage (which remains hard to do) and on Friday in the release of the Hamilton stage-movie on Disney Plus. While I still recommend this movie wholeheartedly, it disappointed me moderately in some of its technology, decisions and imperfections.
The big question revolves around the question of how you film a play. In the earliest days of cinema, movies were made by just filming a play with a fixed camera. Soon, they switched to shooting different angles and scenes, with close-ups and multiple takes and the way we make movies today. Movies of stage performances are more rarely done, but they are done in a way that loses the stage experience, because older tech did not have the resolution to capture that, and the temptation for close-ups and varying angles is too strong. The great sin of most stage-movies is to shoot dancing close up, sometimes not even showing the feet, and definitely not showing the full stage view. It was a compromise -- you can't simultaneously see the whole stage and the faces of the actors in ordinary 1080p HD. You also can't capture the range of complex theatre lighting.
Almost all Broadway staging has many times where it makes use of the entire stage. If something is lit, it's intended you see it or be glancing at it. When the company dances, yes, you look at the leads, but only in context of all the dancers and all the staging.
Today with 4K HDR (Hamilton is presented in 4K HDR) you can get much closer to that. You can pull back and the audience can still see the faces of the actors. You can have things on stage lit brightly and some lit dimly and you can still see the dimly lit section, which was not possible in SDR. It's not perfect yet, but it's much better.
This means that the filming of a musical in 4K HDR really deserves a different treatment. Unfortunately only a minority of viewers today have the bandwidth and TV -- and have a large enough TV they sit close enough to -- to get that full 4K benefit. So you have to film a version for ordinary HD TVs, with close-ups and dancers without feet and other evils. While more costly, the time has come to make two different versions. With 4K, you can film a wider shot and then take out a 2K "digital zoom" though only at 1.4x zoom. If you film in 8K you could probably make the two versions from one recording. But even with basic digital zoom you could get the HD recording you want and have a less compromised 4K one.
Movie-Hamilton was shot in 2016, when 4K was not very common, so I can't fault them for not thinking about this more. Who knows, perhaps they will re-edit some days from all the views of all the cameras. Having a "Special 4K only" version would be loved by the 4K vendors and fans.
It's also clear, though that this was a single live performance. Cast albums have perfection, because if you don't do it just right, you do another take. Nothing like that before a live audience. In fact, live audiences have paid a huge amount in effect to see some of those mistakes that make them feel they saw something unique made just for them. It's not appealing in the movie if a singer -- and Miranda is a good singer but not at the level of Broadway's greatest -- doesn't quiet get what you want in this particular performance. We do not grant him the excuse we give to the live show.
Many modern shows also don't film well because of their stage magic -- technological tricks that are wonderful to see in real life and very 3D before you. I think most people who see stage productions of "Cats" are surprised and impressed at how technical a show it is, with giant moving set pieces, and skilled acrobatics by the performers. This simply doesn't impress easily on screen any more, because we're used to seeing vastly more impressive artificial visuals there. The puppetry of "War Horse" is fun to see on stage, but would be ridiculous in a movie. Like most, I haven't seen the 2019 "Cats" movie but I suspect one of the reasons it failed was its necessary replacement of stage magic with creepy CGI.
Hamilton is saved by having great staging but minimal technological stage magic. Its main tool is its turntable, and ancient technique used to great effect which works on camera.
8K Live Cinema
On the other hand, when 8K starts to arrive with better than HDR, you could actually go back to the fixed camera if you wanted, or mostly that. You might even have cinemas with that gear since it won't be common in houses. (If we're ever ready to go back to the cinema.) An interesting option would be the live cinema performance. For a super hot ticket like Hamilton, where you will never see the original cast perform it unless you live in New York and can drop $500/ticket on seats, it would make sense to do live-by-video 8K shows to play in all the cities that will never even get a touring company. I would pay for that experience, and while I would not be in the room where it actually happens, I think if it were live, I would get a sense that it's live. And plenty of people would still pay to be in the room, in the presence of the actors.
You could do this in 3D as well, but I'm not clear that would be that much of a benefit. 3D failed in home TV because its value is modest -- and people tend to over-use it. Just a pleasant 3D effect could help in live broadcast theatre. In addition, 3D is not pleasant when you have jump cuts or close objects at the edge of the field, but stage plays don't need that.
The main downside of this is that it would diminish the demand for touring companies and local companies and amateur companies. Today we go see their productions of various plays because we still love a live play. From my own time in the theatre I hardly want to see that destroyed.