Last weekend I had the pleasure of rewatching Footloose with my girlfriend (and don’t worry, it was the classic 1984 version). I had seen the movie a couple times when I was younger, but this time around the fusion of music, dance and carefully selected camera angles struck me as particularly mind-blowing. The seamless editing of the film highlights the most dynamic movements of Kevin Bacon and his co-starsat just the right moment, and in perfect sync with the nuances of the soundtrack.
Perhaps it’s due to my hobby as a novice filmmaker, or my longtime passion for playing the guitar and drums, but that movie got me thinking about the history of film in dance, and more importantly the choices an editor makes to elevate both the emotion and synchronization of movement with music.
Highlighting dance through film is nothing new, and has actually been in demand since the medium began to take the public by storm decades ago. CBS started dedicating a weekly segment to dance through The Country Dance Society in 1941, the very first year commercial television started in the United States. In 1948, the fusion of dance and film took a huge step forward, not only for the specific genre, but for the film industry as a whole thanks to The Red Shoes. Directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, The Red Shoes was the first feature length release to portray a regular life narrative intermittently interrupted by dance segments and performances as integral parts of the film.
Transitioning from a traditional narrative to a choreographed dance routine is tricky business for a director or film editor, which is why the act is parodied so often through the likes of Monty Python and Saturday Night Live. On the other hand, films like Saturday Night Fever, Footloose and Step-Up that perfect the potentially elegant fluidity of music and dance go down as classics, being rewatched countless times for their distinct take on human expression.
In the contemporary film scene, there is one film editor and director in particular whom has begun to carry the torch for those groundbreaking pioneers who brought dance to the big screen over the decades. Meet Ran Ro, a young but renowned creative talent generating enormous buzz due to her uncanny ability to provoke emotion in audiences through her dance-centered films that have been shown in festivals across the globe. Simply having choreographed dance is obviously not enough for a great routine or film, which is why millions are spent on the production of music videos every year. There are specific choices an editor needs to make in regard to camera angles, depth and movement that can either amplify or destroy a given film. “I think that editing can be compared with a dance performance — the main goal is to grab the attention of the audience during the first few minutes, or even first few seconds depending on the length of the project, and build up that energy till the climax of the performance,” explains Ro. “Instead of using body movements, I often utilize more subtle elements like the rhythm of dialogue, camera movements, and the speakers to make an ‘editing choreography’.”
There’s no doubt that Ro’s strategy as an editor and director has paid off, helping to carve out a niche in which she can be successful. One of her more renowned projects, Transcendence, has sparked awe and praise from audiences and critics alike. The film has been shown across the globe, but most notably in film festivals such as the London Dance Film Festival and the National Film Festival for Talented Youth (NFFTY), regarded by those in Hollywood as the Sundance Film Festival for filmmakers under the age of 24. Every year the most accomplished, technically savvy filmmakers make their case to have their film screened, but only about 200 films end up being shown, with roughly 13,000 in attendance. “ [Transcendence] follows a protagonist dancer who struggles to step out of a small white circle, and the initial motivation behind the creation of the project was to ‘express the unexplainable’ through body movements accompanied with music,” explains Ro. Audiences who have seen Ro’s creation admire it for being a visually raw, down-to-earth production that while centered on dance, doesn’t shy away from the sometimes gritty aspects of real life.
Ro’s creative and technical prowess was further exemplified at the NFFTY through her second dance-centric film submitted two years later, Lay Your Head Down. This film proved to be just as eccentric, and led to Ro working under the most professional editors in the business at Sony Pictures and Elias Arts. When it comes to editing content and creating a film, Ro advises other aspiring talent to envision how audiences will be viewing the content, and understand that there is an abundance of content producers and editors all vying for audience’s attention. “In a time where content is constantly found and viewed by millions of people on a smartphone screen, it’s important to grasp the sensibility of the current generation and apply that understanding to editing, since a lot of content nowadays is targeted towards younger audiences,” explains Ro. The digital age we all find ourselves in doesn’t just mean that there is more content available, but it is also being created and consumed at a faster rate. Audiences of a given music artist, videographer, or in Ro’s case, filmmaker have grown to expect consistent media being released to maintain their interest. Other than simply utilizing technology to quicken the editing and creation of content, Ro explains that there are actually filming techniques which speed up the process before any editing takes place. “Every detail in production – from the overall tone and visuals to camera movements – is planned for editing,” says Ro. “I initially think of how to cut shots so that when the project is in post-production, everything is pretty much ready to be assembled and become a cohesive piece as a whole.” Given that many of the visuals within Ro’s projects are accompanied by music, planning for that cohesion of music and movement has become almost second nature for her as she meticulously plans how every snare, kick drum and cymbal hit will match what viewers see on screen.
There are plenty of films that include dance numbers. Plenty. But seldom do they bring justice to the narrative outside of the choreographed scenes. Ro seems to inherently understand this, drawing from real life experiences – both the good and bad – to create a truly inspiring product. “For Transcendence we (Ro and the actress playing the protagonist) spontaneously added improvised movements and filmed in many different locations as we were shooting,” recalls Ro. “In retrospect, I think we were both feeling some sort of frustration with our circumstances at the time. At the end of the film, the protagonist expands the small circle by relentlessly drawing bigger circles around it and finally steps out of it, and this is what happened to in real life, as well.” As we all know, real-life is not choreographed and many times nothing goes according to plan, so perhaps this is what audiences subconsciously expect in some form from a film, dance-based or not. We watch films to be inspired, shocked or briefly taken to another place and time, away from the stresses of real life; However, evoking relatable emotions, whether through narratives, body movement or music, is an act you will find accomplished in every classic dance film.