Four years after the last season of Emmy-nominated ABC television series Dance Academy, cast and crew alike reunite for a drama-filled feature film shot by Martin McGrath ACS.
Interview by Jenna McMahon.
Directed by Jeffrey Walker (Ali’s Wedding, Modern Family), Dance Academy: The Movie picks up approximately eighteen months after the final season ended. For those not familiar with the successful television series, Dance Academy follows Tara Webster (Xenia Goodwin), a talented small-town girl who is selected for Sydney’s National Dance Academy. Tara, like many of her new found friends dreams of one day becoming a principal ballet dancer but to get a chance of fulfilling their dreams they must excel in this notoriously difficult course. Each student must discover their own unique path and deal with teen dramas along the way.
Dance Academy: The Movie has been written to be accessible to audiences unfamiliar with the series. Shot by award-winning cinematographer Martin McGrath ACS (Muriel’s Wedding) the film wastes no time in sustaining visual themes seamlessly from the series. It stands its ground as an independent work and has a highly satisfying narrative arc. Tara questions what she wants to do in her future after her dreams of becoming a professional ballerina seem all but crippled after an injury leaves her unable to dance.
AC – You’ve worked on a lot of memorable Australian television and film. Could you tell me how you originally got a start in the industry?
MM – I got my start at Seven News in Melbourne, I had been shooting my own 16mm films at school and worked in a small video production house for a while.
News and the responsibility that went with it really suited me. I moved to Nine News and fell in with another bunch of eager news hounds; John Bowring ACS, Lee Pulbrook, as well as cameramen at other stations like Terry Carlyon ACS, Alex McPhee ACS, Dennis Nicholson and Ron Hagen ACS. The list goes on. They had a big influence on me. There was a strong competitive spirit between us, yet we were constantly learning and copying from each other. It set me up really and taught me the value of story, and the importance of making your chosen approach work.
All up, I spent a decade doing documentary and current affairs work before drama fell into my lap. I started working with Yuri Sokol, a Russian who worked a lot with Paul Cox. This lead me to a mini series in Sydney called Return to Eden (1986).
AC – You’ve been with Dance Academy since the beginning. How did you get involved with this project?
MM – That was a strange one really, right out of the blue. I went to an interview with Jo Werner and Bernadette O’Mahony and just got the job. I had never really worked with dancers but I had done children’s television before and knew the stresses and time constraints. The scripts were really dynamic.
AC – Did much change in the way you filmed the movie in comparison to the way you shot the series?
MM – Ah, this is the heart of it and I don’t know if I will succeed in articulating this well but…the television series was soft and light at its core, aspirational and positive, never threatening.
The movie is quite a progression in time, the dancers are older and they are dealing with deeper issues. There is more of a cloud over their world and that world is more complex now. There is a sense of foreboding. The lighting reflects this and the mood range is enormous.
AC – Was there less scheduling and time pressures on the film?
MM – Probably, but not that I felt it. The pace is always solid no matter what you do, but there is never panic. Just quiet concentration and work.
AC – What cameras did you choose to shoot Dance Academy?
MM – Jeff Walker, the Director, had only just finished his first feature, Ali’s Wedding, which he did with Don McAlpine ACS ASC. They were both thrilled with the Panasonic Varicam. I am too now. The tests we did showed how easily it handled mixed colour temperatures, and there was a smoothness to it that was pleasing. I wanted a bit of a fractured vintage optic quality to the film.
It was difficult not to think of the work of Jack Cardiff OBE BSC on The Red Shoes (1948). I tried to emulate that in the flash backs in the film.
I wanted to really push the emotive side of the visuals. For me that meant a combination of handheld and more formal shots and also steadicam, really mix it up. Lemac provided some wonderful Cooke Anamorphic lenses which were often used at close range so the Focus Pullers (Sarah Hadley and Juntra Donovan) were working hard. We wanted colour, energy and emotion. I think we got there.
AC – Do you operate your own camera?
MM – Yes, I do! I aim to operate at least half of the projects that come my way. It’s the heart of a film for me and puts me right into the process. Also, after sixty-five episodes of the show, I know these actors well. They give their all as dancers and would rather break something than take a rest. The operator can keep them fully informed as to when they will be required to be up to speed so they don’t give their best work in a rehearsal and also I can keep the Director informed as to how they are holding up. You get two or three goods takes, that’s it. On Steadicam I had Laurie Zaffino who did a wonderful job on some very difficult dance numbers. A huge physical challenge.
It’s the heart of a film for me and puts me right into the process.
AC – Which cinematographers would you sight as major inspirations?
MM – I have always been inspired by the greats of course, Conrad Hall ASC, Haskell Wexler ASC, but also our local heroes like John Seale AM ACS ASC, Russell Boyd ACS ASC and Greig Fraser ACS ASC. There were a few reckless mavericks like Brian Probyn, Raoul Coutard AFC who never cease to amaze me. Both gone now but remarkable.
AC – Can you walk us through your preparation process before shooting?
MM – The preparation was focussed mainly in condensing a massive vision into a very tight schedule. The 1st AD Matt Enfield and Production Designer Chris Kennedy were dragging us through multiple scenarios with Producer Joanna Werner and Writer Sam Strauss pitching in. I don’t think I have been through a more intense pre-production in my life. It paid off. An enormous amount of planning went into the dance numbers, choreography, lighting design, and special effects.
AC – Do you work from storyboards?
MM – I love storyboards, and I also love to ignore them. They are the best prepping tool. I love to do a bit of sketching and it’s a great way of articulating a shot so everyone knows what’s going on. Then of course you get on set and it all blows away but it’s best value may have been in narrowing down the discussion process prior to the day.
The notion of having a set of boards like a shot list that must be worked through fills me with dread. Often a scene you have broken into eight beautiful boards looks best as three simple shots on the set. If you see the opportunity to simplify, jump on it. Don’t be a slave.
AC – Do you feel that your storyboards are a good way of communicating with directors who may not be as visual as others?
MM – Yeah, definitely. I also think it is important to talk to directors about their favourite films because there is an enormous amount of importance on looking through the veil or filter of genre and style. A lot of people ignore this but it has to be identified and spelled out.
For instance, when working with PJ Hogan getting to the core of what Muriel’s Wedding was about. By that I mean the specific and particular tone of humour that it had was a real journey and it was one of the first films I had anything to do with. I had worked with his wife, Jocelyn Moorhouse (The Dressmaker) so I was aware of their shared wonderful and bizarre sense of humour. Yet it’s not clearly the case, especially on Muriel’s Wedding, how to achieve it in visual terms. So you are often just observing and watching for the tone of the readings to get a guide as to what you should do visually.
AC – How did you work to achieve the Director’s vision while still imparting your own unique perspective?
MM – I think they are one and the same. I try to first sort out the Director’s concerns as they have much to consider. I have learnt not to ignore or dismiss a Director’s taste. There was a time when I felt like everyone was conspiring to make my life difficult and retard ‘my vision’! Those bastards!!! But now I am able to get more from my Director, and very importantly a Production Designer. So much of my work is also the work of Chris Kennedy and Tess Schofield’s (Costume Designer). These are really experienced people, you have to listen. My vision is there but it’s a collaborative effort.
AC – What was your favourite sequence that you filmed for the movie?
MM – Good question. My favourite scene to shoot would have been Tara’s audition for Miss Raine (Tara Morice). It’s a manic piece that she performs in a makeshift studio in a barn. I managed to follow Tara around on a handheld camera trying to stay as close to her as I could without getting kicked in the head. We managed it, more a tribute to Tara’s masterful footwork than mine. She is a remarkable actor and dancer. A real star. We also shot in Times Square, New York, that was fun.
AC – What was the most challenging sequence that you filmed?
MM – Ah, the most challenging sequence was most definitely the final dance number which was so incredibly complex for everybody. Lighting effects, snow, crane, complicated choreography, but it’s wonderful.
AC – Is there talk of another film or a fourth series?
MM – Gee I hope so. This is the most enjoyable project, I really love and respect this incredible cast, they make you proud to be in this industry. They work their socks off and deserve huge accolades for just getting through it. Joanna Werner and Sam Strauss are a brilliant producer and writing team. I can see a series of features and a reboot of the series… dream!
AC – You’ve done a lot of work in both film and television? What do you prefer?
MM – I like both. I am always thinking of the best writing. These days I think television writing is about the best there is. Features are such a great forum for that which cinematographers care most for, images.
AC – What genre is your favourite to have worked on?
MM – Look, that’s interesting. I was just talking to someone the other day and was saying that if Dance Academy was still successful I’d like to live in this world as long as I could. There’s something wonderful about dance. There is something wonderful about lighter elements of life that suits me and I have done dark and dreary films in my life but there is something after a while where you don’t want to be there forever. You seek out the light where you can. I think there are those people that liked La La Land (2016) and those that didn’t like La La Land – I’m one of those people that loved it.
AC – You’ve worked on Dance Academy, Jack Irish and Banished with director Jeffrey Walker. Do you find a change in the approaches that either of you take when filming such vastly different stories?
MM – He’s a particularly gifted Director who just gets it. I’ve worked with a large number of people and he is a person that just seems to gel really well with me in that he has a good balance in the things that are important and knows when to leave things up to me.
We have a comfortable enough arrangement where he can point things out to me right down to my choice of lens or my choice of a light or how the scene is balanced. I’m happy for him to tell me ‘no Marty, this is wrong.’ Similarly I can take him aside and say ‘I think we need this shot, this shot and this shot’ and he will listen to me.
We’ve just known each other for a long period of time. He’s a good listening Director which is a rare thing. Walker is relaxed enough to work through the issues and address the problems as they arise but also pull everyone together and point us in the direction he wants everyone to go. He has worked on a lot of different shows so he is exposed to a lot of different ways of working.
AC – Are there any films you would recommend that you’ve seen recently?
MM – I really loved Arrival (2016) which I thought perfectly articulated something that a lot of filmmakers and writers try and put into film, which is that sense that we’re part of a continuum. We live our life, we die and someone takes our place. We’re stuck in a time continuum and that’s such a difficult concept to convey but I thought they did a wonderful job. The Director, Denis Villeneuve, did a wonderful job of conveying that and at the beginning I thought it was losing itself but just gradually pulled all of the elements together.
AC – Do you have any advice for young cinematographers out there looking to get a foot in the door?
MM – Yes, shoot everything you get offered, money or no money… at least for a while. Then find people who write good scripts and stay close to them. If you find a director you like working with, be encouraging.
AC – Finally, what are you working on next?
MM – I am in the United States prepping for a television series, but really looking forward to returning to Australia for another and final series of Rake. And possibly a Jack Irish telemovie, heaven!
Jenna McMahon studies Psychology and Literature at The University of Queensland.