Get Your Story Straight

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

Preparing, creating and shooting a short dance film is a fairly complex process, more complex than you might think, and there are a lot of mistakes to be made by those new to the game. So, here in TheLab™ we thought broad overview of the process might be a good idea, just to get you started!

Making a short film successful, in terms of audience appreciation, is a skill akin to alchemy. Making the creation and shooting process successful just needs some good, old fashioned, organisation, preparation and a little bit of luck here and there.

Talk To The Dancers

Before you set out to make your film you are going to need an idea of what the film is about. It may well be a completely abstract concept that nobody will ever understand or a high concept story involving a bank heist and the betrayal of a best friend or perhaps you have a group locked up in a treatment centre for people afflicted with ADHD (Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder).

Whatever your idea you need to ask yourself a few questions; A) Is it possible? B) Do the dancers understand it? C) Will the viewers care? D) Has this been done before and if so was it any good?

Making the viewers care is a tough job but the other questions should be easy to answer. If your dancers don't "get" your idea then the chances are the execution will be poor because they are not fully engaged with your project. The last thing you want is a group of skilled professionals who are just there for the relatively poor pay cheque!

It's best to bring the dancers on board to contribute to the planning of the film at an early stage and flesh out the story/idea with them. Most dancers, at least in the contemporary field, are well versed in creating material and formulating ideas. Utilise those skills to put meat on the bones of your concept.

Bringing the dancers in on the whole creative process from the start also gives them some personal ownership over the film. When dancers ideas and their skills are a part of any project they tend to care about it a whole lot more. Conflicts can arise when there are differences of opinion and ideas but that's where you, as the director, come in to make the tough decisions.

Story Bored!

During this early stage of production is where you will start to build a story board for your film. Story boards do not have to be beautifully crafted pieces of artwork, unless you happen to be or have access to a skilled illustrator. A series of boxes with stick figures in them will suffice to illustrate possible camera angles, camera movements and, most importantly, how your film progresses from start to finish so you can begin to visualise the whole film in your head.

A major problem with many dance films is their lack of structure. It may be trendy to be abstract or tell your story in reverse but this will add complications to the production process and keeping things simple will reduce your stress levels and help you learn to effectively tell a story on screen. What you really need to think about is having a beginning, a middle and an end, no matter how long or short your film is.

The storyboard should illustrate each shot you hope to take and, if you have one, bringing in your cinematographer (I detest the word videographer) to consult on this is also a good idea.

Apart from the story, the planning phase should be where you decide on rehearsals, locations, equipment and post production. You also need to remember the simple things like transportation. How do you get all your dancers and the equipment to the location for example?

It is important to choose and secure locations for filming before rehearsals take place. The environment within which your dancers will be working will inform the choreographic content of the film. If you're shooting indoors, using a building with multiple floors, lots of stairwells and balconies then this will shape the type of movement the dancers will be able to execute.

The dancers should also visit all of the locations they will be working in beforehand and you should take lots of still images and video footage for reference purposes when you are back in the studio.


Into Rehearsal

As mentioned above; how you create and rehearse the movement for your film is wholly dependent upon the location or locations you will be shooting in. There's no point, for example, in making lots of floor work if the location is an old factory where the ground is covered in broken glass.

Of course you're not going to be that stupid but you see the point. The movement needs to be sympathetic to the location otherwise your going create a lot of problems and probably cause a lot of injuries to the dancers.

The entire rehearsal process should be centered around not only creating and refining the movement but also refining your storyboard. Make sure there are cameras in the rehearsal studio for testing various shots and to review how the movement looks on camera. At the end of each day you should review your test footage and make modifications to suit.

It is a massive advantage for the dancers if they can see how the movement looks on the screen so they can adjust their performance to fit each scene. A common misconception is for dancers to think their movement has been speeded up in post production when they see themselves. 99% of the time the footage has not been altered in any way.

Movement looks very different when filmed and technical issues such as shutter speed and under or over cranking the frame rate can have a dramatic effect on how certain sequences will look on the finished film. With that in mind, use the rehearsal process to experiment and to identify any problem areas. Fixing it in rehearsal will save you time and, probably, some money when you get to the shooting part of the process.

Start Shooting

By the end of the rehearsal process you should have some well rehearsed movement, a complete story board and a shot list. The shot list is the actual order you will be shooting your film in. Most films are shot out of sequence then put in sequence during editing. If you want to shoot in sequence then that's fine but make sure, whichever method you choose, that it is practical and cost effective to do so.

You should probably shoot all of your exterior footage at the same time and your interior footage in the same way. This way, if the weather is not cooperating then you can get the internal stuff done and wait for things to improve on the outside.

The most important thing to consider when compiling your shot list is grouping shots into sections that mean the least amount of reseting for cameras and lights. Don't shoot in one area, move to another, then come back to the same area again. Make things easy on yourself and your dancers.

For every setup make some notes about the position of the camera, the lights (if you have them) and the settings on the camera (frame rate, shutter speed, aperture, etc). If you have a dedicated cinematographer (or Director of Photography if they are really pompous) that person should keep the technical notes for you and match them to each shot. Keeping these notes will help if you have to come back and reshoot something.

Matching the shots to the tech notes is easy, that's what a clapper board (or slate) is for. The clapper board is just a white board with a hinged block on top that can be snapped down. Written on the board are the name of the production, the director, the DoP, the scene and take number. The most important thing is of course the scene and take number. For each shot make a note, on your shot list, of the technical settings used on the camera.

With the emergence of digital film making there is very little need to actually "snap" the clapper board anymore. The whole point of that was to enable the audio (which was recorded separately) to be synchronised with the film in post production, using the "snap" as a reference point. Digital cameras mean digital audio so a sound engineer can monitor and check the audio levels straight into the camera and it will always be in synch.

If you don't have a clapper board then a small chalk board will do the trick. When you are actually filming call your shots in the following way: 1.Roll Camera, 2.Slate, 3.Action, 4.Slate.

The slate is physically placed in front of the camera while it is rolling to open and close the shot. It is incredibly helpful to have this visual reference on the footage when you are working in post production. I should also point out that you don't have to shout these instructions and "go" works just as well as "action".

Following that procedure when shooting means everybody knows what they are doing and when. There's no point in the dancers doing their thing if the camera operator is still fiddling with his/her lens hood.

Day Plus One

Just how much time it will take to make your film is hard to say. I would estimate that to get things done as professionally as possible a 10 minute film would take 4 weeks to rehearse and 6 days to film. You need to take potential problems, re-takes and re-shoots in account.

When you are planning your shoot it is important to add one extra day beyond what you think you will need to get everything filmed. Unless you have a massive crew then this shouldn't be a huge financial burden on your production. This extra day will be invaluable for reshooting scenes you are not happy with, adding reaction shots, establishing shots and any other niggling little items you think are missing from the film as a whole.

Make sure your dancers, crew, transportation and locations are all factored in to this extra day.


Notes on Cameras

The most important decision about shooting the actual footage is which format are you going to use?

These days you have many options; Standard Definition (SD), High Definition (HD), 16mm, 35mm and so on. Since most dance films are shot on limited budgets then film is out of the question. It's messy, unpredictable, expensive and slow to work with and there is no look with film that cannot be achieved with HD using a little effort. Purists may disagree but that's fine, we're not big fans of purists!

So your choices come down to Digital SD or Digital HD. Shooting in HD gives you the broadest range of options. Whatever distribution method you have in mind for your film HD will be up to the challenge from the internet to a full on cinematic release. All HD cameras are not created equal however so have a read through of our [ camera feature ] for some more information.

What format you shoot your film in will also dictate the post production process. If you film using uncompressed HD footage then you will need a lot of computer storage capacity and processing power to complete your film. Even a short film of 10 minutes or so will need a lot of storage space to complete the edit.

Discuss your budget and your requirements with specialist equipment hire facility or your cinematographer during your planning phase. The best HD camera equipment and lenses can be had for about £2,000 per week but that's not much use to you if you can't edit the finished footage.

The more expensive, technologically advanced equipment does give you a greater range of filming options and possibilities but ask yourself if it's really worth it, even if you can afford it.

If you have a very creative film maker and a bit of patience then stunning results can be achieved with much less expensive equipment (either SD or compressed HD such as the format used by the new Sony PMW EX1) that will really simplify the post production process.

The key is to ask lots of questions before you begin, be annoying, be persistent, be inquisitive that way you won't get burned.

[ Top Image by Julien Tromeur ]

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