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, 2016watch now
by Martin French
The last time we wrote a piece about filming dance and doing it well was nearly four years ago. In 'Shooting Straight' we outlined the basic tricks and techniques you need to deploy to film a live dance performance.
Now, those techniques still hold true today but there is another way, a way you can film any dance performance no matter how many dancers are in it with just two cameras and, possibly, one operator.
Get in Parallel
For the most part a dance performance in a theater is created to be seen from the front or as near to the front as makes no difference. Unless you're English National Ballet and your'e producing a crazy version of Swan Lake in the round then it's the proscenium arch for you and your dancers.
With that in mind let us turn to the parallel camera set-up
As the name would suggest what you need to do, or what your rented camera operator needs to do, is set up two identical cameras, on their tripods, side by side. We shall call these cameras; A and B (I think you should call them Bert and Ernie! Ed!)
Before you start setting up the cameras on their tripods make sure that each cameras settings are the same so the final images match from each camera. Because there are so many different cameras we can't go through specifics so either ask the rental shop or read the manual.
Ernie............ Camera B is mounted to the right of camera A (as you face the stage) and is set to record the wide angle or "master shot" for the work. Now, when we say wide angle we don't mean the entire theater, the lights and half the audience. No, what we mean is the boundary of the stage with a little shaved off for good effect since dancers rarely occupy the extreme left or right of the performance space in any show.
For top and bottom framing take your cue from the position of the camera. In the example shown above (Candoco Dance Company 'In Translation') we've framed the wide angle showing a lot of overhead space. If you're shooting from a flatter angle frame the dancers towards the middle of the frame with less overhead space (see the MK Raw video at the bottom of the page for an example)
If you frame the wide angle and you get audience heads in the shot, but not obscuring the dancers, then you can just mask them out in post production (we'll cover that another day).
Focusing this camera is easy. Get somebody to stand on the stage and then zoom your camera all the way in, as far as it will go, so you can see the persons face. Switch the camera to manual focus, and then adjust said focus until the image in the viewfinder or on the pop out screen is razor sharp.
Then zoom out, re-frame your shot as described above and leave the focus alone on that camera for the rest of the show. Lock out the cameras pan/tilt head on the tripod and camera B is good to go.
Where is Bert?
Bert, I mean camera A is positioned closest to you or your operator. This camera is the one that will track your dancers around the stage and pick up all the nice details in your wonderful choreography.
Make sure you have a good tripod so you can make smooth camera movements. If you don't have one then rent one. They aren't expensive and if you rent a camera they usually provide a fluid head tripod in the kit.
The image below illustrates how the framing differs between camera A and camera B
The techniques explained in 'Shooting Straight' still apply here in terms of framing your dancers, how tight your framing should be and controlling the exposure of your shot.
You can also set the focus for this camera the same way you did for camera B and you should be fine. Just keep an eye on the image and make sure everything stays nice and sharp. The ability of the operator to manually focus a video camera varies wildly from camera to camera. Some are easy, some are a nightmare, so choose your weapons carefully.
As we have explained before, make sure you monitor the exposure (how much light gets into the camera) as the show progresses. Unless you have some pretty ridiculous and very fast changes in light levels then handling two cameras solo shouldn't be a huge problem. Just stay calm and adjust the exposure on camera A before adjusting the exposure on camera B.
Make sure the exposure numbers (shown as F1.8 etc) on the displays for each camera match when you adjust the settings as you film. This will ensure your footage from each camera matches.
When Article19 deploys this particular technique we use EX1(R) cameras from Sony. Not only are they very good cameras they also have an on-lens ring for adjusting the exposure (or the camera's aperture). This makes adjusting exposure very quick, smooth and easy.
You can watch a short section from 'In Translation' from Candoco Dance Company below. This work was filmed using the parallel camera set up.
The wide angle shot may appear to be very far away, especially on a small computer screen, but what we're doing here is creating an immaculate, watchable recording of the show. We're not trying to show off how clever we are with cameras, it's not about us, it's about the work.
Cut the Cadence
Finally, a word to the wise about editing. When you shoot with multiple cameras you end up with multiple, perfectly synchronized angles of your work. Because of this you, or some hack editor, can go overboard and start chopping and changing shots for no other reason than "just because".
Every time you make an edit, no matter what subject you are filming, the viewers eyes have to adjust their focus on the screen toward whatever you're pointing the camera at. The more you cut, the more the viewer has to flick their eyes around the screen in a vain attempt to pay attention to your work.
For dance, this flicking, can be disastrous. We've seen many promotional videos that are completely unwatchable because the edits occur, with irritating regularity, every 3 to 5 seconds. Don't think cross-dissolving helps either, because it doesn't!
Just imagine sitting in a theatre, watching a dance performance whilst blinking in a really exaggerated manner and you will get some idea of how completely stupid and annoying this type of editing is for your viewers.
The video below, featuring MK Raw but not shot in parallel, gives you some idea of how a calm approach to editing helps enormously when trying to maintain the viewers interest on the work.
Go forth and shoot and try and make it very easy for people to watch your work online and on video.