Eve McConnachie
Image by Christina Riley

Eve McConnachie is a graphic designer based in Glasgow. She trained as an animator at Duncan of Jordanstone Dundee and has been in-house designer and filmmaker for Scottish Ballet since 2009. The Bird is the first piece created under ‘Scottish Ballet Creative’  – an ongoing project in which the Company collaborates with contemporary artists, filmmakers and musicians. This short film for Scottish Album of the Year Award-winner Kathryn Joseph, directed, filmed and edited by Eve. Here she tells us more about the making of this film.

Scottish Ballet’s online audience has been growing steadily for the past few years, with our online videos receiving hundreds of thousands of views per year. The films I create are mainly behind-the-scenes documentaries and trailers that promote productions, but Scottish Ballet have been looking to produce more creative content that would not be for promotional purposes. This led to the idea of ‘Scottish Ballet Creative’, an initiative that would see the company produce creative digital projects and collaborate with other artists.

Kathryn Joseph’s involvement came about very organically; we were listening to her music in the office and were awestruck by her haunting vocals and her raw and emotive lyrics. When we approached Kathryn for this project she was pleased and, I think surprised, to hear from us. She is a big fan of dance already so she was very enthusiastic from the start. When I asked if she’d like anything in particular for the film, she said she’d be happy whatever we came up with. It was a completely open brief and you can’t really ask for anything more generous.

The first thing I did was to listen to the track on loop. I also collected a ton of visuals that fit with my emotional response to the song. I showed these images to Kathryn and she confirmed that I was on the right track. I wanted to create something that would do justice to her beautiful song – and then Kathryn won the SAY award and I really knew the pressure was on!

Image by Christina Riley
Image by Christina Riley

The film features Sophie Laplane (pictured above), who is not only a wonderful dancer, but also a talented choreographer. I knew that she would bring something special to the film. Sophie decided not to choreograph a complete dance piece; instead we workshopped some key movements and then Sophie improvised to the track on the day.

Kathryn already had a short video for The Bird – of a murmuration of starlings. I didn’t think I’d be lucky enough to find a similar flock of birds, but I wanted to echo Sophie’s choreography with the natural movements found in a wild landscape. So I knew I was looking for a location with long grass and water, and I was hoping to film at sunset.

I spent the next week combing the west coast for a suitable location, accompanied by my dad and his bearded collie, Ben (pictured below). Eventually we found a great spot at the edge of an Irvine golf course: secluded, with a nice view of Arran, even a gorgeously silvered driftwood tree on the beach nearby. It was a typically dreich evening – grey, windy and wet – so I couldn’t get an idea of the sunset, but Ben (the dog) unearthed the bird wing which you see at the start of the video.

On the day of the shoot the sky wasn’t the atmospheric grey that I’d expected – instead we got the best day of the summer! We packed my gear into the car along with sandwiches, biscuits, chocolate and gallons of hot tea – all the essentials. When we arrived the coast was bathed in the beautiful warmth of a low evening sun so we quickly got to work.

The Bird by Eve McConnachie

I was shooting on a Canon DSLR with 50mm and 28mm prime lenses; shooting on a DSLR lets me get the shallow depth of field that I love. It’s also lightweight enough that I can shoot without a tripod – which meant that I could adapt quickly to Sophie’s movements.

After years of filming dance at Scottish Ballet, I’ve found that it’s best to keep the camera loose and responsive. You can plan your shots to a certain extent, but often on the day it’s the happy accidents that are the bits I like the best. I use my own (cheaper!) version of steadicam, using the camera strap stretched tightly against my neck to steady the shot. I think if the camera is free to move then you can respond better to the dancer – perhaps your shots aren’t as perfectly composed but it makes the performance more alive. Personally, my favourite shots are often technically imperfect; out of focus or only catching a small part of the dancer onscreen, but I think that imperfection makes you focus on the detail in a way that isn’t possible in a live performance.

We shot from 7pm till just before midnight. Fortunately I had good light for a long time because it was just after the longest day of the year. However, that also meant that poor Sophie spent hours in the wind in nothing more than a light dress. You’d never guess from the footage, but when the camera stopped filming her teeth would immediately begin to chatter. You can’t see, but there was always someone standing ready just off-camera armed with a blanket and a hot cup of tea! She still looked amazing though and never complained once.

Eve and Sophie
Image by Christina Riley

Image by Christina Riley

My favourite part of the video is the last third, where the sun is low and the sky was especially vivid. By this point Sophie was freezing so we only had time for two shots – one ultra wide to get the sky and a second in close up. The colours were absolutely beautiful, so I’m glad she toughed it out.

Sophie then escaped to sit in the car with the heating on, while I stayed to get some final shots of the deserted beach. I ended up leaving the camera balanced carefully on the sand while I ran at a group of seagulls waving my arms frantically to scare them into flying into shot. (I’m glad the beach was empty at this point.)

The shoot only lasted one evening but the edit took far longer. I probably listened to the song another hundred times over this period. My first step when editing is to re-watch all the footage, picking out my favourite moments. Then I’ll piece together a rough edit. We’d thought we might need to do a second day of shooting but I could tell immediately that I had enough footage to tell a complete story. Just as well, as that sunset was never to be repeated!

The first edit came together fairly quickly, but then I spent days chopping, changing, and rearranging – trying to get the overall flow of the film right. I’ve learned that, with dance on film, perfect continuity isn’t as important as visual flow. Rather than piecing together movements that match up perfectly in a linear progression, I think it is much more effective to combine shots which have the same feeling, or contrast in an interesting way.

The end result was really well received, and bringing us to the attention a lot of people who might not have noticed us before. Everything worked for us on the day – that freakishly beautiful sunset and Sophie’s amazing improvisation. I can’t wait for my next Scottish Ballet Creative project!

Sophie Laplane’s new work Maze will be performed in September and October as part of Scottish Ballet’s Autumn Season 2015. Find out more information here.

See Eve’s showcased work on Central Station here.

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