5 Simple Steps

panta rei dans lullaby

Video - Panta Rei Danseteater 'Lullaby'

Norwegian dance company Panta Rei Danseteater, late last year, conducted a little experiment whereby three dance makers created two pieces with the same name based on the same idea, featuring three male dancers and two musicians, to see what the outcome was.

June 2nd, 2016

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by Jordan Kinsella

Dance film making, dance for camera, call it what you want but almost without exception it is pretty poor in terms of invention, quality, ideas, quality, craft, design, movement, quality and of course the quality is appalling. Jordan Kinsella looks at five simple ideas for making dance film better and begs the profession for mercy, because we make him watch all this stuff.

1. Stop Acting Like Video/Film Is A New Invention!

Louis Augustin Le Prince created the first camera capable of capturing moving images all the way back in 1888. You would think by now that dance film makers would be immune to the 'Rabbit in Headlights' syndrome when confronted with the ease of film making in this modern age.

Sadly I get the impression that most dance film makers resemble cavemen after they discovered fire. Standing around it in large groups making grunting noises whilst poking at it and getting their fingers burnt.

12 year old's have grasped the idea that a video camera and iMovie can make a pretty good combination so a little more is expected of adults. The technology is not impressive, it's what you do with it that counts, nobody cares that you know the difference between an anamorphic lens and a prime lens or HD and SD. If you suck at film making no amount of fancy gear is going to save your behind when the audience sits before your creation and falls asleep!

I was once subjected to a 'dance film' that consisted of one shot using an automated camera called a Motion Control Camera following a dancer around a fairly bland performance space. This is a perfect example of a piece of gear leading the idea because the choreographer or film maker had absolutely no idea what a motion control camera is actually used for and when used in this context it makes for a very boring film.

2. Have A Plan.

We have all seen the commercials! Groups of unrealistically good looking people having a wonderful time in far off places, usually a desert or unidentifiable middle eastern country, accompanied by great music and big smiles. All of which we are led to believe was shot and edited with a tiny little video camera and edited on iMovie!

There is no doubt that digital film making has become incredibly easy to access by even the humblest members of our population and this is cause for celebration in some circles. The ability to experiment with a simple camera and editing equipment is an invaluable experience for young film makers and new film makers and it is an experience that should be embraced with gusto.

However, the reality is that commercial was almost certainly planned to within an inch of its life by a large group of people with enough equipment to fill two trucks and probably a couple of small vans as-well.

Film making takes planning and a lot of it. A simple sequence lasting just a few seconds on screen may well require a couple of hours of setups for different angles, lights and whatever other problems present themselves to the budding film maker.

Planning is required if you want to do things well. Planning is required if you wish to apply some 'craft' to your work. Planning is required to raise your production above the level of 'experimentation'.

Learn what a 'shot list' is, learn what a 'storyboard' is, in fact, learn what a story is before you embark on bringing your opus to the screen.


3. Have A Point

There is a reason why the latest Disney epic "The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe" has been a critical and commercial success; It has a point! This 'point' is embodied by a story that leads us through the film, by way of the characters dialogue and the action sequences, to the films ultimate conclusion.

It's rather an interesting concept when you think about it. Lot's of people sitting in a theatre with little or no idea what the film is about being taken on a journey by the filmmakers because almost everything is made clear to them by the use of cunning cinematic devices such as photography, dialogue, editing, music, etc, etc.

Believe it or not some people actually like it when a film tells a story. Now it doesn't always have to be a happy story, anything will do if you are desperate. Simply pointing cameras at random things and calling yourself a 'film maker' may well be good enough for the hacks at Channel 4 and BBC 4 but remember; the audience has voted time and time again with their remote controls and have steadfastly refused to watch the nonsensical drivel posing as film that appears on those channels.

What Is Motion Control?
Extract from Trade Secrets by William Barret and Eda H. Sherman

Not astonishingly, motion control means to move things. Almost always this means in a repeatable, computer-controlled way. You usually think of it as moving a camera, but it is also often used to move the photographic subject -- and sometimes both the camera and the subject simultaneously.

Motion control is a technique and a method, not a particular device.
Sometimes motion control rigs are small, like a tabletop graphics "down-shooter", and sometimes they are huge--big enough to throw around the heaviest of cameras, full-size small boats, and large model helicopters.

Probably no two large systems are exactly alike, and no two have the same complement of software features, fixtures, gadgets and accessories, specialized lighting, space to shoot, and so forth. Making a good fit between the capabilities of the specific machine and its people to your visual idea will save you money and make better visuals.

Motion Control Trade Secret Number One

Sometimes you don't need it.
Examine what you're trying to do. If it's a simple "flyover" of a dinner table setting, to reveal the product at the end of the flight, there's no need for that move to be highly matematically precise and computer-repeatable.

That's a jib-arm shot. Muscles will power a jib just fine, and in a few takes you'll have the keeper. Jibs don't need re-programming or editing of the move if you want to change it, you simply move the jib differently. In contrast, it can take anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes to re-program or edit a motion control computerized move.

In that same dinner table example, suppose you make two passes, one with no product placed in, and a pefectly identical move with the product in its honored spot at the end of the move. Making a dissolve in post later will allow you to fade in the product while the flight is still underway. This is a delightful motion control shot.

Very eye-catching. You'd never get it in a hundred takes manually while moving.

Often a mix of plain old handmade jib-arm shots and computerized motion control shots will work out better than using only one technique for an entire series of moves. Use the jib for the simple shots and moves because it's quick and easy. Use the motion control system for the shots that really have to be perfect, or complex, or repeatable over multiple passes.

[ Extract from Trade Secrets by William Barret and Eda H. Sherman ]

4. Have Some Common Sense

It may seem very exciting shooting your work on 35mm or Super 16mm but there is very little point in doing so if you film is never going to be shown in a commercial cinema and projected onto a 60 foot wide screen.

There are literally thousands of written pages floating around the internet at this very moment in time explaining how you can achieve a 'film look' when shooting with digital video, even from the most inexpensive of DV camera's. It is also perfectly possible to rent high end HD camera equipment and finish your project (or 'online' it) using off the shelf equipment from the likes of Apple, albeit with a little bit of technical expertise and a large amount of data storage space.

Nothing is to be gained by shooting on film if your production is not going anywhere near a cinema and I would strongly suggest that you learn the ropes on less expensive digital gear before you start getting all Alfred Hitchock. Film is a messy, expensive business and if digital film making is good enough for George Lucas, Robert Rodriguez and Michael Mann then it's good enough for you.

5. For the Television Channels

Let's face it, at this moment in time dance is never going to be the main event for the simple reason that not enough people either like the art form itself or because dance film is stuck on so late at night people are either out of the house having, what the kids these days call, a 'good time' or in bed with a mug of Horlicks.

Short films should be used as a pre-cursor to more popular television shows thereby bringing in an unwilling but already entrenched audience who will tolerate a short film before their favourite program comes on.

Let's use Channel4 as an example; Instead of running their unintentionally hilarious and unspeakably terrible Dance4 as a single 75 minute programme they could dump the useless presenter, the interviews and everything else and run one of the dance films all on its own prior to running one of their most popular programme's 'Lost'.

Attracting just under 3 million viewers per week 'Lost' is a guaranteed ratings winner so running a short film prior to the start would be unlikely to hurt the shows ratings and may well encourage several hundred thousand people to watch a short dance film they would otherwise have no interest in whatsoever. No commercial breaks, no continuity announcer, just run the short film, run the main show, like they do in the cinema! Seamless programme linking is a common practice in the USA, Australia and many other countries and it works.

Of course; this raises the stakes for the dance film makers since your product will have to be significantly improved if it wishes to even approach the level of quality of a major television production (not even the BBC Drama Dept. can do that most of the time) but this has to be a good thing.


Whatever way you look at it, dance film making is in dire straights. Ask yourself how many dance films you would buy from HMV on DVD if you had the option? If the answer is more than zero then your are either lying or I'm not coming to your house for film night any time soon.

Raising the creative bar is the only way forward and major television stations, already shockingly inept at pushing arts programming onto the main channels, need to step up to the plate and place the arts front and centre in the way described above. Dance film makers desperately need some original ideas and, while they are at it, they need to take a long hard look at the un-watchable nonsense they have turned out to date and decide if it is time for something fresh, exciting and, dare I say, entertaining!

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