It is always a pleasure to receive another film from Jacob Jonas The Company and their fantastic, ever-growing Films.Dance project. This latest film is another great example of the project’s cross-continental creativity and ingenuity, a collaboration between London-based Director Joshua Stocker and Nigerian Ochai Ogaba’s Mud Art Company – also the team behind recent short Mataki. Choreographed over Zoom, and looking like a flipped negative, bodies writhe, twist and turn around a Tottenham warehouse space, creating an otherworldly and compelling black-and-white tribute to movement, imagination and free expression. Deploying water, minimal costumes and plastic, it shows how just a handful of smart elements can create an aesthetic that feels strikingly original. We had the chance to catch up with Stocker to learn how the collaboration came about, the difficulty of shooting with a science lab thermal camera and having to come up with smart solutions when shooting in freezing cold temperatures.
How did you get involved with Jacob Jonas The Company and Films.Dance?
I shot a dance film for Olafur Arnald’s in the Autumn of 2020 which I submitted to Director’s Library on its release in 2021 only to find out that they had recently featured another piece which used a similar lighting technique. The film referred to was Edging Normal, and I was taken aback by how beautifully executed and incredibly well-choreographed it was. Through that film I discovered Films.Dance which had produced a collection of, I think, 15 films; several of which were truly amazing and directed by people I admired.
I sent an email to the team to find out about the process; I got a reply soon after and ended up on a call with Jacob later that week. We discussed the Films.Dance project – its birth in the pandemic, and their plans for the future – and agreed to chat again if something came to mind conceptually that I felt would be suitable.
Richard Mosse’s project Incoming crossed my mind a few weeks later, initially because it was the only time I had seen a thermal camera used in a manner I found aesthetically beautiful. That project was breathtaking in both its look and concept – but the element that stayed with me was not the look of the people but rather the interaction between them and their environments. A hand print left on a door, the footsteps where someone had walked, the imprint of where someone was sitting. I began to think about a dance piece which followed the traces of heat left behind as someone moved across a wall or floor: from there the ideas for Entropy grew.
A thermal camera creates a look that’s hard to envisage before you’re using it.
I see that you worked with the Mud Art Company, who we have previously featured on Directors Notes; what kind of energy were you looking for from them and how did the collaboration work?
Choreographer Ochai Ogaba was introduced to us by Jacob Jonas. As they’re based in Nigeria, our interactions with Ochai were all done remotely with the dancers in a small studio space on the outskirts of a very grey wintery London whilst Ochai Zoom-called in from a sunny beach in Nigeria. The contrast alongside his energy really created an interesting space to formulate ideas. Whilst I was more interested in movements across surfaces, Ochai brought a really powerful style of movement to the room – and it was a contrast between these two styles which ended up in the final film.
Did you have a hand in the choreography? What did the brief look like in terms of the movement given by the dancers and the choreographer?
In each of the dance films I’ve made I’ve had varying input on the choreography but I think it’s important to understand what kind of movement you’re going to work with, and the direction of that movement in order to craft a film around it. For this I had a fairly strong sense of certain moments I wanted to see which were built from a collection of references – things I had seen elsewhere I thought would become more interesting when viewed through the thermal lens. There’s a scene from a Lloyd Newson (DV8) film I’ve always loved where a man effortlessly holds a woman against a wall as she balances on his knees. It made me think about the added element of heat imprints being left behind on the wall she moves across or the imprint of his body on hers as he lets go of her and she floats up.
As much as you may try to plan, however, the reality is that a thermal camera creates a look that’s hard to envisage before you’re using it. There’s no lighting for instance. You can’t see the iris of someone’s eye. Facial expressions don’t really translate. So when it came to creating dance it was a process of improvising and adapting choreography to fit with what we were seeing in the thermal world.
What really altered the look and feel of the film was the materiality of the set they performed in.
The aesthetic of the film appears to be that of a flipped negative. I’d love to know how you achieved that particular look? How much was in-camera vs in post-production?
Technically it’s all in-camera. There’s no lighting when filming in thermal – but depending on how you process the data the heat can be made to look as if the person’s body is being lit, or is the light source itself. Changing the look can be done at any time in the process, as you’re simply applying a gradient of white to black or black to white onto the scale of temperature being captured. What really altered the look and feel of the film was the materiality of the set they performed in. A last-minute addition to the set was a space made of plastic. I had the idea after seeing someone through the thermal camera when we placed a black bin bag over them. In reality you couldn’t see the person, but in thermal the bag was completely transparent, with the heat mark of their breath left on the plastic.
I also realised that the heat of the person was reflected like a mirror on the surface of the plastic. It meant that when our dancers moved through the space, the heat of their bodies reflected off the many layers of plastic in that space, creating an effect that looked like their bodies were emanating light.
Where did you film? Was it just a massive soundstage? If so, how did that allow you to creatively work with the dancers?
We shot the film in a warehouse space in Tottenham, London which was a blessing and a curse: a blessing because there were various spaces we were able to dress differently – helped by the structure of the warehouse itself, along with the freedom to do whatever we wanted. The downside was that not only was it a large industrial space in the coldest part of winter, but the space heaters we hired in were broken without the possibility of getting more as we were filming over a weekend. The surface temperature of the floors in the building was below freezing, and it was only because we had such incredible performers who were willing to press on that we were able to create the film. We ended up making a makeshift sauna which was basically a tent filled with electric heaters where the dancers could go between takes, but the space was hugely taxing to work in.
The surface temperature of the floors in the building was below freezing!
It feels almost like they are painting with what appears to be the water on the ground; to me it makes the film an ode to raw creation. How did you want to approach it?
I bought a little thermal camera that plugs into your phone in preparation for making the film. Whilst it was super low-quality, I found the mixing of different water temperatures fascinating to watch which sparked the idea of using liquids in the film. If you take a glass of water and pour it over someone’s body, not only is the water opaque which is the opposite of how we see water, but it’s also constantly changing temperature as it flows down their body, and changes again as it hits the floor. You end up with a visual of something which moves in a familiar way whilst containing qualities that are completely new to our eyes. This idea of traces of heat took on a new visual when viewed through liquids. While I love the metaphor you’ve created for it, for me it was primarily something visual I hadn’t seen before which was beautiful to look at.
Was it a challenge to match the transitions from white to black and vice versa?
The transitions from one look to another were created in the edit. Whilst it looks like different lighting, it’s instead a decision of how to interpret the thermal data which is done in the thermal software, so creating the cuts from one look to another was something I was able to do on the fly during the edit. As we had several elements of choreography mapped out and performed in different spaces, the edit became about how best to join together these moments. At one stage I looked at having the film broken into chapters, where a choreography could play out in a single space, but I found that tying together the different worlds we had created a more interesting trance-like experience to follow.
How did you want to approach the film visually? You have master shots, but there are also a lot of close-ups of hands and feet, and the camera bobs and weaves around. Were you going for something more immersive than the normal dance film? What equipment did you use?
The camera itself is a science lab thermal camera. It’s not set up for a conventional workflow. We had to have it connected to a laptop throughout filming and the camera needed to be plugged into a home-plug-style power source. The lenses are also incredibly unconventional – made from metal rather than glass, and without the conventional rings needed for pulling focus. We spent quite a lot of time in the run-up to filming figuring out exactly what would be the best approach. We ended up placing the camera on a gimbal, with zip-tie focus rings, with a rickshaw alongside it to house the laptop and a large camper-van-style battery. The lenses for these cameras are also typically much tighter than those we use in film – I think our widest lens was roughly a 40mm – so these constraints dictated how we worked.
The science lab thermal camera is not set up for a conventional workflow.
Because of the nature of both the dance and setup, we would usually film a wide to begin with to get a sense of what was happening within a setup – following and understanding the action as it happened and allowing the dancers time to find what worked within a space. Once that was captured we could move in to capture a different perspective or details of the movement. I was on a headset linked up to the DOP and camera operator which enabled me to talk on the fly about what I wanted to see or to pre-empt a movement that was about to appear so we would be in the right place to capture it, but the flow of the camera was primarily improvised in relation to the dance.
What are you working on next?
I’ve had quite a lot of commercial work on this year including a piece for Mulberry which just launched and some other commercial projects in post production currently. Personal projects like this one are what drive me, however, especially if I’m able to explore a visual or conceptual approach I haven’t seen before. I have a list of ideas I want to develop so I’m in the process of working out which is the right thing to put my energy into next.