The talented Bonnie Elliott brings indigenous Choreographer Stephen Page’s seminal work from the Bangarra Dance Theatre stage to cinemas in Spear, a contemporary hybrid feature film.
By Bonnie Elliott.
Stephen Page and I had previously collaborated on ‘Sand’, an episode of The Turning (2013), a feature adaptation of Tim Winton’s short story collection, where each chapter was given to a different director. Page is one of Australia’s most celebrated contemporary choreographers, and his many years as artistic director of the Bangarra Dance Theatre have seen him create an extraordinary body of work.
When I was first approached about working together I was really excited, and the process of making the short film Sand was a real pleasure, mostly because of Page’s generous and collaborative spirit. Although he is in the early stages of his journey as a film maker he is not afraid to take bold risks, and coming from a different storytelling tradition of movement and dance, his perspective was often invigorating, with no fear of going down an unconventional path. So when the producer of ‘Sand’, John Harvey, and executive producer Robert Connolly, contacted me about Spear, a feature length adaptation of one of Page’s stage works, I was really excited to continue the collaboration.
Spear is an unusual project in so many ways – funded through the Hive, an initiative of the Adelaide Film Festival and ABC Arts – where artists from other disciplines are invited to submit feature length projects to direct. The desire is to create unique screen works, not traditional narrative feature films, but hybrid works that might sit as comfortably in a gallery as a cinema. Spear was an opportunity to make something very distinctive, a feature film told mostly through dance, and for a new expression of indigenous storytelling onscreen that would connect to the deeply significant tradition of dance and ceremony in Aboriginal culture.
Spear tells the story of Djali, a young Aboriginal man, who sets off on a journey of initiation to understand what it means to be a man in the modern world. He sees the problems being faced by Aboriginal men in remote and urban communities. As he struggles to find his place, he becomes awakened to a spiritual force, guiding him on his journey into manhood.
I felt it was very important that Spear had a rich visual language – when you are working mostly without dialogue, and in a non-traditional narrative, the imagery must be arresting, and emotionally engaging, to keep the audience inside the experience. I knew we had a great variety of locations and lighting states within the story, and my first choice was for an Alexa, which I prefer for it’s dynamic range, and filmic rendition of light, especially in highlights. Also, I find skin tones are very pleasing on the ARRI Alexa and this was a big consideration given the diverse range within our performers. From indigenous communities all over Australia and the Torres Strait. Given the ambition of the project versus the very modest budget, we were fortunate to have the support of David Gross from Definition Films for the project, as he was able to package up the camera equipment and post- production to make it possible to shoot on Alexa.
Filming began in Arnhem Land with a small pre-shoot, where Bangarra was touring at the time. Wanting to take advantage of this opportunity to film in such unique landscape we needed to travel light, and with a minimal crew (just myself and my focus puller, Cam Gaze), as it is incredibly expensive to take people and gear to such a remote location. I wanted to have the ability to move the camera in a fluid way, and the Movi seemed like a good fit. So for this shoot I took a RED Epic, and a set of Zeiss Standards, a package light enough to balance on the rig. This was my first experience of shooting with the Movi, and for the most part it was a positive one.
“I find skin tones very pleasing on the ARRI Alexa and this was a big consideration given the diverse range within our performers.“
We were able to capture some lovely movement, and even managed a tracking shot off the roof of a troop-carrier on the red dirt airstrip of the small community we were filming in, sort of a poor man’s drone! But the downside to the Movi quickly became apparent – holding the weight for a long period of time is not easy – and this made me think Steadicam would be a better tool for the main shoot, where we would need to film full runs of the dance, some as long as six minutes.
When principal photography commenced some months later we had our Alexa and a set of Cooke S4s, which I love for their rendition of faces, and an Epic as a second camera for high speed work. The plan for the Epic was to use it more occasionally, but as the shoot progressed it was increasingly obvious that with a three week shooting schedule it was necessary to run two cameras a lot of the time, both for coverage and for the sake of the dancers energy. I had shot tests in pre-production to see how closely the cameras could be matched, and using the ACES colour space for grading in Resolve, it seemed possible to get them very close, although a little time consuming.
Jacob Nash is the resident designer for Bangarra, and his work with Page in the theatre has a lot of impact, often using one really striking idea and letting that speak volumes. It was fortunate to have him as designer on Spear, as he came to the project with a deep understanding of Page’s aesthetic, and great knowledge of the back catalogue of Bangarra work. The same was true of our Costume Designer, Jenny Irwin. Because Spear is in many ways an embodiment of Page’s decades of choreography and artistic practice, it felt like there was no need for much outside reference, it was more about the translation of his creative world onto screen.
Location choice was perhaps the most fundamental concern in determining the overall visual language of the film. We felt it was very important that the dance feel liberated from the black void of the theatre, so that even when we are in dark spaces, there was some texture, a sense of the physical world. That the beauty of seeing dance on screen is in seeing it outside of the confines of the stage, to be both up close and intimate with the dancers, and then seeing them as figures in an environment, be it landscape or architecture.
The film moves between many spaces; ‘real world’ exteriors in Arnhem Land, Bombo Quarry, North Head – where the natural landscape opens out in epic ways. Contrasted with striking urban spaces in Sydney; a long pedestrian tunnel, a vast train station escalator, monolithic housing commission flats, and a variety of interiors including a ten pin bowling alley. Then there are chapters in more ‘stylized’ spaces on Cockatoo Island, a version of a prison, and a dark industrial space where a single Torana beams its lonely headlights. This is rounded out by a ‘studio’ space at Carriageworks where we shot against the grey concrete walls and industrial columns of one of their theatre spaces, and utilised their rigging infrastructure to hang theatrical elements like backdrops.
We wanted the locations to have their own unique qualities. Part of the power of the film is the journey through so many diverse places but they needed to have unifying aspects, simplicity or starkness, a strong graphic quality. As we found the different locations I laid out images from each of them on a wall on the production office in story order so we could feel our visual journey evolving, and also think about the transitions between them.
The contrast of imagery was often quite extreme, at one point a dancer painted in white ochre leaves a dressing room of drag queens to go onstage, and he walks through the curtains into a paper bark forest in Arnhem Land. It was wonderful to be in a story world where such leaps of imagination were possible, and to have the opportunity for such visual freedom.
Spear has almost no VFX work; it is very much a film that was captured in camera. We had a data wrangler on set but given our ambitious schedule of three weeks, my preference was to keep it simple. I am a big believer in watching rushes together, not separately. I feel this really allows you to respond to the material as you create it, and encourages a healthy dialogue about what is working, and what needs attention. Editor Simon Njoo was an invaluable collaborator for Page and myself, and quite early in the shoot we started watching assemblies instead of rushes, which I found especially useful in terms of understanding the cutting rhythms our Director was finding. It became apparent that the second camera coverage was crucial, and that having the closer details, the more abstract shots you sometimes find with a B camera, gave necessary punctuation to the movement.
My favourite sequence in Spear is a dance set in a prison. After making enquiries about filming at Parramatta Jail it became apparent we were not going to gain access to a real prison location, so instead we wandered the vast empty spaces of Cockatoo Island and constructed an idea of one, from a few different areas, including one shot in a vast turbine hall. Sometimes being forced to think laterally helps you make a more interesting creative choice. There is a real beauty to the textures and patina of the walls, and the stark emptiness of the spaces, when combined with the simplicity of twenty or so indigenous men in pale yellow tracksuits, and the clean lines of new stainless steel tables, we created a really strong abstract world. So much of what we often shoot is set in a naturalistic world, it was exciting to create images that could sit outside that, and that were a real collaboration of photography and design. We were blessed on the day of shooting with perfect overcast weather, keeping the light soft and cool. And the dance itself is a very powerful one, the combination of slow tracking, intimate Steadicam moves and a lot of great close details on the second camera, seemed to really get inside the emotion of the scene.
“I am a big believer in watching rushes together, not separately.“
During the rehearsal phase of the production I spent a lot of time watching the Director work with the dancers, to understand the choreography we were to film, and think about possible approaches. What was really important about this time was gaining an understanding about how Page works, and how much he trusts his instincts in a very definite way. I would wander around with my 5D filming from different angles as he rehearsed, and later he and I would discuss the perspectives I was offering and he would have a very clear sense of what angles captured the movement in an interesting way. Taking work that was constructed for the proscenium view of the theatre and reinterpreting that in the volume of the cinema space gave Page a chance to re-imagine the choreography for the camera lens. He often said he had watched the show from the wings sometimes, and wished this perspective could also be seen.
So we collaborated closely and plotted out each dance and an intended approach. We were keen to incorporate movement of the camera to create fluidity in the visual language. We wanted the film to feel like breathing; a constant sense of energy coming and going.Some dances seemed to favour tracking, while others felt more suited to Steadicam, and often it was a combination of both, shifting between as the choreography changed pace, or formation.
When it came to the actual shoot we discovered the Steadicam worked best when it was a little more improvised, to allow our operator, Pete Barta, to use his instincts and follow where the flow of the movement took him. To really integrate his movement in a truly choreographed way would have required a whole extra rehearsal period before the shoot, with the camera physically in amongst the dancers. But the combination of more controlled tracking shots, and the spontaneity of the Steadicam, proved really interesting in the edit. Filming dance is about balance, of seeing the whole body, the greater shapes and patterns of the movement. And then it is about the expressive gestural details, the intimate experience of the dancer’s emotion and their physicality, really harnessing the cinematic power of the close up.
Slow-motion was another tool we used carefully throughout the film. We tested various speeds in pre-production, and felt drawn to the subtlety of 36 fps, which the Director liked for the ‘thickness’ it gave to the movements. Often the B-Camera would run at this speed, on a longer lens. Sometimes we went further, using higher speeds like 96fps to punctuate the action and this was particularly effective in the testosterone fuelled ‘Dingo Dance’ where ochre dust is thrown at the lead dancer and the slow motion extends some very energetic movement in his solo. Of course it is a very seductive thing to watch a dancer’s movement in extreme slow motion, so we were careful to use it sparingly so that it retained its impact.
Colour and lighting were also thoroughly discussed. Page has a very strong sense of this from his years in theatre so we carefully plotted colour shifts across the different locations, when we might use haze and what sort of quality the light might have. I was keen to use bigger, softer sources than what he was used to in theatrical work, to create chiaroschuro modeling on the dancer’s bodies that wrapped around in a sculptural way, but went to shadow more softly. This meant the lighting was more continuous than Page was accustomed to, but we did use some slow fades and cross dissolves to add drama to particular moments.
When you only have three weeks to shoot a feature you really need people with a lot of experience, and enthusiasm. I was very lucky to assemble a wonderful camera department, who all felt excited to be part of such a special project. Barta was our Steadicam and A Camera operator. He brought a lot of sensitivity and feeling to the shots, and worked really collaboratively with the dancers. Christian Luxton was A-Camera Focus Puller, and did extraordinary work under somewhat tough conditions. There are only so many marks you can really get with dance, especially when both the camera and the dancer are in motion most of the time and he achieved remarkable results. We were well supported by very experienced Second AC, Inaki De Ubago, and Michael Filocamo did a great job as Data Wrangler. My longtime lighting department of Gaffer Zac Murphy and Best Boy Damian Seagar brought their wonderful creativity and speed to the project, a huge job at times for just the two of them. They came up with some great flexible solutions for my desire to have large soft sources overhead, using a 12×12 frame and kinos rigged underneath a knuckle boom in one of our main locations, a large industrial shed on Cockatoo Island. Key Grip, David Lichtfield, offered up his usual good humour and ingenuity to the task at hand, and plenty of elegant dolly moves too.
Grading took place at Definition Films on Resolve, with the excellent Billy Wychgel as Colourist. I knew that matching the Alexa and Epic footage would be a little time consuming, so we had allowed for nine days of grading. I love attending the grade, and will do everything possible to make sure I can be there for the whole time. It is such a pleasure to see the images reach their full potential, and the subtle shaping of the frames brings such cohesion to the whole. When you have a very fast shoot you always know you will be doing certain trims in a grading suite that would take too long to achieve physically on set, so it is very important to be there to carry through those ideas.
Spear ranges over so many different locations and lighting states; it was about finding the right tone for each space and then integrating that into an overall feel of contrast and saturation. Although there is one very deliberate pop of intense colour in a scene in a ten-pin bowling alley that had built in disco lighting, a lot of saturated reds and blues. I loved the way this contrasted with the rest of the scenes, and felt it amplified the surrealism of our main character Djali teaching the old man from Arnhem Land how to bowl, all alone in the alley. The film Jedda (1955) by Charles Chauvel playing live
on the video screen above the lanes. The overall grading philosophy was about making the film flow, to continue the idea of breathing that Page and I had worked for in the filming, to allow each beat of the story to have it’s own mood but to create something continuous and fluid, keeping it natural and looking after the wonderfully diverse range of skin tones.
“I love attending the grade, and will do everything possible to make sure I can be there for the whole time.“
There are very few feature length dance films made, the most notable of recent times is Wim Wender’s Pina (2011), a tribute to choreographer Pina Bausch. Spear felt like a
rare opportunity but a very ambitious one too, given the low budget. I felt a strong sense of responsibility to do justice to the boldness of Page’s artistic vision as we transformed it for the screen, and worked hard to make sure that the schedule and resources did not compromise this. And I think the film is indeed unique, and beautiful, and is full of the wonderful energy of all the people who gave so much of themselves to make that happen – the incredible grace and generosity of the dancers, the small and hard working crew, the creative collaborators who supported Page in his feature debut.
Filming dance has it’s own specific conundrums and one of the major ones is the surface upon which the dancers are able to perform. It must be safe, as it is all done in bare feet with Bangarra and this means using tarquette (fancy lino, basically). If we were make the film again, and with a budget that allowed for it, it would have been ideal to have custom dance floors made that blended into the locations, so that you were never aware of having a staging area. Of course with a bigger budget you might have more time to shoot and a second Alexa, there are so many things you might dream of!
What I came to understand more than ever whilst making Spear is that sometimes the lateral decisions are the more interesting ones. The choices you make because you can’t have something lead you down a path to find another more surprising, and beautiful idea. Art is often made through obstructions, and it is about finding the right way through, and trusting your instincts.
My next job takes me into a very different world… a science fiction series for American television, where I will be sharing DOP duties with the very talented John Brawley. Life as a Cinematographer is always a wonderful study in contrast, in so many different ways!
Bonnie Elliott is a Cinematographer who works across the fields of drama, documentary, commercials and video art. She has received recognition from the Australian Cinematographers Society on numerous occasions for her work. Her feature credits include My Tehran for Sale (2009) and These Final Hours (2013).