DP Bag of Tricks: How to Get the Most out of a Dance Shoot
Every freelance DP is asked to shoot a dance performance at some point. Here's how to do it well.
Chances are at some point you’ll find yourself directing the lens towards performers: contemporary dancers in a black box theatre, ballerinas at their opening show, or—if you roll in the crowds I often do—friends will ask you to document their aerial performance on the trapeze, or shoot their fire-sword spinning show. Dance or otherwise, a large part of our craft is capturing movement. How we go about it greatly affects the final video, and while we all have different aesthetics, there are certain pitfalls to avoid—or at least be conscious about stepping into.
“Motion with motion creates magic.”
For advice based on years of experience, we turned to Angelo Silvio Vasta, a filmmaker who specializes in capturing dance. Originally hailing from Milan, Italy, Vasta has been perfecting his craft with the NYC-based Ballet Hispanico, focusing on creating dance films as well as recording live performances.
Filmmaking is not a hard science, and there are different shooting styles aimed at how best to make moving images of moving humans, but based on experimentation and experience, here’s how one professional films bodies in motion. In addition to the tips we got from Vasta, the post includes several standout examples of dance on screen, starting with Vasta's reel:
“Dance is about who you are and how you feel and how to bring it on stage,” Vasta reflects. “There’s a raw physicality to it. The type of dance influences how I film. For ballet, the lines are important. We want to see the whole figures as they show what the forms are supposed to look like. For contemporary dance, shooting in a dynamic way is more important. There is so much theatricality to show, either as a close up of the hand movements or in the person’s expression: we want to be closer to see the dancer’s intention.”
The main factors that will influence how you approach shooting dance are: the kind of dance it is, whether you are shooting a live show or a performance occurring especially for the camera, and what the goal of the video is. Do you want to make an mesmerizing art film, full of slow motion close ups of twirling torsos? Or are you filming a large theatrical performance with a cast of thirty, and the choreographer and director will use the video to showcase the troupe? Essentially, you need to decide whether the video you are looking to make is an artistic expression in and of itself, its own emotive form, or is the job of the video primarily to document the performance?
Wind and Tree by filmmaker Abe Abraham:
Shooting live dance performances
Vasta knows when shooting live performances for a ballet company, one camera needs to be kept wide enough to see the whole stage and the dancers’ exits and entrances. He suggests that you keep one camera locked off on a wide of the entire stage throughout the performance, and with the second camera shoot “close ups”—but in this world that means a shot of the full figure of the main performer. After all, the film is documentation for posterity.
When only one performer is moving, frame for only that performer, keeping her or his whole body in the frame, and follow the action. Camera movement shouldn’t be fast or aggressive. In the edit, most often you’ll choose to use this “close up.” If Vasta does do an extreme close up, rarely does it make the cut. Vasta uses a 24mm lens for his widest shot, and a 105 for his closer shot.
One important tip Vasta offers is to attend the dress rehearsal and make notes on lighting changes. If there is a lighting change that will be hard to capture as it is a drastic difference in exposure, it is highly unlikely this will be changed on account of the video, but if you let the director know in advance, they will be expecting this moment of adjustment when they see the cut. Vasta shares that at this stage in his career he’d be uncomfortable filming a live show without seeing a dress rehearsal. He wants to deliver a certain caliber of work.
It is recommended to not sit too close to the performance—you don’t want your fullest shot to have too much of a ‘wide angle’ look.
HOME ALONE with the Batsheva Ensemble Dancers, directed by Adi Halfin, showcases on the intensity the dancers bring to their performance:
Creating short dance films
When creating a dance video that isn’t based on a live show, such as a promo piece for a performing artist, or a video as an art piece in and of itself, more options become available. A main consideration for Vasta becomes camera movement.
As a general rule, when the dancers are still, the camera moves. When dancers move, the camera is still. “Of course,” Vasta allows, “motion with motion creates magic.” That being said, camera motion needs to be done in a wise way. The camera can be a flowing pan, or flow around the dancers.
Never shoot handheld. We want support for clean images. In aiming to achieve a high production value look, a stabilizer for the camera is highly recommended—and having an operator that knows how to use that gear. If you aren’t comfortable with a particular rig, try to create a time and space where you can practice using the particular contraption.
A flowing camera follows Lil Buck at Foundation Louis Vuitton:
“Don’t try to follow the action directly with camera movement,” Vasta advises. “If the dancer is going left to right to left to right, don’t do the same with the camera. That’s disturbing.” You don’t want to be so directly connected, but move around the space. “There’s this idea of ‘dancing with the dancer’ some people prescribe to,” Vasta says. “I don’t think it is so directly connected. We are making art in motion, with cinema and dancing, so there is a flow and a connection, but they are different mediums.”
“As a filmmaker, you’re looking to add value to the choreography itself. You want to help make it feel powerful.”
Part of the visual and emotive appeal of shooting this sort of dance piece is being able to put the camera at a different perspective or in a more intimate position than a live-audience is able to experience. Here, especially for contemporary variations of dance, there is the opportunity to shoot closer shots than you would for a live performance, and to find some magic as you manipulate the camera.
Unless you are going for an extreme or disturbing effect, make camera movements slow so they aren’t jarring or taking notice away from the performance.
Low angles can have a strong effect. “As a filmmaker, you’re looking to add value to the choreography itself,” Vasta reflects. “You want to help make it feel powerful.”
NYC Ballet Presents NEW BEGINNINGS, by filmmaker Davi Russo, showcases the forms and prowess of the ballerinas:
“There is the ‘cinematic look,’ with lots of soft focus,” Vasta reflects. “That isn’t good for dance. Often young videographers will have a lot of out of focus in their footage. It’s a mess.”
Pro-tip: Camcorders are best for dance, with a limited depth of field. Never shoot below a 5.6 aperture.
As a default, stay wide enough to capture the whole body of the performer. It is tempting to want to zoom in and get extreme close ups of ballet slippers or hand motions, but be sure you have at least one shot of the full body. Skilled dancers may be performing truly impressive physical feats, and you don’t want to miss that shot because you are zoomed in tight on shoes.
Academy-Award nominated Pina (2011), a tribute to choreographer Pina Bausch:
Along the same vein, often shots are held for a long period of time without cutting in editing: the dancer may be pouring a high level of energy consistently into her or his performance, and an audience may feel and appreciate this more if it is shown in a single take.
Stacey Menchel Kussell's Ritual combines dance and spoken word:
If behind-the-scenes footage is required, this is about the struggle. Show the sweat. Shooting the actual dancing and rehearsals will be based on your intuition; try to follow what is happening. Show the hard bits as they get worked out.
When shooting BTS or any kind of movement, having some experience or practice of dance or choreography yourself will give you a greater understanding of the medium, and enable you to better anticipate movements.
Finally, if you click on one example video link in this article, have it be the one below. In this video featuring ballerina Sergei Polunin, director David LaChapelle combines a slowly moving camera with mostly full body or extreme wide shots of this masterful dancer to powerful effect.