Frames Per Second: Filming Song and Dance

By Holly Stuart Hughes

© Angela & Ithyle
A still from the final scene of the video. The characters celebrate, dancing as confetti rains down on them in the pink and white beauty shop set. 

The three-minute video for Benefit Cosmetics, directed by the duo Angela & Ithyle, has the look and spirit of an old-fashioned musical. Through swooping tracking shots, wide shots and close-ups, it shows a chorus of young women in poodle skirts and polka dot aprons dancing around a stylized pink and white beauty shop and a dance studio as they sing about the secrets of making eyebrows look beautiful. After the lead dancer—whose role is a combination fairy godmother and beauty consultant—shows a novice how to shape her eyebrows to flatter her face, the video ends with an exuberant dance number, during which confetti rains down on the dancers. 

Capturing the choreography as well as the how-to instructions required three cameras, a jib and a dolly, as well as detailed storyboarding and planning. “It was so kinetic and movement-oriented,” says Angela Kohler, a photographer who, with her partner Ithyle Griffiths, has been shooting motion for about six years. There was a lot for both directors to keep their eyes on during the 12-hour shoot. “You’re looking for a physical performance and an emotional performance,” Griffiths explains. While the choreographer, Megan Lawson, and the team’s director of photography, Patrick Jones, were on set to look for any missteps or lip-syncing lapses, the directors started the shoot by asking the dancers to help, too. “We said, ‘If you didn’t get it, tell us. We’ll reshoot things. We can’t watch everything.’” 

The Benefit film gave the directing duo a quick lesson in shooting choreography, and also represented a big step in the evolution of their directing work. Having shot stills for advertising clients like HAVAS, McCann and Ogilvy & Mather, they made their first big splash as directors shooting a stop-motion video for Amazon’s Kindle that debuted in 2010. The jaunty commercial, a quick-cut series of stills showing a model reading a Kindle and being launched into an imaginative flight of fancy, garnered Angela & Ithyle a lot of attention. More stop-motion assignments followed. 

“Stop motion is a lot of fun, but it’s kind of a one-trick pony. We wanted to get more into live action,” says Kohler. For example, the duo, who are represented by the production company Grand Large, Inc., recently shot a commercial for Target that combined some live action and some stop motion to show how paint color can transform a room. The assignment for Benefit’s brow division fulfills their goal to direct motion pieces “that are magical, but not necessarily animation-based,” says Kohler. 

There was a learning curve, however. Stop motion offers “the ultimate control,” says Griffiths, while the Benefit commercial, with its large cast, presented many variables. As experienced still photographers, they are used to creating several variations of every shot. In live action, however, “continuity is huge,” says Kohler. “People are moving all over the place, and you have to make sure a ponytail hasn’t shifted from this shoulder to that shoulder.” 

Jared Bailey, international spokesperson at Benefit Cosmetics, gave the team the assignment and also wrote the lyrics for the song sung in the video. The budget for the shoot was tight, so Kohler and Griffiths decided to produce the shoot themselves and put money toward costumes and rehearsal time. “We had to be judicious about where we put the money to get the most impact visually,” says Kohler, who adds that everyone on the crew performed extra tasks. “Coming from still photography, we’re used to working with intimate crews where we know everyone’s name, but there were times when we’d say, ‘If only we had two more people.’” 

On the advice of a friend, they contacted choreographer Lawson, who has co-choreographed shows for Madonna, and played her the video’s song. In addition to choreographing the video, she recommended a dance studio to use for casting calls and rehearsals, which was far less expensive than a photo studio, and helped cast the video. The directors had planned to hire models who can also dance, “and Megan said, ‘Oh no you don’t,’” Griffiths says. 

By the end of the rehearsals, the scenes were blocked and the dancing was “pretty polished by the time we got to the set,” says Kohler. As they have done with stop-motion work, they made detailed storyboards for the Benefit video. These, as well as production designer Sara Kugelmass’s renderings of her set designs, were approved by the client before shooting began. 

Kohler and Griffiths chose to shoot the video at Source Film Studio in Hollywood, a green-screen studio that had HMI lights mounted overhead. The overhead lights—roughly 40 1K HMIs in large softboxes that could be controlled and positioned using an iPad—made changing lights easy and avoided the need for light stands that could have interfered with the movement of their cameras. Kugelmass painted the walls pink and white and brought in cosmetics counters, mirrors, and other props to transform the studio. 

During filming, they shot with three Canon EOS 5D Mark IIIs: one set on a jib, one on a dolly, and one handheld. The jib allowed them to hoist the camera for high angles on the dancers, while the dolly provided lateral movement with slightly more control. “It’s easier to focus with the dolly, because the jib is going up and down and left to right, so the focus puller had his work cut out for him with the jib,” Griffiths says. “The dolly is a little more precise. The jib is a chainsaw; the dolly is a knife.” The dolly also helped them get low angles when, for example, “you want to make the dancers look tall,” Kohler says. 

In filming the dance sequences, their impulse was to shoot wide to show all the movement. But to get close-ups of someone singing or zoom in on eyebrows, they relied primarily on the handheld camera. “It’s nice to have that cut-away” during the editing process, says Griffiths. “If you only have two cameras, it gets tiresome.” 

Client Bailey was on the set throughout the shoot and was able to check, but Griffiths notes that they kept shooting at a fast clip to get everything done within the 12-hour day. Once the shoot wrapped, the post-production was handled in New York, with Griffiths and Kohler checking revisions remotely as they were made. During post, foreign-language translations of all the signs on the set and held by models were swapped into the video, and color was corrected. 

The video has been used online and in retail stores. A “directors’ cut” version as well as a behind-the-scenes video, both edited by Wade Davis, are on the Angela & Ithyle website. 

The photographer/directors are delighted both with the results and with what they learned from the experience. “We are in love with shooting dancers. They are so positive and really playful,” says Kohler. “Now we want to collaborate with dancers all the time.” 

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