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Monday, April 25, 2011

The Art of Dance & Editing in Black Swan

A few months ago Natalie Portman won an Oscar for portraying a ballet dancer in the movie Black Swan. Recently the dancing double for Portman, Sarah Lane, went on ABC’s 20/20 and said that contrary to much of the publicity surrounding Portman’s nomination and win, much of the actual dancing in the movie was not performed by Ms. Portman, but by Ms. Lane.

Much of the 20/20 story focused on the editing of the footage. The movie producers claimed that of the 139 dancing shots in the movie, 111 feature only Natalie Portman dancing. Ms. Lane counters that while that may be true, many of those shots are close-ups of Ms. Portman’s face or upper body, and that the full body shots are what she did (as well as some technical close-ups of feet or arm movement).

I find this story fascinating because I have a sister who is a ballet dancer. Ms. Lane comments that “It really hurts for someone to say that they got a personal trainer and they became what I spent blood, sweat and tears doing every day, all my life, in just a year and a half.” I can tell you that my sister would agree.

My sister has been dancing for most of her life and she would tell you that a year and a half of dance training, even every day for significant amount of time, will not get you to the point of being a professional ballet dancer. Aside from the physical part of dance, requiring superb core strength, flexibility and control, there is the artistic and technical side. Indeed, most professional dancers spend most, if not all, of their day exercising and practicing proper technique and have done so for their entire lives. Ms. Lane has been dancing since she was 4. The film makers hired Ms. Lane because they knew they needed a professional dancer to truly make the dancing in the film technically correct and artistically moving. They wouldn’t have bothered had Ms. Portman truly been able to do it all.

I also find this whole thing fascinating from a video editing point of view. Editing is tricky. It’s not enough to know how to use an edit system, there is an art to it as well. An editor chooses what is seen in the movie and how shots are put together so that a seamless and compelling scene and story emerge. A bad editor can make even the best story seem incoherent. A good editor can make a bad story watchable and compelling.

I think the big takeaway from this whole story is that the editor on Black Swan did a fantastic job. He was able to take the footage of a truly amazing and artistic professional dancer and intercut her performance with shots of an amazing and artistic actress to make audiences forget that there were two people involved in the performance. He made the story and the performance compelling and interesting.

If you would like to delve into this story some more, you can watch the 20/20 story here.

1 comment:

  1. At the risk of sounding self promoting, nice story Will. Even though I work with Will, he chose the story and wrote the blog without inputed from any of us. So me commenting on it shouldn't be too outragious, right.
    To Will's point, we always said, good visual effects work is when the audience doesn't think, "wow, look at the effects." Instead they just say "wow, great movie." There really is a skill to blending art and technology with reality, whether in a movie, tv show, or corporate video. Audio Design works the same way. Good Audio Design doesn't make you think that it exists, but you'd know Bad or even Non-existent Audio Design right away. I guess its not always the tools but more importantly the talent using the tools.
    Steve k.