Scott Kevan and Kevin Tancharoen recreate the highs and lows of the fabled New York City High School of Performing Arts for Fame, a new generation
“The first Fame was a groundbreaking film,” says director Kevin Tancharoen. “It was a unique format, a true hybrid. There was no break-into-song-turn-to-the-camera. The music, singing and dancing were organically integrated into the narrative. The story dealt with teen issues that were close to home and totally relatable for that moment in time (the 1970s and ‘80s). I knew we couldn’t duplicate the theme of the period.”
What the renowned choreographer-turned-filmmaker could do, however, is recreate that organic integration of music, singing and dancing with the real lives of today’s talented hopefuls. He visited performing arts schools to take out the guesswork as to what obstacles and issues confront modern-day stars-in-the-making, thereby ensuring a Fame that was fully up to date.
“It was really all about our team, cinematographer Scott Kevan and choreographer Marguerite Derrricks (whose career began as a dancer in the original film and as Debbie Allen’s protégé) to make sure that this Fame would not be simply a ‘dance’ movie with music, but a dramatic narrative where everything we did tells something about the character and pushes the story forward.” Tancharoen likens the performance aspects of Fame to that of visual effects in a big action picture. If the effect (music) takes the audience out of the story – then it isn’t working. If it seamlessly integrates into the story and pushes it forward – then it’s successful.
Performance as Narrative
“Kevin’s vision thrilled me,” recounts cinematographer Scott Kevan (Stomp the Yard). “We talked in detail about how to tackle the dramatic versus the performance sequences. Dance, song, acting, playing an instrument are all storytelling art forms and he wanted the film camera involved as an active participant, not a passive viewer. He also wanted to stay away from traditional performance coverage where you place x-number of cameras around the stage, shoot the performances and edit them together.”
“I told Scott that MTV ruined the way performance numbers were shot and edited,” Tancharoen elaborates. “Most of the time they use coverage, five cameras – ‘you shoot full body, you shoot hands, we’ll put a camera on a crane and go back and forth…’ To me, performance numbers are as essential as a car chase is in an action film. Each one has narrative and pacing.”
“He was interested in designing the choreography for the camera rather than for a seated audience, referencing the work of Busby Berkeley and Bob Fosse,” Kevan continues. “To that end, we attempted to put the camera in with the performers as much as possible.”
Both the director and DP were adamant about maintaining respect for Sir Alan Parker’s original Academy Award winning film [see sidebar]. However, to create a look for a new generation of Fame viewers, the two broadened their horizons by pulling references for color, composition and how the camera interacted with performances from a diverse range of films, including All That Jazz to Friday Night Lights, Chicago, Ray, Idlewild, Across the Universe, 21 Grams, Children of Men and a documentary on the making of Cirque Du Soleil’s Zumanity. The reason for the diverse influences is simple enough: today’s dance scene is a different animal than decades past. There is a strong element of athletics and Cirque-type movement, and capturing today’s young dancers as they routinely push the envelope of movement was important.
Kevan’s method was to create a visual arc that mirrored the cast’s growth. “When the kids audition they exist in an unknown,” he explains. “There is confusion, nervousness, pressure and I wanted the audience to experience this along with them.” That meant the photography at the start of the film is raw and unrefined, more of a documentary feel both in the way the camera moves with handheld frames that search for the shot and in the look with over exposed highlights and crushed blacks. “As the students grow as individuals and as performers,” the DP continues, “the photography becomes more polished, with a more classic feel. Handheld cameras with zooms transition to dolly shots, and integrate with Steadicam and cranes, while high contrast images give way to softer lighting ratios.”
Kevan credits camera operators Dan Gold and Eric Leach with creating subtle differences within each frame. “Freshman year camera moves were different compared to the kids’ sophomore year,” he explains. “[Dan and Eric] adjusted the level of energy they put into the compositions based on where we were in the film and then also based on what lens they were working with – a 21mm handheld feels extremely different than a 150mm handheld.”
During some of those handheld sections, longer lenses would be placed on an OConnor head, but left loose, or the camera would be balanced on a sandbag. Kevan says every shot had its own eccentricities, and it was only because of a close collaboration with his operators that he was able to find the right technique to pull off the desired amount of energy or stillness within a frame.
The Road Less Traveled
Kevan used eight different film stocks (freely mixing Fuji and Kodak) to create the quilt that was Fame’s visual arc. “It kept the camera crew on their toes,” he laughs. “I made a grid mapping out every stock and processing technique and matched that to the scene numbers. The stock choices also proved challenging for gaffer Jay Yowler, who had to keep track of the grid because in any given day, we might be rating an interior at 50ASA and the next one at 400ASA.”
The multitude of stocks and how they were processed and exposed allowed for gradual changes in grain structure, contrast and color consistency. “Some people say that you can create all of this in the DI, and certainly the DI is a tremendous tool to use to refine the photography,” Kevan explains. “But I definitely like to shape as much of the look as possible on the camera negative and then use the DI to take things to an even deeper level. My feeling is that the DI should not be a tool for fixing, but, rather, in an ideal world, used as a creative tool to enhance the visual storytelling and build on what is there in the negative.”
Another interesting aspect of the Fame workflow was shot lists created for the more challenging production numbers via a unique pre-viz system that helped determine precise camera placement. The process went something like this: Choreographer Derricks would have an idea of how to pace out a section, and begin creating the dance numbers to support where the characters were in the story. Being a film and TV choreographer, Derricks was cognizant of camera movement and placement and naturally designed numbers that were ‘camera friendly.’ “Scott would walk into rehearsal, look at a part of the number and then turn to me and say ‘well, now I know where to put the camera,’” she says.
Adds Tancharoen: “We had a different approach to the dance and music. Instead of locking the choreography in and then using the camera to decide the best way to shoot, Marguerite designed numbers with the camera in mind. We handled our music the same way.”
The example being if there was a camera move that would work more effectively if the musical moment was longer, Tancharoen had the music department add extra bars to allow for the camera’s dance. Couple this with the instantaneous feedback of today’s new digital technologies and the Fame team was able to smoothly blend such a unique workflow.
“It was easy to load our pre-viz into my Mac, move to Final Cut Pro and Pro Tools and have immediate access to see if what we were doing worked,” Tancharoen explains. “Instead of putting musical numbers together from coverage, we could craft them ahead of time, allowing camera, choreography and music to work together.”
“The camera and the choreography gelled together in different ways, depending on where we were in the film,” continues Kevan. “We had a cafeteria jam sequence, for example, where the camera is loose and not in perfect sync with some of the moments of the performance. In this section, we would zoom in on specific moments, maybe pan away and miss something, rack the focus in and out or a combination of everything. The idea was to make the audience feel as if they were sitting in the middle of the dance, experiencing it going on around them.”
Kevan used three cameras, one on the Primo 11:1, one on the Primo 3:1 and the last one on a new lens from Panavision, a 70-200mm zoom. The DP says it required true teamwork, because the assistants, Dominik Mainl and Chris Cuevas, were not entirely sure where the camera operators might go next without good communication. “The assistants became an extra set of eyes for the operators,” Kevan notes.
The most significant integration of the above workflow was in Fame’s graduation sequence. In the middle of this seven-minute performance, the team designed a single Steadicam shot that would thread through dancers, covering a 360 as the camera traversed most of the stage. [See Replay – ICG June 2009.] Choreography, camera, and lighting had to come together to reflect the end of the visual (and character) arc, so Kevan used a combination of Steadicam, Technocrane, Spydercam and traditional tracking set ups. Using the dimensions of the high school auditorium location, the team taped off an area at a dance studio and used Panavision’s Mini-DV Finder to generate a detailed shot list for the five day shoot (only one of which had an audience).
The sequence was composed of five main sections: the intro, ballet, African, Choir and the outro. “In a perfect world we would have shot each section independently and then fine-tuned the transitions between sections,” Kevan explains. “However, the 50-foot Technocrane required we remove a large section of seats to make space for the base and the track. That meant no audience or Steadicam while it was there, which made things challenging for the performers and crew. We might do one shot in the middle of the African section and then jump to something in the ballet section. This was only possible with skilled dancers and programmable lights.”
Derricks’ background as a television and film dancer turned choreographer and a cast that was camera savvy made this process possible. “We are all used to breaking a sequence apart,” Derricks explains. “It’s typically how a dance is shot, and is actually easier on the dancers.”
Because they could only sacrifice the floor space for the Technocrane on one day, some of the shots were shifted to Spydercam. “It definitely opened up my mind to find other uses for the Spydercam rig,” says Kevan. “I was able to work with Tim Drnec and his team programming the moves on pre-rig day to achieve some amazing angles, like flying over the tops of the performances, ascending and counter rotating with one of the dancers, and, my favorite, being the transition from the end of the African section to reveal the choir on the balcony.”
Kevan built the lighting cues from scratch during dance rehearsals and refined them during the five-day shoot. His lighting package for the sequence was a mix of Source 4 Pars, Firestarters, Maxi Brutes, Spacelights and about 15 Mac 2K moving lights.
“The way that we chose to shoot this performance by often having the camera in the middle of the choreography meant that some of the cues had to be altered when we changed the angle in order to avoid camera shadows or accommodate looking in a reverse direction,” he explains. “It was like treating [these sequences] as if they were regular dramatic scenes where you re-light the turnaround.
“Another reason that our pre-viz was so important is that I knew exactly where in the song the Steadicam was going to be on stage, so when building the cues, I could allow for that. And, if I knew that the shot was going to be a 360, then I knew that I had to wrap the backlight around as the camera wrapped around. It was tricky because sometimes I would find myself building cues that did not look good from the audience’s perspective, but fine from the camera.” Everything for the sequence was kept at its native color temperature – 3200k tungsten light or 5600k from the moving lights, because as the DP concludes, “there is a tendency to play with color mixes because [moving lights] are so versatile, but in this case it wasn’t right for the story.”