Thursday, December 10, 2009

Future Possibilities: Film Editing

Since dance hit the silver screen in the early 20th century, there has been an ongoing relationship between the dancer and the film camera. Many directors and choreographers have explored the possibilities in portraying dance on film. Even with today's explosion of online dance videos, dance on film remains one of the most influential mediums in exposing a young generation to our street styles. Film is a language that can be used to showcase our dance language. Part of this film language is the art of editing. This technique can shape an actor's performance, establish and stretch space and time, and create emotional reactions from an audience by juxtaposing images. Let's see how this can push the boundaries for street dance on film. (Photo above is from a Getty Images archive on film reels.)

Filmmakers will note the influential work of Sergei Eisenstein for establishing some of the most well-known principles behind film editing. When we take two images and place them together in a sequential fashion, we can experience an emotion from their juxtaposition. We see editing used in many ways today whether it's to control the pacing of a film scene, to create hyper sensations with fast cutting in an action sequence, or to mold an actor's performance. This last technique is crucial to dancers. The traditional method for shooting an actor's performance requires multiple takes of a scene with different camera angles. The actor repeats and reinterprets the scene each time thereby providing material for an editor to sculpt together during the post-production phase. Often, an editor will be able to take different elements from various takes to create an impression of one final performance for the actor in a scene. Sometimes, an actor performs better during the first half of a scene. Other times, the actor has a brief moment of spontaneity that enlivens the scene so the editor works to keep that gem. Editing is a craft that demands patience, rhythm, and an intuitive sense of emotional storytelling. In the end, an editor can even improve on an actor's performance by sculpting these different takes together via editing software like Final Cut Pro and Avid.

An editor might face the same challenges when editing a dance sequence. Often, dance isn't treated as the same emotional level as a dramatic acting scene. Even in recent mainstream Hollywood dance films, the dance sequences are played as stylized action sequences with a lot of style and flash. They're designed to excite and titillate us. But what if film editors embraced a dancer's perspective and worked to sculpt the emotion that goes through a dancer's heart and soul during a performance? Can we bring out the inner emotional life of a dancer on screen as we do for an actor in a dramatic scene? This is challenging because an editor can only work with what the director and cinematographer provide in available footage. There would need to be a greater collaboration among the entire filmmaking team to tell a dancer's story on film. So assuming this is part of the equation, it's possible that an editor could sculpt a dancer's performance on an emotional level. If the camera captured details of the face and body along with the familiar wide angle views, we'd be able to feel more of what the dancer is feeling. If the film editor understands the narrative behind the dance performance, it might be possible to even find spontaneous moments that the dancer created and to use it to enhance the overall performance on screen. Is the dancer struggling to get through the routine? Are there gasps or grunts that the dancer is expressing? Often, dance is portrayed on film as an external experience. We see what is happening outside the dancer's body by seeing the moving body parts. What if we saw what was going on inside the dancer through a more abstract approach? Can we combine voiceover, music, and artfully composed shots of the performance in a non-linear fashion that reveal the soul of the performance? This might come across as an abstract idea but it's worth entertaining.

Editing's ability to stretch space and time come into effect here. On film, we can jump from one place to another and manipulate time in ways that we can't do on stage. Where does this place dance on film? The soul of dancer's performance and the external movement can exist free of space and time. We can change locations by cutting from one place to another. We can slow down or speed up a performance with simple motion control tools. And there can be specific moments in a performance that can be highlighted. We see basic examples of this when we watch instant replays at sporting events. We've even seen moments of this during recent seasons of MTV's America's Best Dance Crew. Perhaps editing's ability to manipulate space and time is effective in creating an actual visual dialogue for dancers on screen. If we start thinking about dance as less of a special effect and more of a narrative element in a film, we might even see whole non-dialogue scenes telling crucial parts of a story in a mainstream Hollywood film. All it takes are the right minds to pull it off.

The use of montage is another powerful technique that editing can bring to dance on film. Montages can compress time as well as create emotional reactions from image sequences. We've seen montages in many studio dance films, especially when there is the familiar "training" sequence that a dancer or crew undergoes before the final competition. But montage can have broader uses. What if we juxtaposed images of a dance performance with seemingly unrelated images? Can we create commentary on a storyline through this experimental usage? Or what if we intercut between two different dancers as they moved? How would that add a subtext to the narrative? Montages allow us to break down dance performances on film and to re-engineer them into a new fashion with new purposes.

Filmmaking is close to a century-old at this time. It's an art form that has arisen before hip hop street dancing entered our world. But as both cultures continue to evolve, there will likely be more opportunities for both to cross paths. The question will be how they influence each other in this new century.

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