How to Jump-Start a Career Choreographing for the Big Screen

March 18, 2009

Understanding that choreographing for the camera is totally different than for the stage is key to landing music video and commercial gigs. Lindsley Allen, who has choreographed for Prince and the HBO series “Carnivàle,” explains that while stage choreography has a clear beginning, middle and ending, you won’t have the luxury of that continuity when making dances for the camera. “It’s usually a clip, a slice of a bigger picture,” she explains.


With stage performances, you often have weeks to perfect moves. With film, you must be ready to change a step at the drop of a hat, because what looks good in plain view might not look as great from the camera’s angle. For this reason, it’s important to keep a close eye on the monitor, which is a screen that displays the camera’s view. “The monitor becomes your informer as to what is going to be seen. It can all change according to camera angles, and the speed of the camera,” Allen explains. On the set, Bart Doerfler, who has choreographed videos for Mandy Moore and commercials for Capri Sun and Ivory Soap, suggests that during filming, the choreographer looks at the monitor with the director, while the assistant is positioned next to the camera within the dancers’ eyesight. The assistant can act as a liaison between the dancers and the choreographer and give notes to the dancers, while the choreographer continues to work beside the director.


Your relationship with the director is important, because he or she typically creates the concept and vision for each scene. Doerfler has found, however, that many directors have difficulty expressing specifically what they want from dancers. “If that is the case, the director will depend on you to make the shots right.” This means moving dancers or asking them to manipulate the choreography.


Often, the director isn’t the only person who is lacking in dance experience. Many actors and singers who are the stars on the set know nothing about dance, and it’s the choreographer’s job to make them look fantastic. Allen shares this insight: “Choreographing for stars has its own uniqueness. Sometimes professional dancers can intimidate them, so I try to make them feel comfortable. Start simple and build from there. The great thing about stars is they usually have so much confidence that once they get a feel for the choreography, they can make it work.” The progress an actor makes during the filming of just one project can be surprising. Allen, who worked on Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, says that Lucy Liu started off very nervous and stiff. “But she worked hard every day, and in the end she looked like a pro.”


Working with stars and seeing your vision end up on the big screen definitely has its rewards. One downfall, however, can be the editing process. “They can edit so much,” Allen explains. “You are asked to choreograph a two-minute piece, then it’s a thirty-second shot. It can look totally different than you expected. And you lose so much of the actual choreography.” Doerfler shares a similar disappointment: “Many times in a video, much of your choreography can end up on the editing room floor in replacement for ‘star’ shots. In the beginning it’s difficult to accept. You second guess yourself and your work, but you quickly learn not to take it personally.”

Starting out as an assistant

One way to gain exposure is to become an assistant. “Teachers would ask me to assist their class and they would recommend me to choreographers,” explains Doerfler. “I would also be dance captain on projects where the choreographer would get to know me. After assisting for a while, these choreographers would recommend me for projects they either couldn’t or didn’t want to do. Before I knew it, I was booked constantly and was looking for my own assistant.”


An assistant helps figure out staging, remembers and counts choreography, and helps teach and clarify the steps to the dancers. It’s a big responsibility, and a choreographer must find you trustworthy and honest, and believe that you can run everything in his or her absence. The good part is you can start today. “Most great choreographers started out as dancers, worked a lot in their field, and then started choreographing for small gigs,” explains Allen. “One job leads to the next. Before you know it, you are choreographing for actors and finding those movements that say more than words can, which is absolutely beautiful. And it’s captured on the screen—forever.”