When my pals Richard (Bailey) and Robin (Blandy) told me they were invited, with their gondola, to be part of a spectacle in Versailles, I said I´d love to shoot it. Every Friday for one month, the organizers planned to re-create the Venetian Son et Lumiere that Louis XIV put on to entertain, and impress, his court. 20 gondolas (and their gondoliers) from different countries, were collected to participate. Historic characters, including Louis, played by a woman, would be the passengers. Fireworks, also in the style of the 17th century were part of the spectacle. And there would be a Vivaldi concert and champagne to boot. I thought what a show. A once in a lifetime chance.
So I packed my camera and tripod and took off for Versailles. Richard and Robin, who looked like two tanned happy kids on vacation (show biz seemed to suit them), met me the night before to go over the plans. They took me to the kind of small French brasserie that I like, where the patron is amicable, even on the first visit, the waiters look the part, in their white shirts and black aprons and the food is simple but delicious. We decided to meet the next day at the green Kiosk, in the palace gardens by the canals.
Nothing prepared me for my first sight of the famous chateau of Louis 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th. In my imagination it had always been a place of gorgeous rooms, the Orangerie with 800 species of oranges and casual strollers in the gardens dressed in elegant costumes. What I first saw was a parking lot full of cars and a rusty statue, which looked like a giant abstract hand that was missing a sandwich. I pressed on to the courtyard of the palace. Thousands of people were lined up three abreast in a snake-like queue to buy tickets. The sun, blazing hot, shining on the chateau decorated in gold, gave new meaning to the title “Sun King” that Louis XIV bestowed on himself.
Lucky for me there was no queue to get into the gardens - that day it was free. Thousands more people meandered up and down the paths, like so many ants, taking photos. After walking about a kilometer I came to the canals built in the form of a giant cross facing West. From the air the whole assemblage would certainly be fantastic, especially at sunset. But up close it looked ordinary and not very filmable. Richard and Robin were almost an hour late – they arrived around noon. With the sun at its highest it was impossible to see the shots in the monitor (will have to ask Eki what to do about that).
I just started pointing the camera and grumbled. When later I looked at the footage, saw immediately there was no sense of place – the gondola could have been anywhere. Altogether spent about 5 hours in the hot sun trying to get some decent shots. At the end of the day I was burned out. The show started at 10 PM. My ticket cost 90 Euros, included in the price of admission was the Vivaldi concert and a glass of champagne (the cost of putting on the spectacle four times came to 2,400,000 Euros). But I skipped it. After a day in the sun could not face sitting on bleachers (my seat was high up in row N) with 7,499 other spectators. Richard said I missed the boat – the sold-out show was spectacular. Had he been immortal, as he liked to think, the Sun King would have beamed his approval. But I was disappointed in my performance. Next time I shoot I´ll be better prepared.
Lesson 12: Check out locations before you shoot, to get the best results.
Next week: 07 Is He Dead?