When you love your craft, it doesn’t feel like work.
Every year I assemble a team of filmmakers to participate in the International Documentary Challenge; a timed film competition where participants from around the world have just five days to complete a seven minute documentary. Each team has to incorporate a common theme and this year’s theme was “Behind the curtain.” In addition to the theme, each team is randomly assigned a choice of 2 genres. This year our team chose “Biography.”
I’ve wanted to explore the world of dance for sometime and my cousin just happens to be a choreographer who specializes in Tap, making it a very accessible subject matter. I then used my superior salesmanship abilities to convince them that this would be an interesting and worthy subject matter. I’m not sure if I sold them, but they are my friends and they love to make films, so they jumped aboard the “crazy doc train.”
Day one began at 10 a.m. outside in twenty-degree weather with an artic wind-chill. Our opening sequence was an epic dance number on a pedestrian railroad bridge, which took longer than expected because our talent had to warm up in the production van between takes. The crew however didn’t, and our camera was on the verge of freezing up. We captured our last shot of the sequence after flirting with frostbite and moved our operation inside.
The rest of the day was a crash course in dance culture. Tap, jazz, ballet, and hip-hop classes rotated filling the halls with sweaty teenagers texting and talking about whose leg extensions were the best.
We focused our attention on Kaelyn and her love for Tap. We interviewed her colleagues, students, and family and discovered that our documentary wasn’t about dancing at all. The interviews revealed a loving, inspirational, teacher, mother, and spouse. It exposed the human need to be accepted and affirmed. Cincinnati director of photography Alex Elkins insisted on hanging lights in the studio and utilized a plastic collapsible shelf as his ladder proving his commitment to the project. For the record, we thought this was a bad idea.
Day two was set to be a half-day production, but as often happens in video production it turned into a twelve hour day. We interviewed our subject Kaelyn Gray, who serves as primary Hip-Hop and Tap instructor at Expressions Dance Studio in Northern Kentucky. She was featured on “So You Think You Can Dance” and teaches tap and hip-hop at workshops across the country.
Cincinnati motion design artist Ryan Woolfolk suggested that we shoot the interview in the mirror and quickly the team aligned around this idea. Creatively it expressed the point of view from which she usually views the world, through a mirror. The set up included putting the RED (ONE) on a Dana Dolly at ground level. The subtle movement allowed us to reveal that she was in front of a mirror as you could see both the back of her head and her face at the same time creating a sense of intimacy and self reflection.
The documentary shifted to more of a universal message and perspective when Kaelyn began to share her thoughts on failure and how those who aren’t afraid to fail are usually the one’s who go on to do great work. Paired with the other interviews affirming K’s passion for tap and teaching, we felt confident that we found the story that would connect with the human audience.
Day three is where the story came to life. The 4K footage was imported into Adobe Premiere where it was prepped for editing. With a loose vision in hand I started to sort through the interviews extracting the content that connected with the human experience. As a director and editor I always look to connect people to something bigger than themselves and art forms like dance speak a language all their own. After several hours of dragging and dropping a story began to emerge. After some sushi, beers, and bourbon we had arrived at a rough cut that was good enough to sleep on, so we called it a night and passed out.
Day four began at noon after working a late night. We critiqued the rough cut, tweaked, trimmed, and locked it in. At this point we starting dropping in b-roll, music, and motion design to support the story. With plenty of time on our side we decided to really tighten things up. Color correction, sound mixing, and creating titles started adding up and before we new it midnight had fallen. We began feeling the time crunch considering our documentary needed to be uploaded on Day five. We worked through the night fueled by pizza and beer. At 5am we hit the render button and tiredly stumbled to our cars. After a quick nap we awoke to a successfully rendered documentary, which we were able to upload to the contest website. Then we passed out.
After the competition is over we will post the full film, but until then here is a teaser.