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Ballet Talk for Dancers

Photos: Pitiful cameramen!

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Sometimes I think they get their education by filming football plays. The either film the whole stage (dancers extremly small so that you just don't see anything) or they film the dancers heads. The best thing was the only Prix de Lausanne which was Moscow: The technique and colours and things were horrible and one dancers jumped out of the picture. For a couple of seconds there was only a blank stage visible, no dancer nothing. Then the cameraman noticed and went behind the dancer. After all he mangaged to cut the dancers feet off all the time.

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In one video of the recital at my home studio, the cameraman zoomed in on a girl who was just posing on the side of the stage. Meanwhile, another girl was doing a solo! I would much rather watch a someone who is dancing than someone who is just standing and waiting for their cue!

This happened in a tape of Nureyev's Don Quixote. For some reason, the tape's editor decided we'd rather watch Nureyev sitting down and miming some comments to other dancers than the ones doing their solos, etc. Arrgh!

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Our recital cameraman is a volunteer, so I can't really complain, but in one of my dances, some little girls ran across the stage from one side to the other and then stood watching the rest of the dance of the more advanced group, who were performing. The photographer focused for ages on these kids, whilst they were doing nothing but stand at the side of the stage trying to keep out of the way of the dancers. In the meantime a very lovely part of the actual dance went totally unrecorded!

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  • 3 weeks later...

Wow, what a rant!


As a person who makes my living as a TV producer/director/cameraman, as well as an enthusiastic adult ballet student/performer, I am a good person to understand both sides of this controversy. I do NOT shoot school performances, but have acted as the interface person with the guy who does shoot ours.


There are two distinct versions of ballet video shooting, and it's important to understand the difference. One is a full commercial production with a director in a truck who instructs several cameras on what to shoot via headphones. These are the videos of big company performances and you should expect and demand excellence in them. The other is hiring a local guy to do his best shooting a school performance with one or two cameras. Since the only way to affect a big-company video shoot is to boycott the product if it is terrible (and tell everyone here to do the same), let's talk about how a local company or school can get the best video for their money.


-First, you can generally assume the camera person you hire wants to do a good job for you. The disparaging remarks in this thread of how they are shooting for their peers rather than their client, or how they think they are shooting a football game are inappropriate. If you really feel the video professional you hire is acting that way, fire them and start over. However, it is rare to find a video shooter who specializes in dance, so be prepared to meet with your chosen cameraman in advance and educate them about your expectations.


-Before you meet with your cameraman, decide what those expectations are, remembering that the physics of lens optics must be respected (a shot can't be both wide and tight at the same time). A normal TV frame is 4 units wide for every 3 units high. That means if your frame covers the entire stage, a lot of extra height will be incorporated and lots of empty space within the frame. A wing-wide shot will not show the detail of a dancer's pointe work. If the corps de ballet is onstage posing in B-Plus or gently waving their arms while the principal dancers are doing a pas de deux, do you want the camera to include everyone or concentrate on the couple actually dancing?


-Dance is the only activity I can think of that features feet, so be very clear in conveying the message that the tightest shot you want incorporates a head-to-toe view of everyone who is actively dancing. If that is a solo, that's easy. Couples doing a pas de deux are a bit harder because choreography might lead them to opposite sides of the stage, then come back together. Cameramen are taught "don't play the trombone" which means don't keep zooming in and out. Dance frequently requires lots of zooming to keep the frame as tight as possible when two dancers are together but also include them as they separate, so tell your camerman its OK to zoom as much as he needs to.


-Although it would be ideal, it is unrealistic to expect your cameraman to attend rehearsals unless he is being paid to do so. We have ours shoot the final dress rehearsal plus all performances. Since our dancers always seem to get better with each show and the cameraman learns the traps we've set in the choreography, generally the final performance becomes the base for the finished video. The artistic director reviews each taping so she can suggest solutions to problems and make sure the camera is capturing the dances as desired. Also, sometimes an earlier perfomance of a certain number must be cut into the finished production if someone flubs something in the final performance used for the finished DVD.


-Unless you can afford a true multi-camera production (with director and video switcher), you need to be aware of the technical limitations of shooting with only one camera and perhaps consider adjusting your entrances and exits to accomodate that reality. If the camera is pointed at a couple taking their bows and exiting stage-right, perhaps the new dance entering stage left might start as a pose without music to allow for a quick camera reset rather than immediately rocketing onstage from the left wing. The camera can only do one thing at a time.


-Discuss how long each act is so tape changes can be planned in advance. Tapes should be changed at intermissions or during extended blackouts. Depending on what format is being shot, modern video tapes are always at least 30 minutes long, so this should be relatively easy to accomplish.


-Don't forget audio! If a camera is only plugged into the sound system, you'll miss audience ambiance, noisy pointe shoes, and applause. A separate mic is needed to capture those elements, but will not be very good acquring the music so the two sources will need to be mixed together.


-Talk to several potential video contractors before selecting one. Don't choose strictly on price unless quality doesn't matter to you. Be sure to look at all aspects of the service provided. Our shooter delivers a quick turnaround DVD immediately after each show so dancers can check their performances, the artistic director can look at both the dancing and quality of shooting, and we have something to view at the cast party. He uses 2 cameras, one locked off on a proscenium wide shot, while he actively shoots the other camera as tight as is appropriate. He records both cameras for insurance, but runs them through a small video switcher into what we hope is the final mixed recording (editing later costs money). Whenever his tight shot gets him trapped, he can dissolve to the wide shot to recover. That system works really well for a small budget production.


-Once you find someone who respects your wishes and shoots in the style you want, cherish him, praise him, and hire him again! It is far easier to have someone with experience learn the nuance of your desires than to start from scratch each time you mount a show.


There are lots more elements in creating a wonderful video, but this should be a good starting point. I look forward to moving this thread in a positive direction instead of a rant against cameramen.

Edited by BarreTalk
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Thanks so much for the excellent information!



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Thank you so much for your detailed explanation, BarreTalk. That was exactly the kind of information I was hoping someone would be able to provide. It helps to have context, doesn't it? :)

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My favorite !!##**!! cameramen! story is this:

I inherited many videos from a beloved teacher when she passed away. One was an hour and a half of the back of the head of someone who sat infront of the camera ( I suppose on a tripod) during the complete rehearsal. Lesson : We must learn to look around and be more aware of our surroundings.

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  • 1 month later...

We had a celebrity guest teacher come teach a class at my studio recently -- she arrived with a full entourage of cameramen and photographers. One of them leaned in to get a shot of her across the room. He didn't realize that I was about to do a grand battemant right into his airspace. We both jumped back sharpish, I'll tell you that.


Keep in mind, though -- most of the cameramen who film dance are not specially trained to do so. What they try to do is to give a viewer an experience of what it's actually like to be there -- hence all the shots of the scenery, the dancers standing prettily on the sidelines, etc. So they are not necessarily to be blamed! :D


Although it does leave us dancers shrieking at the screen -- "I KNOW they're standing in b-plus, and I don't care! Show me her pirouettes!". I have found myself frantically gesturing at the TV, trying to somehow magically push the camera angle back to the soloist. Needless to say, I made a complete fool of myself. :blushing:


(My other horror story is of a production a few years ago -- an hour-long, straight through dance piece, with live orchestra and full chorus, packed house, one show only. And the cameraman forgot to press the "record" button. :thumbsup: Now that was crazy! ~ Meggy

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t library is the personal story of Royal Swedish Ballet's Katja Björner, "The Dancer". I remember a particularly infuriating spot where male dancers are performing incredible multiple pirouettes and the cameraman zooms in on their heads, especially their whirling hair.


Yes, I remember this :D


BTW, there is specialised training in dance for the screen. LCDS at the Place has a Master of Arts in dance film making :thumbsup:

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And then there's this one, where the cameraman must have been meticulous in setting up the shots... must have had everyone's collaboration.... just an astonishing bit of work (perhaps even more so because 45 years later there's still so much indifferent camerawork out there)



The Firebird with Margot Fonteyn & Michael Somes (1961)


The DVD is available from Amazon... I think at $30. Should be in everyone's collection.

The Art of the Pas de Deux

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an update:


We just finished four performances of NUTCRACKER, all shot with 4 cameras. Why so many? This year, the sun, the moon, and all the stars have come together in a karmic convergence to provide us with our best NUTCRACKER cast in years. The local PBS station wants to air the show and the best way to insure against camera errors was to utilize more of them.


With four cameras, even though there was nobody actively directing their work, in the pre-show meeting we could instruct one cameraman to stick with the female and another to stick with the male during partnered sequences, avoiding the need for the cameramen to make an instant decision who to follow as two dancers move further apart onstage.


Our positions were:

2 cameras in back of the audience, level with dancers heads. One shot wide, one followed the action tight.

1 camera in the 2nd row center, positioned just high enough to see feet on stage, following principal dancer action

-1 high and wide from the sound booth. This one was unmanned, just locked on a wide shot


Even with four performances and four cameras, there are still a few spots that will need creative editing to get around some problems.

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And then there's this one, where the cameraman must have been meticulous in setting up the shots... must have had everyone's collaboration.... just an astonishing bit of work (perhaps even more so because 45 years later there's still so much indifferent camerawork out there)



The Firebird with Margot Fonteyn & Michael Somes (1961)


It really is an extraordinary piece of collaboration! The performance was strictly for the camera and couldn't be done in a traditional theatre with an audience present.


The camera shares the stage with the dancers and, is mounted on a dolly so it can move across the stage, as well as on a boom or crane to change the elevation. You'll notice there are no zooms at all - all camera moves are done by physically changing the camera's position. They used an incredibly wide angle lens for the time (1961 was pre computer design and wide lenses were baffling to lens designers). In a couple of places the camera is clearly within an arm's length of the dancers. (You can tell the lens width because when a dancer retreats from the camera she shrinks away rapidly.)

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  • 2 weeks later...

I am in the process of shooting footage of a dance school so they can advertise themselves on TV.


It is so very true - there is an art to dance cinematography.


I would not like (and happily have never done) the job of videoing a recital or concert - it is hours of back-breaking work making sure everything is covered, combined with rapid tape changes, peering into the darkness to make sure nobody's nicking your stuff, and being ticked off by some idiotic individual who has sat behind you in full understanding of you already being there but will complain anyway because you're obscuring the view (I have seen this, horridly on more than one occassion).


Of course the best answer (especially these days with DVDs) is to shoot multi-camera, and offer each angle as a separate track on the DVD (use the angle button on the DVD remote control), with the main track being the edited version which employs all angles and has been cut by a professional editor. The down side to this is the expense - very few companies who are cheap enough to be employed to shoot these shows have the extra gear and personnel to make it possible. Often it is one camera, sometimes two (one for wide shot one for close-up). If it is one, then the camera operator is often instructed to zoom in at some point in the show to show the faces of the performers, so they are easily identifiable to viewers later (it's not easy in a wide shot to identify individual blobs, in a sea of blobs, by video viewers who weren't there at the performance).


The photography that I am doing for the commercials is to convey the motion and dynamics of dance, not necessarily the dance moves themselves. I have shots of a sea of tutus, since that shot is an awesome display of the textures of dance *as seen by the dancers*. I have swift track shots running past fifty girls dressed in eye-watering orange and pink outfits all dancing their hearts out, because in a shot that's going to last on screen for perhaps a second, if that, it's the texture and camera's motion (and to a lesser extent the kids' motion too) that's going to sell that shot as meaning in this school, dance can get intensely, hyperactively exciting!


I have seen the Peter and the Wolf DVD and while I can understand the frustration at seeing closeups at the expense of legwork, I also subscribe to the notion that every part of the body - including the face - is important, and in the medium of video, it is sometimes necessary to sacrifice leg work or arm work in favour of face work.


For sublime dance cinematography, I have been a long-time admirer of Gene Kelly's 17 minute dance sequence at the end of "An American in Paris" (1951), which he coreographed himself. Mind you, it's marvellous what can be achieved with a closed set, cranes, tracks, dollies, an army of support crew, numerous rehearsals, and a hefty budget (reportedly a half million dollars, which in 1951 was a vast sum) - a far cry from many who end up videotaping dance recitals.




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Dave S makes a good point that you shoot differently depending on what project you are shooting for. For example, when editing an artistic show opening for one of my sports projects, I frequently find that what I really want is shots that are 2 stops over-exposed, out of focus and jerky. Professional camera people don't shoot that kind of stuff unless asked!

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