The Movie Inside

Princeton University Dance Program, 2013 Spring Dance Performance, rehearsal. Princeton, NJ. February, 2013.
Princeton University Dance Program, 2013 Spring Dance Performance, rehearsal. Princeton, NJ. February, 2013.

The quote used for The Light Inside, both the print and video versions, is by the dancer, choreographer and directer emeritus of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, Judith Jamison:

Learn the craft of knowing how to open your heart and to turn on your creativity. There’s a light inside of you.

And that sums up well finding a movie within a few thousand images created for a vertical print ad. Not only were the images created with the layout of the ad in mind (vertical with space on the right and bottom for logos and copy) but while shooting I took none of the precautions one would normally if the goal was a motion piece. No tripod, no image stabilization, no extended clips, and a frame rate just this side of not being quite enough for motion.

For the assignment I photographed the dress rehearsal. I ran some tests during warm-ups and 6 fps worked well for capturing the movement of the dancers. So, I locked into that, shot raw, and created just over 3300 images during the four hours I was on site. Once done I showed the client some of the series and as an aside said, “These would make great animated gifs. They are all the rage now.”

Blue series. ISO 16,000, f/1.2, 1/2000. Princeton, NJ, February, 2013.
Blue series. ISO 16,000, f/1.2, 1/2000. Princeton, NJ, February, 2013.

Back in the studio I did my edit reducing the take down to ~1000 images. The photos were very well received, it was clear we had our print ad many times over, but that kernel of an idea with the animated gifs was fermenting and the client returned with a creative brief proposing we make a short video from the stills.

I knew there would be some challenges to doing this. First off not having shot more horizontals and secondly not incorporating the methods I listed above as normal for a motion assignment. Would it work? I asked the client to give a me a few days to see if we had enough extended series of stills to make a film viable and to run tests to see what frame rate would work best. The series count and tests had to be done after bringing the outtakes back into mix. What had been edited out would be needed to fill out any image series.

There were 157 series varying in length between 6 frames and 55 frames. The majority were 10 to ~20 frames long. Given this a 24 fps video was not going to work. 12 fps or slower would be needed to have enough length in the clips. The client and I settled on 6 fps, agreeing that it kept the staccato feel we wanted and it allowed the viewer to easily see the building blocks underlying each dancers’ movement. Interestingly, since this was the same frame rate I had used while shooting the compiled motion clips are in real time. With the frame rate pinned down and the number of series known we were good to go – a short motion piece was doable.

Raw stills were processed out of Aperture as jpegs to fit within 1920 x 5184 px. This allowed for cropping the 16:9 full HD format, 1920 x 1080, out of the vertical images without sacrificing image quality. Horizontals, of course, would fit fine.  The motion clips were compiled via QuickTime Player (v7). Those clips were then brought into FCP X for editing.

It was clear that the piece would have to be tightly edited to the music and in essence hang on the music’s structure. So, key to the process was picking the music first.

Airborne. ISO 8000, f/2.8, 1/2000. Princeton, NJ, February, 2013.
Airborne. ISO 8000, f/2.8, 1/2000. Princeton, NJ, February, 2013.

The final piece is very close to one of the rough cuts I had initially presented. In terms of editing, I was looking to build to a crescendo at the end. I knew I had to have breaks in both the pacing and in the layout to keep the piece interesting and to also give some eye relief to the viewer.

The pauses in the music provided opportunities to cut to black (eye relief from the staccato motion) and also helped build suspense. Having so many great vertical series and not wanting to crop them all to 16:9 horizontals led organically to the three triptych sections, supplying the needed variety in the layout, and making a great structural parallel with the three dancers at the end.

Many things came together to make the film work. First and foremost was that for all intents and purposes the dance performance is a professional undertaking. The pieces, direction, staging, lighting, and skill level of the dancers was all there. It was like walking into a perfectly lit scene. There was nothing on the production side that took away from the visual quality of what I was capturing.

Next up is equipment… I shot with two of Canon’s new 1D X cameras.  I shot loosely, varying the ISO all the way up to 16,000 and shooting as wide as f/1.2.  I used AI Priority mode, letting the camera’s auto focus system track the movement once I told it where to focus. These cameras are a new model, available since late summer 2012, and I have not had a camera system ever that performed like these. From the low noise and high dynamic range, to the incredibly consistent locking and tracking focus, the final piece would not have been possible on a previous generation camera.

Interwoven dancers. ISO 16,000; f/2.8, 1/1250. Princeton, NJ, February, 2013.
Interwoven dancers. ISO 16,000; f/2.8, 1/1250. Princeton, NJ, February, 2013.

And then there is… a great client, Princeton University’s Development Communications office. They took my idea, ran with it, and brought me along for the ride. Even though the final piece is very close to one of my rough edits we still went through 14 variations to get to our final piece. Stills photography is often a solitary endeavor.  Motion/film/video, even if it starts as stills, is anything but. To date I have not had a motion project which was not helped by the collaboration that comes while shooting or in post-production.

Once again, The Light Inside: