Marking their third appearance on our pages, DN alums Tanya Babic and Jason Sukadana, better know as VERSUS, return with Beyond Words a project they describe as “a moment 60 years in the making”. Commissioned as a celebration of the 60 year strong existence of The Australian Ballet, the pair were tasked with creating a mixed media film which would marry the premier ballet company’s rich dance history with its contemporary dancers. No mean feat, but a challenge they met by reaching into the annals of cinematic history to construct a version of Eadweard Muybridge invention the zoopraxiscope. The resulting film sees modern dancers cascade through the 60 second piece where old pictures and performers are given a new life merging with the movements of the dancers who followed them. Entranced, we caught up with VERSUS to learn about the technicalities of constructing a zoopraxiscope that created motion for the camera rather than the human eye, working around the strict time constraints of having to film during a busy performance season at the Melbourne Arts Centre and the addition of their emotive score which pulled the film together seamlessly.
How did you come to be working with The Australian Ballet?
The creative agency, Thinkerbell, approached us with the idea of utilising a mixed media approach to move through the decades of The Australian Ballet for a film celebrating their 60th birthday. It was centred around this idea of images on the top of a tutu animating as a ballerina spun. Kind of a device to introduce the idea of using archival imagery. We decided to create an actual physical zoopraxiscope which we would then present as a projection across the fabric of the tutu. There was a whole lot of R&D we had to do around the best way to present this concept, both conceptually and practically.
We wanted the entire disc to animate as its own object, and we needed it to work for a camera, not a physical eye.
Other than this device we didn’t want to get too tricky. We leant into the incredible archive of images and the beauty of the dancers we had at our disposal. Finding links between framing and movement to transition us through the film.
How did you actually go about putting the zoopraxiscope together so that it worked practically for the film?
We feel like we may have used one way back in art school but definitely haven’t made one or used one as a screen element before. It was a challenge designing it to work for a camera. Zoopraxiscopes usually work with a flashing light behind the key portion of the disc as it spins, at a rate that tricks the human eye into seeing the image sequence animating. But we wanted the entire disc to animate as its own object, and we needed it to work for a camera, not a physical eye. So it was a case of picking the right archival footage to use, figuring out how many frames and at what size to design them in the layout so they sat well across the tutu as well as finding the right RPM that this size would animate at, all whilst using the right shutter speed and shutter angle so that it would come across on camera.
It must have been daunting looking at all of the available archival footage, apart from the framing and transition, what else were you looking for specifically with that content?
We were obviously looking to choose images that spanned the breadth of the company, both across time and other crucial elements of performance that make The Australian Ballet what it is. But at the end of the day, you’re just looking for images that immediately speak to you as a viewer. That engages curiosity, emotion or nostalgia.
The location itself is breathtaking, how was it working within that space?
The mandate of the film was that it needed to be filmed completely in the main theatre of the Melbourne Arts Centre. Which is a beautiful theatre, and one we would have loved to shoot even more scenes in more locations. But the kicker was that it was to be filmed during an actual performance season. So we had to work around the use of spaces by this massive production, as well as having a head out of the theatre before the preparation for that night’s show started. It was one of those rare times you have a 4am call time and don’t even get to see a sunrise.
With this kind of film we often feel like 45 seconds is the sweet spot that allows you to build emotion, ebb and flow – whilst keeping it short and sweet.
How did you choose the live performers to work with?
So we didn’t have a hand in this at all, the credit here goes to the great people at The Australian Ballet themselves. Everyone across the project was very aligned in representing the diversity (in all meanings of the word) of the company with the artists on screen. So the dancers are from a range of levels and experience across the company, with Evie Ferris who is an amazing indigenous corps de ballet (and sometimes part of The Wiggles!) playing the role of the central dancer.
Beyond Words 1 minute run time is short but so powerful, how did you work to set the timing and pace?
With this kind of film we often feel like 45 seconds is the sweet spot that allows you to build emotion, ebb and flow – whilst keeping it short and sweet. But with this film there are essentially two ends: the end of the initial journey through the performance and the company history, and then the result of having viewed that from the audience member’s perspective. So a minute worked well with this structure. We also worked very closely with the amazing team at Thinkerbell to ensure the story was landing in all the right ways. Tom, Sam and Jess were instrumental in helping to make the edit as tight and elegant as it is.
Apart from the zoopraxiscope, how equipment heavy was this production?
In terms of equipment we utilised a fair bit, not just for creative reasons but also for the practicality of moving through the various spaces of the theatre swiftly enough to be wrapped before the night’s show bumped in. We had a lot of conversations with our incredible Cinematographer Ed Goldner on how best to navigate this, and the result is a mix of crane, Ronin, Steadicam, slider and handheld imagery. We were also lucky enough with the timing that Ed’s new set of rehoused Olympus Zuiko cinema lenses arrived the week before, which added a beautiful tone to the images.
The score is equally magnificent, where did that originate from?
We were so lucky to get the amazing Tristan Dewy from BangBang music on board to create the original score for this. He went above and beyond and even got his antique cello fixed just to utlize it in the composition. In fact, the first iteration was much more cello heavy, with a lot more edge which we loved, but we think where we ended up is so beautiful and has really resonated with people.
What new and exciting projects do you guys have going on in your ever busy schedule?
We just delivered a Nike commercial and are looking forward to releasing a really unique and exciting series of art films for a cultural institution in collaboration with a whole bunch of incredible Australian artists that we’ve curated ourselves.