If the core of "live cinema" is the desire to create a realm of possibilities in which the rehearsed performances of an actor are filmed through the lens of the raw, unscripted influence of a live audience, the Dance Films Association's La Medea has honed in on something new and visceral. 

The project began in the black box performance space of Brooklyn’s BRIC Arts on the night of the Performance Space 122's Coil Festival premiere performance of La Medea, by Yara Travieso. As audiences entered, there was an elevated sense of impending participation and the expectation of the unexpected. 

In the performance space,  three camera operators hit their marks throughout the continuous 80-minute show.

Tucked in a pocket of the room, adorned in red and white pleather, a David Lynchian band called Jason and the Argonauts performed a melodic and sultry tune by composer Sam Crawford. Three female camera operators roamed through the crowd applying steady focus on various people. On cue, our hosts joyfully educated the audience on the participatory rules and context for the night. Travieso’s reinterpretation of the Greek tragedy, La Medea was to be told through a modern Latin spin of dance and song.

At home, viewers watching the livestreamed performance could comment in realtime. Their comments were relayed to the actors by the production team monitoring the digital feed, and the actors on stage reacted as they improvised with the new material. 

In the performance space, three camera operators hit their marks throughout the continuous 80-minute show. Their camera feeds were projected on huge screens throughout the room.

For ten days after the three-day performance, Travieso edited these live cinema performances into a feature film shown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center for Dance Association's 45th Dance on Camera Festival, the oldest event of its kind. The final cut of the feature was accompanied by Jason and the Argonauts' live score, the band still adorned in the leathery outfits and perched under the screen. Now, the film is being featured with the live band accompaniment at the Miami Film Festival, and is the focus of a panel discussion at SXSW called Future of Film Experience: Seeing Viewer Emotions.

No Film School sat down with Travieso to learn more about her concept behind this live cinema performance and how she pulled it off.

NFS: How did you maintain your focus over two years of preparation and the fluidity involved in creating a live cinema film?

Travieso: You compromise things you are in charge of, not things you no have control of. I didn’t go into this project with a written script. Instead, I embarked on this film with the confidence I picked the right team that consisted of almost 30 people.  Having the right team in place inspired me and allowed me to create without concern. When you trust your team, you’re not making compromises, your making inspired choices. It offers a freedom found in openness and trust.  Funny enough, no one on my team worked in live cinema before, but I trusted their talents. 

NFS: How important was preproduction in this multi-layered experience?

Travieso: Like any other film, important, but in tackling live cinema, it was vital. This production is essentially a one-take feature film for each camera. Each camera shoots continuously for 80 minutes and the movement of every dancer is completely choreographed. The camerawomen, Pamela Giaroli (Director of Photography), Liz Charky (Associate Cinematographer), and Jaanelle Yee, never have a moment or transition to rest. One of my camerawomen has experience as a photographer, the other as a dancer, and we delegated the camera assignments based on the capabilities of each camera women. That was discovered during preproduction.

La_medea_maria_baranova_01Credit: Maria Baranova

NFS: What separates a live cinematic experience from a taping of a theater performance?

Travieso: This is not made for a live audience, but it’s made for a live studio audience who participates in the creation of a film and simultaneously, it’s made-for-camera musical. Every single twist narratively, choreographically, is dependent on the camera’s point of view and the frame.  As a film, the choices I made with camera were very self-aware. The lens is a tool and one that I love in storytelling because of the gaze.

The characters were our camera operators. The lens is just as much a vehicle to capture the POV of character as much defining the physical space of the frame. Being upfront about the way the camera is used is essential in making this film work. The self-awareness of the frame drives the narrative. 

"I think the genre of horror in film is the closest thing to live cinema because you have this heightened sense of time within the picture and the stressed point of view."

NFS: How was editing different for La Medea?

Travieso: Well, I edit all my own work because within the editing process is where I find the choreography and movement of my films. Finding the actual cuts was not hard because we called each one (cut) during the performance, but the idea of editing something that was captured live on camera is heightened when you find yourself sympathizing with the unknown attendees of live audience. That was the largest takeaway: my empathy with the audience. Surprisingly, the live audience was not affected by the presence of the cameras, and when we looked through the footage of people sharing intimate moments, publicly and unscripted, the stakes were elevated in the room. The actors' performance became that much better. 

The audience chose to go all-in at certain sections of the film and I was inspired in the edit as were the actors during the moment. At times, it felt like we teetered between shooting a scripted cinematic experience versus straight documentation. In the end, we embraced all of the raw elements that we found instead of sticking to something polished and predetermined. Finding that balance is what keeps this from just being a film about a taped theater performance versus live cinema.

Being able to see and fall in love with the audience’s experience as a film director was another great takeaway and it’s not something you get to do normally. 


NFS: What was the experience for the livestream viewers?

Travieso: We collaborated with AbelCine to figure out the live cinema technology for La Medea. We were only transmitting the scripted narrative film shots, the curated POV. What the livestream audience didn’t get was the third layer of how certain scenes came together, which were messy at times, but emblematic of the rawness of live cinema.

"It’s vastly more interesting to carve out your voice than fit within the standard mold."

NFS: What film genre best represents the experience of Live Cinema?

Travieso: I think the genre of horror in film is the closest thing to live cinema because you have this heightened sense of time within the picture and the stressed point of view. The way the directors like Hitchcock and Gasper Noé use the traditional cinematic tools to captivate their audience in horror is inspiring.

NFS: Why was the band performing at the film screening in Lincoln Center?

Travieso: The screen always will win in grabbing your attention at the movies, but we were interested in breaking that concept and the world of the film experience. I was interested in the power of hearing the music of the film and seeing the mouth of who is producing it in reality. Creating work that exists live, like the live band score, is so fulfilling to me as a director because they’re so much I can play with that depends on “real” time that can engage the audience. And sometimes, once a project is on screen it can lose that visceral feeling. So the band helped bring back that feeling of live. It helps open the film world up to new possibilities of experiencing the cinema.

La_medea_ralston_smith_01La Medea

NFS: What opportunities are there for someone who uses Instagram Stories, Periscope, and Facebook Live and Live Cinema?

Travieso: Things like Periscope and Instragram Stories are incredible tools to play with that allow one to break out of the traditional narrative storytelling of film within the world of social media. They can be the foundation for a larger project to be born out of. For me, La Medea, grew out of a commercial project I shot for the brand, Hermes, that involved filming a narrative during an actual party at a mansion in Los Angeles. I was tasked by the brand with creating an art piece that revolved around real people and it needed to be hyper-choreographed. That project was my tool and similarly, Periscope, could help filmmakers discover a way to tell a story that isn’t completely narrative.  

We have to let go of traditions in order to push the conversation forward to make something new. The space in social media is there to carve out a voice for yourself without compromising who you are as a storyteller. It’s vastly more interesting to carve out your voice than fit within the standard mold.

For more, see our complete coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival.

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No Film School's coverage of the 2017 SXSW Film Festival is sponsored by Vimeo.