Apply Digital Techniques to Make Your Dance Film Stand Out

“It has everything to do with innovative digital techniques – revealing that which is hidden within traditional photographic shooting.”

Lights Online Film School connected with filmmakers Michael Langan and Terah Maher to discuss their dance film Choros, which premiered at The Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival in 2012 and has gone on to screen at dozens of other film festivals worldwide.

Michael is an experimental filmmaker who’s short film Doxology played at 100 film festivals and garnered 14 awards – including a Student Academy Award nomination – in addition to receiving praise from publications such as Variety, The New York Times, and The Atlantic. Terah is an architect, dancer, and animator who teaches animation at Harvard University.

Before we dive into our interview, let’s take a few minutes to give Choros a watch:

Hello, Michael and Terah, and thanks for taking the time to discuss you film with us and our readers!

What a beautiful piece. Where did the idea come from? Did it begin with an interest in dance; an interest in creating the captivating echo effect? Or did it begin somewhere else entirely?

M: The film first started with the flashlight, actually – I was interested in painting a space or a person into existence by selectively exposing parts of the body to build a whole image over time, using the echo technique. Bodies naturally led to dance, and when Terah and I connected, the mission became totally clear.

T: Yeah, Michael and I had been casually talking about our shared desire to make a dance film for nearly a year. Then one day, he excitedly showed me some clips of an echoed flashlight technique he was messing around with in his living room, and I said, let’s take this into the dance studio! A week later, in our first studio rehearsal, we added movement, music, and ambient light to the recipe. When we sat back and watched what we had filmed, we were both a bit startled by its beauty.

Our talk of collaboration no longer remained casual.

Haha. And for good cause!

Just to catch our readers up to speed, this technique is adapted from a photographic technique developed in the nineteenth century, called “Chronophotography”.

Essentially, the technique involves a photographer taking a series of photographs in rapid succession, which allows them to study the movement of one particular subject.

In 1878, Eadweard Muybridge took simultaneous photographs of a horse in motion, which when displayed on a spinning zoetrope looked as though the horse was in motion. Shortly after this, French physicist Etienne-Jules Marey created a similar effect when he captured an echo of movement on a single frame of film:

choros

T: Actually, there’s a fascinating book on Muybridge and the birth of cinematography by Rebecca Solnit called River of Shadows.

Incredibly, Muybridge and Marey were complete contemporaries, born in the same spring of 1830, and both dying in 1904. When Marey hosted an exhibition of Muybridge’s work in his Paris salon in 1881, their contact inspired the invention of Marey’s multiple exposure technique. Both men were obsessed with studying motion, but from opposite directions – Marey, the scientist, was trying to deconstruct bodies in motion, while Muybridge, the artist, wanted to magically reconstruct movement through photographic innovation.

However, it was filmmaker Norman McLaren who took Marey’s echoing technique and applied it to film in a piece entitled Pas de Deux:

Fascinating! So Michael, my understanding is that digital compositing is required for this process to work; is that correct? Can you explain the process of digital compositing for our readers who may be learning about this technical concept for the first time? How did you apply it to Choros?

M: Yes; to my knowledge, this kind of compositing would not be possible with film processing.

Nothing too mysterious about it – it’s just a matter of choosing the right blending modes between layers of stacked footage, so the brightest pixels in the stack float to the top instead of overexposing through additive blending.

Basically: (1) Shoot, (2) Import, (3) Multiply, (4) Offset temporally, (5) Blend for optimal exposure. On top of that, there’s plenty of intensive rotoscoping (cutting out the dancer one frame at a time) and some chroma-keying in order to get every moment working.

On your website you mention the historical importance of high contrast side lighting when using this technique on film. Later, you mention that advances in digital video technology help free the filmmaker from this restriction, but you stick to the high contrast look in the opening of Choros.

Was this just an aesthetic preference, or does this type of lighting and exposure have an impact on the effect?

M: The side lighting definitely accentuates the echo effect, but if you look closely, you can see mid-tones and darks in her dress that otherwise would need to be crunched out if we were using an optical printer like McLaren.

T: The high contrast lighting was essential to the choreography. Just like in Pas De Deux, the echoed outlines over time create bodies with expanded boundaries – and we carefully planned for those volumes. Keeping the mid-tones was more of the aesthetic choice as it allowed us to be that much more complex, choreographing an interplay between the balls of light and my body. And then you could also clearly see my facial expressions.

Beautiful. I imagine the camera’s resolution would be important in helping you achieve such clarity in the effect? Is resolution a major factor when choosing a camera to shoot this style? Would this effect be possible on lower resolution cameras?

M: Luckily, HD is pretty widely available now, and that extra resolution definitely helps the audience distinguish the separate echoes from each other.

T: Actually, Michael was really resolute about the resolution. He knew that the higher the resolution, the more complex our image, the greater the beauty.

From ChorosMichael & Terah

From ChorosMichael Langan & Terah Maher

How did you create the effect of the glowing orange balls and fire?

M: I never show up clearly, but I’m actually running around in a black bodysuit, dancing with Terah during those sequences. I’m just wielding a pair of flashlights, tracing her motions as she dances.

T: Most people think they are projections, but Michael is actually only a few inches away from me.

No way! That’s so interesting. Can you tell us a bit more about your lighting setup? I imagine you needed consistent lighting for this technique. Am I wrong here, or were all of your shots done using studio lights?

M: With the exception of the second act (in the dark studio), Choros is all natural lighting; subtle changes in the light don’t cause any major issues for this effect, the way they might in stop-motion animation.

From ChorosMichael Langan & Terah Maher

From ChorosMichael Langan & Terah Maher

Starting at 07:39 you break out of the high contrast, low key dance setting established in the beginning of the film to soar into an outdoor setting. First of all, can you tell us how you moved your camera in these sweeping shots?

M: Sure: the camera is mounted on a handheld Glidecam Stabilizer (Steadicam on a budget), and I’m hauling ass through the field in my boots.

T: Michael nearly broke his ankle – there were giant holes everywhere. And in the spiral field scene, I’m literally stepping over holes and huge cow-pies. I hope that doesn’t ruin the magic for anyone!

From ChorosMichael Langan & Terah Maher

From ChorosMichael Langan & Terah Maher

Haha! I love your composition at 08:34. Now in this case, you broke the side lighting and high contrast rule. How did you need to approach this outdoor scene differently than your indoor scenes?

M: We’ve been hanging out in these dark zones with little context for eight minutes at this point, and we were itching to escape the darkness and get some fresh air. And we knew that we wanted to create this marching “gyre” of women in the field.

In technical terms, the biggest difference between the dark and the bright scenes is the visual relationship between the character and her surroundings; once we’re outside in the sunlight, the subtle blending echoes that worked in the darkness aren’t as effective, and it’s time for a break from that, anyway. So we launch into broader movements, multiplying the dancer into more solid, discrete entities (which required some major compositing with old-school rotoscoping, frame-by-frame).

Wow. You mentioned that Canal+ has supported this film by broadcasting it on their network – any insight for other experimental filmmakers who may be looking for broadcast exposure for their films?

M: Some large film festivals have markets attached to them where buyers can watch the films; I’ve sold a few films this way and definitely recommend putting your films in the market.

It helps to also be an official selection in the festival, but actually isn’t necessary to enter the market most of the time. There are also cool alternative broadcast outlets like NHK in Japan and Souvenirs from Earth in Europe, which don’t pay filmmakers but are a neat way to get some broadcast exposure.

What I find interesting about dance films is that they translate so well to the screen and give the dancers, filmmakers, and audience the ability to view dance in a totally new light using different creative techniques.

Did you guys see Pina? Essentially it’s a popular dance film with minimal story that focuses primarily on the narrative within the dance itself. I saw the trailer and rushed to go out and watch it:

I was pleasantly surprised by how well the dance experience translates to the screen. Do you see yourself ever shooting a longer format film in the dance genre?

M: Never say never! Pina worked in part because it was essentially a documentary, so the dance sequences were interrupted by interviews, etc. But there’s no reason why a two hour “straight-up dance” film wouldn’t be amazing.

T: But, to be fair, dance films aren’t for everybody. To be really consumed by them, I think viewers need an intrinsic kinesthetic empathy… being able to feel the movement they are watching. Otherwise, I think it just makes people antsy to move themselves, so they can experience the sensations they see on screen.

Films like Pina, and ours, work, when they work, because the technology visually adds something not otherwise apparent. Pina was in 3D; we have the echo effect – I’m also thinking of Bill T. Jones’s super successful Ghost Catching, which used motion capture translated into drawing.

Any closing thoughts on the seeming growing interest in dance films and why this might be taking place?

M: I blame Bunheads on ABC.

T: But really, we think it has everything to do with innovative digital techniques – revealing that which is hidden within traditional photographic shooting.

Thank you both for sharing your thoughts with us! When I saw Choros I was totally inspired, and I hope our blog readers are equally inspired by your work. All the best with your next project!

For more from Michael, check out his website. For more from Terah, head on over to her Vimeo page.

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