Focus On Film

The Anti-Choreography Approach to Footloose

Cinematographer Amy Vincent, ASC on the set.

There is an aesthetic to the work of director Craig Brewer and cinematographer Amy Vincent, ASC. “I would like to proudly say it’s a Brewer-Vincent Combo,” the director declares. And it’s got nothing to do with dance.

Known for their previous two films together, Black Snake Moan and Hustle and Flow, a pair of indie standouts (the latter the 2005 Sundance Cinematography Award winner for Vincent), Brewer and Vincent might seem an unusual choice to create Paramount’s 2011 reboot of the 1984 dance classic Footloose. But it is precisely that outsider approach that makes their version so refreshingly appealing to watch, and no less exciting.

“Craig and I approach everything as if it’s our first time,” says Vincent. “We both lost our virginity to the dance movie with Footloose.

She and Brewer typically approach filmmaking: using the genre to tell stories. “We approached the dance numbers in the movie from an emotional and dramatic standpoint. Every scene has its dramatic and emotional context within the movie. And that’s to Craig Brewer’s credit.”

From Vincent’s standpoint, dance sequences need to have an emotional connection to the story and characters. “Every dance number in Footloose has an emotional investment. If you’re watching people dancing and their movements and choices are motivated by another character or another aspect of the story, then that becomes interesting. We wanted the dance numbers to integrate seamlessly with the storylines. We were going for anti-choreography.”

Planning for each dance sequence began at Saturday rehearsals held by choreographer Jamal Sims at a rehearsal space in Atlanta, where the movie was filmed. “Everybody who had something to gain from knowing the choreography prior to shooting would be at these rehearsals, even after 60-80 hour work weeks,” Vincent recalls. The cinematographer recorded the rehearsal with a small flip camera, soaking it all in. “I had the privilege of watching Jamal, Craig and these amazing dancers bring the choreography to life, until I got it. It was vital to get a sense of it for myself. I didn’t want to be the outsider/ photographer who comes in and shoots this thing that somebody else created. I wanted to be part of it. And I’m a terrible dancer.”

Julianne Hough as Ariel in a scene from the film.

Even more helpful was director Brewer on set, who demonstrated to the cast and crew every step of every dance sequence himself. “Craig would take the entire cast and crew through every step, dancing and talking through the whole thing,” Vincent says. “To me, the beginning of the choreography between the camera and the dance is always Craig. He knows it, he gets it, and he knows what it means to the character.” Sims was present on set, as well, helping keep the camera movement timed perfectly in step with the dancers’ moves.

Vincent and her team shot with ARRIFLEX ST and LT cameras, with Cooke S4 prime lenses, as well as Angenieux zooms (17-80mm, 24-290mm) and Mini-zooms (15-40 and 28-76), all provided locally by Keslow Camera. “Those lightweight mini-zooms are super-enabling because they’re so light, you can operate handheld or Steadicam very easily, without a lot of lens changing.”

As for stocks, Vincent went with KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 for interiors, shooting 3-perf Super 35. For exteriors, Vincent chose KODAK VISION3 200T Color Negative Film 5213. “I’m photo-chemically trained. And, for me, there’s something about how the tungsten-balanced film stocks work with 85 filters that still appeals to me, both technically and artistically.” Her skill with that combination isn’t lost on her director.

“There’s a special color temperature and grain content that Amy does, that I haven’t really seen much in other work,” says Brewer. “It just makes the subject seem like they’re part of the environment.”

With the filmmaking world around constantly changing, Vincent says she appreciates the presence of Kodak remaining solid in the world of cinematography. “I love to shoot film. I would shoot film for the rest of my life, if I could. So I appreciate so much how Kodak has maintained and held a foothold in the imaging world, to make shooting film still a viable option. All of Hollywood is still set up to shoot film. That’s what everybody knows. And it’s not just set up to shoot film; it is set up to shoot Kodak film.”

FotoKem processed the film and provided dailies, and then Vincent reteamed with the post facility’s colorist Walter Volpatto for the digital intermediate. The two also worked together on the DIs for Black Snake Moan and Hustle & Flow.

For dance numbers, Vincent liked to begin with a master shot, as she says, in a proscenium theatrical manner. “You need that proscenium wall to set the stage. Once we have the big wide that shows us where we are.” In scenes such as the initial drive-in movie theater dance sequence that introduces the audiences to so many of the film’s characters, “there are several dramatic moments that needed to be acknowledged. So that’s how Craig and I constructed the photography for that scene.”

Once the stage relationship is established with the wide proscenium shot, she adds, “Then anything goes. Screen direction goes away, camera movement with dance moment – it all just becomes thrilling.” That’s where the Brewer-Vincent machine really flew into action – creating the world of dance cinematography anew. “I’d find myself saying, “I have the best job in the whole world. I’m shooting something I’ve never shot before – this is so cool,” she says.

A perfect example is one of Vincent’s favorites, seen in the final dance sequence, where the camera follows, in tight close-up, the feet of the dancing cast as they fly across the dance floor during a line dance. Having been inspired by a shot she’d seen in an earlier Brewer film, The Poor and Hungry, where the camera closely followed a hubcap as it flew through the air – until a wider reveal showed the vehicle being hoisted in a junkyard, Vincent was excited to put the technique to work.

(L to R) Miles Teller as Willard and Kenny Wormald as Ren. Photos: K.C. Bailey ©2011 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved

“I had been to the Saturday dance rehearsal, and I told my key grip, Pat O’Mara, ‘We have this shot, where the guys’ feet all dance across the floor. They meet with the girls, we want to change direction when the girls change, and then we want to change back.’ We designed that shot very specifically to the choreography. It was literally the fastest dolly move across the floor you could imagine, with four dolly grips at the end of the dolly track, stopping the dolly and sending it off in its other direction, three times. That shot is a great example of collaboration with the dance move inspiring the camera movement, and the reason for it and how to use it.”

Having come up through the ranks of music video production, Vincent was used to working multi-camera shoots, though, for Footloose, she tended to shy away from it. “We shot three-camera for the final dance number and for the drive-in theater. But for the most part, once we got past the wide shots, more than two cameras would start getting on top of the other.”

One of the film’s most challenging sequences was the so-called ‘Angry Dance,’ in which lead character Ren MacCormack (Kenny Wormald) blows off steam by dancing away his anger in an empty warehouse. The last sequence shot for the film, the crew faced a number of challenges to get it completed. “There are two parts to cinematography,” Brewer says. “There’s impressing people with great work, and also not letting people know there were issues.”

After losing their original location, the crew arrived at a large warehouse to shoot, only to be encountered by a dark, threatening sky – all day. “When we selected this place, we knew we were completely daylight-dependent. It was huge; it was vast,” Vincent recalls. “But a thunderstorm came in, and the place got so dark, you couldn’t have shot it even with the fastest film stock in the world.” So the team got creative, using an array of lighting gear, even if it meant leaving 18Ks in view. “I’m classically trained, so photographing movie lights in the context of a scene is not really part of my vocabulary. But my mind got opened that day,” she laughs.

Working with actors dancing long, intense routines means you have to be on your toes, ready to capture the best – quickly. “We always had the human element in photographing a dance,” says Vincent. “You don’t have 100 takes because the cast can get tired. Jamal was always near the camera with a microphone, letting his team of dancers know when to pull out all the stops. Kenny and Julianne just danced their hearts out.”

Vincent worked closely with all of the leads, particularly during difficult dance sequences like this one. “Kenny would look at me after a take and say, ‘Did you get that?’”

Her work with the young actors was not simply limited to shot design and capture. Vincent worked closely with hair department head Manny Millar and makeup head Vivian Baker to change lead actress Julianne Hough’s red carpet, Dancing with the Stars, look to a small-town girl look. “I collected a bunch of stills of her from the internet, in all kinds of environments, just to see what it was about this girl’s face we needed to know.” She also worked with the actress on set, to help her learn how to take best advantage of lighting. “It’s such a pleasure to work with young actors, because you can teach them about light. I was able to show Julianne the difference between holding her head one way or another, or stepping 10 degrees to the left, and how that changed the way the light worked on her.”

Towards the film’s close, the two leads finally have a romantic moment, via a long-awaited kiss – their silhouettes literally framing the setting sun into a heart shape between them. “I asked Craig, ‘Can we go completely Hallmark on this?’” Vincent recalls. “And he said ‘Hell yeah!’ It’s so cheesy that it’s great,” she says with a smile. The DP credits a collaborative relationship with a great AD team for making sure the camera, the sun and the actors were all in the right place at the right time.

“We had been rained out earlier in the day, and we ony had a couple of hours,” Brewer recalls. “Amy and I were stressing out over it. And then suddenly you see this kiss, and it almost looks like a heart between two people. And I just remember touching her, going, ‘We just shot something that’s the best thing we’ve ever done.’ Amy can get it done. She’s firm, and she’s opinionated. But more than anything, I have one soldier next to me that fights for my vision, and that’s Amy.”