Photographer Niv Novak has created a collection of stunning video clips of dance moves, stretched out in gloriously detailed slow motion. They are already causing a social media stir, and Novak will be adding other clips to the series during September 2017. What made him want to start the project?
No one can actually see an explosive dance jump. It happens too fast. You can see how high or the general shape of the dancers but virtually all the athletic beauty and technique is missed by the eye and brain.
A well-timed photograph can capture the full extension and physique of a dancer, but the technique and grace of motion are largely not apparent here either.
I wanted to capture it all – to slow time by 40 times and reveal the full story. I’ve been obsessing about how this may be possible for many months.
This ultra-slow-motion photography lets the viewer appreciate the anatomy of a dancer during high-speed sequences in a new way.
British novelist J. G. Ballard said,
Art is the principal way in which the human mind has tried to remake the world in a way that makes sense. The carefully edited, slow-motion, action replay of a rugby tackle, a car crash or a sex act has more significance than the original event.
Thanks to virtual reality, we will soon be moving into a world where a heightened super-reality will consist entirely of action replays, and reality will therefore be all the more rich and meaningful.
Indeed, the idea of slowing down dancers’ moves isn’t just a trick, a bit of fun, or an idle curiosity.
Novak asked leading Australian dancers from ballet, contemporary and break dance backgrounds to collaborate in his project, “to showcase moment-in-time dance like never before”.
The Australian-based photographer has been photographing leading dancers for four years and searches out dance performances on his travels, so he knows what dancers’ bodies can do, yet even he was surprised by the resulting videos.
The footage was an eye-opener — the dancer’s muscle contraction and their physique moving through light was a revelation. I’ve been photographing dancers for several years but realised I had never seen the dancers’ technique for a high-speed move.
The dancers, too, were blown away in seeing themselves. Most have never seen their fast motion technique as it really happens.
The Australian Ballet’s Principal Artist, Chengwu Guo, said he was inspired to volunteer his time:
High-speed dance motion can be missed with a blink of an eye. This is the beauty of ‘extension’ – every detail of even the fastest jump is suspended to be observed, it’s mesmerising.
This is the moment to turn away if you’re squeamish about geeky facts, but there are significant difficulties in creating clips of this type: lighting for example.
Mimicking my studio strobe lighting style was a significant technical challenge. Extremely bright, flicker free-lights are required when shooting at 1000 frames per second. 9000W HMI lights are large, hot and cannot be used with standard photography light modifiers, so special modifiers were created for the project.
That is exceedingly bright; a standard theatre light — already much more powerful than the lamp in your bedroom — is 1000W. 9000W lights are exceptionally used in the theatre to create a dramatic large beam to illuminate the whole stage, or in film and television to create outdoor light.
Today there is only one camera capable of shooting 1000 frames per second at 4k resolution, the Phantom Flex 4k camera, which comes with a 100,000-dollar price tag. And high-rate, high-resolution capturing also poses other problems:
Recorded data rates and storage requirements are significant too, with over 50 terabytes shot during the nine-day shoot.
That’s 10,000 standard DVDs worth of storage space.
Such production is technically challenging and I broke with standard video conventions. Video is usually shot in landscape orientation with a 16:9 aspect ratio. All ‘extension’ reels were shot with a 3:4 aspect ratio and most were shot in portrait orientation. This was to match the aspect ratio and look of my medium format photography.
The results are beautiful to look at, but maybe they could also be useful?
Many dancers have commented about the educational value for seeing and studying techniques. Animators, painters and sculptors have commented on the on the work being a helpful motion study. The work was released 7 days ago but already the reception and feedback has been positive.
Seeing the quickly achieved success of the ‘extension’ project, Novak is hoping to develop the idea.
I hope to continue collaborating with talented dancers and athletes for photography and high-speed photography work.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.