There are many direct parallels between a proscenium stage and the frame of a camera. This section will examine some of those connections and highlight many of the major considerations when capturing dance for the camera.

Defining the Frame

The lens of the camera produces a rectangular image known as the frame. The shape and size of the frame depends on the format you choose for shooting. The dimensions of the frame are described in a 1:1 ratio with the first number representing the width and the second the height. Traditional cinema has the dimensions of 1.85:1. This creates a long rectangular frame that is fantastic for sweeping, panoramic views. Standard definition television is shot in a 4:3 ratio making its image closer to the shape of a square. Recently, high definition has been created and more closely emulates the dimensions of film with a 16:9 ratio. is presented entirely in this format. Ultimately, any format will work.

Regardless of the dimensions of your frame, how you fill it with dance will be your number one priority. Often times, details in the frame are easily missed when looking through a tiny viewfinder. This is why it is always recommended when shooting to set up a peripheral monitor for easy viewing. This allows the key collaborators to see the nuances of the performers as well as command what is inside of the frame.

What are you looking for inside of the frame? Well that depends on your role in the dance for camera. The choreographer, more than likely, will observe the execution of the movement. The lighting designer will have a watchful eye on the mood and effectiveness of the lighting. The costume designer will watch takes and pay close attention to the costumes and how they work on the dancers. The cinematographer, or director of photography, is going to closely examine the framing. And finally, the director is looking at the big picture to make sure all of the elements are working together. Regardless if you are playing all of those roles or you have a team to support your dance on camera, training your eye to see inside of the frame is imperative.

“While live dance exists in our own three-dimensional world, one of the most salient characteristics of filmdance is that the human body is projected as a two-dimensional image. But, because the light which molds this two-dimensional and the motion which animates it can heighten the perceived plasticity of the human body even beyond “real life,” there is a contradiction involved, which makes film as a dance medium possible.”

From "Filmdance: Space, Time and Energy" by Amy Greenfield (1983)

The Cone as a Vanishing Point

The notion of viewing dance through a rectangular frame is certainly not a new idea, as the proscenium stage also places the dancer in similar shaped settings. What is different, however, is how these two rectangles create the impression of depth. The proscenium perspective creates the illusion that the front of the stage is larger than the back. This is done through conventional theater masking. The camera perspective creates the opposite effect. Specifically, that the background is wider than the foreground. This is referred to in film as the cone.

The cone, not to be confused with the rectangular frame, describes how the camera lens perceives depth. Simply put, the line of vision starts from a point, the lens of the camera, and opens outward in a cone or pyramid shape. If the camera lens is acting as the human eye, imagine someone standing directly in front of you with their hands covering your eyes. You can’t see anything, right? If they were to walk backwards slowly, your line of vision would expand allowing you to see the palm of their hands, then their arms and eventually their whole body. The further they move away from you the smaller you perceive them and the more of them you can see. The camera lens works in much the same way.

As you choreograph for the camera, keep the cone in mind, as it will directly impact your choreographic choices. The number of dancers and the amount of movement you wish to capture will depend on their placement inside of the cone. If you have five dancers five feet away from the camera it is unlikely that you will see all of the movement. However, placing them further away from the camera would broaden the cone allowing you to see more of the action. Another choreographic consideration is how the cone effects on screen entrances and exits. Here is an example of how this works. If someone stands one foot in front of a stationary camera, and takes two steps sideways, they will exit the camera’s cone of vision. However if someone is twenty feet in front of the camera and takes those same steps to the side they will remain in the camera’s sightlines. You may find it helpful to mark the boundaries of this cone so your dancers know the sightlines. Just make sure the markers do not end up unintentionally in the frame.

The Two Dimensional Stage

Once a live dance is transferred to video, it goes from a three-dimensional space to a two-dimensional screen. Since all of the dancers and objects on screen are flat, one of the major challenges of dance on screen is to imply a sense of depth within the frame. If the frame is well composed, the illusion of depth can be quite convincing. Here are a few helpful pointers to consider when framing up your dance.

• Compositionally always try and fill the frame with an interesting background that relates to the action in the foreground.
• Angles are your friend and will help imply depth. Find angular relationships between your dancers and setting.
• The human body usually has more depth sideways than front to back. To show this depth, consider facing your dancers at a slight angle from the camera. This rule is also helpful when shooting objects such as a car or a wall.
• When filming more than one dancer, try placing them at various depths in the frame while still maintaining their desired relationship.
• Good lighting can add significant depth to your picture. Don’t be afraid of shadows in the frame.
• The kind of lens you are using will impact depth perception. As a general rule, a wide-angle lens is going to lengthen the depth of field while a telephoto lens is going to shorten the depth of field. Both lenses can be extremely effective if used well.

Marion North, author of Personality Assessment Through Movement, states that, “some of the subtlety of the movement is ‘ironed out’ and the two dimensional picture of movement loses the richness of the original.” By playing close attention to your framing composition you can overcome the flatness of the screen and create a rich three-dimensional world.

“Because we have two eyes, with a fixed distance between them, we see things from two angles. This allows us to see depth, the distance between an object and its background, we see three dimensionally. The camera only has one angle of view and sees in two dimensions. It is a function of the lighting to suggest depth.”

From Basics of Video Lighting by Des Lyver and Graham Swainson

The Lens as Perspective

Each audience member at a live performance is going to have a different vantage point depending on where they are sitting. A dancer’s arabesque is going to look dramatically different from back row center compared to front row on the side. This is why everyone shells out the big bucks for the good seats. They want to see the dance as the choreographer intended it. When watching a dance on screen, everyone in the audience will have a set perspective of the dance dictated by the focus of the camera lens. No matter where you are sitting, everyone still sees the arabesque from the same angle. This gives the director the incredible power to focus your eye.

“Perhaps the most basic reality of filmdance is the fact that the viewer doesn’t see the dance directly. The camera with its eye – the lens – comes between the dancer and the viewer. Therefore, in film, the dancer always moves in relation to the camera. Once the camera lens becomes the medium through which dance is seen and felt, a radical change takes place. Motion is no longer an absolute unto itself. The dancer’s movements no longer have independence. Any movement is perceived relative to the lens of the camera.”

From "Filmdance: Space, Time and Energy" by Amy Greenfield (1983)

Viewing Options

Although the lens creates one fixed perspective for the audience, the dance itself may be framed from a variety of vantage points. Traditionally, in a live performance, the audience is statically placed in a chair with a set relationship to the stage. Dance for camera affords the audience a variety of other viewing options. A dance can now be framed from above or below, in various different environments and the body can even be fragmented.

“Screen a dance film in the cinema or at home, and each member of the audience will see the same thing: the set of images chosen by the director. It is the director’s version of the dance work. Working with Glen Tetley several years ago, I heard him say, “You are the choreographer now, Bob. You select the images that the audience sees.”

From “A New Place for Dancing” by Bob Lockyer inside Envisioning Dance on Film and Video

Staging Within the Frame

In dance, the proscenium stage is the 3-D canvas on which the choreographer creates visual, kinetic, time-based art. In video, the screen is the 2-D canvas on which the filmmaker creates visual, kinetic, time-based art. Do you see where I’m going here? Both processes involve making choices about how the composition of an artwork is revealed over time within a given space. Therefore, there are direct parallels to be made between concert dance as an art form and dance art created for the video medium. Let’s look specifically at spatial composition within the screen.

“Choreography is essentially a matter of choosing between purely naturalistic staging and staging that shapes the drama. How a director balances these factors defines his camera style.”

From Film Directing: Cinematic Motion by Steven D. Katz

Frame Composition

“Good composition is arrangement of pictorial elements to form a unified, harmonious whole.”

From The Five C’s of Cinematography by Joseph V. Mascelli

Basically, all that artists know about the basics of design (balance, symmetry, asymmetry, weight, etc.) pertain to how images appear within the rectangular frame of the video screen. A bit dated, yet very valid, Doris Humphrey’s philosophy on the art of placement in the stage space also pertains to video. Revisit her chapter, "The Stage Space" in The Art of Making Dances and heed her advice. Make choices!

“If the frame is divided into nine areas – upper left, upper center, upper right, middle left, center, middle right, lower left, lower center, and lower right – the position considered the most beneficial for passing information to the audience is the lower right. That conclusion is based on the philosophy that in our culture the eye starts at the upper left and proceeds to the lower right and comes to rest there.”

From Single-camera Video Production by Robert B. Musburger


Spatial pathways are considered a basic tool in dance choreography. Choices in directional pathways (vertical, horizontal, diagonal, circular) may reinforce choreographic concepts and contribute to complex designs and movement development. Once the effects of directional movement are appreciated, locomotion within the frame may be selectively incorporated into art works for the screen, as with the stage.

“Film space refers to the spatial dynamics inherent in the film frame. A film frame is both a static snapshot and part of a moving picture. When coupled with motion, screen direction becomes a powerful story element.”

“As Westerners we read left-to-right. If you rented fifty studio-made movies, there’s a good chance that the “good guy” will enter screen left every time. When the “good guy” moves left-to-right our eyes move comfortably. Subconsciously, we begin to make positive inferences. Conversely, the antagonist usually enters from the right. Since our eyes aren’t used to moving from right-to-left, the antagonist’s entrance makes us uncomfortable. The screenwriter exploits this by transferring our learned discomfort to the character. The subtle irritant directs audiences to see the character negatively. In the same way we code a black hat as a negative symbol, we can also code screen direction negatively. When these two forces are aimed at each other, we naturally anticipate some kind of collision.”

From Cinematic Storytelling by Jennifer Van Sijll

Horizontal Pathway

Diagonal Pathway

Circular Pathway

Entrances and Exits

In choreography for the stage, choreographers deal with the appropriateness of dancers entering and exiting from the wings, the house, behind set pieces, or even flying in and out from above. Such traditional, theatrical conventions can be complex in their dependence on riggings, trap doors, etc. In the world of video a freedom is afforded by one’s ability to position the edge of the frame simply by pointing the camera to a desired location. This can be very exciting and lead to unexpected results. Like on the stage, entrances and exits to and from the screen may be used to alter composition and extend momentum beyond the visible dance space. Movement in and out of the frame may be accomplished by allowing the dancer to enter the view of the camera, or through the use of camera motion. Another exciting option afforded by technology is the ability to change the number of performers in the performance space without seeing them enter or exit across the boundary of the screen. This can be accomplished with simple editing techniques, such as hard-cuts, cross-dissolves, superimpositions, and keying. If only we could make dancers magically appear and disappear on the stage!

“We can begin to see that although the kinetic basis of live dance is the body’s relationship to gravity in a three-dimensional space – whereas the film space is ostensibly flat and gravity-free – this does not mean filmdance isn’t kinetic. The extreme kinesis possible in film was proved at its inception when the Lumiere brothers filmed a train coming diagonally toward the camera, and the audience jumped in fright. Kinesis, like the sense of depth in film, is psychologically, though not physically, real.”

From "Filmdance: Space, Time and Energy" by Amy Greenfield (1983)

Entering the Stage (Wide Shot)

Entering and Exiting the Frame (Medium Close-up Shot and Wide Shot)

Entering and Exiting the Stage (Same Side)

Entering and Exiting the Stage (Opposite Side)

Choosing an Environment

Early in the creative process it is wise to ask the following questions when choosing an environment to shoot your dance for the screen. First and foremost, where do you envision the dance being performed? How much do you want the environment to impact your dance? What is needed to support your dance on screen? Are there are special requirements for the dance that need to be factored in (i.e. good floor for jumping, open spaces for large movement)? How will the location relate to the dance and add to the viewer’s overall experience? Do you need a neutral environment or an environment rich with texture? All of these questions are important for formulating the overall atmosphere for your dance. Most importantly the environment has to be appropriate for the intention of the choreography and movement vocabulary.

On Stage

What inspires many artists about placing a dance on film is the opportunity to take the dance out of the theatre. However, choosing a stage space as your shooting location has many benefits that shooting at other locations may not provide. A major benefit is that you have complete control of the lighting. This is a biggy for two reasons. One, the lighting you set is constant until you change it. Anyone who has shot in an outdoor setting will tell you that controlling the natural light of outdoor environments can be hit or miss. It is difficult when outdoors to predict lighting conditions from moment to moment, especially when continuity is an issue. When shooting outdoors, at least during the daytime, the sun plays a major role as your main lighting source. You have to be aware of the position of the sun due to time of day and work around any possible cloud coverage. Naturally, shooting on stage eliminates these problems all together.

The second benefit of having complete control of a lighting plot is that it is easier to control the mood and balance of the lights. It is difficult at best to achieve balance and mood with lesser quality light often found in other locations. Even if additional light sources are incorporated into the setting it is challenging to achieve a natural look. In these circumstances it is optimum to have an experienced lighting technician who is used to working with lighting for the camera.

Convenience stands in line as another great advantage for choosing the stage space as your environment. The wide-open space, temperature control, and presence of a good floor create an ideal setting for the dancer to perform her task. They allow for the dance to be performed without the additional step of adapting the choreography for an unfamiliar environment. Ample electricity is provided eliminating the need for generators. Also, the smooth surface of the Marley floor makes dolly shots easier to accomplish.

Let’s now talk about the artistic reasons for choosing a stage space over other locations. What can a stage space offer to the dance’s transformation to the screen? Simply stated, the stage space provides a blank canvas for the dance. While it doesn’t transport the dance to a new location, it doesn’t distract from the dance either. It is a clean environment that points to the movement, the performance, and the composition. It allows for framing choices and camera motion to be in the foreground. The viewer is able to see the dance with less distraction, allowing the movement to be in the spotlight. When dance is placed in other environments the focus shifts more from the movement to how the movement is interacting with that environment. The stage environment as site keeps the eye focused more on the dance and its meaning.

“Location work indoors, or in a studio, needs very careful setting of these levels of light and dark to obtain the correct balance. Artificial lighting, therefore tends to start with a fairly high level of light overall, with the areas we want brighter given just a little bit more illumination to make them appear brighter.”

From Basics of Video Lighting by Des Lyver and Graham Swainson

Duet on Stage

On Location

Location, location, location! Just how important is the location of your dance for the camera? Well for lack of a better word, immensely! In her book Making Video Dance, Katrina McPherson states, “Very often, people will remember video dance by the location in which it was filmed.” Dance undergoes a significant transformation when it is taken out of the theater and placed in a new setting. Whatever setting you prepare for your dance for the camera will greatly impact the viewer’s perception of the dance. A viewer will make personal associations with anything they see on the screen. Therefore choosing a site appropriate for the dance’s intent is a pivotal moment in your filmmaking process.

So what do you do if you want to develop a dance for the screen that creates a symbiotic relationship between the choreography and the environment? Well first you set out to search for the ideal location. If your dance already has a theme that dictates a specific setting, your search for a site will center on finding just the right place to fill that vision. However, if your dance has a more ambiguous interpretation, your search will involve looking for a space that inspires you to further the connections between the setting and the dance. When considering a site look for the things that will make your shoot successful such as: amazing vantage points, architectural elements that add interest, and built in ways to interact with the space. Also, make sure that the dance can actually be performed in the new location.

Unfortunately, choosing the location is only the first step in the process. There is a whole list of things to consider next. First, who owns the property? Consulting the property owner for permission to shoot on their site may seem daunting but it’s a necessary step in the process. What kind of power supply is provided? If there is limited or inadequate power supply you will need to consider the use of a generator. Are you going to need additional light sources? If so, how much additional lighting do you need? The answer to this will impact how much power you will need to run the additional lights. Does the site require any additional preparation before it can be used such as removal of unwanted items, a deep cleaning, placement of a dance floor? Sites that may not seem practical at first might become usable with a little hard work.

Shooting on location can be a wonderfully fulfilling experience as you see the dance unfold in its new setting. Your ability to realize your dance in a new site is what transforms you from choreographer to filmmaker. A half-hearted attempt to find a “great” location can be the downfall of your dance on screen. Keep asking yourself, “Why this site?” “What does it add?” Being mindful of this decision alone will play a major role in the success of your endeavors and your overall satisfaction with what you create.

“In order to capture a good video image, the contrast level between the brightest and the darkest needs to be limited, but not to such an extent that it is eliminated. We can’t do much about the brightest levels outdoors, in natural light, but may need to make a decision to allow the darkest to appear totally black, or whether to add a little light in the shadow areas, to reduce the contrast level, and thus allow the camera to ‘see’ into the darker areas.”

From Basics of Video Lighting by Des Lyver and Graham Swainson

Duet on Location