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22 cameras, lights -- and Madonna!

"One minute to live," boomed the voice over the Palace of Auburn Hills' speaker system. That's "live" as in viewers around the world had just 60 seconds until HBO would begin beaming Madonna's concert live.
The response was instantaneous -- more than 17,500 people, all on their feet, most of them screaming, screeching, bellowing at the top of their lungs.
A guaranteed success? Probably. But melding the demands of a massive stage show that had already been on the road for two months with those of a network known for its exacting standards was a Herculean task that had begun months earlier.
"The secret," said HBO producer Marty Callner, "is to capture the show without commenting on it. You shouldn't even feel the cameras."
Easy to say. Eloquent, even. But how to make it happen?
The devil, they say, is in the details. So that's what director Hamish Hamilton and his 200-person crew have focused on for much of the past three months.
How best, for instance, to integrate the infrastructure of HBO's production -- 22 cameras, thousands of additional lights, tracks for camera dollies and a 750-square-foot production center in the auditorium -- without affecting the substance of the stage show?
It was a challenge that involved thousands of details. Most were aspects of the show most of us would never consider. Like sound. It should just be a matter of plugging Madonna's sound into HBO's equipment, right?
Not really.
Madonna is a notorious perfectionist. She is involved in virtually every aspect of her shows. And for something like this, where the final product is as permanent as a CD, she insisted that the results be technically flawless. That's exceedingly difficult for live TV.
To meet Madonna's exacting standards, HBO's audio technicians mixed 48 audio tracks during Saturday night's production. They came from everywhere in the building -- from a synthesizer under the stage, from the audience and from the stage.
More remarkable, though, was the mixing, the procedure by which the various sound tracks are blended and balanced to give the desired overall effect.
Normally, creating a CD-quality mix takes from a few days to several weeks.
But in this case, HBO's technicians developed a computerized model that mixed the 48 tracks on the spot.
Just as complicated was the lighting. Simply put, television demands much more light than the stage.
One number in the show emulates the antigravitational magic of the movie "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." Throughout the rest of the tour, stage lights have been dim enough that the audience can't see the cable that lifts Madonna into the air. But with the lighting boosted for TV, the cable is clearly visible -- to the live audience, but not on television.
The most complicated changes, though, involved the performers themselves.
"There are some small details that you don't worry about when the nearest person is 20 feet away," said tour director Chris Lamb. "But when the camera is right here," he said, gesturing a few inches in front of his face, "the performance has to be tighter, cleaner."
So two weeks ago, the cast went back into rehearsal, culminating in a full concert Friday night -- without an audience.
"For us, that was a dress rehearsal," said Hamilton, who had seen the show in five cities and in rehearsal, but had never actually pointed a camera at it until then.
Then came Saturday night's, which for HBO was a backup. Had there been a glitch preventing the Sunday night show from happening, Saturday's performance would have been aired.
That's exactly what happened in 1993 with Madonna's "Live Down Under: The Girlie Show." A massive storm swept through Sydney on performance day, doing so much damage that HBO had to air the "safety show," as they call it.
"Live television is dangerous," Callner said. "But that's why I like it. When little things go wrong, it gives a show a kind of organic honesty.
"With video, television is so perfect that it feel plastic. That's why we spend so much time and money on live performances -- they're better.
"I'm not sure what it is -- the energy, the emotion. People don't know why it is, but they know they like it."

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