Caught On Camera: How Those Viral Dance Videos Get Made
Odds are good you’ve seen a T. Milly—aka Tim Milgram—production: He’s filmed class routines for the likes of Tricia Miranda and Brian Friedman, and his concept videos for the Fraternal Twins and 8 Flavahz crew have garnered millions of views. You’ve also probably encountered talented choreographer Talia Favia, a Capezio A.C.E. Award winner whose lush creations are highly camera-friendly.So what does it take to capture the essence of a dance on film? And what makes choreography pop on screen? Dance Spirit got the scoop from Milgram and Favia, who discussed “Let It Go,” the popular video they collaborated on last year.
Tim Milgram first fell in love with dance at University of California, Santa Barbara. Though he majored in computer science, he took classes with the school’s dance department senior year. After a stint as a software engineer post-graduation, he moved to L.A., planning to juggle his tech career with a dance career. Turns out, he had a knack for capturing dance on film. A significant milestone came in 2015, when Alyson Stoner asked Milgram to direct her Missy Elliott tribute, which appeared on YouTube’s homepage.
I believe that dance is something that’s best seen live—a filmed performance might never have the same energy the choreography does in real life. So my goal is to bridge the gap between how a dance is meant to be seen and how it can be seen. I want to show a dancer’s personality and charisma—it’s not only about filming the choreography.That’s why I love the emotionality that Talia brings to her work. I’d been a big fan of hers for a while, which is why I reached out to her about collaborating on a piece to James Bay’s “Let It Go” last year. The day before the shoot, I brought my camera to her rehearsal. I like to get comfortable with the material and start thinking about specific shots. When I filmed Alyson Stoner’s Missy Elliott tribute, I actually learned all the choreography!
At the shoot, Talia realized she had to tweak some of her steps and phrases because of the furniture that was part of the set. And we actually came up with the video’s ending together. Working with Talia proved to be easy—our roles were clearly defined. She was the choreographer and I was director; having set boundaries is a lot of what makes a good working relationship. Of course, when two people are passionate about a project, your roles will collide—it’s naturally going to happen. But it’s also part of my job to hold back my own ego if a choreographer starts directing. The smoothest shoots happen when the choreographer and the director trust each other. Strong-minded choreographers can be challenging to work with, though I’ve learned that the best approach is to listen and figure out why he or she might be so tied to an idea, so that we can work together to find a solution that makes us both happy. In a music video, you often don’t see more than a couple seconds of choreography before a phrase is spliced. But my goal is to cut as little as possible and retain everything I can. I get frustrated when I see dance films that are packed with cuts or special effects, which are often used to hide minor mistakes. My older stuff has a lot of that—but I’m trying to make my work cleaner. I don’t want viewers to get distracted.
Choreographing for the Camera
Talia Favia grew up in Arizona, where she trained at Dance Connection 2 in Chandler. She traveled as a PULSE Elite Protégé in 2009, assisting choreographers Brian Friedman, Mia Michaels and Wade Robson, and she continued to assist Michaels as well as Tyce Diorio on “So You Think You Can Dance.” Her piece “The Difference Between Action and Words” received the top prize at the 2014 Capezio A.C.E. Awards.
My earliest experiences with filming dance came out of working on “So You Think You Can Dance” and assisting Mia, especially during blocking rehearsals. It was fascinating to see how her work for the stage translated to the screen—I was intrigued by how much a dance could change based on what she had the cameras focus on at each moment. I worked on my first music video when I was 21, and it was cool to see my choreo reimagined in that capacity. But I wasn’t sure my work was captured as best as it could have been. I wanted to dig deeper. So when Tim reached out about the James Bay video, I was nervous. Not because of Tim—it’s clear from his videos how in tune he is with dance and dancers. I was apprehensive about how my work would be received, and if people were going to be able to really feel it through a lens. I ended up choreographing the entire “Let It Go” duet, which starred Courtney Schwartz and Chaz Buzan, as if it would be seen from a proscenium stage. Once we got to the actual venue and saw the set, I was able to visualize how it could be altered for film—changing some of the sections to face different directions, for example. I also learned that I had to be willing to make choreographic tweaks. The set had a couch and a ton of windows, so some shots I thought were going to look great ended up vetoed by Tim because the lighting wasn’t right, or a piece of the set was in the way. In one part, Courtney is lying on the ground and arches her back as Chaz unexpectedly slides his head underneath. I had to add a second of extra movement for Courtney—a head shake—to make sure Chaz wouldn’t be seen too soon from the angle Tim was filming. There were a lot of little changes like that, but it’s key to put your pride aside and do what’s best for the end result. Those tweaks are often blessings in disguise. My duet originally had a different ending—I wanted Chaz to leave Courtney. But Tim mentioned that that looked like the ending to another video he’d done recently. So we changed it: We had the two end up on the couch together, which is how the video starts. The process wasn’t quite as simple as that sounds; it took take after take to capture Courtney sitting on the couch in just the right way. But, the result was so much deeper than my original concept.
Hoping to create your own dance video? Read these tips first.
1. Think about using odd-numbered formations. “I’m not usually a big fan of even numbers,” says director/cinematographer Tim Milgram. “Yes, in a contemporary duet, a pair’s interaction is what makes a frame interesting. But if, during a class combo or group section, two people are doing the same movement next to one another, our eyes tend to compare them. Tiny discrepancies between the dancers become even more noticeable.”
2. Be open to changing your choreography. “Fight for your vision, but hear the director’s point of view,” says choreographer Talia Favia. “Know that he or she isn’t trying to change your work. The director simply wants to add to it as a whole.”
3. Communicate constantly and openly with the director. “When choreographer Janelle Ginestra and I work together, we’re like brother and sister,” Milgram says. “Our shoots go well because we’re very blunt with one another and receptive to each other’s opinions.”
4. Don’t worry if you don’t have all the answers right away. “I love it when choreographers don’t set everything in stone, so we can work together to add more texture or new formations to a video,” Milgram says. That said, make sure your dancers are well rehearsed and clean—you don’t want to waste valuable filming time fixing sloppy mistakes.
5. Know when your role as choreographer is done. Much of the time, Milgram edits his films alone, though he’ll watch them with the choreographers and dancers before he releases them to make sure everyone’s happy. “Not having control over the editing process can be terrifying,” Favia admits. “But that’s where your trust in the director has to come in.” —JO