On March 11, 2020, Felipe Barral was filming rehearsals of The Brothers Size at Actor’s Express when everyone’s phones started buzzing. There was big news. Tom Hanks told the world he had COVID-19 and the NBA announced it was suspending its season.
“We knew COVID was a few steps from our door,” the Atlanta videographer says. Many European countries had already shut down. Barral and the actors, like everyone else in Atlanta’s arts community that week, left work not knowing what would happen next.
The following day, Barral got a call from the digital content strategist at the Alliance Theatre. The week before he’d filmed the company’s family show Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed: The Rock Experience, “just in case they had to shut down,” and now the Alliance wanted him back to shoot In My Granny’s Garden.
The next day, Rachel May, producing artistic director of Synchronicity Theatre, called. She wanted him to shoot Wayfinding, a world premiere that was onstage that week. On March 13, Barral shot In My Granny’s Garden by day and Wayfinding by night. All three productions later streamed on their theaters’ websites.
Then it got quiet. One by one, clients postponed their live performances — Core Dance, Terminus Modern Ballet Theatre, Theatrical Outfit and many more. April, May and June slid by as the arts leaders tried to figure out what to do and how long the pandemic might last.
It was a surreal, unprecedented and devastating time. In July, when it became clear that COVID would be around for a while, arts organizations realized they had to do something to keep their artists and audiences engaged and some revenue flowing.
In August, Barral’s work exploded. Since then he has created 46 cinematic productions, including seven livestreams and state-of-the-art content as well as Spotlight Media, a new digital platform for The Atlanta Opera, and a short film for MOCA GA. He’s now on the opera’s staff, even as he creates content for other organizations. “Some companies had been thinking about digital content before the pandemic,” Barral says. “But when COVID hit, they were forced to reckon with it and do it. Because if you cannot perform live, there’s no other way to communicate with your audiences.”
Tomer Zvulun, the opera’s general and artistic director, says Barral has proven indispensable in the company’s pivot to new ways of presenting programming. “Felipe is an incredible artist, collaborator and visionary,” Zvulun says, “and we are so fortunate to have this deep partnership with him. On a personal level, I find him to be a one-of-a-kind artistic partner who makes my vision for the stage soar on-screen in a way that I could never have imagined.”
A blessing in disguise
For 20 years, the Chilean-born Barral had a successful career as a producer with CNN. He won several awards, including an Emmy and a couple of Peabodys, and developed content in both Spanish and English for CNN en Español and CNN International.
He began to work with arts organizations on the side, including ArtsATL. In 2012, he created a stunning multimedia installation in collaboration with the dance ensemble Wabi Sabi, which was the highlight of ArtsATL’s first fundraiser.
The following year, Barral produced PIXEL, a short film divided into 13 segments that was shown for eight months on the largest outdoor digital billboard in North America, at the W Atlanta hotel near the Downtown Connecter.
Those works represented the beginning of his transformation into Atlanta’s pre-eminent arts filmmaker, which solidified when he was later laid off at CNN due to budget cuts.
In Hollywood circles, he’d be a hyphenate, as in writer-director or actor-producer. But one hyphen doesn’t get close to Barral’s multiple talents. He’s a producer, director, filmmaker, film editor, artist, musician, composer, poet, writer and storyteller. His creative energy sparks unusual projects, an original score for the silent film Nosferatu, among them. He performed it for five years running, three at the Goat Farm Art Center’s Goodson Yard, two in Le Maison Rouge at Paris on Ponce. He didn’t do it last year, but not only because of social distancing. He was just too busy.
Of the 12 clients that had some form of pre-COVID contractual relationship with Barral, only two had to pause their online initiatives. The Brothers Size footage Barral shot in March 2020 was to be edited into a promo for the eventual in-person performances, but the shutdown has dragged on for so long that the play was canceled.
Other clients embraced the online world to varying degrees. “To create this amount of content, at this level, knowing we are touching people’s lives and entertaining them with something beautiful — that is super rewarding,” Barral says. “It was a blessing in disguise.”
The brave new world of digital
The shutdown has catapulted his company, IGNI Productions, to a new level. “It was great to see what happens when you plant seeds in a community and they start blossoming,” Barral says. “As an entrepreneur, I had to adapt and put the pieces in place to cope with the demand.”
His clients fell into three COVID categories: A few wanted to keep things simple and inexpensive; some hired him to film a production from the back of the theater and livestream or stream it; and others, with more robust resources, started to develop digital content in new ways. Some offered free content, some requested donations and others charged for it, creating a second revenue stream.
The Serenbe Institute for Art, Culture and the Environment fell into the first camp. Barral filmed six concerts for it that were livestreamed on Zoom. “I asked them why they used Zoom because there are other platforms that are more friendly for livestreaming,” Barral says. “It was so they could capture people’s emails and have webinar and chat possibilities.”
Each singer and musician performed original compositions, thus avoiding costly copyright issues that have made going online a barrier for some. It also meant the Zoom performances wouldn’t be interrupted by the dreaded algorithms that platforms like Facebook have instituted: Livestream a millisecond of a copyrighted piece of music that Facebook believes you don’t have permission to use and it hits the mute button.
There was even an audio play in the mix. Barral filmed a reading of Blues for Johnny Raven at Georgia Ensemble Theatre. Synchronicity hired him to film theatrical versions of four productions, including A Year With Frog and Toad. Audiences could attend socially distanced performances if they felt comfortable doing so, or watch the streamed version online. “The turnaround for that was really short,” Barral says. “We filmed on a Thursday and the performance streamed on Monday.”
As the COVID shutdown wore on, Barral’s schedule continued to fill up. Core Dance brought him on board to livestream Galleries Without Borders. Terminus leaped into the digital space with the cinematic premiere of its new holiday ballet, Marley Was Dead, To Begin With. Since there was no live audience, Barral was able to film onstage with a handheld camera, getting close-ups and interesting angles. The company offered Marley via pay-per-view streaming in December and January. ArtsATL named it ”the best dance production of 2020 in Atlanta.”
The Alliance Theatre went one step further with A Very Terry Christmas, removing it from the theater altogether. Barral filmed Atlanta and Broadway singer-actor Terry Burrell at Fernbank Museum of Natural History, the Atlanta Botanical Garden, the Georgia Aquarium and other metro locations.
Innovation at The Atlanta Opera
The Atlanta Opera brought Barral on board as a collaborator and resident filmmaker for its new Spotlight Media. “Felipe is integral to achieving The Atlanta Opera’s vision as we continue to evolve,” Zvulun says. “He is not only committed to developing the multidisciplinary nature of this art form, but also is an artist determined to help the company develop a whole media and film department.”
A major piece of that is the opera’s Love Letters to Atlanta series. Barral took four prominent singers with Atlanta backgrounds to iconic venues, where they sang a song on an empty stage and Zvulun interviewed them.
Barral filmed the opera’s two innovative tent productions last fall, Pagliacci and The Kaiser of Atlantis, and developed new ways of shooting opera in the process. Wearing an oversized face shield — “I had my own PPE and COVID protocol” — he roamed the stage with a handheld camera during dress rehearsals, filming the singers in close-ups and from multiple angles. The results were radically original. “We ended up with the most beautiful thing we could do around a live performance,” he says. “Really cool films.”
He’s going one step further for the opera’s reworked productions of The Threepenny Opera and The Threepenny Carmen, playing April 15–May 9 under the same tent, which is moving to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre parking lot. The opera got a $500,000 grant from the Lettie Pate Evans Foundation to buy production equipment. Barral will hire additional camera operators so that each show can be filmed with five cameras instead of one.
Before the premieres, Barral will film extra scenes with singers in various locations and at the Center for Puppetry Arts. The puppets are “performing” as the opera chorus. “We want to blend opera with filmmaking to take this to the next level, to not do what other companies are doing, but put our stamp on it,” Barral says.
For Atlanta’s most forward-thinking companies, digital isn’t a pandemic Band-Aid but a new source of exposure and revenue. “What COVID revealed is that digital offerings are not just optional, they’re a necessity,” Zvulun says. “The crisis was the impetus for that. We’re not wasting this crisis. Digital is not just a patch for 2020, it’s given us the infrastructure for the opera company of tomorrow. Once we’re back to performing normally, digital will become a huge strategic focus for us.”
Barral believes many arts leaders are learning the value of developing their own combination of in-person and digital offerings. There were a few companies that didn’t join the digital revolution during the shutdown because they had to furlough performers and focus on survival. Some companies stayed intact but had no funding. Most of Barral’s clients, however, and a few new ones, dipped at least a toe in the digital waters.
Barral knows how to sell the idea of online content to organizations that are still unsure about their strategies. “There are new revenue streams here, but you can also find another, unique way of expressing the art form that speaks to the time we are living in, and I’m not talking about the pandemic,” he says. “Today we are surrounded by screens. That’s not going to change. Are you going to be a company that is only replicating something from the past? There are a ton of things to discover yet. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”