A frustrated dancer finds herself on the beach with nothing to do but release. Charlie Clift’s experimental dance film Beyond The Horizon is an exploration of the emotional ups and downs of the creative process. It’s also a testament to the joy of collaboration, a key motivator for Clift in making the film. Clift worked with Dancer Demi Rox who interpreted his ideas into instinctual and reactive movements. These gestures were then underpinned by Composer Segun Akinola who channelled Clift’s conceptual basis into the film’s resonating cello-focused score that swells with deep and haunting harmonies. It’s a cathartic watch which is made even more impressive when you realise that Clift created the film entirely as a passion project. DN is excited to premiere Beyond The Horizon on our pages today alongside a conversation with Clift where he walks us through the journey of creating the graceful cinematography that captures his allegorical piece.
There’s real grace and fluidity to the form and narrative of Beyond The Horizon, what inspired you to make it?
I wanted to make a film about the ups and downs of the creative process. I’ve been lucky enough to cross paths with many brilliant creative people. Speaking to them and knowing my own process, I’ve found that bringing a project to life is always a journey with many twists and turns. You start upbeat and self-assured, but you’re guaranteed to get overwhelmed by self-doubt at some point. To make something you’ve got to be determined and keep going despite that. Combining music and dance felt like the right way of telling that story.
I am always looking for ways to collaborate with people who inspire me so this was my number one objective here. I started by writing a simple story about a dancer moving through those emotions; the initial excitement, then unavoidable self-doubt, before finally trusting herself. I wanted to create something open enough that my collaborators could be inspired by it without limiting them.
You mentioned that collaboration was an important factor for you in making Beyond The Horizon. Who did you work with in making the film and what interested you about working with them?
I pitched the idea to Segun Akinola, a brilliant composer I know from working with BAFTA. He understood my brief instinctively and wrote a beautiful solo cello composition for the film. He worked closely with Cellist David Cohen developing the tune. It was so exciting getting their initial recordings. I was bouncing around my office with excitement when I first heard them. It’s such a stunning piece, it swells with deep and haunting harmonies, then dives into excited rage, before finishing on uplifting notes of fragile hope.
Speaking to them and knowing my own process, I’ve found that bringing a project to life is always a journey with many twists and turns.
I then sent both the music and the story to Demi Rox, a choreographer I discovered on Instagram. I knew it’d be fascinating to see someone with a street dance background respond to a modern classical composition. She really developed it in her own unique way, channelling hip hop, freestyle, and classical dance to fit Segun’s piece.
The camera carries such a smooth and fluid motion in how it follows Demi. How did you approach the camerawork with your cinematographer?
I was keen for the camera to dance with Demi in the film, to feel like it was part of her movements so before the shoot our DoP Natalja Safronova, Demi and I spent a day together on location rehearsing the best way for the dancer and camera to move together through the landscape. That meant when it came to the shoot day we were ready to make the most of our time with a full crew and to capture our shots in the best light possible.
What equipment did you use to achieve that?
As the camera needed to dance with Demi it was vital it could move around easily despite the challenging terrain. We also wanted a camera that could handle the dramatic contrast of a natural sunset, so we opted for an Alexa Mini mounted on a Ronin gimbal. That was pretty much it, just a single camera and a single lens to keep the feeling consistent. In the cuts between dances we used a few abstract shots that were captured on a drone to help bring extra atmosphere to the piece, but mainly I wanted the viewer to be immersed in the dance, not distracted by attention grabbing edits.
And in capturing the film that way, did you have a solid vision of how it would all piece together in the edit?
Due to Covid restrictions I couldn’t sit with the Editor Gary Askham, so we sent what felt like endless versions of the film back and forth discussing for hours on the phone the way the film should flow. It was so great seeing it come together the way I imagined; very few cuts and long beautiful dance sequences. It was also super important to get the sound just right. Obviously the music is the main focus, but I also knew the right ambient sounds would enhance everything. It was super fun hearing Sound Designer Chris Humfryes experiment with different approaches until we got the perfect feeling for the film.
Form start to finish, how long would you say the process was of making the film?
It probably took about six months in total, mainly because it was a passion project and everyone involved was doing it around their other work. Plus Covid slowed down the process as well.
Did you come up against any challenges when it came to shooting, aside from the practicalities of working around Covid of course?
Working with only natural light was beautiful and I’m so pleased with the results, but it did mean we had to scrap all the footage we captured in the morning as the sea mist rolled in halfway through filming and ruined any continuity. Thankfully, we were able to come back in the evening and we got the whole film captured in about two hours during the most beautiful sunset.
I was keen for the camera to dance with Demi in the film, to feel like it was part of her movements.
Performing dance on soft sand is not ideal either. The location might look awesome, but it had a very tiring surface. I can’t emphasise how hard it was just walking around on the beach and dunes with our equipment, let alone dancing with such energy. Demi was incredible doing take after take.
Now that you’re sharing Beyond The Horizon openly with an online audience, have your thoughts on the film or the process of making it changed?
I loved the collaborative process of the entire project. It is so exciting to develop my ideas with brilliant creative minds who can take my concepts and enhance them. Together I feel we’ve made something truly special. I love working like that.
How does your work as a photographer inform your filmmaking? What skills or lessons have you taken from your photography into that realm?
For me both filmmaking and photography are about storytelling. I’ve worked for over a decade now capturing portraits for the likes of GQ, BAFTA and The Sunday Times Magazine, as well as a host of commercial clients. I think that has really honed my ability to work well with people and get the best from them. I love collaborating with the people I photograph, pushing and guiding them towards the most interesting moments that tell the most powerful stories. I have taken a very similar approach to directing as well. Ultimately you are after the best take possible, and you’re working with everyone on your team to help make that happen. There is little difference between film and photography in this sense.
Is there anything you can tease us with in regards to upcoming projects?
I’ve got a few ideas that I think will make wonderful shorts – narrative fiction pieces. But I’m not really a scriptwriter, so I’m currently looking around for the best person to collaborate with. It’s not easy finding a fantastic writer though… so if anyone is out there and keen to collaborate do let me know.