‘In the Heights’: How They Danced Up the Side of a Building

Toolkit: An oral history of "When the Sun Goes Down" with Jon M. Chu, cinematographer Alice Brooks, and choreographer Christopher Scott.
"In the Heights"
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It seems like a visual effect, a piece of gravity defying wizardry created in a computer. But it’s not.

Nina (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins), in a quiet moment between two young lovers about be apart, dance up the side of a Washington Heights apartment building in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers-inspired musical number “When the Sun Goes Down.”

In the Heights” director Jon M. Chu was recently a guest on the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast to discuss the scene (and others). Below is a thorough oral history of “When the Sun Goes Down” with Chu, cinematographer Alice Brooks, and choreographer Christopher Scott, who for the first time were permitted to go into full detail of the behind-the-scenes details of how they created the magical scene.

Chu, Brooks, and Scott have been collaborating on creating onscreen musical dance for over a decade, dating back to the “Step Up” movies (“Step Up 3D” and “Step Up 2: The Streets”) and the TV series “The LXD: The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers.” “In the Heights” supplied the trio a canvas to try out a number of ideas that had been percolating for years, none moreso than Nina and Benny’s sunset glide up a building.

Below is Toolkit video highlighting the technical feats of “When the Sun Goes Down”: 

The Anti-Gravity Concept

Cinematographer Alice Brooks: Chris Scott, Jon and I have been working together for a really long time. We did “The League of Extraordinary Dancers,” which was a great playground for In the Heights in many ways. And through the years, we all sort of had this dream of doing some sort of anti-gravity number.

Choreographer Christopher Scott: That idea of the revolving room, it’s always been floating around our creative discussion for 10 years, and it just never felt like the moment for it, and then for this one Jon had clear vision for it, a clear reason why. I remember sitting there talking to Jon, he was just going off on one of his riffs.

Director Jon M. Chu: [We] were in my apartment one day thinking about this number, and throughout we’d been challenging ourselves, “How does it feel to be in the emotion our characters are in?” Because that’s what going lead, not to dance numbers, but, “What does it feel like to be in love?” We kept going back to that Warner Brothers cartoon idea of flying, of lifting up, when you see those characters float up off the ground when they kiss somebody. We kept thinking, “Do they lose gravity?”

And then we thought about “Royal Wedding,” and many people have done the “Royal Wedding” nod, the Fred Astaire dancing inside the room on the [ceiling], and no one does it better than him. We didn’t want to compete with that in any way, but it did feel like when you say goodbye to the love of your life and not knowing where that may lead, sometimes you just want to be present and the rules of the world go away and float away.

And this idea that we could turn a building on it’s side, do it not just inside like “Royal Wedding,” but outside, and that these buildings that you walk by everyday with these fire escapes could become benches, and the brick wall that has graffiti could turn into a ballroom floor, and windows would turn into a see-through glass, to us, that was the most beautiful way to honor this neighborhood.

“A Magic Trick”: No Cuts

Brooks: When Jon presented this idea, “It was OK, how do we execute it?” It was meeting after meeting after meeting. We started talking about this on day one of prep and it was the last thing we shot on the sound stage.

Chu: Then we started to get into logistics of how do you turn, and I had just done a magic movie (“Now You See Me 2”), so I knew that magic only works when you see it in real time. So that first minute and half there’s no cuts, it turns and we get to see the gravity shift in them, because the moment we cut people will call bullshit, it doesn’t matter, it’s a not a magic trick anymore, it’s a movie trick. And so Chris had to choreograph according to gravity changing.

Scott: I didn’t have the tools to create it, which was tricky, but it also forced me to be cleverer. I was in a dance studio just setting tables down sideways, so if you had a bird’s eye view it would represent a wall with a fire escape, and I just start playing around with my iPhone and swooping, turning it at the same time. The actors started to step up on the wall and I had a lot things where I’d be like, “I think this is going to work.”

The Platform: A Practical Shift in Gravity

In the Heights: Jon M. Chu and choreographer Christopher Scoot
Jon M. Chu and choreographer Christopher ScootWarner Bros.

Chu: We built this piece of building, that folds down and clicks into the floor, which is the [entire side of] building.

Brooks: What happens is we start with a vertical wall, with Benny and Nina standing on the fire escape, and as the fire escape starts to slowly tilt, the camera is slowly moving, and suddenly we’ve completely hidden the fact that wall has tipped completely flat.

Scott: As everything shifts, the actors have to adjust their weight transfer to match the seamless motion of our shift in gravity.

Chu: And credit to the actors, there’s no dance doubles, there’s no CG people, and they’re not professional dancers either. It’s just two of them, and they’ve got to learn to shift their weight and change.

Scott: Corey and Leslie, they both came into this movie being like, “I’m not really a dancer.” And then I’m rehearsing with them, and I’m like, “You lied to me. You are fully dancers.” They’re incredible.

One of the big things was in that shift was making sure their muscles weren’t too tense, so you see that little details that tell the audience that gravity is shifting. So for Corey on that first shift, we showed him, “See how it looks like you are holding on the fire escape, relax your muscles, I know it’s hard,” but he did it, and we were like, “Wow.”

Finding the Camera Move to Sell it

In the Heights: ALice Brooks Jon M. Chu
Alice Brooks and Jon M. Chu on the set of “In the Heights”Warner Bros

Brooks: Initially we thought, “OK, we’ll attach the camera to the wall and that would be the easiest way to do it,” but when we did this previsualization we realized that wasn’t the best way to do it. They created this whole setup in a VR world where we wore googles, and we had the camera and we had two dancers working with us, so we spent a Saturday doing this, where it was our test shoot basically.

We wanted to know where the horizon should be vertical and where it should be horizontal, what would be the most effective, and what kind of moves, between the camera and the dancers would actual sell this anti-gravity feeling and also the feeling like would Nina fall at some point. So when she reaches down to touch the water dripping we dip with her.

Jon would wander with the camera, sometimes I would, sometimes Chris would, and that’s how we’ve always worked. We’ve sat in so many choreography rehearsals through the years, and dance rehearsals in dance studios, and the way we work is we all sit on the sidelines and watch – Chris is obviously working with the dancers – and then we each have our iPhones and wander around and we figure out what is the best place for the camera to be to sell the dance, and the best idea wins.

What we discovered here was that the best way to sell this shift was to have as long a first shot as possible. Once the wall is down, the shot is dead, but we had another 30 seconds of them dancing in the oner, so we shot it on a technocrane, so we’re telescoping at the same time we’re booming.

Sync or Sink

In the Heights: Manhattanhenge
The VFX plate for “When the Sun Goes Down” was shot during ManhattanhengeWarner Bros

“When the Sun Goes Down” was shot against green screen on a sound stage, but well ahead of time Brooks and Chu picked the real Washington Heights block and angle (with the George Washington Bridge in the back drop) for the VFX plate. It was shot in late June, weeks before the scene would be shot, during Manhattanhenge, the two-days-once-a-year when sun lines up perfectly with the street and sets north of GW Bridge.

The challenge for Brooks on the sound stage, was that strong, low-hanging, magical setting sun light source was yet another element that would need to move in synchronization with the wall, dancers, and complicated camera move.

Brooks: The lighting source for the sky source was very easy to keep in sync because they were LEDs attached to our dimmer board, so they were locked into the soundtrack, into the music, so the moment in the music where the wall started going, those lights started going.

But the light source for the sun, a 20k fresnel on the crane, had to be timed exactly perfectly, and not only that, the wall is on a hydraulics, so that it not always perfect.

Scott: (Special Effects Coordinator Jeff Brink) created this technology (a hydraulics-powered platform that could support the weight of the set and dancer as it went from vertical to horizontal) for us, and he was actually controlling it on set, and it was a lot of, “Try starting now” at the beat, and he’d try and we’d be there too fast, or there would be just the slightest bump. Basically we pushed it to the maximum speed we could before it would stop and have a little wiggle, which we couldn’t have. It was incredible, this crew member who invented this thing was so invested in the musical side of it. He’d be like, “What’s the timing, let me get a 5, 6, [counting the beats]” and I’d be queuing him and when it’d work we’d just look at each other – it’d be a silent celebration between the two of us, like, “That’s it, perfect.”

Brooks: We ended up with choreographers standing next to the special effects people, the camera operator has to know exactly when that wall was going to dip – every single element had to work completely in sync, if they’re out of sync the effect doesn’t work. So we have to get the timing exactly right.

Chu: It was probably the most expensive piece that we had in our movie, but also the most risky. It pressed to work hard, to be more creative, to really question why. Why are we spending all this money on a turning building? Because we want to show that Fred and Ginger could have been Corey and Leslie back then if they were allowed to, it could have been, but we didn’t allow that.

The End: The Kiss

"In the Heights" Benny and Nina Kiss
“In the Heights”screenshot

So here’s the story, one day I was sitting with Jon at the monitor, we were shooting something else in the sound stage. He was showing me an edit – because he cut together routines as we go – of the scene of Benny and Nina dancing in the park. And I remember he looks over at me and was like, “Ah man, we forgot. They didn’t kiss. We should’ve had the kiss, because now they don’t kiss in the whole movie.”

And I was like, well should I try to find a way in “When the Sun Goes Down” to throw in a kiss?” He’s like, “Try it, see if can, don’t force it, but try it.” And that’s the moment when they kiss as they slide down the building. There was suppose to be a whole other ending. I was still going to choreograph that little ending moment, and I showed Jon the kiss, and he goes, “No, that’s the end.” “Ah, but can we please, I think the last part could be cool too,” and he’s like, “That’s it.” He’s like, “Chris, it ends there.” And I was like, “Yeah you’re right it does, it ends. It’s over. The dance is over.”

To hear Jon M. Chu on the Filmmaker Toolkit podcast, subscribe below:

The Filmmaker Toolkit podcast is available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, and Stitcher. The music used in this podcast is from the “Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present” score, courtesy of composer Nathan Halpern.

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