Leoncarlo – “Still Forms”.

posted in Films

Leoncarlo – “Still Forms”.

Carlo Canlas, AKA Leoncarlo, is an amazingly talented musician, and one of my closest friends. I’ve been a huge fan of his music since I first heard it, which was on a music video shoot for his song “Colossus”. When he told me he was looking for video content to coincide with the release of his debut album “Still Forms”, I jumped at the opportunity. He sent me an early mix of his album, and I listened through it carefully, jotting down notes about how each song made me feel and what I thought the story was. We met over lunch to discuss my notes and thoughts on what we could create. Carlo was elated because even though it’s an instrumental album, I had guessed the story arc of it almost exactly. Since other filmmakers were working on videos for my two favorite songs off the album, “Colossus” and “Waterfall”, we thought it’d be interesting to try and tell the story of the rest of the album, especially because we were both really inspired by Flying Lotus’s “Until The Quiet Comes”, a short film featuring multiple songs from his album of the same name.

Years ago I had seen a beautiful and mesmerizing short film called “Chronos” that used a brilliantly simple looping effect on a dancer. Just in the way that Leoncarlo is able to use a loop pedal with his violin to sound like an entire orchestra, I thought this same visual looping effect would allow us to turn a single ballerina into an entire ballet. The trick then was finding the right dancer, because for the effect to work, it required slow and very controlled movements. A few days after we put word out about our search for the right dancer, we found Jamie Jones. I knew her through Instagram, but had never met her in person. She had over a decade worth of ballet experience, and happened to live just down the street. We were impressed with her movements in the audition tape she sent us, so I asked her to come over so we could do some tests with the looping effect.

I knew the effect was created by using the same clip, spacing it a few frames over, and applying an opacity filter, but first we had to find out exactly which opacity filter allowed for the best look in overlapping multiple dancers, exactly how many frames apart each loop should be placed, and exactly how many loops total there should be. For anyone interested in recreating this effect, the best results were from using the Lighten (or sometimes Screen) opacity filter, spaced 6 frames apart, using 18 loops. We immediately realized a few issues we would have working on the choreography, such as she’d have to move at an almost constant speed otherwise the “dancers” would separate too far from each other or not separate enough, she couldn’t stay in the same place for more than a few seconds otherwise the “dancers” would overlap so much you couldn’t tell what was going on, and most importantly, there was no way to get instant feedback on what worked and what didn’t. After each take, we’d have to import the footage into Premiere, apply the effect, creating 18 layers of video trying to play simultaneously, which my computer couldn’t process without rendering (which can be time consuming), or exporting 6 of the loops and just applying the effect to 3 of those new clips, creating the full 18 loops, which was much easier for my computer to process. At best, it would take us 15 minutes to see the result of each take. So what we would do is record a bunch of takes, trying a bunch of new movements, and after Jamie left I’d start applying the effect to all of them and sending the team all the videos so we could see what worked and what didn’t.

After the first test I realized that to give the clearest distinction between the “dancers”, we needed Jamie to wear all white against a dark background. So we did our next test at the place where Leoncarlo recorded “Still Forms”, The Little Chapel in the Woods at Texas Women’s University. Jamie brought different outfits to try out, Carlo was there to give input and help with the musical cues, and I was trying out different lighting. It was the first time we were all in a room together, and we quickly realized we were speaking different languages. Jamie was the expert in dance, Carlo was the expert in music, I was the expert in film, and none of us were experts in this looping technique. So we had to come up with our own words for how to describe certain aspects of the effect. This second test was were we began experimenting with “shapes” Jamie could make once the “dancers” overlapped. For example if she put both hands in the air, and slowly brought them down to her sides while keeping her arms bent upward, it could make the shape of a flower blooming.

Working on a pretty amazing video with an amazing dancer and an amazing musician.

A photo posted by The Vision Beautiful (@thevisionbeautiful) on

On the last test before filming, we experimented more with what the choreography could achieve with the effect. In the short film we got the idea from, the dancer only moved along a single plane parallel to the camera. So Jamie wanted to experiment with moving in a more 3-dimensional space. She realized that if she moved from the far corner of the frame, to the near corner of the other side of the frame, the “shape” it made was similar to a crescendo of sound. She realized if she spun in place near the camera, then moved directly backward, she could momentarily disappear, and if she suddenly moved forward, it could look like she burst through her former self.

On the day of filming, Jamie was getting over some food poisoning, and not feeling 100%, but you couldn’t tell by how hard she was working. We shot at The Greenhouse 817 in Fort Worth. Deryk Poynor, the owner, was kind enough to let us take over large chunks of both her warehouses. We shot the song “Vastness of the Pines” first, since it was a shorter dance. For that sequence, we shot in the part of the warehouse painted all black, and used a single softbox on the far left of the frame to create a stark contrast. This set-up allowed the “dancers” to overlap more heavily and introduce the viewer to the effect.

For the song “Blooming”, we shot in the larger warehouse, and set up 4 lights in each corner of the frame, each with a different colored gel, and used the barn doors of the lights to shape the light into a symmetrical design in the center of the frame. The idea here was for Jamie to move in and out of colors and pockets of light, creating a vibrant field of flowers blooming, and for the “dancers” movements to separate more due to the shadows, creating a more exciting flurry of movement. This was the most difficult part of filming, because it is a much, much longer dance, and more physically demanding.

The only challenge in editing was finding the right footage for the transitions. Originally Carlo & I had talked about using a drone and a weather balloon to create shots matching the Leoncarlo’s story in “Still Forms” about a body’s spirit raising up and up, past the trees, through the clouds, to the edge of space. But our drone contacts fell through, and while you can send a Go-Pro to space, the footage is shaky to the point of being unusable. So instead I spent several days hunting for the perfect stock footage to match Leoncarlo’s aesthetic and the story elements we wanted to include. I played with speeding up and slowing down the footage to match the music, and also overlayed clips of smoke and particles to give more texture to the footage.

This was a very satisfying project to work on, both creatively and collaboratively. Jamie & Carlo are a dream to work with, because they are brilliant artists and generous collaborators. This music video is far outside the realm of what I normally do, because where most of the work I enjoy doing is more exciting and less abstract, this video is an thoroughly an experiment. You aren’t meant to be entertained when watching it, just mesmerized, thanks in no small part to Leoncarlo’s gorgeous music and Jamie Jones’ exquisite dancing, and the hypnotic looping effect.

P.S. This video has been nominated for Best Short Film by The Dentonite’s Art & Music Awards. VOTE HERE!
P.P.S. I was also nominated for Best Videographer and Best Fine Arts Photographer. Voting ends February 9th.