Director and choreographer Omari Carter founded The Motion Dance Collective (The MDC), a screendance production company, in 2011. Carter’s award-winning company creates innovative, thought-provoking narratives and has shown work at more than 40 film festivals in the UK and abroad. In addition to producing screendance pieces, The MDC also focuses on educating artists about capturing dance on film. In this interview, Omari Carter discusses his career as a screendance producer and shares tips on how to film dance.
You’ve seen screendance on YouTube and as TV ads, but have you ever seen it on an airplane? This innovative EVA Air in-flight video features dance.
Omari ‘Motion’ Carter Interview on Dance Film
Hello Omari. Can you tell us what experiences prompted you to bridge the gap between the dance and film industries when you founded The Motion Dance Collective (The MDC) in 2011?
I started off working as a dancer/choreographer for music videos. Unfortunately, during this time I saw that there was a gap in the language between the two industries of dance and film. Little things were happening – like dancers not being fed and dancers getting injuries due to poor shoot scheduling.
[Then] one day, I got to be in a music video where the dancers were the main focus of the video. We were treated like royalty for the day, as we became the main characters in the story. The filmmakers ensured we were adequately warmed up, they let us into their plans for the shots and storyboarding, and we were no longer treated as background-artists.
I knew that this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life and from that point forward, I began creating short videos – where dancers were are the foreground of the piece’s creation.
That’s incredible that such a positive experience on a music video set helped you to see a future in the dance film industry.
You graduated with a first class honours degree in BA Performing Arts – studying hip-hop, dance theatre and contemporary dance. Do you feel that understanding dance from the perspective of multiple genres helps you to better choreograph and capture dance on film?
It’s not merely about understanding how dance works; [screendance producers need to have] a basic understanding of how film works, too. That’s where bridging the gap is important.
My experience in dance does help me make better dance for film because I know what I am looking for in a choreographic aspect from the performer – but without my knowledge of film, I wouldn’t know the best way to capture that dancer in a way that honours (or even enhances) the movement material. So it’s always been a mission of mine to find a common language between the two art forms – and, essentially, this is what the hybrid of screendance is.
Thanks for explaining why it’s necessary to understand both dance and film to create best dance on film content. It seems so obvious now!
The MDC has been holding workshops since 2016 – and you most recently you ran a two-day Film Skills Workshop for Dance East for dance teachers and youth dance leaders. Why did you choose this particular audience for your workshop?
Yes, the amazing organisation DanceEast commissioned us to run this two-day extravaganza. The target participants had [already been selected by DanceEast], so it became our job to create a bespoke workshop that fitted that target market.
For us, it’s very important to help dance teachers and youth dance leaders to feel empowered by learning the basics of film language so that they can create the best video content possible with their groups/companies. It was exciting to not only offer our experiences in screendance practice, but also how to teach these principles to younger people.
That sounds like an incredibly useful screendance workshop – especially since you wanted workshop participants to gain “the skills and confidence to use [their smartphones] to film and edit dance.”
What equipment, programs or apps would you suggest beginning filmmakers to invest in?
Each phone is very different, but [can] be unlocked to open up the possibilities of more manual options. So my first piece of advice is to find an app that works with your phone model – one that allows you to turn the phone off of its automatic settings and allow you to change things like ISO, aperture and shutter speed information. This will allow you to have full control over your phones settings instead of allowing your phone to make changes for you…
Editing is another factor. Phones are a very hard to edit on, especially if you want to make small intricate changes to your footage. So I would suggest finding a system you’re comfortable with on a laptop to [assemble the footage].
That’s really practical information. Is there a specific place that you recommend artists source music or sound to avoid copyright infringement?
When it comes to music, the first thing that comes to mind is YouTube’s fee audio library. It offers over 100,000 pieces of copyright free music for you to use in your videos.
Click the above video to play The Motion Dance Collective’s 2019 Production Reel.
Another purpose of The MDC screen dance workshop was to help dancers “[consider] how to choreograph for film.”
Although it’s complex, can you tell us a little bit about how you shift your mindset from choreographing for stage to choreographing for film?
Film has many nuances that are different to theatre. As editor Walter Murch describes in his book In the Blink of an Eye, film is similar to dreams, in the sense that they can be non-linear. They can flick from one state to another, alter time and space and present a world that can (and I believe, should) be almost impossible to recreate in a live space.
When I choreograph for film, I am choreographing in three stages.
- The choreography in the studio
- The choreography altered through the movement and capture through the camera
- The choreography that is developed through the editing process
What you make in the rehearsal studio is very different to a finished cut, and it’s this journey that makes film so exciting.
Wow, that’s really interesting how the choreography is altered at these distinct stages.
If you are filming work by other choreographers, how do you capture the dance so that it matches their vision?
In these instances a choreographer needs to understand that a film will take a life of its own. When transposing a live theatrical piece to film… their vision must fit the medium; and therefore choreographers must be prepared to alter their vision in relation to the architecture of the frame.
You’ve not only produced dance on film, you were also recently invited to judge at the Screen.Dance Festival in Perth, Scotland.
What type of criteria do you use to judge the film submissions – as established by the judging committee and/or as an individual critic?
With the judging of the Screen.dance awards we had to consider that these films would be put on display in an installation/gallery context. Therefore, we wanted to award films that could be placed in a situation where people would be free to roam and watch films at their own discretion, knowing … [attendees] may not watch the whole film from beginning to end. Each competition has different criteria, but for this, it was important that the film suited the space in which it was presented.
The MDC website mentions ‘dance-on-screen narratives’, ‘narrative urban dance practice’ and ‘[telling] relevant stories with dance’. It seems that your work with The Motion Dance Collective is focused on storytelling, specifically.
Would you consider working on more abstract projects? Do you feel like they have their own (less linear) stories?
Even abstract work has purpose and meaning – regardless if it is a traditional narrative or more conceptual art.
I think it’s important for artists to understand why they are creating the work they create and who it is for. As a choreographer/dancer working in predominantly hip-hop dance practice, I felt the need for these techniques to reach beyond their spectacle and tell thoughtful and innovative stories that may change the commercial perceptions in which audiences may see these styles.
So, for me, it’s important [to have a] character, journey and meaning; otherwise I personally become bored and uninterested when a dancing body is mute and says nothing.
You have created a significant number of film dance projects, but could you share the ones that make you particularly proud?
I am particularly proud of one of my earlier works entitled, END OF THE BLOCK, which has been one of our most successful films to date on the festival circuit. I felt that through animation and live dance I was able to tell a story of people I know, alongside my own journey of growing up in an area where going beyond your own postcode was taboo.
While shooting, we were slightly harassed by the local youth of the area, even though we were trying to tell their story in a very abstracted way. Yet, [although] there may have been moments where it was hard to produce, it was so rewarding to know that it touched people. And at the end of the day, what more can we hope for dance to achieve.
See The MDC’s END OF THE BLOCK screendance piece, above, for yourself.
That does sound like a rewarding and challenging film project!
Congratulations, and we look forward to seeing whatever dance films that The MDC produces next.
Had you ever thought about dance on film – aside from traditional music videos? And what about screendance production most surprises you? Tell us in the comments below.