August 6, 2010 in Features

Dance movies step into the 3-D experience

Disney franchise aims to involve viewers in each scene
David Ng Los Angeles Times
 

The pressure to come up with new and exciting dance moves often keeps choreographers thinking outside the box.

Now, with the flood of 3-D film releases, they must also think outside the frame.

“It’s not just the choreography within the frame but the frame itself,” says Jon Chu, director of “Step Up 3D,” which opens in theaters today.

“With 3-D, the frame becomes a much more active partner, and it becomes a duet between audience and dancers.”

“Step Up 3D” and “StreetDance 3D” (which has opened overseas and is looking for a U.S. distributor) demonstrate how choreographers and dancers have managed to overcome the rigors of 3-D filmmaking to create dance sequences that take full advantage of the eye-popping format.

“You normally think of 3-D as the action coming out of the screen,” says Dania Pasquini, who co-directed “StreetDance,” about an urban dance group that partners with a ballet troupe so they can share their rehearsal space.

“We wanted viewers to become part of the scene. It’s not a roller coaster ride. It’s about depth and added dimension.”

Indeed, creating dance scenes for 3-D requires an entirely new mentality for choreographers, most of whom have worked exclusively in traditional screen formats.

“Most of us are used to choreographing left to right, which is 2-D. When you’re relaying choreography in a 3-D manner, the angles are completely different,” says Rich Talauega, half of the Rich + Tone choreography team that worked on some of the dance sequences for “Step Up 3D.”

The third installment of Disney’s profitable franchise follows a ragtag troupe of street dancers – including Moose (Adam G. Sevani) and team captain Luke (Rick Malambri) – who take on New York’s toughest dance groups in a series of high-energy competitions.

“We had to make certain formations deeper to create more punch on screen,” Talauega says. “We tested some moves in advance, and some of the stuff just didn’t work. We had to rearrange certain formations to complement the depth of field.”

The viewer’s eye tends to wander all over the shot in 3-D movies, which means that every inch of the shot needs to be filled.

To that end, the makers of “Step Up 3D” created vibrant visual themes for each dance scene, including one that involved flooding the set so that dancers could fling water in the direction of the camera.

Choreographer Nadine “Hi-Hat” Ruffin, who has worked with numerous pop singers including Missy Elliott, created the dance moves for the water scene. She says that though the water added visual impact, it brought its fair share of dance problems.

“Water and smooth surfaces don’t work with dance moves,” Ruffin says, adding that there were a lot of slips, falls, bumps and bruises while making the scene.

To avoid further injury, the filmmakers placed a carpet – made to look like a concrete floor – beneath the water to improve traction.

Despite the difficulties, she describes the 3-D format as “a choreographer’s dream. Viewers can feel like they’re in the room with us.”

Dave Scott, who choreographed the film’s opening scene – a colorful chase through New York’s Washington Square Park – says 3-D changes the way dance professionals think about the frame.

“It made my creative outlook go haywire. I wanted to do so much more,” he says.

For the chase scene, the filmmakers incorporated balloons, soap bubbles and other colorful distractions into the choreography.

“You want to keep adding things to the mix, but you have to keep the choreography at the top of your mind,” Scott says. “We tested out different things so that we wouldn’t give the audience a headache.”

The 3-D dance movie isn’t new to Hollywood. Perhaps the most famous example is “Captain EO,” which debuted in 1986.

The short film, starring Michael Jackson and directed by Francis Ford Coppola, played at Disneyland and Walt Disney World for many years and was recently revived following Jackson’s death in 2009. The comic space adventure culminates in an elaborate sequence featuring Jackson leading a troupe of dancers in a series of musical numbers.

Although 3-D dance isn’t a novelty, the current digital technology behind it is. The makers of “StreetDance 3D” used two RED digital cameras to record the action as well as lighter SI-2K cameras for smaller spaces.

The film was shot on a variety of London locations including in and around the Royal Opera House, Parliament and other popular landmarks.

“Every dance sequence has to be strictly framed,” says co-director Max Giwa. “Normally, you can move a lot. But in 3-D, things can become blurred.”

The makers of “Step Up 3D” used Sony’s F23 digital cameras.

“When you have two cameras on a rig, it’s super heavy and you can’t do stuff like steadi-cam shots,” said Chu, the film’s director.

“The cameras break down every day. That’s just a reality. And if you’re misaligned by a pixel, audiences will get dizzy and you can’t fix it in post-production.

“When you’re making your audience throw up, it’s not a choice anymore. It’s a mistake.”

Despite the cumbersome technical process, Chu says he would work in the medium again.

“Some movies use 3-D just to do it,” he says. “But dance and 3-D are a great match.”


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