Dance on Film – some lessons learned

The focus of this year’s Understanding Cinema project is ‘the long take’ and the long take is perfect for dance on film.

By ‘dance on film’ I mean creating dance specifically for the camera rather than simply filming a performance of dance on a stage. I first became interested in dance on film when I was a camera operator for an International Dance for Film Workshop in Glasgow in 1996. Directors and choreographers from all over the world came together for a week to make short dance films under the guidance of Emmy award winning producer Elliot Caplan (http://cmiub.buffalo.edu/director.html).

At the beginning of the workshop, the frame of the camera was marked out with tape on the floor and the camera was fixed in one position. Then, using a large monitor, each choreographer devised a short dance with one or two dancers that exploited the frame and the perspective; all in one long take. What I realised was the obvious difference between staging dance for a camera compared to that of a theatre stage. A stage is wide at the front and gets narrower as you go further back whereas for the camera, the frame is narrow at the front and gets wider the further away from the camera you go. I think this difference is why it can be difficult to film dance on a stage and communicate the energy of the performance. In order to make dance specifically for film, the choreographer has to adapt to a new stage – the frame of the camera.

Having learned the possibilities that the camera could offer them, each choreographer was then paired with a director, a camera operator and one or two dancers and given a location in which to create and film a dance in two days. There were no sound-recordists nor was there music. All the sound was recorded on the camera microphone. This was the next important lesson for me. You can have dance films without music. Sound effects can be added in post-production to great effect but music is not always required. The problem for the camera operator is that your sounds (camera handling and breathing) will also be recorded. This isn’t a problem if you are using a tripod, but it is if you are hand holding the camera and moving with the dancers. If they’re out of breath at the end of a dance sequence, it’s likely that you will be too!

Over the next four days, I worked with two choreographer/ director teams and I realised that dance for film throws up a unique problem for filmmakers. Usually the director has control over the whole creative production process but in the case of dance films, there is another equally controlling creative talent involved – the choreographer. What a choreographer is looking for is not always the same as a director. A director may love a shot but a choreographer sees a bad performance and wants it done again. A director may not like a shot, but the choreographer is very happy with the performance and does not want to exhaust the dancers with another take. So, arguments are inevitable unless ground rules are set early on and the director and choreographer understand and agree on what they are each hoping to achieve.

Like all good workshops, it is the process rather than the product at the end that is the most valuable outcome. I will always be grateful for the lessons I learned at the International Dance for Film workshop and the opportunity to meet such lovely, creative people. I’m now looking forward to how I can incorporate dance into the Understanding Cinema project in Dundee and put into practice the skills I began to develop all those years ago, with a marked out floor, a fixed camera and a long take.

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