Pleased to announce the release of “Footprints” a dance film featuring the beautiful original choreography of world renowned dancer, Mengchen Liu, and the magical music of Adam Maalouf featuring vocalist Hannah Sumner.
I met Mengchen Liu at a dance compilation held at a small theater called “Dixon Place” in the LES, New York City, some years back.
I was actually there to shoot a different dancer’s performance, but while I was watching the other artist’s perform, I became enamored with Chen’s work. Her movements were so various and sharp, unexpected yet fully intentional. I thought her work was so beautiful!
We met after the show and exchanged contact info, meeting up a week or so later in a coffee shop where we got to know one another. Chen’s collaborative, trusting, creative spirit were truly inspirational! She was leaving the country within the next couple weeks, so I knew that we needed to make something happen fast.
Now, with dance films (or any film, really), one of the trickiest issues to deal with is LOCATION.
Luckily enough, Chen had a relationship with Columbia’s dance program, and she was able to contact them to book a space to shoot on campus.
When she sent me pics of the location, I was totally floored! It had beautiful, tall windows that let in natural light all day long, the perfect sized table for her performance as well as chairs. The ceiling was magnanimous in its height, and the space was large enough to fit a hundred people – and obviously there was Marley on the floor to aid the dancing.
I said “YES!!!!” Of course we could shoot there!
No one else was using the studio that day, so we had it all day to ourselves. Really couldn’t have asked for a better situation.
So we had the choreography, and we had the location. Now we needed a soundtrack. Coming from a music video background, I preferred editing to a track, and for editing reasons I’ll get to later, it would help us stay organized to have something to time out the performance.
My producer, Sharan Kukreja came to the rescue by recommending I work with an artist he’d collaborated with previously on his music-oriented youtube channel “Timbrefarm.”
After browsing several of Adam Maalouf’s whimsical tracks online, one stood out: “Footprints” featuring vocalist Hannah Sumner.
This track had the lofty yet dramatic nature I was looking for in order to set the mood of the project. I immediately reached out and got his permission to use the track for the project!
Choreography / Editing
Originally, we were going to have 2 dancers perform the choreography. It was intended as a duet, not a solo show. But unfortunately, her dance partner was quite pregnant at the time, and therefore unable to perform. Easy fix, I thought – this is an opportunity to explore duality in a different way. Let’s just have her perform both parts in different chairs. Use the magic of editing to bring them together, but not in a VFX fashion. I’ve done the trick of duplicating the same person throughout a scene before, and that might have been an obvious approach for this. But instead, I wanted to emphasize the differences. I opted for fluid, roving camera movement that would purposely be impossible to splice. I wanted to talk not about the similarities, but the separation between time and space, from moment to moment.
Mengchen’s performance included some moments of improvisation, as it was originally created without the use of a backing track. This was setting me up for a tricky edit – however using the music, her movements stayed on a beat that created lots of edit points for me to cut on. It wasn’t easy, but it helped going into it with a plan from pre-production.
We started bright and early in the morning, transporting rented equipment from my apartment to the location, and meeting our 2 awesome PA’s – Jamila Lontoc and Christian Ochoa-Diaz, as well as dancer Mengchen Liu, at the location.
I usually don’t shoot projects myself – I hire cinematographers and camera crews who handle all aspects of cam department for larger productions. But for this small, spur of the moment, personal passion project with ZERO budget, I opted to shoot it myself.
Producer Sharan Kukreja also acted as an AC during the shoot. He was behind the scenes the whole time quickly setting up our equipment, while I swooped in to do the fun stuff (cam oping!).
Back in 2012 when I was doing videography for nightlife parties across NYC, I built up a skillset for manual focus pulling my own shots. I was using a Panasonic GH2 camera, which had autofocus, but it wasn’t stellar, and would often fail in low light locations. I would miss capturing great shots and moments due to the autofocus missing its target, and found that manual focus was much more reliable for me. I got used to focusing myself, preferring the control that manual gave me – I could be more intuitively selective about my subjects, and adjust the pace of focus to draw out more emotion and drama from a shot. The camera became an extension of my body, as I would overshoot like crazy – one night I did 6 hours straight of pure handheld shooting, manual focus on 20mm / est. 50mm equivalent 1.2 aperture lens. After a few years of that stuff, I might not have gotten in 10,000 hours of practice, but close to it!
For this dance film, we shot on a Sony FS700 camera with fluid head tripod, and Zeiss lenses (100 and 80). Tracking Mengchen across the large space brought back memories of tracking performers across stages in the early 2010’s.
Right out of the can, I liked the look of the FS700’s flatter, log settings. In the color grade, I decided to preserve that look by keeping the blacks lifted, low saturation (especially in the shadows), and the whites a bit lowered as well. I introduced greens and reds into the mids and the brightest highlights. I added blues to the near-shadows. The color grade helped to establish the feeling of other-worldliness to the piece.
Because we shot without any lighting equipment at all, and were relying solely on available light in the space, there were a few instances where my perfectionism kicked in during post and I had to lift some shadows or dampen some highlights here or there. A couple of mis-placed props ended up in the backgrounds of some shots, so I went in and gave them a re-color to blend them into the background. I really feel that small details like that are what elevate a production of this level from simply an exercise to a finished film.
Without further ado, here’s 1-1 Dance Film!
Director: Lee Milby
Producer / AC: Sharan Kukreja
Choreographer / Dancer: Mengchen Liu
PA’s: Jamila Lontoc, Christian Ochoa Diaz