Through The Looking Glass (2/4) 

Part 2/4 of project writeup, on short dance film “Suspect Number 4”

I was armed with my trusty Nikon D7000 and a Nikon 14-24mm wide angle lens, and we had our excellent crew of Annie and Adam, with Chi Lin and Tommima ably assisting us and our Cluedo cast of talented performers: Lydia, Saffron, Katherine, Kate, Munier, Amandine, Andrienne. Working with these ‘chance procedures’ we worked out a process for each dance piece, the performer would rehearse the choreography, and adapt it to the space, interacting with objects etc. I would then attempt to take it in and work out all the shots needed for the scene. Anything that didn’t make sense, we quickly adopted a mantra of “its abstract, so its fine”. I usually work with a shotlist or at least some kind of scribbles that make sense to me (occasionally) but I dispensed with this quite early on owing the chance nature of the project; working out what shots were needed and doing a mental edit in my head as I went along.


I decided on a range of shots to cover all bases, and I’m pretty sure that I broke the 180° rule a number of times but it’s all abstract so it’s fine (it’s not fine, follow the 180° rule kids) filming from a distance in tandem with the voyeur approach and up high and static in tandem with a detached clinical surveillance approach. Wide shots and close ups to cut to providing an unsettling vibe, as did shooting through and behind obstacles like glasses, through/into mirrors, reflective surfaces, through a window, unusual angles high up, and in some cases through a hanging noose to frame a shot. I even stuck the camera in cupboards and bookcases, high and low framed by crockery and books to make sure every terrifying angle was covered and that we included small details like Cluedo cards and artifacts from the game and the Cluedo box in every room with a dance piece in it (see if you can spot them in the final film).

I’m a big fan of in low budget in camera effects and using random implements to achieve these effects. In the Captain SKA music video that I shot earlier this year, there is a ‘transformation shot’ that looks a bit trippy [1:55 in the video], which was achieved by waving an empty champagne glass around in front of the lens for a bit. A simple solution which made it look like some heavy post production job; I wanted to achieve the same look here as well so hunted round for something to wave around in front of the lens eventually falling in love with a large magnifying glass which seemed to fit the circumference of the wide angle lens perfectly. Sellotaping it to the lens at every given opportunity to the bemusement of everyone; it worked with the convexity of the lens and gave a floating soft focus outer edge to each shot I used it for, distorting everything to the nexus of the image.


We shot in 2 locations, Annie’s dad’s house in Palmers Green, a fascinatingly decorated town house with a wealth of depth to it (thanks Paul and Tricia) and we spent a day in National Trust run Eastbury Manor House in Upney (thanks to East London Dance for arranging this). I love shooting on location, for one very simple reason, everyone is afforded the chance to breathe. It’s a simple thing which we take for granted, but when your on a slightly smaller set with hot lights, creative temper’s flailing, a lot of people getting on top of each other (figuratively speaking of course…..unless it’s that kind of shoot) and a limited amount of time, people start to lose the plot a bit. Being outdoors or in a bigger location frees up a lot of space despite the restrictions and pressures that shooting involves. It gives people a chance to find their own space in the production and work better. A large Tudor built gentry house, Eastbury Manor provided us with a variety of different textured rooms to shoot in with amazing grounds surrounding it. Featuring hefty doors, a winding staircase, lots of nooks and creaky floorboards, I was determined to get the most out of the space as possible! With good cloud cover, we used the gardens for the main dance and a small courtyard for one of the dances (complete with dead pigeons!) The goal was to perhaps make it look at least as if the houses were one and the same (and if they don’t, it’s abstract so it’s fine!)


Poor man and his steady cam

Being a dance piece, it obviously required movement, not just from the performers but from the camera; the difference between just straight filming dance and the idea of “dance on film”. I didn’t want to use the tripod in a lot of this at all (and ended up not using it all for anything) so I dug out my ‘Poor Man’s Steadycam’, which I blogged about a few years ago. It’s a home made steadycam from a guy in America made from lead piping and weights, here are a few photos of me with it taken by Adam. You can see it has a grip on the main pipe and then a second arm to hold as well, I hadn’t used it with the DSLR before, and it was a bit tricky as I had to keep one hand on the focus ring as well as attempting to hold it steady. Steadycamming is something I haven’t had a lot of practice in, it does involve contorting your body a bit, keeping your back straight and legs out, which is pretty painful after a while! (Note to self: once again, consider warming up before intensive shoots). In Eastbury Manor, the opportunity to do some running chase shots up the winding stairs was too good to pass up, although the angle of the steadycam dipped slightly so the shots I ended up with looked down ever so slightly. During the individual dance pieces themselves, I found myself moving with the performers, being involved with their characters’ process to the extent that Annie wanted to turn the camera on me and film me ‘dancing with the camera’, apparently I’m quite graceful (which is interesting, seeing as someone once remarked I reminded them of Kermit the Frog… something about the way I moved…) This informed what I was shooting with the idea of “camera as performer” being involved in the process as much as the performers were, feeding into the concept of “dance on film”.

Here are some short tests that I did running around Eastbury with the steadycam, which looks like the opening to “Evil Dead”, I should have gotten someone to film me doing it to put in the corner of the screen. I’ve obviously set it to suitably over dramatic music quite needlessly for no one’s amusement but my own.

It was a great shoot and an interesting way of working, despite the time constraints I even had time to get a cast and crew photo, something I forget to do on just about every shoot I’m do! Of course, everybody loves the clapperboard (not to be confused with the ‘clipperboard’, which apparently is what people think it is called). Just part of my standard kit, it actually wasn’t needed as I wasn’t syncing up any sound and with the absence of shotlists nor was the information on it. Having explained this, it still didn’t deter everyone from posing with it for pictures and ‘clapping’ with it noisily. I obligingly indulged. Now left with nearly 4 hours worth of footage, I retire to Final Cut to begin the final chapter.

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