When Emmy award-winning filmmaker Ric Burns signed on to his latest project, “American Masters – American Ballet Theatre: A History,” he knew that capturing the immediacy of dance onscreen would be a challenge. With dance, “one of its fundamental shaping conditions is that it is happening in the present tense…when you take out that immediacy, it doesn’t matter how great the dance is, on-camera it loses something significant,” Burns told Indiewire recently.
To complete the film, which began production back in 2006, Burns was given unprecedented access to the company and shot hundreds of hours of original footage including live performances in Paris and Havana, rehearsals at ABT’s flagship studio in New York City and slow-motion captures at Kaatsbaan International Dance Center in Tivoli, N.Y.
Burns felt confident that his frequent collaborator, Emmy award-winning cinematographer Buddy Squires would find a way to bring dance to life onscreen. Squires and his colleagues relied on five different cameras, including two F55s, a C300, the VariCam and the Phantom Flex. They chose the Phantom Flex, in particular, for slow-motion segments because it can capture up to 2,500 frames per second and bring to life even the smallest of movements.
Indiewire recently spoke to Burns and Squires about the technical challenges involved in filming dance. Their condensed responses are below:
What is the biggest challenge in capturing dance on film?
Ric Burns (RB): What led us to using photographic technology was directly connected to the challenge of shooting dance on film. Film is the anti-dance. Dance is now, film is in the can. Obviously, some technical reality is happening in real-time, each and every time you see a television program. But what you’re seeing happens in the past….When you take away that immediacy, it doesn’t matter how great the dance is, on-camera, it loses something significant. It loses altitude, it loses electricity.
We knew going in that we were going to have to give back something in return for what film takes away…When you go to the ballet tomorrow night, you’re not going to be able to see these dancers dancing at 1,500 frames a second…To be able to see what’s happening in a way that’s extended and sustained — it creates something, partly because it reminds you how central time and duration is to dance itself. Paradoxically, it’s doing something that dance can’t do to itself: dancers can’t dance at 1,500 frames a second.
Was it always clear that you would include a slow-motion element?
RB: Two things were clear: that we would include slow-motion footage, and that we would have the dancers dance on our terms at least some of the time. So, meaning, not just follow them around like flies on the wall — which we did a lot in rehearsal, in the studio, in class, in performance, in New York, in Paris, in Cuba — but also to have them dance on our terms. There’s only so much you can do and only so close you can get — literally and metaphorically — when you’re simply observing what they do.
For us, the place where both the slow-motion and “dance for us” came together was in three spectacular days at Kaatsbaan Dance Center where nine hand-picked killers from the American Ballet Theater — nine of the greatest dancers in the world — and Kevin McKenzie, their artistic director, and their production designer and all their people came and, in a sense, danced for our cameras, for Buddy [Squires], for three days.
Buddy Squires (BS): In some ways, the long duration of the production really helped us out, inadvertently, technologically. When we were shooting back in 2006, it was pretty much unless you were going to shoot film through a complex, extensive action master camera, you couldn’t do this kind of super slow-motion very easily. As the technology advanced, we found ourselves, by the time we got to Kaatsbaan which was 2015, able to employ not only the go-to camera for most of the film all along, but a F55 camera, getting 40 frames a second very easily and then the Phantom that could take us up to 2,500 frames. All of that was relatively new technology in 2013.
How much footage did you shoot using the Phantom Flex?
RB: One way to think of it is, we had about 12 different sequences which we decided we would shoot at 1,500 or 2,500 frames a second. Each one of those sequences has a maximum duration of 8-10 seconds. We shot each one of those sequences 8-10 seconds multiple times. Two, three, four — really never more than four or five times. But if it was a question of a particular moment from a particular dance where from Othello, say, or from Sleeping Beauty, where Juliet is flying into the arms of Romeo in the dance by Corey Stearns — that whole session would take in real-time, it was over before you even knew what happened. For the filmmakers and the dancers, it had none of the quality of normal filming or dancing. It’s sort of like wham-bam, it’s over.
Then you look at it, and it’s instantaneously available to be seen and you see that at 1,500 frames a second, 8-10 seconds is going to be 8-10 minutes long. So, you’ve created literally in the blink of an eye, if you play it back at 24 frames a second, having shot it at 1,500, you’ve got a long stretch of footage. And of course, that’s the point of it.
At the end of the day, given the five cameras that we had, two F55s, a C300 and the Phantom Flex and the VariCam, we had a massive amount of footage and coverage, and the interplay among those various different formats was really — I’m so grateful to Buddy in the way he planned it out. Not only did the Gods of filmmaking smile in these three days — in which everything that could go right did, plus some extra — but at the same time, just the way in which Buddy as the DP was really masterminding the interaction of the various different camera technologies so that we came back and got footage.
It was really, really intercuttable in a way that’s very powerful. At the end of the day, we were able to make radical and severe choices from the footage we had. We used these samples of virtually everything, and at the same time were able to be very disciplined. If you go through the film, it’s not like in 83 minutes on broadcast, 104 minutes in the full-length film — it’s not all slow-motion all the time. It uses it, I hope, sparingly and appropriately, and when you need and want to move in that kind of super-intense way, then the film allows you to do that in a way that you really can’t, in film, see dance with any greater clarity or beauty than with this technology.
Why did you need five different cameras?
BS: The workhorses were the F55s. They were able to get us anywhere form 24 frames to 240 frames a second in a 35mm sensor. Steve McCarthy, who’s another DP who was working with us, brought his C300 as an additional 24-frame camera. There were times when I would be on the dolly with an F55 with a 4290 optimal on it, which was a great production zoom lens. There would be a Steadicam operator or a crane for the second F55, and then Steve would be working the C300, getting another angle at 24 frames a second primarily, or sometimes 48. Those three cameras were doing the dance work. The Phantom did everything that was done at 1,500 and 2,500 frames.
We came up with the notion that the dancers themselves were working incredibly hard in these short bursts for which they would perform for us, and we realized that we could get a different sort of interview/respoinse from them, immediately after they were dancing. Literally, I would be on the dolly, stop filming, reach down, grab my Vericam, run out to the floor with Ric and the sound person, and we would do these impromptu interviews with the dancers and with Kevin and other people involved while they were still literally out of breath from having just performed. That immediacy — that direct connection to them at those moments when they had just been themselves immersed in the dance — led to a far greater level of intimacy to the interviews than typically happens when you talk to dancers about their work when it’s removed from the stage. That access to them was as dramatic a shift as being able to shoot at 2,500 frames a second.
RB: The variety of camera technologies allowed us to get that much more variety. Partly because of the speed frame-rate, partly because of what the camera was literally looking at, partly because of how the camera was mounted — crane, dolly, handheld, Steadicam — and that allowed us to make enormous headway. That, combined with the fact that the artistic director of ABT, Kevin McKenzie, had so brilliantly had years-long conversations with us, understood how to select the dancers, the passages, the scenes to give a sense of the variety of ballet that’s danced by the company, variety of dancers that dance for the company in that variety of ballet.
Was there anything you were technically unable to do?
RC: I’ve never felt more elated or gratified by a shoot, and I’ve never gone into a shoot where, in a sense, there was more on the line financially and more ways in which things could potentially go wrong — a dancer could be hurt, somebody could not show up, the equipment could fail. The equipment did blow up! Even given that, everything came out. I have no regrets about it.
BS: It’s all been such a privilege. It really came together in Kaatsbaan, because while we had had good seats all along, Kaatsbaan gave us a front row seat. Literally on the dolly, having these people perform for me. That was just something one could never hope to have happen. It was so wonderful that it did happen, and that they were really all so open and gave so much. If anything, I think anytime people are performing, they get something from an audience. Well there was no audience. There wasn’t much reason for them to excel. But once the dancers started to see the footage and what we were doing, they just threw themselves into it even more. “You want another take on that? Can we do more?” instead of “Okay, we’re done. Let’s move on.”
RC: There are moments in your career where everything does come together and you’re so indelibly transformed by an experience. For me, and I think Buddy, you’d agree, this was one of those very special pinch-me experiences which we’ll treasure for the rest of our lives.
Watch an exclusive video outtake featuring ABT Principal Dancer Daniil Simkin and shot with the PhantomFlex.
“American Masters — American Ballet Theatre: A History” premieres nationwide this Friday, May 15 at 9 p.m. on PBS in honor of the ballet company’s 75th anniversary. The full film will also stream on the American Masters website beginning May 16 and will be available on the PBS channel of many OTT providers. The film will be available on DVD July 14 from PBS Distribution.