thu 18/07/2024

Q&A Special: Matthew Bourne and the making of Swan Lake 3D | reviews, news & interviews

Q&A Special: Matthew Bourne and the making of Swan Lake 3D

Q&A Special: Matthew Bourne and the making of Swan Lake 3D

Exclusive discussion with the choreographer and film-makers about a vital new film technology

Feral dimensions: Richard Winsor leads the corps of male swansMain image © Bill Cooper; others courtesy Sky

A boy alone in his vast white bedroom has a recurrent haunting dream, frightening yet somehow comforting - a swan invades his mind, simultaneously menacing him with its power and wildness, and yet wrapping its great wings around him to shield him, with some ambiguous kind of love.

It's the opening scene of Matthew Bourne's tremendous modern version of Swan Lake, and that resonant image and the tale he unfolds from it has made it a classic of modern theatre, marvelled at around the world. But why it works is the emotion generated by the palpably strange and authoritative physicality of the male swans, not obeying human lines, crossing spaces where they shouldn't be, emerging from under beds, killing their own, refusing to be contained or understood. And even though the magnificent original cast of Adam Cooper and Scott Ambler were filmed soon after the 1995 premiere, many people would say you can only really get the full swan effect from a live performance.

No longer. From this week anyone within reach of a cinema with a 3D screen will be able to see a striking new film made of Bourne's Swan Lake that seizes advantage of the huge changes in film that have occurred since the show opened in 1995. Changes which show decisively that dance, which has always been fighting a losing battle with the flattening camera, now has a new and eloquently responsive film partner, now that they added an extra dimension to it.

While Bourne has worked extensively in the West End, it is for his modernisations of classic tales that he is most famous

Last night Swan Lake 3D was premiered in Soho, London, to launch the nationwide release of the newest in what is a cheeringly growing list of dance, opera and musical theatre films making it to cinemas. It isn't quite the first 3D dance film - StreetDance 3D and Wim Wenders' Pina 3D beat it to release by a year or two - but it is the first attempt to film a live dance performance in 3D, which many people speculate may turn out to become the key to broadcasting the experience of dance on a screen so that it actually feels like being at a performance, rather than simply watching a flat animation of dancing behind a wall. And because the film is the enormously popular Swan Lake, the experiment has had enough backing and commitment bouncing off it to emerge triumphant on behalf of 3D as well as on behalf of dance.

After the screening last night, the choreographer Matthew Bourne joined the film's director and producer, Ross MacGibbon and Fiona Morris, in a public discussion about their hopes, aims and frustrations as they got to grips with applying 3D to what is already an unorthodox stage work.

Bourne's interest in film started when he was a youngster and an avid movie fan. He was a late starter in dance, not entering training until he was 22, but he rapidly made up for it. Only eight years after he launched his company, characteristically (and prophetically) titled Adventures in Motion Pictures, he had created Swan Lake which made him a world name. This year marks 25 years since he launched AMP with a small group of people and some amusing ideas - some of his early work is being performed this week and next as part of a sizeable retrospective that climaxes at Christmas with a new Bourne recreation of The Sleeping Beauty, completing his three Tchaikovsky ballet rewrites. While Bourne has worked extensively in the West End, it is for his modernisations of classic tales that he is most famous, Nutcracker!, The Car Man (a film noir rethinking of the opera Carmen), Edward Scissorhands and Dorian Gray among them. Swan Lake was his second Tchaikovsky ballet rewrite - unveiled in 1995 on stage, filmed in 1996, it became a smash hit around the world showered with amazement and acclaim ever since.

The new 3D film was filmed by director Ross MacGibbon, probably the leading dance film-director in Britain today, with a large number of films for the Royal Ballet under his belt, at Covent Garden and in the O2 Arena, made for live transmission as well as DVD recording. His past career as a Royal Ballet dancer gave him an inside track on how to understand dance onstage and he directed the film of Bourne's The Car Man. This has been his first 3D film.

swan adam cooperFiona Morris was the person who got it made at all despite an unexpected potential scuppering by last year's Japanese tsunami (of which more). She produced the first Swan Lake film in 1995 (pictured left, Adam Cooper, the first Swan) and since then has had extensive BBC and indie sector experience in making dance and opera films, including the first live 3D opera last year - Mike Figgis's Lucrezia Borgia at English National Opera.

Between the three, they addressed the three essential aspects involved in the Swan Lake 3D film, artistic, technical and commercial. And they were honest that it wasn't perfect. But they also know, honestly, that this is a very striking film. I began by asking Bourne what he felt about doing his second version in 3D, rather than 2D.


swan lake columns

We were told lots of things we couldn't do. Fifty technicians in 3D told us this or that, men in white coats. And we just thought, bugger it, and did it

BOURNE: There were a lot of reasons for doing this in the first place - one of them was 3D, another was to capture the pice again after a long period of working on it from the first time we filmed it. I desperately wanted to get it filmed again to capture the version we'd evolved in the past 15 years, and 3D was a great way to look at it anew. I was reticent about it initially - I'd seen some 3D movies I'd not been mad about, and preferred the idea in 2D. I'd also seen some good 3D, so I had mixed feelings. I thought, well, let's have a go - it's not been done much. So I went into it not knowing much what to expect. And what we came out with was extraordinarily involving, in a new way. And also the dimension of space, which is so important to dance, it does captures that in a very new and unique way. So what 3D brought it was intimacy, and also the use of space. Capturing choreography in a new way is very exciting, I think.

ISMENE BROWN: Fiona, as original producer on the 2D early film - what were the differences you sought in refilming it, given how young the 3D technology is?

FIONA MORRIS; As Matt said, the original film was made when we were all very young! It was a long time ago and the show's changed in over those years between. First of all, it was time, it is now a classic, and it was time to bring it back to TV screens, and if we were to bring it back to TV screens, then my experience of 3D was initially very similar to Matt's. I'd seen films that worked and films that didn't work. But it was really because sport had taken off so incredibly quickly with audiences that made me think that, well, quite a while ago people had made analogies between putting live performing arts on TV and looking at some of what sport does. I'd seen some of the test reels that Sky had for sport, and I thought: for a rapid movement activity this is an amazing format. So we did Lucrezia Borgia, which was great, but it's opera, and a fairly static opera - so while the costumes looked brilliant in 3D it didn't really get a run for its money. So when the idea of Swan Lake came up, it felt like it would be a brilliant show to see how the technology worked. And it's such a physical production with characters and the scenario. So it was really only to see how far we could push it and see what we could bring to it - which was a lot.

IB: Ross, for you coming from 2D, did you find that certain sequences were better for 3D than others?

ROSS MACGIBBON: Yes, as these two guys have said, 3D is in its infancy. The production exists, so it was my job to look at it with 3D differently. There were some bits, frankly, that work really wonderfully and bits that don't. I find the relentlessness of the 3D sometimes rather overwhelming and I'd rather see some of it in 2D. But there are bits which are fantastic. I film a lot of dance, and the frustration for me is that people often say, well, film is fine but it doesn't work, it's much better in the theatre. I spend my life looking through cameras, trying to make dance work on screen. So the challenge here was, okay, take 3D and see what you can do with it. And the bits that work really almost work accidentally because of the choreography and the design.

So I'd hope to move forward to designing a piece with 3D in mind. It's between two stools at the moment, no question, but there's enough promise there. I'd absolutely agree with Matthew, that dance is about movement in space, and that's film as well - with light, too - and we're struggling to get all that working coherently. But there are lots of aspects in this film that make you'd go, wow, that bit's incredibly immersive. Or that bit is incredibly irritating! Bits where you're struggling in 3D to make it work. And remember dance is at an angle always - so I'm always thinking not just about the 3D but also the bloody camera angles. You've got to think about how they'll cut together properly in a televisual way. So there are a lot of challenges to overcome, but we're getting there.

IB: Matt, did you have to give up quite a lot of control over the piece here for this film with the new technology? Was it intrusive for you? Did you adapt it much?

BOURNE: We didn't have time to adapt it, and anyway I've worked with Ross before, as you said, and I implicitly trust him. There's no one better. But as he was saying, 3D was new to both of us, and one of the interesting things is - he's absolutely right - some of it works better than others. I wasn't going to say that, but he was being absolutely honest and that's great, even if  you do tend to be self-critical about your own work.

To focus in 3D you need to stay with a shot for a lot longer. It's a good thing, because you really see the choreography much more

But one interesting thing was that the shots were much longer. To focus in 3D you need to stay with a shot for a lot longer. Which I am all for, in a way, because I grew up on Astaire films, and the camera would stay on him and follow him around the space. It's a good thing, because you really see the choreography much more. A lot of choreography in film today can be over-edited, you can't really see it in music videos or recent films of musicals - it comes at you from so many angles, it's to give it energy, basically. That side of it was quite a revelation.

MACGIBBON: Yes, with 3D the energy comes from within the frame often. Having said that, watching the film now so much later, I was surprised to see that there was quite a bit of editing. But you can be much more choosy about how and when you edit - you can control the dynamic of the movement in 3D because you don't edit so much, it's a much longer shot.

IB: Fiona, could you explain about the 3D setup for shooting, the cameras and studio production work?

MORRIS: The post production is a lot more complicated in 3D, mainly because people feel as if they're doing everything for the first time. But in terms of the capture of the piece, that was actually a much smaller unit than we'd usually use. 3D cameras today have quite limited range - you can only really put them at the front of the stage area. There is a kind of 3D camera you can put further back, but its ability to give you any close-up is non-existent. So it's almost back to much earlier days of multi-camera filming where you've literally got a row of cameras at the front and very limited numbers behind. So we only had five 3D cameras actually on that shoot, and two additional 2-D cameras.

In that sense, it doesn't work quite as well on the diagonal as normal 2D works. But I would say that with new technologies, you tend to be given the cameras and the rulebook designed by the talented engineers and technicians, full of rules of what you can do and you can't do, but it takes a bit of time when directors come along and tell them that while it might not be technically right according to the rules, it actually looks better this way. So for example we would be told we couldn't have less than 7 seconds in a shot because of the way the human eye processes the information and brains can't move that first, but we felt, well, maybe we could get away with much shorter-length shots. And so you push all the time slightly outside the rules. And that will happen more now.

MACGIBBON: We were told lots of things we couldn't do. Fifty technicians in 3D told us this or that, men in white coats. And we just thought, bugger it, and did it, then in the edit we were saying, Oh, look, it works! You don't have to do what the technicians say. And we're all discovering a lot.

IB: Matthew, your interest in motion pictures goes back to your childhood and actually 3D has been around a very very long time, but technologically now it seems to have come to fruition. Did you feel you needed to change the dances on stage for it?

It would be great to think this technology through and plan to film specifically for 3D, rather than just throw things at the screen

BOURNE: We didn't have the time. we just put it on stage and Ross filmed it. We hadn't done it for three or four months, I think, when we filmed it at SWT - we got the cast together, rehearsed for a week, got it onstage, the cameramen saw it for the first time on stage in a start-stop run-through, they saw it, they filmed it. We were going to do another run-through, which didn't happen. We had an audience come in, and they lingered until the early hours of the morning - I think some people left before the end because it went on for so long! - and we did the show. So really it was only twice through - and we relied on the professionalism of everybody, both the performers and the crew, to capture it. So one of my surprises seeing the film was just how well it's turned out. But I know what you're getting at… it would be great to experiment with this technology, think it through and plan it, to film specifically for 3D, rather than just throw things at the screen. I think there would be a way of filming even an existing piece, over a longer period of time, that would be fascinating. I've certainly got excited about it now.

IB: Ross, you filmed it in sequence? As a theatre show, not like a film where they work out of sequence?

MACGIBBON: Yes, we rehearsed a bit and then filmed it, in front of the audience. But I did spend several weeks planning every single sequence, every single shot and cutting point. It often looks like, wow, it just happened! But there's a huge amount of pre-planning goes into it which makes it all run smoothly.

IB: There've been a very few other 3D dance films, Pina, StreetDance, Russian ballet films. Were any of them useful?

MORRIS: I think Pina or StreetDance are so different in scope, and it would be great to have the time to do what was done in those films. But with the other live performance work that's been done, there were lessons there that you had to think this stuff  through, to be careful where you put the cameras, because it can actually be a nauseating experience if the cameras are in the wrong place, which is not our intention. So I think we learned more what not to do.

MACGIBBON: Well, in the Russian stuff, the Giselle I saw from the Mariinsky the cameras were all in the wrong place. Miles back in the auditorium. Even with this one, you see a shot and get a bit of miniaturisation. You think, that looks weird. Then you realise the front characters are slightly shorter than they ought to be. That happens even in this one, and we had the cameras in the right place. But the Giselle was nuts, it was crazy. And Pina was great. I kept on going, is this 3D? It was very subtle use of 3D. But feature films like that are a different type of animal. And anyway it's such early days.

swan lake goldmanMORRIS: We always knew the reason for 3D in filming dance was to put the stage back into the broadcast versions, because that's always been such a frustration for choreographers. Choreographers instinctively don't trust television because they're thinking, ok, the one thing I work with is movement through space, and you want me to put it on a medium that removes space from the equation. But what was really surprising about 3D here - and I don't think any of us expected it -  was the intimacy it brings to the audience, you suddenly do feel you watched that from a place you couldn't have had even in the auditorium. You get this sense of engagement with the characters that's quite remarkable - that's what I think I'd love to play with more.

IB: That's what I felt that this new film brings back - almost the smell of greasepaint and wooden stage. Matt, I imagine as a choreographer, despite your great love of the movies, it's essential to you to have this sense of physical space and interchange for your character-driven pieces, which is terribly difficult to get on film.

BOURNE: As Ross said, it's a terrible lot to capture on film. If you're trying to tell a story, there are a lot of people who were in the film in this auditorium now who'll have been wishing the camera had stayed just a tiny bit longer on their moment! (Laughter) But you have to keep making these choices - there's something else important going on over there. But what it does capture is the detail of the performances (pictured above right, Nina Goldman as the Queen). It was one thing that we all worried about and discussed, the level of acting - should it be stage acting or film acting? Because it was capturing a stage performance, and taking the live performance it into cinemas. That has a certain style for performing, and yet the performers knew they were going to be very much in close-up at times. So what it came down to was that performers would do what they normally do, play it out to the audience, but as long as it came from a truthful place and they never let it drop, then it would be fine. And that was what we did. They didn't lessen their performances, but they had to completely believe in everything they were doing.

IB: The work's famous for its Royal jokes, but you created your jokes way back in 1995 - did you consider any updating? Or has time cycled them back in again?

As I've got older, I think I've become more interested in it meaning more. It's less about sending things up, and more about it meaning something

BOURNE: The mobile phone joke came in later anyway, and that always seems to work! Some of it I cut out, a few moments that I think we threw together then and that seemed a bit crass now - some people with the old video may notice they've gone. But yeah, you do have to move with the times, and think a bit how you as a director feel about it. Is it a bit silly? Does this still work? Do we need this? I do ask myself these questions quite a lot. And as I've got older, I think I've become more interested in it meaning more. And I think the performers are as well - they think like actors, they want it to mean something. It's less about sending things up, and more about it meaning something.

IB: It's one thing that's struck me over the years that it has become more serious - it's not now something that people respond to for humour and parody, but the seriousness with which it takes the metaphors and emotional dilemma within it.

BOURNE: It's something the company does in other pieces as well, it takes you by surprise. If you didn't have the humour and the funnier characters and situations early on, I think when the swans come on it wouldn't strike you so much that something strange, something meaningful is happening. The juxtaposition of things makes that work. And I tend to think about shows in that way, that you can twist the emotions more easily if you have several going on at once - you can play with that.

IB: Ross, in terms of the acting style you had to film these characters for the new times. Looking back to 1995 would you say dance acting on film has changed a lot?

MACGIBBON: Yes, it's always the hardest thing for me to convey to the dancers. Without I hope sounding too sycophantic, Matthew's company are fantastic at their ability to adapt. I occasionally have words individually to say, be careful not to overdo that, the camera will be right in your face - Richard [Winsor] had massive close-ups and these kind of things are discussed. Dancers today are much more used to being filmed. Everyone's much more aware of it. When I'm shooting at the Royal Opera House the big battle I have is about the make-up. Matt's company are so used to doing narrative pieces, they're not having to point their feet as much as classical ballet dancers, and a lot of their work and effort goes into the acting - and you see that here, it holds up. There isn't any feeling of, oh my god, this is overdone.


Above: the trailer for the film Swan Lake 3D

One of the buildings that was washed away in the Japanese tsunami was the 3D-stock-finishing factory, the only one. And the world stock of 3D tape at that point went to zero

IB: Fiona, despite the popularity of Matthew's show, given the experimental state of 3D it must presumably have been hard to get this film actually made - plus you had nature intervened cataclysmically at one point.

MORRIS: It just took a long time. I think I was talking with Matt for about 18 months about it. At one point we were thinking insanely of filming it on its UK tour, which I'm very thankful didn't work out to be financially feasible. It came together with support from the Arts Council, who were interested in a project they could use for research and development purposes to see how audiences reacted to live performance in 3D. Sky were keen to find a project that would work both for Sky Arts and Sky 3D, which was predominantly sport, and this was felt to have enough familiarity to be put out on it. And because it's been such a fantastic show travelling around the world, we were also able to get co-producers from America and Germany, and distribution from Warners for the DVD - I think we ended up with nine co-producers, which is a lot of people to invite to everything, but thank you all!

IB: But there was the Japanese tsunami...

MORRIS: Somebody said to me about a week after the tsunami, "Do you have your tape stock for Swan Lake?" I thought, eh, tape stock? We're not shooting for another two months, I said. They said, "Well, I think you might need to get hold of some." It was because one of the buildings that was washed away in the flood was the 3D-stock-finishing factory, the only one. 3D film stock has a particular finish put on it. This was the factory that put the finish on 3D, and it went. Everything in it went. And the world stock of 3D tape at that point went to zero.

And we got a provisional deal with a supplier in the UK, and it was a great deal, but shooting was still weeks and months ahead, and it seemed terribly expensive, the price was two or three times higher than two days earlier, and we kept thinking, oh, it can't go on like this, it'll be fine. In the end the tape cost us nine times more than its original value before the tsunami struck. And everybody was talking about recycling for the first time in my career, engineers were ringing up talking about recycling stock - so you imagined filming Swan Lake on a bit of stock with Champions League football on it.

swan lake swank bar dominic northIB: How do you make the money back on a 3D film?

MORRIS: Sky funded a huge chunk of the cost, and now for all the participants, we wait to see how we do from the cinema distribution around the world, and the release of the 2D DVD which is very soon. And 3D DVD as soon as everyone has been out and bought their 3D TVs.

IB: These developments in 3D do depend on a momentum being built up in the domestic market buying the technology.

MORRIS: The domestic TV sets, the HD sets coming to market this year, are already 3D compatible, so in terms of viewing a 3D channel, anybody buying a set in the next six months will have that capability. I think the market is largely driven by children wanting to see the latest Pixar movie in 3D.

MACGIBBON: Costs do have to come down. Everything costs three times as much in 3D, and takes three times as long. When that starts to come down, the law of nature will work. But more stuff needs to be made.

IB: Matt, choreographers therefore have to be sufficiently inspired to work in 3D. Does it drive your imagination in a new way or make the stage greyer? Does the excitement of the technology - as has happened in audio - make the live experience less important?

BOURNE: No, you can't beat the live experience. What this can do is take the live experience to new audiences, places we'd probably never go to as a company, that's what I hope. I think it can be quite subtle as well. There comes a point where you accept it's now 3D and you get drawn into it. It isn't in your face all the time.

MACGIBBON: You can control the 3D-ness of it, control how people jump out of the screen, or err on the subtle side. That's one of the things that makes it compelling. I do a lot of live cinema now round the world, and the audiences are growing and growing. And 3D is yet another layer to add. I think a bigger audience will come to dance, because of the 3D. And when you apply it to what exists in terms of live cinema audiences, it's a developing market.

PUBLIC QUESTION: What do the dancers feel about the experience of being filmed in 3D?

BOURNE: Richard, do you want to answer?

RICHARD WINSOR [who plays the Swan]: It was a fantastic experience being filmed in 3D, and seeing it in 3D really does give it the space and depth that you want for choreography. I think watching it, it gives performances more - it draws you in. My mother said, you believe the performances more. In a theatre you can be quite far away and you can see the beautiful shapes, but here in the 3D film you're getting up close and it draws you in, and the movement flows more fluidly, for sure.

PUBLIC QUESTION: Matt, I'd like to ask about the making of the piece itself - I'm fascinated that you told the whole story with no words. How do you go about that?

BOURNE: There was such a thing as silent movies once. It has parallels, I guess, though they used to have the words up on the screen… I think for me, personally, I like telling stories without words. For me that means anything other than speaking. It doesn't necessarily always mean dance steps, it can mean acting, mime, imagery, styles of movement, it's a mix of things. If you're going to do that you have to pick stories that lend themselves to it, so you're not bogged down by too much detail. So I tend to look at well-known myths, simple stories that people think they know, then you can play with it. If they don't know where they're going in the story, you've got a harder job.

We found that swans were many other things that are different from what you see in the classical versions. They're quite ungainly outside the water, quite violent at times

Then, whatever the piece is, you have to study what that needs. You have to find what's important in the story - I mean, it may sound silly to say, but this story needs swans. Did the original choreographer go and look at swans? Maybe they did, and took something from it. We did the same. And we found that swans were many other things that are different from what you see in the classical versions. They're quite ungainly outside the water, awkward, flap their wings in strange backward directions, can be quite violent at times. So that would be a choreographic process, to go to that source material and find a language that flows from it.

IB: I remember, Matt, you told me long ago you wanted people to realise that the swan has no hands, just feathers all the way down its wing, so it uses its arms in a totally inhuman way. That was a revealing piece of information.

BOURNE: So there are no lifts done with hands, for example, and that's a restriction, and that's good. Because then you have a place to start from - we can't use the hands, so what will you do? And one thing leads to another.

PUBLIC QUESTION (Alan Yentob): I was fascinated by the point Ross made about not cutting too much, being able to see the whole movement, because you have this problem with 3D that it can get in the way of the flow. Matt, would you like to do a piece that was specifically choreographing for film and about the sweep of clothes, or a change of perspective? I think there is potential there.

BOURNE: Yes. Is that a commission? (Laughter)

PUBLIC QUESTION: Congratulations, I've seen the live performance a few times, and I think the film is great. I like the word "intimacy" that you used about what 3D brings it  - for me the relationship with the dancers was something that came more alive for me in this film even than sitting in the live performance, and you're quite right, it always panned away just as I hoped I was going to see my son, who's in it. My question for Ross is whether you tried putting the cameras on the side to give you even more of that relationship with the dancers?

MACGIBBON: One of the restrictions of shooting in the theatre is that it is what it is, you have wings and you have lights, so you're fairly restricted as to how far down the side you can go without the thing looking completely different. People say, why not shoot from the side all the time, but it just doesn't look very good. We tried a lot. You've got to keep the conceit going, which means doing a lot from the front. And actually most dance shapes, the shapes a dancer makes, are conceived from the centre front. My job is often to think, if I do this on the angle, does the shape work, or does it start to look ugly? The further sideways you go, the more difficult it is to shoot the shape.

Watch an extract of Bourne's Spitfire, with Adam Cooper and Richard Winsor among the cast

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