Today Climbing Higher Pictures LLC is excited to announce the premiere of “Alice”, our latest short film and the first to make exclusive use of the Freefly MoVi M10 gimbal. The project was developed with choreographers Erica Hart and Molly Horne as a showcase for what freedom of camera movement can bring to dance videography. The goal of the short was simple: make the camera as much of a dancer as the performers themselves.
Work began a month or so prior when director Ryan Hamelin sat down with his choreography team to pick a song and settle on an idea that provided enough variety to avoid a more standard single location dance shoot. “I had always wanted to do a whimsical dance project of some sort", said Erica Hart. "So when Ryan had the idea of doing a dance film outdoors, I thought it was a perfect opportunity to get Molly involved. She really knows how to connect with her performers and knows how to set her pieces with the dancers in mind. As a result her choreography always turns out to be spectacular. This was our first time collaborating and when we were in the studio we quickly found that our two different dance styles were in fact very similar and the dance came naturally.” "I wanted the contemporary choreography to have a light and airy quality in order to evoke a sense of mysticism and to make the dancers seem ethereal", said Molly Horne. "The contemporary sections were breathy, with softer, grander movements. Erica and I collaborated to create a contemporary-hip-hop identify for Alice and it was exciting and surprising to see how easily our different styles flowed together."
When it came time to casting the part of Alice, everyone involved knew she had to be just as talented at acting as she was at footwork. “Katherine McManus is that girl", said Hart. "She's a triple threat. She's a terrific dancer, an actress, a singer and our perfect Alice. I've been watching her dance for the past two years and knew she could not only pull off the part, but bring her own spin to it." Hamelin agreed, adding that “she comes across as incredibly relatable, and we weren’t going to have a lot of screen-time for the audience to get to know her. We had to buy her transformation on the Highline and believe that she could become the leader of this group of dancers after running scared for most of the short. I really think she pulled it off.”
The short had its share of technical challenges too, choosing to photograph the project on a 5D Mark III with the Magic Lanter Raw Hack enabled. “Neither Erin [Director of Photography], nor I had ever shot with the hack before this, and we actually ended up having to borrow extra cards from my roommate just because of the sheer amount of data we were recording", said Hamelin. The Magic Lantern hack allowed the filmmakers to pull RAW image data out of the 5D in the form of still image sequences that have to be processed in post. The benefits of this method include a much higher quality image, as well as greater latitude between shadows and highlights, something which became invaluable during the naturally lit shoot. “We didn’t have the budget or the manpower to set up much in the way of lights and reflectors, and the way we were moving the camera, it was hard to know what was necessarily going to be in the way or in the corner of a frame from shot to shot.”
Hamelin and his partner Erin Trout worked closely together to execute some of the more complicated setups. “Erin pretty much spent the shoot glued to her monitor with our 1st AC, Dan Rampulla, huddled in next to her. She would use the MoVi’s remote control to maintain a consistent frame as well as execute fast movements and pans that are impossible for me to do while trying to keep my balance. Dan used her monitor to pull off of, and the whole thing worked really well. Having two operators who work well as a team and who know the rig inside and out is really the key to getting the best takes with the rig.”
When it came to locations, the filmmakers settled on the iconic Bethesda fountain in central park, the Highline park on the west side of Manhattan, Brooklyn Bridge Park, and a subway train. On the first day of shooting the crew arrived to find the Bethesda fountain had been taken over by an event crew who had erected large tents and brought in equipment for a major event. "We just didn't have time to scout another location", noted Hart. "We ended up moving to The Mall and it worked out great. The dancers where able to adapt to the additional space and explore their movement. It was a lot of "structured improv" so I just had to guide that process." The Highline staff, a source of concern going into the shoot, seemed to be as entertained by the dancing as the crowd that gathered at the railing to watch. “One of the Park Rangers told us that they get excited when things like this happen on the Highline”, Hamelin said. “It gives the people visiting the park a story they can share with their friends, and maybe it’ll convince them to come back or donate to the Park Services.”
The night of the final day of shooting was the pivotal subway scene. “I knew we needed to be able to film on the subway platform as well as in one of the train cars. We decided to go all the way out to Coney Island at around 1am on a weekday in the hopes of having an empty car to ourselves,” said Hamelin. New York City law forbids photography on the subway as part of their pledge to homeland security. There have been numerous cases of cameras getting confiscated and even arrests. Larger productions either spend thousands of dollars to rent out a train for their shoot, or, in the case of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, they use a DSLR and steal the footage.
“Because of the MoVi, which looks kind of like a weird futuristic weapon in its own right, we were very concerned about raising suspicion on the platform. It ended up being a lot of hiding the rig behind trashcans in between takes, and avoiding security cameras wherever possible,” said Hamelin. Because of the tight security, the platform elevator that takes Alice up to the Highline was scheduled as the last shot of the production. “The elevator was rigged with multiple cameras inside and an additional camera on the outside above the door. There wasn’t a way to avoid them so we just had to hope we’d get away with it. It was really a one take situation, and when we didn’t get stopped after the first attempt we got a couple more for safety and then exited the station.”
The post-production process took a little over a week. The project had been storyboarded in such a way that individual shots naturally led in and out of each other on predetermined music cues. This allowed the editing to occur much faster than it would on a more conventional production. "I think it looks great and it really shows all of the hardwork Ryan put in it to pull it off", said Hart. "Ryan and Erin knew exactly what they were doing and it was a joy working with such a positive team of artists. The audience is in for a real treat!" “I just really hope viewers enjoy themselves watching it, and I’m incredibly proud of all the people who donated their time to make this project happen", Hamelin added. "We couldn’t have done it without help, and I’m totally in their debt.”
Check out the finished short at the top of the page, and below is a brief look behind the scenes of the shoot:
We hope you enjoy “Alice” and let us know what you think in the Vimeo comments.