Nicola Daley ACS Behind ‘Swan Lake Bath Ballet’

Nicola Daley ACS films twenty-seven dancers around the world performing Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake in their own bathtubs by Nicola Daley ACS

Dancer Benjamin Freemantle in ‘Swan Lake Bath Ballet’ – DOP Nicola Daley ACS

I knew the producer of Swan Lake Bath Ballet, Anne Beresford, as we are doing a feature film together next year. Beresford contacted me and asked if I would like to be involved in a creative project that we were going to make completely remotely during lockdown. I was very intrigued and I was painting the walls in my flat at the time during lockdown, so said I would love to do something creative!

Swan Lake was commissioned by BBC Arts for BBC Player as part of their ‘Culture in Quarantine’ series. I met choreographer and director Corey Baker over zoom – we still haven’t met in person – and we talked. Now, Swan Lake bath Ballet has over four million views on the web. But before that, Baker and I spoke about Ester Williams, and Busby Berkeley films, as creative references to our version of Swan Lake. 

Camera wise, in the end, I decided most of the dancers had a 4K smartphone, so why not use those. It was a lot of people and a lot of variables. We also spent a lot of research and development working out how we could get the feed from their phone to a laptop which could then be screen-shared over Zoom so we could sit and watch what was being filmed live.

We used Team Viewer to do this. There was some lag which was very hard for Baker to work out timings with the music and dance but we got there in the end. We also used WhatsApp to send and approve takes. We used Filmic Pro to make sure all the dancers phones were recording the same frame rate, and that I could then control things like exposure, white balance and focus. Filmic Pro made it so much easier in post-production and they were incredibly supportive of our project. 

We did a lot of pre-production. I made up documents on how all the dancers could work Filmic Pro and I talked them through it. Sometimes the dancers had to film themselves and sometimes they had amazing family members or partners helping them to film. 

The director and I did a lot of location scouting via Zoom with all the dancers. We would get on a Zoom call and get the dancer to show us their bathroom via their laptop. It was strangely intimate. I dug deep into my early documentary shooting days when we had to be resourceful and just utilised what each dancer had in their house. The ones we could get Amazon deliveries to; we sent them candles, pillows filled with feathers, coloured bath bombs to dye the water, and bendy selfie sticks. With the selfie stick they could attach the clip to their shower heads and the phone could give us our overhead shots. I spent three weeks saying to all the dancers, “left a bit, right a bit, up a bit.” It took a long time! 

Where we couldn’t get deliveries to, like New Zealand, the dancers were incredibly resourceful. One dancer used two stools placed on top of a washing basket with a broom handle extended over the bath and then gaffer taped his phone to that. We sent a gimbal to the opening dancer in Boston. Her husband then strapped the gimbal to his kids scooter and created the incredibly smooth track you see at the start of the film, and the only track in the whole film. 

I consider my collaboration with the dancers and their families to get the shots we needed as one of the most rewarding ever. The dancers went above and beyond. A dancer in New York had her mum wear the bendy self stick around her waist in their pool while she then dived underwater to get our amazing underwater shots.

Technicolour London were an amazing help to our film. I graded the film there with Jodie Davidson as our colourist. She is superbly talented. In the true spirit of Swan Lake Bath Ballet we graded live over the internet with Davidson in London, me in Margate and the Director in Italy. The film took three weeks to make a three-and-a-half minute film. It was by no means a quick process but it was so creatively challenging to say we didn’t want this film to look ‘homemade’. We wanted it to look as visually stunning and cinematic as it possibly can. The lockdown pushed me creatively to think outside the box, how can we achieve this remotely. I loved working on the film, but I did need a chiropractor session after sitting on Zoom all day every day for three weeks.

Nicola Daley ACS is an award-winning Australian cinematographer based in the United Kingdom, known for her work on the film ‘Pin Cushion‘ (2017).

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