This film was made as part of Fashion Insider, a series of short films portraying key figures in the fashion world produced by Hantang Culture. The program takes a cinematic approach to present their insights, experiences, inspirations and personalities, aiming to inspire people in and outside the fashion industry. Fashion Insiders has aired on international airports and airlines, major digital platforms, reaching more than 27,000,000 impressions per episode so far. This film is about Sergei Polunin, a world-famous ballet dancer.
Director: Dominic Sutherland
Cinematographer: Fabio Guglielmelli -
Shot on Arri Alexa Mini with Cooke S4
The soaring athleticism and emotional rawness of Sergei Poluinin’s dancing in the video for Take Me to Church by Hozier really made an impact on me. The first time I watched it, as research, I didn’t focus for a second on how David Lachapelle had technically gone about shooting it. I was too caught up in Polunin’s performance to notice. No wonder this video of ballet’s celebrated bad boy had gone viral.
In the spring of 2019, I was asked to lens a short portrait documentary about this world-famous ballet dancer. The film would sit in a series called Fashion Insiders. There was already a developed format: simply a voiceover from the protagonist, supported by beautiful imagery. It was DoP’s dream brief.
Sergei’s portrait access had been negotiated for us to attend rehearsals in Belgrade, where Sergei was living.
My first step was to explore all the videos I could find of Sergei performing, with Take Me to Church leading on the Google returns, and then other dance film productions that I liked. I was looking to see how other DoPs and directors had gone about their lighting, camera movement and shot selection. It was especially interesting to find behind-the-scenes videos where the techniques and equipment used were revealed.
From there I created a mood board of screenshots to use as reference and inspiration, making a note of the camera movement and the type of grip used. What the director and I agreed on was that camera movement while the dancer was in motion was the most ambitious, but also the most rewarding approach.
As ever, filmmaking dreams are quickly tethered to earthbound realities. With a montage video of this nature one of the priorities is to find a number of interesting and different looking backdrops against which to film the protagonist. We knew it couldn’t all be dancing, however captivating, and yet one of the issues with filming abroad was that we wouldn’t be able to recce the location ourselves. Understandably, there wasn’t a budget for this.
Working with a local service production company in Belgrade, we gave their scout a brief to visit the rehearsal location - the city’s main opera hall in fact - and to photograph not only the dance rehearsal spaces but the changing rooms, auditorium, corridors with interesting lighting, restaurant, cafe and stairwells; anywhere we might stage an interesting shot of Sergei.
With the recce pictures in hand, I was able to make a shortlist of locations and also to dig deeper into the set-up in the rehearsal spaces, especially those affected by exterior light: which direction were the windows facing, what floor they were on, how tall were the surrounding buildings?
If there’s one quality about film locations that is almost always true it’s: the bigger the better. In this instance, we picked two large rehearsal rooms as our preferences in order to have enough space for the performance practice, our crew and kit, and to give scope for a nice depth of field in our shots when wanted.
One of the rehearsal spaces was a risky option and the other one safe. The risky one had an entire wall of imposing windows, while the safe one had no windows at all. Dealing with massive windows on a documentary production is chancy. There isn’t the scope to control the light coming through them, and you can’t be sure what the weather is going to be like on the shoot day or, without a recce, how the sun might behave at a particular time of day, The risk is that you get an overload of daylight and your subject becomes too silhouetted or the background too blown out.
In the end, I decided to prioritise the risky room. I had in mind a backlit sequence with windows in the background, and there was also an incredible watery, reflective quality to the floor in that room. If it wasn't too sunny, it could be magical. At the same time the other available room could be completely under our control. There were no windows and we could set up our own lights in any way we wanted.
Lighting is, of course, central to my work as a DoP and the use of natural and structured light was one of my key interests as a film under and postgraduate. I studied Camera and Lighting plus Documentary filmmaking at FilmBase in Dublin and then later, in LA, I explored cinematography at the American Society of Cinematography. I consider myself very fortunate to have had tutors in John Toll (back-to-back Oscar Winner for Legends of the Fall and Braveheart and cinematographer on the pilot episode of Breaking Bad) and Dante Spinotti, who was a pioneer in the use of high-definition video in film production.
Today nearly all films are shot on digital formats, even if the game is to then make that digital material feel like film stock. For this project, we decided to shoot on two Arri Alexa Minis - for their quality, low light capabilities and their compactness. The choice to use two cameras, and two crews, was to give us speed when moving from one grip set-up to another and to give us the option for two simultaneous angles of any dancing. We knew we would have no control over the performers, and there was no question of asking them to repeat something for our benefit, so if we wanted continuity shots we would need two cameras.
Organising kit at a distance can be a challenge, but our service production company were well-connected and efficient with this. As a DoP my main concern when filming abroad is finding the right local crew. In the end, a 1st AC was recommended whose work I felt was a good fit with the project and who was available to test all the equipment in advance of the shoot.
We combined the two Arri Minis with a set of fast prime lenses to give us the flexibility to shoot in various uncontrolled lighting conditions. Lens speed was the primary reason that I wanted to use prime lenses rather than zooms, which is unorthodox for documentary filming when flexibility is normally prized above all else. My lens set of choice was the Zeiss Supremes. I love the look they give, they’re very compact and fast at T1.5. Unfortunately, they were not available, but we happily settled for a set of Cooke S4s, which have an amazing look to them but are slower at T2. In addition to the normal set, we added two super-wide focal lengths, a 12mm and a 14mm, to give us the scope to capture beautiful wides of the dancing and to use on a shoulder-rig if a quick set-up was needed.
The shoulder rig was a back-up if we needed to move quickly, as the plan was to use a gimbal to follow the protagonist around parts of the building, down some interesting corridors in particular, and during the dance rehearsals also, typically moving in a counter direction to the choreography.
With the lighting, I knew there wasn’t the budget or time for complex set-ups, and so the emphasis was on versatility. I chose the Arri M8 to be used either as bounced light against walls and ceilings or as a backlight to get glowing edges and flares, along with some Aladdin panels for close-ups and details.
On the first day with a slimmed-down crew our planning and instincts were already paid off. The light in the large rehearsal room was perfect. Our low-angled shots with the camera gliding on a 10-meter track laid at floor-level allowed us to follow Sergei and his dance partners with quick and smooth movements. The mirror at the end of the room gave scope for interesting changes in focus, while the floor kicked up watery reflections as the light faded.
The following day we filmed with two crews all around the theatre, including in the second rehearsal room. This windowless room was less interesting, but it had a different feel to what we had already captured. Using strong backlight from the two M8s in opposite corners we focused on details, flares and silhouettes. We got our corridor gimbal shot, a sequence with Sergei looking contemplative in the auditorium and night shots of him outside on the theatre terrace with the city lights in the distance. We also spent 30 minutes where we closely directed his movement to efficiently capture 5 or 6 shots we had on our storyboard. Sergei couldn’t have been more helpful and it was a pleasure to see how he and his dance company warmed up (this took ninety minutes), rehearsed and collaborated together - truly a masterclass.
We reviewed the rushes on location with the DIT, spot-checking on his laptop as we went along, testing the acceptability of the graininess in particular, but back in London, it was a pleasure to review the material on a large screen in a more leisurely manner. After that all that remained from my perspective was was to argue with the director and editor about which of my gorgeous shots to include in the film.