Choreographic works that include prop usage may be divided into categories based on the intended use of the prop and the prop’s overall contribution to the total work of art. In other words, sometimes props are used primarily to add visual interest and other times there exists a distinct attempt to create motion that extends beyond the boundaries of the body and into the prop itself. As the Renaissance man of sculptural costumes and props, Alwin Nikolais engaged in extensive explorations into the inherent movement qualities of bodily extensions. Improvisation with props was utilized to generate inventive movement that was directly inspired by the nature of the prop itself. Movement discoveries were then structured into complex choreographic phases. The core of the Nikolais/Louis Performance Technique called “decentralization”, along with other concepts of the technique (graining, spatial gesture, sculptural sense, totality), prepared the performer to extend his or her motional qualities beyond the body into space, or into a kinetically charged object. Nikolais’ approach to performance training provided a method for bringing inanimate objects to life. The power of this technique became evident to me during the choreographic development rehearsals in 1992 that led to the production of Nikolais’ last work, Aurora.
The opening section of Aurora involved the dancers performing with battery-powered lights attached to the ends of 3-foot wooden sticks. The choreography demanded that the dancers be able to create arcs of light that embodied an organic quality. Although the dancers were not illuminated and hidden behind mirrored panels, from his seated position in the theater Nikolais was able to identify the dancer who’s performance lacked a fully engaged psyche. This work, along with many others that involved an inseparable sharing of energy between the dancer and their props and costume extensions, challenged the company members to conduct their kinetic movement qualities beyond the extremities of the body.
This technique of “transference” will be the focus of our look at video production accessories. Extensions/apparatus/accessories/props support both functional and artistic efforts, in that they facilitate the videographer’s creative intent.
Tripods provide stability and help to isolate camera movement. The pseudo-anchoring abilities of the tripod support the ever-changing compositional choices made by videographers as they seamlessly combine panning, tilting, and zooming actions against a fixed axis. A tripod must be tuned like a fine violin. Once leveled, tilting and panning tensions must be set to create a resistance that promotes the smooth and sensitive actions of partnering. With the spatial restrictions that accompany a stationary base, the communicative potential to a camera-mounted tripod is dependent on the selective combinations of time (acceleration, deceleration, suddenness, sustainment) and the arcing lens in space.
Unlike the tripod, which simulates the actions of the cervical spine in a standing position, the smoothness of a rolling dolly shot is not typically experienced as a natural human action. Although dancers develop the ability to move in an almost laser-like manner across the floor while maintaining a single level, the average pedestrian only experiences this quality of motion when riding in an automobile, cycle, or wheelchair. Performing dolly shots, like executing a plié walk or run, requires an engaged center core, engaged musculature of the legs, a lowering of the center of gravity, and the power of the pelvis motivating one through space. The dolly action also has its spatial restrictions. These gliding actions, in their purest forms (without combining panning or tilting), maintain a consistent level, or distance from the lens to the floor. The energy of a dolly shot is dependent on the deliberate initiation and resolution of locomotion in a desired combination of linear and curvilinear pathways.
Unlike the dolly shot, which typically maintains a consistent level, craning revels in its exploration of extreme levels. Basically, moving in an upward direction feels very different than moving in a downward direction. It is in the gut-felt sensations of these actions lies the expressive potential of the use of craning shots. A nuance that is difficult to teach in dance technique is the difference in spatial performance of a relevé action and a plié action. The body should display a contrasting resonance when moving between the levels. The elated sensation of lightness and verticality associated with being in an elevated position has been referred to by Alwin Nikolais as “the up.” Dancers strive to enliven space by releasing energy into the upward direction and embrace the floor as a reliable weight-sharing partner. The extremes of upper and lower space provide unlimited possibilities for movement invention and expression. The crane, as the camera’s elevator, extends these possibilities into the realm of camera movement.
As a support for freeform camera movement, the Fig Rig may be used for a spectrum of simple to complex actions. Designed to facilitate a sturdy, solid grip, it securely locks the camera into the frame of the body and allows the videographer to engage in full-body motion. Not unlike handheld techniques, the capturing of energy while using a Fig Rig is dependent on the dynamic phrasing of the videographer’s performance. As an almost perfect ballroom partner, the Fig Rig passively follows the lead of the videographer, while creating a strong dance frame. This tool directly links the movement of the body to the camera, fully capturing the point of view of the dancing videographer.
The Glidecam as another freeform apparatus differs from the Fig Rig’s direct link to the body in that its primary intent is to dilute the jerky movement of the videographer and overlay a smooth, flowing quality. The design of the Glidecam includes a juncture at which abrupt movement is deflected and the hinged pivoting joint allows the pendulum-like counterweights to offset the motion of the balanced camera. As the name implies, this tools is excellent for capturing gliding motion but does seem to posses a limited dynamic range. The dynamic itinerary associated with a gliding action may be best described by Rudolf von Laban. In his terms, a “glide” is composed of a combination of sustained time, direct space, and light weight. Since this tool contributes its own quality of smoothness and is once removed from the videographer’s motion, filmmakers must consider the appropriateness of using the Glidecam.
Also, see the Freeform section for related information on the use of extensions.