|D r a g o n D a n c e T h e a t r e||Pan American Puppetry Arts Institute|
" pour partager mon expérience de cet été avec vous ,je commencerai par dire toute la richesse et la simplicité du groupeil, fut très intéressant d' évoluer dans cette formation de personnes d'horizons très différends les uns des autres, nationalité, âge, sexe, formation artistique, amateurs, sensibilité, toutes ces qualité mises en commun ont donné un climat très vivant et inspirant ainsi que stimulant. je suis surpris aussi de la rapidité à laquelle j'ai pu intégrer ce projet qui était déjà en cours .je me rend compte que ce qui m'a paru comme un déficit de direction au début, laisse justement la place à la spontanéité et à l'énergie du moment ;ce qui permet l'exploration artistique et l'expression du groupe et non plus d'un individu.
Même s'il ne m'a pas été facile, à certaines occasions, de "performer " comme
acteur d'improvisation,au côtés de personnes plus expérimentées que moi, cette expérience m'a permis de me dépasser.
Pour moi le résultat technique,le film, n'est pas plus important que l'expérience elle même, car celle-ci fait désormais partie de mon bagage."
Movie week at Dragon Dance, August 2004
|Reflections by our guest artist, filmmaker, Nora Jacobson*|
|In this article:|
|- The objective of the project and who was involved
- How the Plan developped
- Shooting at night
- Description of each of the scenes and how we went about it
- The conclusion of a truely collaborative experience!
We gathered together, after Dragon Dance's Saturday night performance of, “Two Weddings and an Assassination”. We were a motley group with a multitude of skills and talents: the fiery and passionate Mexican dancer/actress Tanya, the multi-skilled Quebecois actor/airline steward/chef/mechanic Jean Richard, the great tragi-comic actor Jerome, the strong and able-bodied Jean-Claude, the talented photographer and videographer Estelle, the gentle and witty lighting guy Frederic, myself with camera, and of course our hosts: the vivacious Katah who acted and cooked and welcomed us, and master puppeteer/artist Sam who had the overview. We started out with the premise: Let's do some experiments with masks, puppets, people and this story of Diego and Frida and Leon Trotsky. Let's see how we can use the medium of cinema--moving images-- to advance the mytho-ritualistic-painterly style of Dragon Dance Theatre. We did not want the pressure of "making a film", we wanted the freedom to experiment; shooting a scene one way, then trying it another way. We also wanted to figure out ways to work collaboratively. We still have the dream to make a feature film one day, and these experiments were one more step in advancing that goal.
We decided to shoot only one scene a day, so we would not feel the pressure of HAVING to finish a scene (one of the hateful aspects of conventional film shoots is having to "stay on schedule!"). For me as a filmmaker, this was a great opportunity and privilege. But this also meant, we would not necessarily end up with a "product" that would tell a story from beginning to end. Process over product is a difficult concept to grasp in the age of "the product". We had to keep asserting our goal: process, experimentation, trial and error.
I think we realized our goal. We shot about 8 scenes, each one very
differently, using a large DVCAM Sony 500 and a small MINIDV Sony VX1000. Still photographs were taken. Journals were kept. In addition to experimenting with form and technique, we learned some practical things about working together. I will try to describe some of the scenes that we shot, and the different ways we approached each scene.
We need to shoot at night
Early on, we came to the conclusion that we needed to shoot at night. The magic of the interaction between puppets, masks and live actors seemed easier to achieve against a black background. But what would be that background? Do we want the background to be a bottomless void? We had lots of black paper to cover walls with, but its not easy to light the actors, and not pick up the texture of the paper. Do we want to see the texture of the paper or should we shoot against the night sky? If you give the actors some distance from the black paper, you might not see its texture. Different people felt differently about all this, (illusion versus showing the means of production). We ended up trying all alternatives.
We only shot 2 scenes during day light: Our first and our last days together.
Trotsky pursued by the Stalinists
First scene: The Stalinists arrive as Trotsky finishes his speech, waving large red banners, and swooping and enveloping him. We did our best, but quickly realized it would be more impressive, more frightening at night. (We didn't have time to re-shoot that scene---part of the trial and error). To escape the Stalinists, Trotsky hides. In the theatre version, he hid in a large box at the corner of the stage. We felt this was too 'theatrical" a device and so tried to find a more cinematic approach. We waited for night, and then we had Trotsky back out of the light into darkness, with the camera zooming out to make him smaller and smaller and to emphasize his sense of isolation. One of the challenges of shooting this was how to keep him in focus as he moves away, especially given that we had very little light and thus a very small "depth of field". One alternative is to "pull focus", changing the focus as the actor moves, the other way is to allow the actor to move out of the field of focus as he moves away. We tried both.
Taking a walk in the woods
The other scene we shot during the day was Diego and Frida's wedding. We chose to shoot it in the woods, with banners of floating colored paper interacting with the leaves and trees and framing the scene. I filmed up close the action, while Estelle filmed the wide view, including puppeteers, camera people, scraps of colored paper on the ground. What made it interesting was that you could imagine taking a walk in the woods and coming upon this theater, this story taking place, that seemed to exist independently of an audience, like the trees themselves. You would watch for a moment, then continue your walk through the forest...
The attempt on Trotsky's life
We set up the guns near the woods, lit them from the side and back, and got some very interesting shots; of Jean Richard firing the paper cannons, explosions with guns firing into the forest, and very large
human shadows superimposed upon the trees, giant flag waving shadows melting into the trees, a very surreal and dreamlike vision. Josh rigged up the elaborate firework displays to go off around Trotsky's house (the large stage). We were able to shoot the scene 3 times, from several angles. This scene was really about the design of
the fire works, how they framed the stage and interacted with it and how the actors moved through them. The camera's role was to record what it could, because with fireworks it all happens so quickly.
Seeing one's death and seeing oneself as death
We filmed this scene, Frida pursued by death, in the, the Perez building, and we draped the walls in black paper. Frida senses death approaching. She talks to death, looking straight into the camera. The camera becomes death, it stalks Frida, follows her, chases her. In fact, it is her own death that she sees, and so the camera is also a mirror: she sees herself, when she looks into the camera. We had hoped to also shoot this with a "flying camera" and Jean Richard had rigged up an elaborate line and pulley to literally fly the little camera around the set...but technology worked against us, and our small camera simply would not shoot it! The camera mechanism was stuck. (this is the problem with filmmaking--if the camera doesn't work, you don't have a film!) So instead we used the big camera, hand held, to chase Frida and interact with her.
Working with these 2 ideas (seeing one's death and seeing oneself as death) we also filmed Frida walking past a mirror where she sees death. We bathed the skull in black light, and shot it through a gilded picture frame. The challenge was lighting the skull with the black light so that the camera picked up the fluorescent qualities of the light and still showed details of the skull's structure.
Later, we filmed Frida's face and a skeleton head, moving from far away to up close. The idea was that these shots could be edited into the first sequence, to show what Frida is seeing when she is stalked by death: she sees a skeleton's head and she sees herself dead. But one thing we didn't have was...make-up!! Tanya mixed flour and water to try to make Katah's healthy face look drained of color.
The set began to look like a Frida painting
The painter David Alfaro Siquieros busts the party in Diego's studio to denounce his art and politics: What was interesting about this scene was that we started out by planning to shoot it rather naturalistically in Sam and Katah's kitchen. We moved Diego's mural inside. And then Sam started adding elements that made it almost surrealistic in production design: Large puppets were propped up in the corners, masks hung on the walls. The set began to look like a Frida painting.
We had planned to shoot documentary style, as a departure from the more formal camera set ups we had been using. But we started to have….guess what?...lighting difficulties. We just didn't have enough lights to adequately light the many elements: the puppets, the mural, Diego, Diego's model, Frida, Trotsky, Tina, Breton, and Siquieros. We would light it one way, but the mural was too dark. We would light it another way, and we lost Trotsky. Of course we could have given the scene an over-all brightness, but then it would have looked like the set for a tv sit-com.
We wanted shadows, depth, contrast. By the time we had the lighting as good as we could get it, people's energy had diminished. Our actors were tired. This was an important lesson. For a complicated scene like this, with many actors, many parts of dramatic action, it would have worked better if we spent 2 days on the scene: we could have blocked it one day, figured out where the action would take place, and lighted accordingly. The next day, we could shoot it, with all the technical issues resolved before the actual shooting.
Love and assassination
In the theater version of the play, these were shadow puppet scenes, with actors instead of puppets behind the shadow screens. We decided to use the same technique in the shooting, and so the challenge was: how to make it different. After all, we didn't want to just reproduce for the camera what had been done for the theater. One difference was that we created a 2 story house, with colored screens as walls, and lights behind the screen. Our screens were made of strips of colored paper, consequently, there was texture to the colored shadows and as the wind moved the paper, the shadows' contours moved. In the love scene, we see Diego's shadow painting down below, while above him the 2 lovers, Frida and Trotsky's shadows have their tryst.
We filmed the assassination scene differently too: the shadow of the assassin appeared in the downstairs screen--small at first, and then as he approached the light behind the screen, he appeared larger and larger. This effect was magnified by the ability to zoom in on the action with the camera. His head and ears become menacingly big...and bigger... Then the assassin appears from behind the screen and starts to climb the staircase to the left of the house. While we
were rehearsing this, Frederic happened to light a cigarette near the
staircase, just as the assassin mounted the stairs, and we saw how the smoke added to the mystery and threat of the scene. We backlit the smoke and the assassin and made the moment magical, rather than simply practical.
One of the most interesting scenes to shoot was shot behind the stage, using the structure itself--beams, frames-- as a backdrop. In this scene, various furtive figures can be seen slithering around the back of the stage (Trotsky's house) to indicate that Trotsky is being set up, a ambush is being set. The actors, wearing black, crept across the grass, while hand-held lights swept across them, then they climbed the wooden beams, walked stealthily along the backstage
catwalk, in and out of stationary lights.
Frida on the operating table
This was one of the high comedy scenes in the play, and although we had lost one of our actors--the hilarious Jean Richard as one of the doctors, Tanya showed her range as an actor and replaced him. We filmed this scene mostly from above, looking down on the operating table. Again, we used black light, and the rich colors of Frida's clothing interacted beautifully with the painted puppet heads and masks worn by the doctors.
Diego pursued by devils and women
This was our big fire scene. It was raining that day, and so we had to catch a moment between drops to start. Finally--no rain! We quickly ignited the bonfires that we had spent all day assembling and building. We had built enough bonfires to shoot the scene a few times. The fires spread quickly, so we had to shoot quickly. Diego stumbles and hallucinates, and a devil appears and plays with him, asking him what he wants. He wants women! Womens' headless torsos start to appear from the distance, out of the darkness, to Diego's delight. They swoop over him, envelop him. But the dream turns nasty, as the women's torsos develop heads--devils heads!! There was something quite wicked and perverse about seeing these luscious, full-breasted women's torsos wiggling under devil heads.
Tina Modotti and Vitorio Vidali
The most naturalistic scene we shot was when Tina Modotti is confronted by her lover/assassin, Vitorio Vidali. In a wonderful bit of cross-dressing Tanya played Estelle/Tina's lover assassin, and her seductive tones barely concealed an undercurrent of violence. This scene was about the dramatic tension between the 2 actresses, and how the power shifted from one to the other as the scene progresses, ending with Tina walking out on her lover. The lesbian love overtones were interesting, especially given Frida's own sexual history (or the myth of it) with Tina.
Ideas started pouring out of everyone
Have I forgotten anything? Probably. Lessons learned: Many, of course. It was difficult to get used to the night shooting schedule. At first we were constantly tired, but by the end we were quite comfortable, possibly because as the week progressed, we became more efficient and were able to finish earlier: 2 am instead of 6 am! This allowed us to shoot our last scene during our last afternoon togetherthe wedding scene in the woods. My overall sense is that we could have given ourselves more time, it still felt a bit rushed in certain scenes. We need more and better lights. We need to think about how we might shoot during the day.
Sam and I had an interesting conversation about the possibility of designing puppets and masks specifically for the camera. Masks that would have moving parts to them, masks that would interact with natural light (sun) as well as with artificial lights for night shooting.
Personally I gained something from each person in our group: Sam's aesthetic expansiveness, by which I mean his freedom in bringing in elements, to create visually rich "tableau vivants". Katah's willingness and ability to dive into Frida, emotionally and dramatically, Tanya's sense of perfection, her rigorous refusal to accept mediocrity, Estelle's ability to frame a shot and her knowledge of all aspects of videography, especially shutter speeds, Frederic's knowledge about back and side lighting, Jerome's abilities to create a character that has immense humor but also tragic depth, Jean Richard's huge reservoir of energy and innate acting ability, Jean Claude's helpfulness and willingness to try anything. And of course Josh who was with us only for a few days during movie week but who as usual was calm, helpful and ingenious, and Elana who enriched our conversations with her interesting outlook and life experiences.
Finally, it was very stimulating to brainstorm as a group each day. We would discuss the scene we were going to shoot, and ideas started pouring out of everyone. One idea would lead to another, little explosions of creativity that would result in a plan of action for the shoot. In this way, I think, the experience was truly collaborative.
* Nora Jacobson is a filmmaker, producer, director,cinematographer, and founder of Off The Grid Productions of Norwich, VT.
She is a former professor at State University of New York at Purchase, and currently in post- production is the digital feature film Nothing Like Dreaming a story about teenagers, madness, creativity and the sound of fire set in contemporary Vermont.
Her award-winning films include Delivered Vacant (Sundance Film Festival, New York Film Festival), My Mother's Early Lovers (Austin Film Festival, New Haven Film Fest, Method FilmFest, Maine International Film Festival), Sun and Moon Were Children and Walked on the Earth (Ajijic Festival Internacional de Cine) and Habits & Choices: Living with HIV (National Educational Film and Video Festival).