Shooting 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 Martin French

Committing a live dance performance to video can give you a lot of headaches if, as a dance maker, you have to take responsibility for it yourself. If you can't come up with the cash to pay someone then you're going to need some help to get it done right and that's what we're here for!

First of all let's start with the basics. Filming a live performance is hard for no other reason than the audience are in the theatre. They get in the way, they have heads, they cough, talk, move about and ask our camera operators stupid questions. Once, a young man walked up to one of our guys during a show and asked where the exit was! (that would be the opposite way you just came in, idiot boy! Ed!)

The simple solution to the problem of the general public is to film in the theatre when they are not in it. Technical runs or dress rehearsals are perfect for this. Of course, with the audience in there the energy for the performance is usually very different but it's a worthwhile trade off for a better film of your work and it will do no end of good for your stress levels.

Camera Positions.

A multiple camera shoot is always better than a multiple shoot with a single camera because the editing is easier since you are capturing exactly the same performance from multiple angles. Renting professional cameras and good tripods will run to about £100 per day or £300 for three of them which is the ideal number for shooting a live show. If you are shooting with one camera then the same principles apply just for three separate shoots.

First of all you need a master camera (we'll call it camera A) that captures the entire performance space from the front. Since we're talking about contemporary dance companies here then the chances are your company is small, with maybe 3-7 dancers. Think through your work and if your choreography involves all of your dancers being spread out across the entire stage, at the same time, then you need to cover the whole space with that camera.

If your filming a duet where the dancers travel around the space together then move the camera physically closer to the front of the stage and track them left and right as they move around.

The positioning of the front camera is important for a number of reasons. Small and mid-scale theatres usually have very steep rakes for the audience seating. The further back you have to move the camera the more elevated your shot will be. From high elevations choreography starts to look very different. Jumps become compressed (they don't look like jumps anymore) and other choreographic elements can take on a whole new meaning when seen from high angles. Keep the angle as flat as possible.

Another reason for physically moving the camera as opposed to using a zoom mechanism is for the purposes of image quality. Zoom lenses tend to show their best quality when the lens is fully "pulled back". Also, when zooming in, any minor vibration of the camera or panning/tilting movements of the tripod become amplified. If possible, move the camera to frame your shot, don't use the zoom.

If it's not possible to get the mix of elevation vs framing that you need try fitting a "wide angle" adapter to the camera or using a wide angle lens if the camera has an interchangeable lens system. Wide angle adapters/lenses can be rented.

Camera's B and C should be positioned at a 45 degree angle on either side of the stage to capture the opposite left and right thirds of the stage. The same principles apply for these cameras as do for the main camera. Keep the angle as flat as possible and frame by positioning the camera, not the zoom.

Framing

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Dance is about movement and dancers move using their entire body, most of the time, so use, what we call, full frame shooting. Looking at the image above you can see the dancer's (Kajza Ekberg and Phil Sanger) entire body in the shot. Dancer's also have arms and these arms can make them as much as three feet taller when extended above their head so take that into account.

Positioning you dancer of interest in the centre of the frame is also a poor aesthetic choice. Applying the age old 'rule of thirds' is always a good idea when shooting something creative, centre framing is for news broadcasts. Basically, divide the frame up into nine equal sections (3x3). Where these points intersect is where you should position your point of interest when filming anything. It all makes for a nice, clean aesthetic in your filming and a discerning viewer will thank you for it.

Avoid doing anything weird with the camera alignment, such as titling the frame left or right. These techniques (called Dutch Tilts or Deusch Tilts) are lame attempts to make your stuff look interesting. Let your choreography and your dancer's skill speak for themselves.

The only thing I will say about auto-focus is SWITCH IT OFF!

Close Ups

Just say no to close ups. Shooting in close up is from the realm of feature films and television drama. They use close ups because the actors speak and when they speak we want to see their faces (well, most of the time anyway!)

If there is a moment within your work when the dancers are doing something particularly small and detailed or there is an element of tenderness, eye contact, or whatever that requires the viewer to see it clearly then use a close up shot, otherwise, keep it full frame.

Lighting

Lighting for dance, for the most part, is rubbish. It's too dark, too murky or at the other end of the scale, to harsh and over saturated with colour.

Digital video cameras have a particular issue with high contrast lighting. Basically, high contrast light cannot be easily recorded because the camera lacks what is referred to as "tonal latitude". When shooting specifically for video the trick is often to diffuse the light so it becomes more even when it hits your subject. Theatrical lighting is often not diffused at all and appears harsh on the screen because the highlights are "burned out".

Low light causes the on screen image to look muddy and using your cameras artificial boosting systems, called "gain", will make the final image look grainy and indistinct.

If you are shooting during a tech run then ask your lighting designer to adjust the light to compensate for the cameras if any of the above issues are present when you are setting up. Making the light as even as possible will ensure a good shoot and you can simply reset the lighting levels back to their theatrical requirements for the show.

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Exposure

Setting the exposure level on your cameras is also very important. This is done by adjusting the aperture and most professional level cameras enable the user to set the aperture they want. The aperture is set in "f-stops" and lenses tend to work best when the aperture is set between f4 and f8. Higher "f" numbers mean a smaller aperture and therefore less light getting through. For the best image quality adjust the lighting to suit your camera, if at all possible.

One final thing about light and colour. Digital video cameras are not big fans of red. They especially don't like red costumes illuminated with red light. If your work involves a lot of red then consult the camera rental company (or your manual) to see if you camera has colour balance controls built in. If you're filming and the reds are bleeding into the image then turn down the red balance in the camera. Colour bleeding can be corrected in post production but it's a more complex process so it is better to handle it in camera.

You may also need to "ride the exposure" during the filming process. Adjusting the camera's aperture to compensate for brighter or darker moments during your work. If the lighting changes are very subtle, that is; very little alteration in intensity, then don't worry about it.

Sound

Recording the sound is probably one of the trickiest aspects of shooting a live show. If you are using pre-recorded music and no live sound at all then the highest quality solution is to "overdub" the music during editing.

If you are using un-amplified live audio, such as voice or music, then a good "rifle" or "shotgun" microphone connected to camera B or C (or both) is a great way to record the audio. It's even better if you have a spare pair of hands to direct the microphone to follow the source of the sound. Mixing the sound in post production will be a little tricky when combining pre-recorded and live audio but you should be able to achieve very professional results.

If all of your audio is amplified through the theatre's sound system then ask them to record a live feed from the mixing desk to either a computer, DAT or CD. This will give you a perfect mix of the audio to synchronise with your film in post production.

Microphones can be rented for about £15-£20 per day depending on the kind of microphone you need.

Summing Up

Because a dance work can take on a million variations then you need to adapt the above recommendations to suit. If you use these principles as a basis for shooting any live show you should be able to come out the other other end with a rock solid video shoot of your performance.

[ Top Image by Luminis ]

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