How-To: Lights, Camera, Action

Posted on April 6, 2007 by

As a choreographer, you are uniquely adept at discussing your work, but when it comes to applying for fellowships, festivals or showcases, your choreography does the talking. Unless you have limitless resources, you won’t have the opportunity to present your pieces live to an adjudication committee. Instead, a well-crafted videotape or DVD must convince a jury that you deserve a spot in their lineup or additional funds for development. Professional videographers helped us come up with these seven steps for creating a recording that will present your work at its very best.

Step 1: Choose the setting.
A live performance onstage will provide the most space and professional lighting, and the adrenaline will help your dancers perform well, insists Dennis Diamond of Video D, a company dedicated to translating the arts onto film. Some organizations may explicitly request live performances. A dress or technical rehearsal might be another good opportunity to get the footage you need.

Step 2: Check your equipment.
Consumer electronics have become so advanced that you don’t need to rent a high-tech camera. Any camcorder bought in the last three years will provide a high-quality image. You will need a tripod to make sure your shot is steady, and a fresh digital tape is a must in order to get a clean capture. Although you can tape over your cousin’s wedding, you risk picture and sound distortion.

Step 3: X marks the spot.
You’ll want to set up your camera about five to 10 degrees above the stage. If you’re in a sloped theater, find the row that is level with the stage and then go up a few rows. In a level theater, you’ll need to raise your tripod with a platform.

Step 4: Frame your shot.
Have the dancers mark the piece to establish the boundaries of the camera frame. How close to the edges of the stage do the dancers travel? Once you mark these boundaries for your shot, zoom out a little farther to make sure that your performers aren’t crammed into the corners.

Step 5: Find your focus.
Here’s a trick that the pros use: Switch the camera into manual focus mode, never auto. Have someone stand wherever the center of the action is. Zoom all the way in as far as you can go and focus so that person is sharp, and then zoom back to normal. You will now have perfect focus. Since you won’t be able to do this once the audience arrives, get to the theater early, open the curtains and set up your shot.

Step 6: Shoot!
You have two options to get a variety of angles. If you have two cameras available, use one to capture the wide shot as described above and focus the second one to get close-ups of solos. Again, this will require charting out where the solos take place onstage. The other option is to shoot two performances to get a wide shot on the first night, and tight shots the next. This alternative is best used when your company is performing at the same venue for multiple performances, otherwise the lighting will differ. Resist the urge to zoom in and out. It looks amateur.

While a wide-angle shot alone may seem adequate in a smaller space, close-up shots add a dynamic quality to your video. A fixed camera misses facial expressions, says David Sheingold, senior producer at Dance Theater Workshop. “What tends to pop out is action and what’s going on on people’s faces,” Sheingold says. “[These] images are connected, kinetic and emotional.”

Step 7: Add the audio.
At a live show, the audience and other factors can interfere with the sound. Ivan Sygoda, director of Pentacle, a New York City–based organization that offers grant writing, booking and public relations to the performing arts community, recommends using a live sound feed into the camera. This means you use a cable to connect the sound system output to your camera’s audio input. Alternatively, you can add the sound when you edit the audio on your computer using iMovie for Mac or Windows Movie Maker for PCs. Both programs come standard on their respective operating systems.

You spend hours in the studio perfecting your choreography. Why not take the same care in recording your dances? Expending a little effort will ensure that your work looks its best.

Faking It
Tips for shooting in a studio
Let there be light.

Onstage, lighting comes with the package, but it gets trickier in the studio. Avoid fluorescent lights or a light source behind the dancers. “Sunlight from a studio window located behind the dancers will turn them into black silhouettes on your videotape,” says Ben Munisteri, director of Ben Munisteri Dance Projects. Instead, use spotlights from the front and side to create the most appealing effect.

Set the right mood.
You can make the best of taping in a studio by creating a performance-like atmosphere. Most importantly, use an audience. Even if it’s only five to 10 people sitting at the front of the room, “dancers are instinctively up in their energy and focus,” Ivan Sygoda says. “It’s hard to dance in an empty room.”

Dress the part.
To give your tape a professional feel, dancers should be in full costume and makeup. If costumes aren’t available, performers should wear matching clothes that highlight the quality of the movement.

Choose your backdrop.
To make sure that your dancers stand out and viewers aren’t distracted by elements in the background, shoot against a plain wall. Don’t shoot against a mirror, because you’ll be able to see the camera in the shot. Also, be sure to consider the color of the wall that will serve as your backdrop. You’ll want to dress your dancers in colors that can be seen clearly, not those that blend in. Rich jewel tones, such as burgundy or turquoise, are easy to see against a white backdrop.

The Right Stuff
How to tailor your video to your needs

You may find that you need to create more than one video to serve different needs. To figure out what kind of video to shoot, the first step is to determine your goals. To this end, Ben Munisteri says he creates multiple videos of the same piece for documentation, marketing and grant proposals.

Documentation videos preserve choreography for future dancers so it’s important to record individual steps accurately, as well as get a sense of the piece as a whole. Create a compilation of several recordings, including wide-angle footage that “shows the stage space in its entirety,” Munisteri says. For complex footwork sequences or other details that require close attention, get several tight shots to capture intricate movements that may be hard to discern in a wide shot.

Marketing videos, on the other hand, are used to get bookings and need to catch the eye of adjudicators, who may spend hours screening submissions. Munisteri uses shifting camera angles to make his work stand out. “We don’t want a potential presenter to become disinterested in our work,” he says, “so the video will shift camera angles in an effort to compensate for the…flat look a live-performance video can sometimes convey.”

Munisteri sees funding videos as a separate genre. Most funders—both private and public—will ask for an unabridged, live performance, but some ask for a work-in-progress or 10 minutes of a full-length piece. Because a choreographer is biased toward personally meaningful sections of a piece, selecting an excerpt can be difficult. “The funding panelists usually won’t have any background about the piece before they view your favorite section,” Munisteri says. “In such a case, it may be simpler to submit the first 10 minutes.”

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