Director’s Commentary Episode 2: Roxanne

Director’s Commentary Episode 2: Roxanne


Hello! Welcome to episode two of The
Director’s Commentary I’m Garrett Gibbons
and today we’re gonna talk about Roxanne!
Roxanne was a little mini project that I
did with my friend Natalya Zrazhevskaya.
She and I knew each other through
the ballroom dance community and we have a shared interest in film.
She’s a wonderful filmmaker and has a
lot of media knowledge. We filmed this
when she was about 17 –
she may have been 18 – and she had
gotten together with a Umario as her
competitive dance partner, and one of the
early things that they did in their
competitive dance partnership was make
this show dance to the song “El Tango de Roxanne” from the movie Moulin Rouge
So she and I were talking and I said, “hey I would love to
film something with you guys! let’s pick
something.” She said, “well, we have this
showdance that’s being really
well-received.” She sent me a video of a
performance of it that they did on stage
and I was blown away; it was amazing
I loved the idea, I loved the choreography,
but I wasn’t sold on the music for a few
reasons: first off, this music tends to be
fairly divisive. People usually love it
or they hate it. You’ve got this like
really over-the-top gravelly, strange
voice that doesn’t work well outside of
a character context, in my opinion.
It works well in the movie Moulin Rouge but
taking it outside… I don’t love it. And
then you have Ewan McGregor singing, who also is like, okay. You know, he’s like a
six out of ten singer. No hate, Ewan McGregor. If you get offended…
Hello there!
…let’s just grab a few drinks. We could
talk about it. I’ll have some water; you
can drink whatever you want. But the
other reason I didn’t love it is that it
was really difficult and expensive to
get the rights to use, and I wanted to
be able to film something that we could
show at film festivals, and you can’t do
that if you don’t have clearance for the
music. I inquired and found out that
it’d be prohibitively expensive, like ten
or twelve thousand dollars, to license
the song for a short film, and we were
trying to do this on basically no money
at all. I think we spent $80 on the whole
production. So I told her, I said “hey
let’s find a different song.”
so she looked and looked and looked and
she didn’t find anything and she said,
“look I really just want to film this.
Later, let’s film something else where we
have rights to the music” and I said
“great, but I don’t know what we’ll be
able to do with this because we can’t
show it anywhere.” Well, right around that
time YouTube started to implementing
their ad revenue sharing process with
the record labels and the studios so
that finally we were able to to at
least show it on YouTube and to show
it online. However (I’m skipping ahead of
myself a little bit) when we eventually
did upload it it was blocked in most
countries worldwide because the record
label didn’t want people to have access
to it for whatever reason, and so most
people never got a chance to see the
video until about a year passed, and
suddenly they dropped restrictions and people were watching the video all over the world.
So the music was controversial. However, I
trusted them. I wanted to go with it.
I knew that the choreography was really
tightly linked to the piece of music
that they selected so I said, “well let’s
just film it we’ll put it up on the
internet. It may get 500 views. It’s
not gonna hurt. It’s something that we
could just do during an evening, and we
can enjoy a couple hours together, no big deal
So I want to also talk briefly about the
choreography. This is not an Argentine
Tango. Argentine Tango is a style of
dance that has a very closed frame, and
the partners put their heads together
and it’s kind of cheek to cheek. There’s
a lot of body contact, and it’s a very
subtle dance, a very intricate and
beautiful dance, but it has more to do
with the footwork and the ganchos, and
the positioning and the timing with the
music. Obviously, you can see that this is
not Argentine Tango. Many people feel
that they have to comment that on the
YouTube video, and I always laugh every
time I get the little email
notifications saying “this is so fake!”
“everything but tango!” “it’s not tango!” well,
it’s not tango! This is a show dance
that’s based on Paso Doble, which is an
international ballroom style of dance
which is based off of Spanish movement,
really patterned after bullfighting
style movement. It was commissioned
by Louis XIV in in France to be a
court dance, mimicking bullfighting.
It was set to España Cani, which is the
common music traditionally that’s played
at bullfights. Paso Doble is a very
cool, very dramatic, very masculine dance
with a lot of conflict and aggression
and it’s something that all competitive
ballroom dancers study at some point, and
so it makes sense from a ballroom dance
perspective to do Roxanne as a Paso
Doble, but it’s very confusing because
the song is called El Tango de Roxanne –
the tango of Roxanne – so I wanted to
clarify that. But it’s primarily Paso Doble.
There definitely are influences of the international style of
tango, as well as American style smooth
tango, neither which has much to do
with Argentine tango, so it’s very
important to recognize that what they’re
doing is a very trained, skilled, cool thing,
but nobody’s claiming that it’s
Argentine tango, okay? Let’s get over it.
So adapting this stage piece for the
screen was interesting because obviously it’s extremely strong on stage
but there are certain things you can do
on screen that you can’t do on stage
such as those close-ups of each of the
dancers where we see their expressions,
we see the emotion, we see those deeper intricacies… I really wanted to be
able to make Natalya have a dramatic
entrance: we hear her footsteps, she walks
in, she’s strong, she’s powerful,
she’s sassy, but also we see that her
partner is not happy to see her; he seems
to be responding with jealousy, with some
sort of contempt; there’s anger, there’s
tension, and when she senses that he’s
there, she doesn’t even turn to look at him
she’s she knows that there’s going to be
some sort of conflict, and she’s being
coy, but she’s being defiant with him as
well. I wanted to bring out all of those
emotions and add that additional subtext
to the short film so that those themes
could be in the viewers’ minds when they
watched the rest of the choreography, and
it can help them understand the
choreography better. Costuming on this
was pretty simple for me as the director.
I did basically nothing. They had set the
costuming ahead of time. We tweaked a few things with Umario’s look, as you’ll
see, but for the most part it’s what they
had already picked and it was fantastic.
One little note: there was a flower in
Natalya’s hair, and Umario takes it out
and he throws it. It’s a minor
detail, and doesn’t make or break the
piece, but if you’re ever trying to stage
something like this we were only
able to film pre-flower-being-removed
and post-flower-being-removed
because the flower had
to be attached to her hair strongly to
be able to dance the first part of the
choreography, but then after that after
we had removed it we couldn’t easily put
it back in because it would take so long
to restage it, so we filmed the first,
pre-flower section of the
choreography in one chunk, and then we
filmed a few takes of throwing the
flower off, and for that we could just
sort of barely tuck it in so that it was
easy for him to toss, and I think we
filmed that four times, and we got one
that worked, and then from that point on
we filmed the second portion
of the choreography, which is sort of the post-flower
and we had to do something
similar later in the piece, where we
would break up the choreography into
smaller chunks and film all of our takes
of one chunk of choreography before
moving to the next, because we I wanted
to show them get progressively more
sweaty their hair to come down, to look
more disheveled, and the only way that I
knew how to do that well was to film it
progressively, but since we did many
takes we had to break it up into those
small sections. It made it logistically
kind of challenging. Little details that
really you have to think about when
you’re filming. I want to talk about the
location for a second. We filmed this in
Seattle, Washington. It’s not a very old
city, but this is one of the oldest
buildings in the city. It goes back to
the late 1800s. It’s pretty cool, but
it’s actually a photographer’s studio
the front part of the studio is really
nice and they do a lot of high-end
fashion work and portraiture and
commercial work and all these things
there and we filmed this in kind of the
weird back room which I had seen during
other times when I’d been to shoot
things at the photo studio. In fact, when
you watch the very first shots of
Natalia walking towards the camera, you
can see the real photo studio behind and
there are some things back there, like a
big orange fan and some other stuff
that’s a little bit anachronistic. It’s
kind of funny to see those details in
the background. Lighting this was
difficult. Lighting dance is always hard
because they’re moving, and in fact in
this one they move so much that I had to
light in zones where they would move
from zone A to zone B to zone C, so I
had a few 800 watt lights that were sort
of overhead looking down with diffusion
on them – big soft boxes – and though that
wasn’t perfect uniform lighting between
them it allowed them to kind of move
from zone to zone, and that also kind of
reflects that sort of seamy nightclub
style, where you have like an overhead
bulb here and then another one there and
so there are those darker areas and the
lighter areas that you pass through and
it feels a little bit more lived-in and
more of a normal location. We also had a
super-bright 2000 watt light off to
frame left, which you can actually see in
a few shots. You can see the stand if
you’re looking for it, but I wanted that
really strong light source. It kind of
invokes that theatrical spotlight type
of feel, but it’s not straight on. I
don’t like the look of a light that’s
coming straight from the audience’s
perspective. So we have that side light
with the harsh shadows. It feels dramatic. I like it when they get closer to
the wall and we see a harsh shadow on
them. I had to move and adjust the lights
so that we could see that shadow on the
wall a little more clearly, but it was
interesting. We also shot with a lot of
fog, which I love shooting with. The fog
machine really sets the atmosphere and
it diffuses the light throughout the
whole scene, but also the fog tends to
move towards sources of heat, and so I
had you know these 800 watt lights up
high and then I had this 2000 watt light
way off to the side and so most of it
would go up towards the 800s and then it
would coast over towards the 2k light so
we were constantly refreshing the fog
and trying to get more in, and basically
after every take we would go
“ssshhhhhhhh” with the fog, and I’d wave the photo reflector, and then we’d wait for a
minute to let the the fog diffuse before
we could start dancing again. Also, the
heat put off from those tungsten lights –
this is before LEDs, we shot this in 2014
LED lights weren’t very inexpensive yet;
they didn’t have high output LEDs so
everything was tungsten, and they’re hot
lights, and it made that room so hot; they
were soaked in sweat and after every
take they had to cool off and kind of go
out into the main area and stand in
front of the big fan that was in the
photo studio to try to cool off. I
believe it was raining that day but it
was so hot inside of the space because
of all the lights. In terms of the camera
this was shot on the Canon 5d mark iii,
mostly with the 70-200 L Series lens
as well as a 24-70 lens.
I used a Tokina 11-16 2.8 lens for a
few shots; I used an 85mm 1.8
prime for a few shots, and I used a
50mm 1.4 for a few shots. But
you’ll see that in general i when i’m
filming dance, i like to show a lot of
head to toe. I want to see the dancers. I
want the dancers to tell the story. I
don’t want to hide them with fancy
camera work or editing. I feel that if
they’re strong enough to be in front of
my lens, I want to let their talent shine
through. So I don’t know exact numbers of
balance but 60 to 70 percent of the
shots I want to be pretty wide, and then
the other percentage will be close-ups
that show the details that you might
not notice in the wide shot: the facial
expressions, the hand, the feet… some of my
favorite shots are of the feet when
they’re doing those slow pulsing cortes
their whole body was moving beautifully
but I feel that just their legs and feet
tell the story. As her foot slides a little
bit further than his, and then he pulls
her back and her leg snaps in and then
we cut to see the rest of them
responding to that. But I really feel
like the feet can tell this story. It’s
also interesting because this was shot
before electronic gimbals were a
thing – they weren’t invented yet, and
though there were mechanical gimbals
which stabilize through counterweights
and things, it was really hard to get
lenses switched out on those because
they were so weight-dependent, so
I actually filmed this on a big tripod
with with giant metal caster wheels on
the bottom of each leg and I would roll
the tripod around freely, and I had an
8-foot crane – a jib from Kessler crane – that was mounted on top of that, and so I
would be moving the crane up and down as
I’m focusing, and as I’m rolling it back
and forth. It was very very strange type
of setup. I don’t have photos from this
set but this is a photo of basically the
same setup that we use in an old
abandoned building for a later project
called “Run Away” which I did with the
same two dancers. Now sound design was
kind of interesting for this. I am a firm
believer that a little bit of sound
design can go a long way. There aren’t
a whole lot of added sound elements: we
hear her footsteps, his footsteps, the
slap when he grabs her arm, sometimes
the thud when they hit the ground
those little details make a huge
difference. For the most part, it’s just
the music, however those added-in details for me at least
make a big difference. when Umario was walking forward, I used a
little audio field recorder, handheld, and
I was just holding it near his feet and
walking backwards very quietly in my
socks so that I wouldn’t make noise
as he would go clunk clunk clunk.
“Umario footsteps take one…”
and that’s what I put on top of it, and I had to cut to the cadence of his footsteps
which were a little bit different when we did
it with just the audio than when I
filmed it later; there was very careful
editing to align those and to make it
work out. Same thing with the slap. Poor
Natalya got slapped so many times trying
to find the right one. He would hit too
hard or he’d do too softly, and I think
we did like eight or nine or ten takes
of the slap before I got the audio that
I liked, and the audio of the slap
that you hear in the film is
definitely not the audio from the video
take that you’re seeing. That’s something
that I added in afterwards which is
called Foley, a pretty common tactic in
filmmaking
even though those are small details, they
make a big impact in the audience’s
experience. I only want to talk about
editing briefly. If there’s interest at
some point I want to do a much longer
video about how to edit dance because
it’s something I feel extremely
passionately about and I’ve done a lot
professionally, but in general I feel
that the editing should never get in the
way of the dance itself. we should be
afraid to show a 12 or 14 second clip on
screen if it all works. We only cut away
when we need to show something else or
if you need to hide something that
was a mistake, and when you’re dealing
with dancers of this quality, of this
caliber, pretty much every take they did
was excellent. They made a few mistakes,
and nobody’s perfect, but I could almost
put up any single take that we did and
most audience members would love
watching it. However I do believe, as
mentioned before, in cutting into those
details that help the audience feel more
intimate about the experience, help them
get to know the characters better, help
them notice details that they couldn’t
see otherwise. So again, wide shots, wide shots wide shots.
I want the dancers to be able to express
and show their dance head-to-toe as
often as possible. That’s just my
personal philosophy. So the launch of
this is really interesting. Like I said,
I was skeptical that we would really be
able to show it anywhere because of the
music licensing issue, so I put
Roxanne on Vimeo and we shared it from
there. I also uploaded it to YouTube, but
it was blocked in most countries and so
a lot of people were saying “hey what is
this it just says ‘blocked’ in my country!
I want to watch it!” and we saying, “I’m sorry that’s the rights-holders
for the music who determined that, not us. So we just left it alone. On Vimeo it got
maybe like four or five thousand views,
which is kind of like my network,
Natalya’s network, and Umario’s Network.
We shared it to our people, it got
circulated, it was enjoyed, everyone said
that was great, good job, pat yourselves
on the back, and that was it. About a year
later, I started noticing a huge number
of comments coming in on the YouTube
channel, so I looked at the YouTube
page and there were like 120,000 views. I looked at the history and it just
suddenly *boom* came out of nowhere and I believe that it’s because Sony changed
the licensing restrictions
of where the video could be shown and
suddenly it was available for a global
audience. I was just watching the
statistics, boggled by why this came out
of nowhere.
For more than a year there were
basically no views at all. It had fewer
than a thousand views and before I knew
it, it had a million, and then 2 million,
then 3 million, and 4 million… so it’s
been really interesting to see. I don’t
really know what the lesson is to learn
from this, other than that you should
never give up on something, and if you
feel like doing something that you feel
adds value to the world, create it, put
it out there, and if it doesn’t catch on
immediately don’t get discouraged. You
never know who’s watching something that
you’ve done, who may be inspired, and who
might create something even better, and
you were the cause for creating that
goodness in the world.
Thanks so much for watching this
episode, thanks for watching Roxane, I’m
gonna link to the full version at the
end here, and I look forward to talking
to you on the next episode of The Director’s
Commentary!

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